September 16, 2019

Middle Eastern filmmakers don’t filter through lens of Arab-Israel conflict this year

To headline readers and TV news watchers, the Middle East is a region constantly roiled by conflicts, with nonstop fighting between nations and among their militant factions.

But if the movies, particularly those submitted by 85 countries for Oscar recognition, are an indication of popular tastes and concerns, then the Israel-Arab standoff and other hot and cold wars are all but ignored by the region’s filmmakers.

Checking out this year’s Academy Award entries from Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, all but one forgo nationalistic bravado or hostile propaganda in favor of themes familiar to most Hollywood fans.

Israeli filmmakers have rarely struck any military poses in the past but have frequently come up with highly critical portraits of their own society. By contrast, this year’s entry “Sand Storm,” is a sympathetic and sharply observed picture of a Bedouin community in the Negev in the midst of generational changes. All the picture’s dialogue is in in Arabic.

Lebanon’s entry, “Very Big Shot,” takes a satirical look at the country’s politics and endless infighting. The comedy is about a small-time Beirut drug dealer who tries to pull off one big coup by posing as an important film producer.

The Palestinian entry, “The Idol,” is a variant on the venerable Hollywood storyline of “A Star Is Born,” but with a local twist. Director Hany Abu-Assad based the picture on the true story of Mohammed Assaf, raised in Gaza, who fulfills his burning ambition to travel to Cairo and compete in the top-rated TV show “Arab Idol.” He wins, becomes a singing sensation and a symbol of hope for his fellow Palestinians.

Abu-Assad’s earlier movie, “Paradise Now,” triggered a heated debate in 2005 about whether the originating entity should be listed as Palestinian Authority, Palestinian Territories or Palestine. Since then, all sides seem to have tired of the controversy and “The Idol” is credited simply to “Palestine.”

One rarely thinks of Saudi Arabia in terms of romantic comedy, but “Barakah Meets Barakah” sets a precedent. In a kingdom where unchaperoned contact between the genders is prohibited, the attempt by a young civil servant to meet up with a girl takes on a Chaplinesque flavor. However, as in the case of Israel’s “Sand Storm,” on a deeper level, the Saudi picture explores the clash between traditional values and the modern world.

The grimmest entry is Egypt’s “Clash,” centering on the 2013 Cairo riots, triggered by confrontations between the military government and followers of the Muslim Brotherhood. The action is seen mainly from the perspective of various Cairo residents, crammed inside a police paddy wagon.

Among all of Israel’s neighbors, only Jordan’s “3000 Nights” has a pronounced anti-Israel slant in the story of an arrested Palestinian woman having her baby in an Israeli prison.

One caveat in viewing these movies is that an American outsider might overlook some of the clues to more fervent nationalistic emotions boiling beneath the innocent-sounding themes. This holds particularly true for “The Idol” and director Abu-Assad, who earned Oscar nominations with two of his previous films, “Paradise Now” and “Omar,” both focusing directly on Israeli-Palestinian confrontations.

In a phone interview, Abu-Assad observed, “To the Palestinians, particularly those living in Gaza, the victory of one of their own in the ‘Arab Idol’ show became a symbol of hope and pride.

“For 60 to 70 years, their lives have been characterized by defeats. Suddenly they had a voice to sing and speak for them.”

The directors and casts of these six films from the Middle East have at least one emotion in common: their disappointment in being eliminated from the Oscar race by the selection committee.

The ultimate winners will be crowned at the Feb. 26 ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.