Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Jim Quilty

The movie Timbuktu: pain, beauty and humor

BEIRUT: A football bounces down a flight of stairs, landing at the feet of three men. One of them picks up the ball and holds it up to a fellow walking past.“Is this yours?”

“No,” the fellow answers abruptly, raising his hands as if in surrender. “I swear.”

The three men are packing Kalashnikovs but it’s still an odd response.

Jim Quilty published in the Daily Star this Mar. 12, 2015

Timbuktu’s pain, beauty and humor

When Islamist militants took possession of northern Mali in 2012, they enforced a literalist version of religious law that banned many common practices. Their stringent, intolerant vision of Islam seemed particularly heavy-handed in Timbuktu, the ancient center of Muslim learning noted for its tolerance.

A few stories leaked into the international media – images of ancient shrines being denounced as idols and attacked with sledgehammers, of entire libraries of ancient Islamic and pre-Islamic manuscripts pitched into bonfires – all anticipating recent footage of ISIS’ gleeful destruction of ancient artifacts in northern Iraq.

One execution, dutifully put online by northern Mali’s Islamist occupiers, showed the parents of two children being stoned to death – deemed criminals because they were unmarried. This footage, and the Islamist occupation generally, provoked Abderrahmane Sissako to make his critically lauded, award-winning 2014 feature “Timbuktu.”

The film’s plot centers on a pastoral family – Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), their daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) and their shepherd boy Issan (Mehdi AG Mohamed). Satima and Kidane are torn between whether to remain in their homeland or to leave, as so many of their friends have done. The film charts the consequences of their decision to stay.

The family’s story is set within a collage of vignettes illustrating the incongruities – sometimes comic, always tragic – of the largely foreign rulers’ version of Islam and that of the town’s actual residents.

Sitting in front of your house is declared illegal, as is wearing trousers that cover the lower part of the leg. When the moral police nag one resident to roll up his baggy trousers to the newly prescribed length, he sighs, pulls them off and throws them over one shoulder, continuing down the street in his underwear.

In addition to the hijab, women, on the other hand, are ordered to cover their feet and legs and their hands.

Football too is banned but if you acknowledge that the sport was forbidden – as one Timbuktu football fan learns when he goes before the judge – he may decide not to have you flogged.

Football is among the motifs of “Timbuktu,” providing the premise of one of the film’s more beautiful sequences.

After the judge decides not to have a football fan whipped for his immoral behavior, the scene jumps directly to a dusty football pitch where two squads of youngsters are rallying up and down, battling for possession until, ultimately, one side scores.

The fact that they’re playing with an imaginary football makes the scene all the more potent.

A pair of Islamists, faces swaddled in turbans, approach on motorbike. The youngsters stop playing and pretend to do calisthenics until the patrol moves on. Such bitter comedy is at home in this story.

Adept as Sissako is at sketching the sad absurdities of Islamic militancy in practice, his film is not anti-Muslim. As the writer-director pointed out to the audience of a master class he gave in Doha this week, he felt compelled to make this film because this version of Salafi Islam is diametrically opposed to the tolerant, humanist form of the religion he knew growing up in Mali and Mauritania.

When the gunmen carry out particularly egregious acts – marching armed into the town’s main mosque or kidnapping a young woman and marrying her to a gunman, without her permission or that of her parents – the imam of Timbuktu’s mosque speaks on behalf of the place’s humanist faith.

Ghoulish and stupid as their actions are, the men occupying Timbuktu are marked by all too human frailties. An early sequence shows gunmen marching a North African man into the frame and handing him over to the town’s new rulers.

The man is blindfolded like a prisoner but, upon arriving, it’s clear he too is a militant.

Timbuktu’s Islamist regime, it seems, simply doesn’t trust its recruits to know precisely where they are. His guides are careful, though, to instruct his new colleagues in the complex schedule of meds he must take.

Since a significant number of the militants – principally Abu Hassan (Salem Dendou), the chief, and his lieutenant Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), who lusts after Satima – are North Africans who don’t speak North Malian dialects, translation (and incomprehension) is central to Sissako’s story, churning up moments of comedy and accentuating stupidity.

This element of the narrative helps lend “Timbuktu” a universality that elevates it well beyond the modest goals of docudrama. It resonates at a much higher pitch, too, with its visual beauty – a feature it shares with Sissako’s previous works – thanks to cinematographer Sofiane El Fani.

“Timbuktu” has been collecting prizes since its world premiere at Cannes in May. The film’s most noted accomplishments include its nomination for the Best Foreign Film award at the Oscars last month and, a few days before that, the seven Césars (aka “French Oscars”) taken by Sissako, Fani and their colleagues.

Determined folk have had access to digitized pirate versions of “Timbuktu” on their computers for some time now, of course, but Beirut will be officially able to see what all the fuss has been about when the film screens at the Beirut Souks shopping mall Thursday evening.

The projection marks the opening of the eighth edition of Ayam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya (Beirut Cinema Days). Founded and run by Beirut Development and Cinema, a cultural organization comprised of once-aspiring filmmakers and their fellow travelers, Ayam Beirut is a festival for filmmakers and film lovers as interested in society as aesthetics.

Since its inception, the country’s sole festival of Arabic cinema has been a bi-yearly, noncompetitive event, eschewing the ersatz glamour preoccupying most major film events in favor of having talented (often younger) filmmakers present their work to the public and conduct master classes with their colleagues.

This edition will provide a platform for the Lebanese premiere of 11 feature-length fictions, 18 feature-length docs and 12 shorts. The festival will project the latest works of local heroes Ghassan Salhab and Akram Zaatari as well as new works by younger artists like Bassem Fayad and Ahmad Ghossein.

The latest work by well-known regional artists Mohamad Malas (Syria), Samir (Iraq/Switzerland) and Rashid Masharawi (Palestine) will be projected, alongside award-winning, critically lauded and aesthetically bold work by younger filmmakers – Naji Abu Nowar (Jordan), Hicham Lasri (Morocco), Nadine Salib (Egypt), Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan (Palestine/Canada).

The feature-length doc lineup includes two of 2014’s three most-feted works on the Syrian conflict – “Silvered Water,” the searing work of Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan, and Talal Derki’s “Return to Homs.”

Most all these filmmakers are more or less Arab but the fiction program has been pleasantly augmented with “Leviathan,” Andrey Zvyagintsev’s critically lauded film from 2014.

“Timbuktu” will be projected at Cinemacity Beirut Souks, Thursday at 7:30p.m. Ayam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya continues at locations around Beirut through 21 March. For more information, see

In total darkness, as the dark invade the nights, as electricity is ancient history: Lebanon and Cynthia Choucair

Anyone living in Lebanon, for even a few days, will be surprised to learn that the Lebanese endure a dysfunctional electricity regime, and no one was able to counter these dinausors ruling this pseudo-State, and plundering the treasury.

Before the 2006 war, only the Capital Beirut enjoyed more or less 24-hour electricity, on the ground that the rich Gulf emirs and the wealthy Lebanese lived in Beirut, while other parts of the country got just a few hours of power a day from Electricite du Liban.

To fill in the gaps, the country’s better-off minority own generators or else pay for access to someone else’s device.

This week, storm Olga coming from Russia flooded all Lebanon and for an entire week the public electricity was an ancient history.

Not only all electrical infrastructure needs repair, but the employees and workers and repairmen decided to go on strike for unpaid retroactive promises.

Jim Quilty published on Jan, 9, 2013 in the Daily Star under Lebanon is not a Rahbani play

BEIRUT:  After July 2006 with the bombing of Israel of all the infrastructure for 33 days this “electrical” dysfunction was democratized a little, so that now Beirutis shared a tad bit a regular schedule of only daily 3-hour blackouts.

Many entrepreneurs make a living liberating kilowatt hours from the national grid and doling them out, for a price, to those in need.

And if you can’t afford these fruits of the informal economy, you go without. (We pay two electrical bills and have to be thankful for rediscovering that electrical light is a facility)

Enter Cynthia Choucair, the Lebanese filmmaker whose feature-length documentary “Powerless” had its world premiere last month at the Dubai International Film Festival, where it screened out of competition.

This enlightening, acerbic and often quite amusing television-friendly doc finds 4 compelling characters in the haywire of the country’s chaotic electrical system.

The star of the show is the late Jamal Chkifi, a fifty-something 7ayy al-Sellom resident. He was left bereft when his Romanian wife, no longer able to tolerate the power cuts, abandoned him and took their two children with her.

Though he’s a vision of impoverishment, Chkifi isn’t simply a victim. He made history a few years back, being the first Lebanese citizen to file a lawsuit against Electricite du Liban, charging that the state-owned utility is responsible for his losing his family. He died last February, before the court could make a ruling.

Complementing Chkifi’s court action are Rami al-Amine, a television journalist who covered Chkifi’s story, and Chadi Nachabe, an anti-corruption activist who is himself destined for politics.

Rounding out this cast of characters is a celebrity electrician who’s made a name for himself – the Robin Hood of Dahyeh, to be precise – tapping into the state power grid for the needy.

The film was shot in 2011, when the ministry was apparently working toward a plan to solve the country’s energy woes.

The state does its part to facilitate the film’s comic element. Early in the proceedings, Choucair and her crew attend a public presentation by the minister on what he has in mind.

“We inherited a flame, a flame they thought would burn us,” the minister says gravely. “Yet in this flame, we found an energy source … This flame has spread –”

The room suddenly plunges into darkness. There is an uncertain smattering of applause and the official sputters something about the ministry not being responsible for this building’s generator. The power cut’s unseen hand spares no man.

When she presented her film at its Dubai premiere, Choucair remarked that there was an element of revenge in her decision to make “Powerless.”

“I don’t work in politics,” she screamed above the roar of Beirut’s noontime traffic. “But I’m a Lebanese citizen and I have the right to say what I want to say. For me it was an opportunity, yes, to take revenge for what I have been living, and for being taken for granted.

“I didn’t choose to emigrate. I chose to live in Lebanon. When you live in Lebanon you see it’s not a country … For me, for example, I work in Lebanon but all my work is not for the Lebanese audience but the Arab audience.

“Yet you must live all the details. Going through the traffic. Not having electricity. Not having good water. Not having good schooling. You live it. You pay for it. Unlike many Lebanese, I don’t live and work overseas and then come back for vacations.

Choucair describes her film as “a play.”

It is easy to apply that description in two senses. “Powerless” is at once cautiously performative and playful in a winking sort of way.

This playful nature is hemmed in by the filmmaker’s compassionate nature, which is touched by the sufferings of her more unfortunate fellow citizens.

“It’s really like a play,” Choucair says. “I don’t believe in realism. On the contrary I wanted to work on it as a spectacle. I really do feel that Lebanon is a play. We all live in it. We all play in it.

“Both [Robin Hood and Jamal] enjoyed playing this because they are both very extreme in their lives and choices. It comes from them first, I worked with it.”

Wael Alkak’s moody soundtrack navigates between scenes like a car edging though Beirut traffic, and the camera periodically returns to the terrace of a Beirut apartment block where contrabassist Khaled Omran and vocalist Cynthia Choucair are performing what you’ve been hearing.

This gesture makes “Powerless” a more artful and personal creation than your average television documentary – it was produced by Al-Jazeera’s documentary network – yet it also retains the city’s chaotic skyline within the frame.

“You know the Rahbanis created this Lebanon and people live in this play while it’s not at all what it should be, not at all what it is in reality … The Rahbani songs created something in the national imagination, a fictional world. I’m not against it but I am against the [hegemony they have].

I have a feeling that all [my characters] feel they are heroes, even the minister. Even the politicians, they act as if they were heroes.

“Robin Hood feels he’s a minister because he’s able to provide people with electricity, with power. Jamal feels he must take the cause of Lebanon’s electricity sector on his own shoulders.

“The good and the bad. Heroes and villains. The good sun. Lebanon as if it is part of the sky,” she laughs again. “This is Wadih Safi, actually. This whole mythology.

“What really frustrates me when Lebanese emigrants cry when they hear, for example, [“Go and plant me in the soil of Lebanon”]. And they cry! Please, yaani. Okay, Lebanon has something beautiful. You have this but you have these shitty things as well.”

She gestures briefly to the wailing traffic a couple of meters away and laughs, “Mathalan (for example).”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 09, 2013, on page 16.

Read more:
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::





December 2022

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