Monday, January 25, 2016

2nd Toledo International Film Festival: Promoting Global Awareness and Understanding

The second Toledo International Film Festival opened this weekend at the historic Ohio Theatre with two thought-provoking movies: the 2014 award-winning Timbuktu, by incredible French-Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmase Sissako, and Dancing in Jaffa, a documentary by Hilla Medalia. 
A cattle herder, Kihane, his wife and daughter,
were played so beautifully I didn't think they
were actors. A palpable anxiety rises up from
the moment we meet them. 

Timbuktu is visually breathtaking and emotionally devastating.  The opening scene sets the stage: A group of men riding in a fast-moving truck, bearing jihadist black flags and automatic weapons, are chasing a gazelle over the sweeping sand dunes of the Sahara desert, to tire out the animal we hear them say. The beauty and the terror of this scene, the ominous undertones, the dread and anxiety, remain throughout the film to the end, when the terrified runner is not a gazelle but an orphaned child whose loving parents were killed by the same group of men.  

I learned after the movie, doing a bit of research, that Timbuktu was briefly occupied in September 2012 by an Al-Quaeda group known as Ansar Dine, and that the public stoning of an unmarried couple influenced the film.  Sissako incorporates this stoning in a horrifying and unforgettable scene in the movie. The death of the human spirit.

Sissako's film juxtaposes the lanquid pace of the desert with the blasphemous violence and unfathomable behavior of the Jihadists occupiers, who boom Sharia Law pronouncements from loudspeakers or at the barrel of a gun, with a rising sense of surrealism and terror.  

"Roll up your pants, it's the new law," an armed occupier yells at a man.  The man shrugs and walks away.  "Wear gloves," another orders a woman selling fish.  She replies with disdain that it's absurd to wear gloves and handle fish, and she later pays for her honesty. A cleric objects to a group of men entering a mosque with weapons.  He cites the Koran.  They defy him. The local Iman tries calmly to curb the excesses of the fanatical Jihadists, to no avail.  Learning, scholarship, reason do not make a dent in the rigid ideology of the murderous ISIS-like men yelling orders, monitoring daily life, demeaning women, banning music, sports, and ordinary social interactions, violating all standards of human decency.  

Soccer banned? The passion of millions, against Sharia Law? Sissako captures the absurdity in a moving scene where a group of young men play soccer with an imaginary ball.  The young men look like dancers, ethereal, floating across the undulating dunes of the desert like the gazelle chased in the opening scene. Such grace in the face of such violence.  

The people of Timbuktu view the Jihadists as absurd, as fools and ignoramuses. The banality of evil comes to mind, embodied as well in the lone Jihadist, an ordinary man, who administers Sharia Law, the sole judge and jury, without substance or moral authority. He takes meaningless notes, then pronounces his judgment stemming from some invisible source, not the rule of law. He is a pretender.  All he knows is a list of activities he claims are banned by Sharia Law. Punishment by lashing, stoning or firing squad is inevitable.  

How ridiculous, how totally insane.  It's the same with the lengths to which the Islamists go to find and punish the sources of music they hear from time to time. The juxtaposition of a few peaceful people playing guitars, singing and enjoying music with the stealth assault of the Jihadist creeping up on them from rooftops in the dark of night with automatic weapons, as if approaching an enemy army, is absurd in the extreme.  The musicians are rounded up like criminals and the woman who was singing a lovely lilting love song was sentenced to 40 lashes, painful to watch.   
After this masterful film, so timely and so disturbing, it was a relief to see Dancing in Jaffa.  Not that the subject isn't as serious. This delightful documentary by Hilla Medalia features the efforts of renowned ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine to use dance as a way to promote mutual respect between Israeli Arab and Jewish children living in the political cauldron and turmoil of today's Israel.  

With ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine
 in the background, a Palestinian boy &
 an Israeli girl learn how to dance together,
and in the process become friends.
Jaffa is the city of Dulaine's birth. The classrooms at the five schools where he teaches become a microcosm of the Middle East's violent divisions and endless tension.  Dulaine is committed, energetic, and a gentleman to the core, and the children, at first apprehensive, respond, eventually, with enthusiasm.  One young Muslim girl, Noor, who mourns for her dead father, evolves from "a closed flower" (in a teacher's words) to a confident girl. That flowering is Dulaine's purpose, the essence of his mission, and it shines throughout the film.  I think it's also noteworthy that the parents come around, too. The documentary shows how art can transform lives, how enemies can become friends, how hope springs eternal.  For an hour or so, we could forget the poverty and oppression of the Palestinian people and the relentless war zone that is Israel.  

Dancing in Jaffa perfectly embodies the purpose of Toledo's International Film Festival (TIFF).  A report by Welcome TLC shows that while Toledo's population decreased by 12% between 2000 and 2014, its foreign-born population increased by 14.6%.  Toledo has gone to great lengths to welcome these newcomers, and they are contributing to our economy and social life.  The International Film Festival is part of the dedicated efforts that flow from the top down and the bottom up, an extraordinary synergy for social change and the celebration of our cultural diversity.  

Next Saturday's films, January 30, 4:30: Instructions Not Included (Mexico) and Gabrielle (Canada).

Film Festival Sponsors:  The Ohio Theatre and United North and its partners, Lucas County Commissioners and Welcome TLC, LISCToledo, the Arts Commission, BCI, PNC Bank, and neighborhood, multicultural and interfaith nonprofit organizations working to assist newcomers and promote cultural diversity and acceptance. Thanks also to Peter Ujvagi, former Toledo Council member and Lucas County Administrator, who has been in the forefront of supporting Toledo's international cultural traditions and preserving its history. 

Note:  Timbuktu was once a prosperous center of trade and Islamic learning in western Africa, a legendary center of scholarship and culture, but today it is a poor desert town struggling to survive, most of its population gone. Its occupation by Ansar Dine spread disaster across an already doomed landscape. 
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