A Feast of Middle Eastern Film

The CinemaEast Film Festival continues this week in New York. Rasha Salti, curator, talks about the groundbreaking work of Middle Eastern filmmakers.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Now, if art imitates life, then one might be able to learn a lot about life in the Middle East by attending one of the twelve fictional features, 22 documentaries and 18 shorts featured at this week's CinemaEast Film Festival. Fifteen countries are represented including Egypt, Iran, Iraq.

Now, most of these movies rarely seen here in the U.S., but for a week in New York City, filmmakers are taking part in Q and A sessions, and the films are getting two or three runs at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village. This is all going on thru Thursday.

And somebody's been very busy because she's a curator of CinemaEast Film Festival is Rasha Salti who joins us in studio.

Good morning.

Ms. RASHA SALTI (Curator, CinemaEast Film Festival): Good morning.

STEWART: So things have been going well, you were saying.

Ms. SALTI: Things have been going very well, yes.

STEWART: Excellent. Now, who do you consider the film festival's target audience?

Ms. SALTI: Well, I mean, our work has been trying to target the most mainstream New York audience.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SALTI: As possible. And I know that's a bizarre notion because - but when we started our programming years ago, we - our natural audience was, of course, the ethnic audience of the films from the countries, et cetera. But over the years, we've grown - our willingness has grown as we've collaborated with institutions like the Film Society at the Lincoln Center. And then, when you work with a movie theater like the IFC, you also get their members, you know, their crowd.

STEWART: In terms of the filmmakers who are represented, how do they find out about you? Do you have to do outreach, or is this something that filmmakers aspire to be part of?

Ms. SALTI: I hope they aspire to be part of it. What we do is we send out a call for submissions a year ahead. And we try to disseminate it as widely as possible. Also, I travel to - I've - for this festival, I've traveled to - almost every country featured on the program, except for Iran. But basically we have now a network of filmmakers. and we rely on organizations, et cetera. We got something like 257 submissions.

STEWART: Wow.

Ms. SALTI: Yes.

STEWART: So what are the countries represented? I mentioned Egypt, Iraq.

Ms. SALTI: It's basically all of North Africa.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SALTI: And the Arab world, and Turkey, and Iran and what - we called them the diasporas. So basically an Iranian filmmaker in Canada or a French - or a Moroccan filmmaker in France, et cetera.

STEWART: Now, some of the countries from where these films come from have some authoritarian regimes who frown on certain aspects of filmmaking.

Ms. SALTI: Absolutely.

STEWART: Do you find that people are addressing this openly in their work, or they having to work within those confines?

Ms. SALTI: I think that's - I mean - that's the reason there are so many documentary films because the medium seems to be - or filmmakers seem to be feeling the urge to make films in this time, in this present moment. On the one hand, I think they feel the - not the pressure - there's an expectation…

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SALTI: …that they should tackle social and political issues. However, they don't produce things that are like, you know, replacements for a reportage or investigative journalism. And that's what's, you know, so wonderful about them. They produce very, very good documentaries that are very artistic that question, you know, cinema and the form…

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SALTI: …while tackling social and political issues.

STEWART: This is interesting film, "Tehran Has No More Pomegranates." It's a documentary about the history of Tehran. It's got a little bit of cheek to it. It's a little funny, there are some moments. Bt you - but it's somewhat rare. However, Iran apparently had this film resurgence in the '90s? I just read about this. I'm not pretending to know anything about it. Why would that happen in Iran in the '90s?

Ms. SALTI: Well, I mean, the government - there's been - the government has -Indonesia was very fond of cinema.

STEWART: Hmm.

Ms. SALTI: So cinema has not been foreign historically to Iran. But the government has an institution that supports production that actually, you know, puts out money. And people go to the movies. And Iranian cinema began to travel in the '90s and was recognized and acknowledged throughout the world. And, you know, there are big names now that are considered master filmmakers. I would say that's mostly in the fiction field.

In the documentary field, what's interesting right now is young filmmakers like Massoud Bakhshi who did "Tehran Has No More Pomegranates." It's a generation of young filmmakers who work independently, under very difficult circumstances. The reason they are able to work like that is because of digital technology.

STEWART: Hmm.

Ms. SALTI: Video has not only democratized filmmaking, it has also enabled young people to make films very quickly in very difficult circumstances when, you know, when they are not liked or when that subject should not be touched, et cetera.

Also, they group together as a collective so much so this part of a fantastic venture called the Center for Experimental and Documentary Cinema. It's independent. It's in Tehran. They organized a documentary film festival recently. These are - and this is not just in Iran. This happens in Egypt. This happens in Algeria. This happens in Syria.

STEWART: Hmm. Something else I love about the film festival and some of the write-ups I've read about it is a lot of the writers saying they are just silly movies as well. It's all so heavy and dark. And that there are these fictionalized and there's love story.

I want to play a little bit of this one movie called, "What a Wonderful World" by Faouzi Bensaidi. He's from Morocco. A female traffic cop becomes entranced to the commuter who's also a hit man. Let's start the scene, and I'll narrate it a little bit.

(Sound clip of movie, "What a Wonderful World")

STEWART: They're in a bathroom. The hit man is turning on all the water, and then he starts flushing all the urinals. He's stalking the person he's about to kill. And then he turns on all the hair dryers to make sure there's no - nobody can hear what's going on.

(Sound clip of movie, "What a Wonderful World")

STEWART: Cuts later to lots of different scenes with this hit man. He kills this person. He seizes someone on the bus. It's set in Casa Blanca, but it's not the Casa Blanca, I think a lot of people think about…

Ms. SALTI: Absolutely.

STEWART: …when I think about movies.

Ms. SALTI: Absolutely.

STEWART: Dusty and urban. And that's something we can learn. We can learn about real life.

Ms. SALTI: Absolutely. I mean…

STEWART: In these parts of the world.

Ms. SALTI: Yeah. And also, that's why this film is important because we have, you know, Faouzi Bensaidi is somebody who's converse - I mean, who has made this film that's inscribes in world cinema. He's influenced by Jacques Tati, French filmmaker. He was influenced by Kitano, Japanese, you know, he is - we grew - we all grew up on world cinema. We all grew up on Bruce Lee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: That's right.

Ms. SALTI: You know, Sylvester Stallone whatever, I mean. And Jacques Tati and the other filmmakers.

STEWART: So it is universal?

Ms. SALTI: It is universal. Yes. And that's what's magical about it.

STEWART: Well, I encourage people to check out the Web site for CinemaEast Film Festival.

Rasha Salti, curator of the film festival. Thanks for joining us. (unintelligible) just to be with.

Ms. SALTI: Thank you so much. A pleasure.

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