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    Carol Abboud in Terra Incognita. in Cairo Tales
    Carol Abboud in "Terra Incognita."

    Caught in the middle

    The films in the "Cairo Tales" festival actually range in origin from Syria to Morocco — many with women at the center, and many set in flashpoints between change and tradition.


    "Cairo Tales," the Lincoln Center film series inspired this year by 1950s-60s Egyptian director Salah Abou Seif, reaches surprisingly far afield for many of its contemporary offerings, from Syria to Morocco. In fact, with films from Lebanon, Algeria and Morocco prominently featured, you'll be rewarded for any high school French you may remember — it's often significant to notice when the characters are speaking the colonial language as opposed to the indigenous one.

    Thirteen recent films from the Middle East and North Africa, and six archival films by Egyptian director Salah Abou Seif.

    Related links: Official site
    Walter Reade Theater Lincoln Center, 65th St. btw. Broadway/Amsterdam 212/875-5600 Full schedule

    Speaking French can be at once a sign of modernity and of rejecting the homeland — and these are some of the most common themes in the series. The clearest case is "Terra Incognita" (pictured above, written and directed by Ghassan Salhab), which follows a group of disaffected Beirut twenty-somethings, some of whom are just waiting for the chance to get out of the country. The central character, Soraya (Carol Abboud), works as a guide for French tourists while waiting for one of her half-dozen visa applications to come through. Meanwhile, she gathers in bars with her friends, including one who has just returned from out of the country only to be teased by his compatriots. "We're starting an anti-return league," one young woman taunts. "With the slogan: Expats stay away, just send your dollars.'"

    Soraya herself passes the days in a series of nondescript assignations — maybe for pay — while waiting for something better to come along. Unassumingly exposed to the camera during her trysts, she shows a surgical scar down her spine which may suggest something about her past or may even suggest that she's been sliced in half and sewn back together like the country she represents. Meanwhile, her relative Nadim sits alone in front of his computer doing architectural planning — with the click of a mouse, he photoshops away entire sections of the traditional, once war-ravaged city, and replacing them with a grand, modern vision of his own.

    Lubna Azabal in Viva Laldjerie. in Cairo Tales  
    Lubna Azabal in "Viva Laldjerie."
    One character barely seems to intersect with this young ensemble at all but is important nonetheless. He's the radio announcer who daily brings news of violence, political impasses and the ever-discouraging news from Israel to our little crowd. Integral to the community but isolated from its actual people, he comes home every night from his lonely studio booth to have a simple dinner by himself. Everything we see seems to spring from the idea of cleavages, and the film itself reflects that — it's constructed from isolated scenes without flow, with barely a sense of narrative linking them. It's a frustrating experience at times, but it's true to a certain vision of filmmaking, storytelling and its own sense of disrupted place.

    It's a place that, as the film title suggests, exists apart from the people who temporarily inhabit its surface. Near the end, Soraya watches a new building rise from the rubble of the old and a man defiantly comments, "It's the seventh time Beirut has been destroyed. Seven times it was destroyed, seven times we raised it back up."

    She corrects him: "It was Beirut that rose back up, not us."

    Almost cousins with this film is "Viva Laldjerie" (written and directed by Nadir MoknĆche), another story of a young woman living a double life, this time in Algeria. You might just as well assume that the story is set in Marseille, judging by the language — but it isn't. It's set in a split-personality Algiers, where a young woman named Goucem crosses over several times a day between traditional and modern society. In her conservative neighborhood, she covers up in a concealing gown and headscarf; elsewhere, the lively 27-year-old dons sexy dresses and goes out dancing — and more — with the local men.

      Mille Mois. in Cairo Tales
      "Mille Mois."
    Her widowed mother sits at home fretting about her daughter's misspent nights, alarmed by the lurking presence of fundamentalist goons on the streets, and haunted by memories of long-ago glory. Meanwhile, the neighbor, Fifi, turns loud, giddy tricks with a high-class clientele in the next apartment — while constantly promising to catch up with Goucem sometime when she's not busy. The strongly feminist film ensconces itself in the woman's sphere within the larger society; the intrusion of men often signals trouble, and traditional values are often a fallback for anyone, traditional or modern, seeking to keep the women subdued. It's surely a daring movie for Algerian society, and a somewhat interesting one for an American audience.

    Several other films leave a jarring impression. The Morroccan "Mille Mois" is a strange, almost plotless comedy-drama about a young boy and the people around him in a remote village. (Again, when you hear French it's a signal — although everyone seems to understand it, the one person who speaks it is the boy's older sister, who dances, smokes, and clearly can't wait to get out of the village where everyone condemns her as a very bad seed.) Most peculiar of all is the Syrian "Sacrifices," a mythic-feeling story about death, birth and family conflict shot in extremely stylized, colorful and, to my tastes, unnaturally arty fashion.

    Two recently released films make a comeback in the festival. One is the Tunisian "Satin Rouge," another film about women, tradition and social change centered in a belly-dancing club. The other is the outstanding Palestinian film "Rana's Wedding," a selection at last year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival. A young woman's rush to get married by 4 p.m. takes her on a frantic tour of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it affects individuals in their daily lives. The conclusion is stunning — at once angry and hopeful.

    Edward Said. in Cairo Tales  
    Edward Said.
    Finally, the festival features an extended interview with Columbia University professor Edward Said, taped in 2002 near the end of his life. "Edward Said: The Last Interview" is not groundbreaking but gives Said — looking pained, whether because of his long battle with leukemia or because of entrenched despair — a chance to look back over his life and, in the last segment, sum up his feelings about the present situation. Besides faulting Israeli expansionism, Said describes Yasser Arafat as having vain and dictatorial tendencies, and also criticizes Palestinian elites for failing to create institutions that could both strengthen their own society and help bridge the divide between the two camps.

    Said still espouses a vision that shouldn't be as radical as it sounds at first blush. As he explains: "I came to the conclusion that the only sensible resolution, given the obstinacy and the obduracy of the Israelis — who had so much power, thanks to the United States, that they could afford to ignore the facts and reality — was to think about a way in which they could live together as equals. Not on a partition plan, but as equals on a land called Palestine — or Palestine-Israel — in which people were equal and not defined by their ethnos or their religion."

    What he describes remains so far from reality that it seems unthinkable — and yet it's merely a description that would fit any other pluralistic society on earth. "It is utopian. Yeah, it is," he says in response to a question. "But look at the alternative — the alternative is bloodletting on a scale that no one can afford. ... I think on the other hand that if one could multiply these kinds of efforts — such as mine — I think the chances of success are far greater than most people suspect."

    SEPTEMBER 1, 2004

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