The power of film not given its due in the Middle East

Yalla Peace: I’ve always asked where is the Arab-made version of 'Exodus'?

Joseph Cedar with Footnote poster 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Joseph Cedar with Footnote poster 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Many say the pen is mightier than the sword, but today film is mightier than the pen. Every year at this time, our attention turns to the power of film at the Academy Awards, many times in a competitive way between Palestinians and Israelis.
This year, only one Middle East film has been nominated for an Oscar. But my favorite film wasn’t.
The Whistleblower is a Canadian film released at the end of 2010. It didn’t do very well and meandered through the movie industry in 2011 until it hit mainstream audiences last month on DVD and Blu Ray. And that’s a shame. Because of all the mediocre films that have won Academy Award nominations this year, none come even close to the moral power of this film.
Starring Rachel Weisz, The Whistleblower tells the story of a former Nebraska police officer, Kathryn Bolkovac, who takes an assignment with the United Nations International Police Force in Bosnia in the 1990s. I have read so much about the atrocities of human beings, and having been a reporter for more than 35 years, very few things really shock me or move me to passion. But this film truly is an exception.
Weisz offers a powerful performance in the role of Kathryn Bolkovac. Her co-stars include Vanessa Redgrave and David Straithairn, who play equally powerful characters.
When Bolkovac gets to Bosnia, she quickly discovers that the private contractors hired by the UN, the international police and the local police are all profiteering off of the region’s suffering by enjoying and participating in human trafficking and prostitution. There is so much tragedy in the world and so much crime, but the worst crimes are those committed by the people who are hired, paid and vested in defending, protecting and providing justice for the weak. People in authority who compromise their principles because of greed or selfish and uncaring indulgence.
Ironically, the film was released to limited theatrical showing in the United States in the summer of 2011, but because it was produced in 2010, it didn’t qualify for this year’s Oscar nomination. Yet the story is one of the most powerful and compelling I have seen. Why does an individual risk her career to do what’s right when turning a blind eye to injustice can be not only so easy but so profitable? Why are there so few people like Kathryn Bolkovac and so many like those we find representing us every day in powerful government positions throughout the world?
I know that Israel has a film up for Oscar nomination this year in the Foreign Film category: Footnote (“He’arat Shulayim”), a tragicomedy about a fatherson relationship revolving around the Hebrew University. It’s a good film, and I hope it wins. Israel has nominated 44 films to The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) since 1964 for the Oscar Awards, but only nine have made it to the finals. None have won. In 2010, the Israeli-Palestinian made film Ajami was nominated for the Oscar, but did not win.
Paradise Now was the first Palestinian film that actually made it to the Oscars, in 2005. It didn’t win, but won much acclaim and attention for its story about two Palestinians who were planning to commit a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. The film focused on their last days before the planned attack, and though they eventually backed out, the film ends with one of them on a bus filled with Israelis, leaving the audience to wonder if he actually carried out the crime. It was only one of four submissions by Palestinians to the AMPAS and the only one accepted for nomination.
Since 1958, Egypt has submitted 28 films, but none has made it to the Oscar nominations. Despite the many submissions from Egypt, there have been very few films made by Arab countries telling a compelling story that have been nominated for Academy Awards. I think in part it has to do with the Arab psyche. The power of demanding justice often overrides reason. Arabs are too emotional. And emotion is not a well-planned event. Emotions explode and then fizzle out quickly, and feelings dissipate. Emotion is not a great motivator to provide results. It does start wars, prolong conflicts and causes the loss of a lot of lives, innocent and otherwise.
I wish the Arab World could step back from the brink of their emotions, where they often stand, threatening to plunge to the depths of involvement but always stepping back, and produce a powerful film that might slay the minds of the billions of people who turn to film to understand human tragedy.
The American-made but Israeli-backed story Exodus won over the hearts and minds of Americans to Israel’s cause in the 1950s and 1960s. It did win an Oscar in 1960, not as the great, compelling film that it is, but rather for its powerful musical score. I’ve always asked where is the Arab-made version of Exodus? The Arab World has so much money and influence and yet much of that ends up in the wrong hands. No major newspapers or media in the West – where the media has its most powerful chance to influence world events – and no major films to convey the power of the “just cause.”
“Just cause.” That’s a phrase we often hear so much about in the Middle East and the Arab World. Yet so little commitment in the form of money and production and planning goes in to telling the story of the “just cause.” I wish that would change. Until it does, my eyes will well up with tears of passion for the tragic story of those who do manage to have their tales told to the public on the big screen.
Ray Hanania is an award-winning columnist and radio talk show host.