Thirteen films representing contemporary Arab cinema, being shown starting tonight at the D.C. Film Festival, offer unadulterated voices and glimpses of everyday life in Arab societies.
"Arabian Sights" (Oct. 15-24 at Loews Cineplex Cinemas 6 on Wisconsin Avenue) deals with issues and stories from obscure corners of Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon, as well as Palestinian refugee camps and townships. Love stories, some inspired by novels and some original screenplays, are interwoven with themes of poverty, adultery, cultural clashes, failed traditions and disjointed political conditions that leave ordinary people to fend for themselves.
One notable entry is the first feature film from Iraq in more than 15 years: "Zaman, The Man From the Reeds." It was shot in January 2003, a few weeks before the start of the U.S. invasion, mostly in Iraq's untouched southern marshes. Ducks and geese flit along waterways, and smoke rises from primitive hearths set up in front of domed reed huts. There are grunting buffalo and sheets of bluish-green water dotted with isolated clumps of tall palms.
As the film opens, Zaman, whose name means "time" in Arabic, emerges from his arched hut to perform his daily ablutions and prayers. He starts his day by comforting a grieving 5-year-old boy, Yasin, whose parents were killed in an aerial bombing.
"You see this palm tree, it has withstood heat, cold and rain. It never complains, yet it stands tall and erect," Zaman consoles the boy.
The aging, childless man then sets out in his small canoe to towns throughout southern Iraq in search of a rare drug for his ailing wife, Najma. From his ancient, still world of palm groves and waterfowl, where the only modern intrusion is a battery-run radio, Zaman paddles off on his own with just a few provisions and rolled-up reed mats to sell in the souks.
The expedition tests his endurance as he travels past stretches of bulrushes and weeds bending in the wind under seemingly endless sunsets. Later, he takes a bumpy bus ride to Baghdad to undertake a Kafkaesque search of pharmacy shelves left bare by U.N.-imposed sanctions and a distribution system that favored prominent figures in President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
In a telephone interview from Paris, the film's Iraqi-born director, Amer Alwan, said his film captured the final days of life under the Hussein government.
He also said that five of 30 hours of his unedited footage was confiscated by Iraqi censors before he left the country. Iraqi actors and artists who had collaborated on the film helped him recover some of his cassettes, he said, but the war interrupted the process and he had to edit the film with what he had.
Alwan, 47, began his studies in the drama division of Baghdad's Institute of Fine Arts, then left the country in 1980 to pursue film studies at the Sorbonne and the Institut Nationale de l'Audiovisuel in France. He returned to Iraq in 2000 and again in 2001 to produce documentaries for French television on archaeology and the effect of sanctions on Iraqi children.
"I returned from my earlier trips saddened by the destruction and deprivation in people's daily lives," he said. "I wanted to remember the beauty I remembered from the marshlands as a child and to be faithful to those idyllic images in my head."
Alwan, who was born in Babylon, recalled his father taking him as a child on tours of the marshlands to observe the region's lyrical beauty and visit the ancient archaeological sites of Ur and Warqa.
"The nightmarish horrors and disasters that befell these lands is historic," Alwan said. "It dates from the beginning of time with what remained of the floods between the Tigris and Euphrates. Saints, philosophers, warriors and madmen had walked on these lands. Zaman's pilgrimage and journey is also that of the times through which Iraq has passed. It is a kind of homage to the endurance of Iraqis over the ages, a kind of interplay between both times, the past and the present," he said.
The pulse and pace of the film are slow, especially in the scenes where Zaman seeks refuge overnight in the mosques of Baghdad and prays fervently, among other faithful with nowhere to turn, for his wife's cure.
"I like eloquent silences," said Alwan, who plans to be in Washington next week. "Film is the language of images. I let reality speak. I did not want to drown myself in politics and rhetoric."
Zaman finally returns to his hut with the medication for his wife. When he wakes up the next morning to give it to her, it is already too late; Yasin consoles Zaman with the same metaphor of the palm tree that has withstood the blows of time.
Among the other films to be shown at the festival is "About Baghdad," a compelling documentary that captures the voices of Iraqis immediately after the fall of Hussein. It brings out the raw, unmediated frustrations of Iraqis as heard by an Iraqi poet who has returned home from exile.