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Saturday, July 7, 2012

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Perhaps it was 9/11; perhaps it was Tahrir Square. But for reasons ranging from the war against terror to the uprising for democracy, the Islamic world has become increasingly relevant to the rest of the globe over the last decade. And as debates continue over the bans on burqas and the politics of beards, the Arab world is coming to terms with events and movements from the Eighties and Nineties – the Bosnian War, Turkish nationalism, and the seeds of terrorism that would sweep across the Middle East and South Asia, to eventually envelope Africa.
The issues facing the countries that broadly make up the “Islamic world” are by no means homogenous – in some, progressive people are trying to set up new regimes that will vindicate the sacrifices they have made; in others, the religious-minded are fighting for space in a modernising world whose systems could consume their faith; in others, victims of instability and outrage are trying to make peace with the ghosts; in still others, a group of people believe they have the responsibility of cleansing the society and purging it of what they consider evil; in yet others, governments are claiming they can integrate militants into civil society.
At the Cannes Film Festival 2012, four films from this part of the world stood out for the sensitivity with which they explored what lies beneath the restive movements – Baad El Mawkeaa (After the Battle) by Yousry Nasrallah, set in the nucleus of the Arab Spring, Egypt;Horses of God, by Nabil Ayouch, set in Morocco; The Repentant, by Merzak Allouache, set in Algeria; and Djeca (Children of Sarajevo), set in Bosnia, by Aida Begić.
In Baad El Mawkeaa, Nasrallah explores the undercurrents of the revolution in Egypt by focusing on a single incident, and its impact on the lives of people from several strata of society, who happen to come together. At the core of all this is the ‘Battle of the Camel’, a true incident from 2 February, 2011. Horse and camel riders were allegedly hired by the Mubarak regime to subdue the protesters on Tahrir Square.
Here, a horseman Mahmoud is dragged down and beaten by the crowd as he rides through Tahrir Square, attacking demonstrators. The video goes viral on YouTube, and he is branded a traitor to the cause of democracy, and ostracised in his neighbourhood of Nazlet El Seman, near the Pyramids. He meets Reem, a doctor, activist and divorcee, when she accompanies her veterinarian friend Hala on her rounds – fodder is being distributed to the horsemen, but Mahmoud’s name is not on the list. His horse is doomed to starve, till Reem intervenes. Mahmoud himself is banned from doing the things he loves, including dancing his horse. His children are being bullied in school. As Reem gets increasingly entangled in his life and family, the relationships here become microcosmic representations of the larger Egyptian society.
We’re left to sift through individual opinions for the truth. Were the horse and camel riders armed or not? Were they mercenaries, being paid to attack protesters, or were they gullible illiterates, fooled into thinking they would be able to ply their trade to the tourists again, if they helped Mubarak’s government stay on its feet? Does everyone involved in the demonstrations want a better country, or are some of them there just to grope women?
And then there are bigger questions – what is the place of women in this society, which claims to strive for equality, but which has such thick class barriers? An office-worker says it is “normal”, though “not right” for women to be molested at Tahrir Square. Change cannot happen in 18 days, she says, it takes time. Another woman reconciles herself to being beaten by her husband, to her husband taking another wife if he is inclined to. Another woman sleeps with the man she has divorced, and makes out with the man she is bestowing her charity on – even as she maintains friendly relations with his wife.
What does the idea of equality to do relations between the classes? At one point, Hala warns Reem, “You’re turning your love story into a political affair”. When one is so involved in the working of the nation, can one evade a political solution for a personal problem? And when everyone is screaming for equality, can a dependent relative stand up to a rich clan elder?
The crucial poser is whether revolutions are always a good thing, whether they really benefit everyone. Do the camel riders of Nazlet gain a livelihood from revolution, or lose out on their income? Are revolutions only for the people who can afford to analyse the cover of the latest Amr Diab album? It sounds all fancy to shout, “Equality! Bread! Freedom! Dignity!”, but does the unity of classes die with the chorus of that one exhilarating wave of togetherness? Through outbursts that go back to other revolutions the country has seen, the film makes us wonder who affects revolutions, and who is affected by them.
When things go wrong, who takes the blame? Is it the one guy caught and branded traitor who’s at fault? Is it the animals the riders mounted that should be mutilated and punished? Those subtle conundrums are raised even as the director zeroes in on one case of unfair retribution – the parents of martyrs of the revolution were beaten up by thugs, as they commemorated their dear departed at the Balloon Theatre.
The manner in which the film was shot became almost symbolic of the message of the film. When I asked Yousry Nasrallah how they had avoided harassment and intimidation while filming, he replied that the film was given a codename – Reem, Mahmoud and Moustafa – to make it sound like a romantic comedy.
“The one time we were harassed – the only time, in fact, we were harassed, happened strangely enough, in Tahrir Square,” he said, “We ended up shooting exactly what we wanted, but the first question I was asked when I was coming in with the crew was ‘Do you have a permit?’ and I said, ‘Permit, what are you talking about, we’re on Tahrir square, what kind of permit do you need?’ and I think the guy was still living the Mubarak trauma completely, not used to the idea that people could shoot without a permit in Liberation Square. Or maybe he was an agent. I don’t know, I couldn’t tell. In the end we both laughed. But this was the only incident where we had a problem. The people in Nazlet El Seman and all over Cairo were very happy that there was a film being shot.” All the actors were aware of the risk they were taking, and prepared never to act again, if it came to that.
Another film that invokes ghosts of the past in the context of the present, in a completely different culture, is Djeca (Children of Sarajevo), set in contemporary Bosnia. The 38-year-old Aida Begić took four years to make the film, and walked away with the Special Distinction of the Jury for the Un Certain Regard section of the festival. This film, too, asks more questions than it answers, leaving us with snapshots of a brother and sister, clearly orphans of the Bosnian War of the 1990s. Instead of images of violence, we have reminders. Explosions that one could mistake for bombs turn out to be fireworks. Heavy vehicles brought in for construction work sound like tanks rolling into the city.
Rahima, who looks after her teenage brother Nedim, must prove she can support him both financially and emotionally, to retain custody. Working a thankless job at a restaurant, Rahima is trying to come to terms with her own identity, as well as her ambitions. With a classically sculpted face, and a stylish haircut she buries beneath a headscarf, with a feisty temperament, and strong maternal instinct, who exactly is this woman? And what does she want from life? Her decision to wear a headscarf makes her friends uncomfortable around her, makes her brother the target of bullying at school, and makes her susceptible to sexual and political preying.
The sense of constant threat, of the resentments of long ago creeping up to haunt the present, of the awareness that this carefully rebuilt life could be bulldozed by a single accusation of recidivism, is apparent. The most telling moment of the film could be when Rahima snaps at the wife of the restaurant owner, who was likely shielded from the worst effects of the war, “I didn’t grow up in a cave! But I grew up during a war.”
The idea of political power as a looming menace is somewhat evocative of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow, set in Turkey of the 1990s. The issue of the headscarf gains significance at a time when several European nations have passed, or are considering, bans on the burqa. Are headscarf girls a threat? Do they feel threatened? Just how much of one’s identity is wrapped up in a headscarf? Does it protect or endanger? Is there a place for a headscarf in a nation, in a continent, heading towards modernisation and rationalism?
A more conventional approach to the challenges facing the Islamic world may be seen in Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch’s Horses of God, and Algerian director Merzak Allouache’s The Repentant. Both deal with the idea of jihad, and the youth who are “misled” and “brainwashed” into terrorism. These are themes that are familiar throughout the world now, especially in countries that have been at the receiving end of terror attacks. However, both directors bring in fresh perspective by personalising their stories, making us empathise with these “misled youth”, and question who the victims are, and who the perpetrators.
Horses of God draws its title from a hadith. It is said a group of people approached the Prophet, and claimed allegiance. But their interest in Islam was not genuine. The Prophet then commanded, “Drink the urine and milk of the she-camels that surround you”, and at the same time, a voice called “Fly, Horses of God.” The people who had approached the Prophet fled, but were pursued and captured by his army. The expression, “Fly, Horses of God” continues to be used today as a call to jihad.
The film, a fictionalised account of the kamikaze bombings of May 16, 2003, in Casablanca, traces the genesis of a terrorist. It centres on two brothers, Hamid and Yachine (so named in honour of Lev Yashin, his idol), aged 13 and 10 respectively, growing up in the slum of Sidi Moumen on the outskirts of Casablanca. Their father is dead, an older brother is a soldier far away, and another older brother is severely autistic. Hamid is the gangleader right from childhood, and is acknowledged as the man of the house when he’s barely into his teens. He is the one who protects his friends by brandishing cycle chains at rival gangs; he is the one who rapes the runt of the gang.
When his fiery disposition lands him in jail, Yachine is forced to take over from him as the provider for the family. His eagerness to emulate his brother takes them both down the path of no return. The transformation of both their characters is beautifully exposed in the film, as is the gradual hardening of the effeminate boy who was once gang-raped. The weakest may have the deepest convictions, and the strongest may be best able to fight accusations of cowardice by subverting them. Gradually, their language changes, their concerns change, and their visions of the world and beyond, and the relative importance of each, change too. Throughout, the imam who trains them keeps a close eye on them, wary lest the boys come to their senses. And what happens to the boys who do come to their senses?
Answering that very question, from a completely different angle, is The Repentant. Is militancy a point of no return, or is there a way back? Director Merzak Allouache examines the working of the Civil Concord in Algeria, under which “Repentant” militants were allowed to come back, surrender, and reassemble themselves into civil society. In an interview, Allouache told me the inspiration for the film was a horrific letter posted by a reader to a newspaper. A father wrote that he received a phone call from a man, who was willing to show him the place where his kidnapped daughter was buried, for a large sum of money.
In The Repentant, Allouache examines the fear psychosis of a militant. We don’t know much about the man, Rachid. We only know he has come running through the snow, having escaped from his hideout with difficulty, not knowing what he is returning to. We don’t know whether he is truly repentant, or an agent for the government, or a spy for the militants. We don’t know whether the police are out to torture him. We don’t know whether civil society will accept him. But a friend warns him that he should make some quick money and get out, before he’s hunted down either by his former band of “brothers”, or the government authorities.
The film ends on an ambiguous note, leaving us to look at the larger issue – is redemption possible? What does it tak–e to come back? What does it take to get away with coming back? When someone comes back to see what he went away to do, and how that hurt people who hadn’t harmed him in any way, can he live with himself, and with what he has done? Does going away change someone so much that he can kill and manipulate in cold blood?
When the entire world is consumed by various persuasions and prejudices, and when most of us don’t understand the motivations that provoke such terrible attacks on strangers, and when we don’t even know whether the perpetrators themselves have any clear goals, perhaps cinema can make us see some of the strands in the peril that is coiling its way around the world.


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