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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Film

WEST BANK: Pro-Palestinian Israeli filmmaker killed in West Bank city


Israeli-born filmmaker and actor Juliano Mer-Khamis, 52, was shot dead in the northern West Bank city of Jenin on Monday.

It was not clear who was responsible, but some Palestinians believe the perpetrators may be among  those opposed to the liberal cultural activity Mer-Khamis had brought to Jenin and his role in building the Freedom Theater in 2006.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad condemned the killing, describing it as “hideous crime” and promising to bring to justice those responsible.

Khamis was born in Nazareth, northern Israel, to a Palestinian father, Saliba Khamis, one of the leaders of the Israeli Communist Party, and a Jewish mother, Arna Mer, a peace activist who had worked with children in the Jenin refugee camp after the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in the early 1990s.

Juliano Mer-Khamis lived with his mother in the Jenin refugee camp for several periods.

Apart from starting the Freedom Theater in Jenin, Mer-Khamis also directed the film "Arna’s Children" (2004), which tells the story of his mother and the struggle of Palestinians in Jenin in the face of Israel's occupation. He also acted in Julian Schnabel's new movie, "Miral," which was recently presented at the United Nations amid protests from Israel.

His last directed work is the locally produced Arabic play, "The Chairs," which had its debut at Ramallah’s Kasaba theater on Sunday.

George Ibrahim, director of Kasaba theater and who performed in "The Chairs," said he was shocked when he heard the news of Mer-Khamis’ death. He accused people who were against seeing Palestinian cultural activities in the city of being behind the killing, but without naming them. He was clearly referring to fundamentalists who saw in the Freedom Theater a liberalization of a traditional and conservative Muslim society.

The Freedom Theater itself had come under attack twice in the past and a Jenin-based music school was set fire to at one point, giving some credence to Ibrahim’s charges.

“We will not allow, under any circumstances, the return to chaos and lawlessness,” said Prime Minister Fayyad in his statement.

Armed gunmen had at one point controlled the Palestinian streets until Fayyad, who took office in mid-2007, had in a short time put an end to this phenomena and brought stability and rule of law to the Palestinian territories.

— Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank

Photo: People, carrying images of Juliano Mer-Khamis, hold a protest in Ramallah, West Bank, over his killing. Credit: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

EGYPT: Even Dr. Zhivago is piling on against Mubarak regime

Picture 6 One of the Arab world's classic heartthrobs has lent his support to the popular protest movement sweeping Egypt.

Omar Sharif, the Egyptian icon best known to Americans for his roles in "Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago" and "Funny Girl," reportedly told France Inter radio Monday that President Hosni Mubarak should step down.

"Given that the entire Egyptian people don't want him and he's been in power for 30 years, that's enough," Sharif said, according to Reuters.

Protests in Egypt entered their seventh day Monday as the government intensified its media crackdown. At least 100 people have been killed in clashes with security forces since the protests began.

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SAUDI ARABIA: Despite 'Desperate Housewives,' media still not free, according to WikiLeaks cable

Saud papAmerican diplomats appeared pleased with Saudi Arabia's new strategy to control editors and journalists, according to a secret State Department dispatch disclosed this week by the watchdog site WikiLeaks that offered a rare peak into the shadowy mechanisms of censorship in the ultra-conservative kingdom.

The May 11, 2009, diplomatic cable titled "Ideological and Ownership Trends in the Saudi Media" noted approvingly that the government seemed to be opening up to a certain amount of foreign cultural influence in the form of Hollywood movies and television shows while cracking down on Islamist messages deemed too extreme even for the state-approved brand of fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam.

But despite the author of the report's apparent hope that shows like "Desperate Housewives" and "Late Night With David Letterman" would serve as an antidote to some of the more conservative trends in the country, the document makes clear that the government has no intention of ceding control over the message, just tweaking it a little.

Saudi regulatory bodies, which are beholden to the royal family, have evolved to thrive in a dynamic new media environment, switching to a more subtly coercive and decentralized approach. "Instead of being fired or seeing their publications shut down, editors now are fined [$10,600] out of their own salaries for each objectionable piece that appears in their newspaper," the cable read. "Journalists, too, are held to account."

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DUBAI: "Mission: Impossible" wraps up filming in swanky Persian Gulf hub


Pomp and circumstance marked the ending of the the nearly monthlong shoot of the fourth "Mission: Impossible" movie with the ghostly title "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" in Dubai.

Pictures published in the local media showed "Mission: Impossible" star Tom Cruise posing with Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid al-Maktoum and Dubai authorities mingling with the cast and crew during the farewell meeting, which took place some days ago.

As a token of appreciation to the glitzy Persian Gulf hub, Cruise and "Mission: Impossible" director Brad Bird and producer Bryan Burk gave Sheikh Maktoum a director's chair with his name on it and a clapboard with autographs of the stars of the film.

As they declared the mission accomplished in Dubai, the team also thanked Dubai authorities for their cooperation during the filming, said local Arab media reports

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LEBANON: Censors pull plug on screenings of Iranian protest film during Ahmadinejad visit

HanaMakhmalbaf As the Middle East braces for the controversial visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon this week, censors in Beirut are trying to make sure his visit goes smoothly.

They have put a halt to screenings of a documentary film about opposition protests in Iran that were due to coincide with Ahmadinejad's visit, according to a source, apparently in deference to Ahmadinejad and his entourage.

The movie, titled "Green Days" and directed by 22-year-old Iranian filmmaker Hana Makhmalbaf, was reportedly scheduled to be shown at the annual Beirut International Film Festival in the Lebanese capital on Wednesday, the first day of Ahmadinejad's two-day visit to Lebanon.

Bassem Hajj, press spokesman for the film festival, told Babylon & Beyond that censors from Lebanon's General Security contacted the festival over the weekend and requested that the movie be postponed.

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LEBANON: Documentary film examines country's Jewish history, evokes memories

Pic for the crowdMany left in silence, hastily packing their belongings. From one day to the next, the Jews of Lebanon were gone.

"We sat down and cried on the doorstep of the house," said one elderly Lebanese woman in a new film about Lebanon's now-destroyed Jewish community.

The 45-minute Arabic-language documentary, "The Jews of Lebanon: Loyalty to Whom?" by BBC journalist Nada Abdelsamad, tracks the lives of Lebanese Jews before, during and after their departure. 

It is based on accounts from Lebanese Jews, who fled or migrated to other countries, and memories from their old neighbors and friends and the residents of former Jewish neighborhoods in Beirut and Sidon.

The 1948 establishment of Israel, the subsequent Arab-Israeli conflict and warfare between Israel and Lebanon triggered exoduses of Lebanese Jews to Israel and other countries around the world. It is estimated that only a few hundred or so Lebanese Jews are left in the country, compared with well over 20,000 in 1948.

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MUSLIM WORLD: Film about gays and Islam shown for first time in Arab world

Picture 1 Can one be gay and a pious Muslim at the same time? 

That's the topic that Indian Muslim film director Parvez Sharma explores in his controversial 2007 documentary "A Jihad for Love" through a range of colorful characters.

Among others, viewers are introduced to a group of homosexual Iranian asylum seekers in Turkey, an openly gay Muslim imam, and a devout Egyptian lesbian who is struggling to cope with her faith and her sexual orientation.

Sharma recently traveled to Lebanon for the screening of his film in Beirut, which marked the first public showing of "A Jihad for Love" in an Arab country. 

Babylon & Beyond sat down with Sharma to talk about his film, Islam and homosexuality, and his upcoming controversial projects.

"I was a bit apprehensive at first because I realize that people in Lebanon have a complex relationship to religion, so I was worried how they would react to such a shamelessly religious film," he said. "At the same time I was aware it was elite crowd. It wasn't exactly Hezbollah coming to see it. So I don’t think all of Beirut saw my film. I think a small bubble of it did."

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IRAN: Khamenei commands filmmakers to abide by political and Islamic restrictions

Instead of inspiring the nation's artists to ever greater heights, Iran's supreme leader delivered a blunt warning to filmmakers to avoid subjects that challenge his vision of the Islamic Republic.

 "Our film directors should offer products in which positive points eclipse negative and dark points of our society," Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei told a group of filmmakers Saturday. "If you magnify negative points, the society will plunge into disenchantment."

Khamenei is God's representative on Earth, according to Iran's unique form of government. His words, published in Persian on his official website, are often taken as marching orders by the nation's hard-line enforcers of cultural and morality standards. 

They must have sent a chill down the spines of an Iranian film scene that only a few years ago produced internationally recognized gems by directors such as Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, who recently was jailed for trying to make an underground movie. Other directors are simply silenced by not being granted permits to make films by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. 

Khamenei dismissed complaints that censorship was getting out of control.

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IRAN: Authorities release state-produced documentary on the death of Neda Agha-Soltan

In its latest attempt to explain the death of the Green Movement's inadvertent icon Neda Agha Soltan, the Iranian regime released a documentary last week to counter the widely accepted narrative of the incident.

It concludes that an unknown woman approached Agha-Soltan and, grabbing a gun in her purse, shot her. 

A police officer announces, “It seems an unknown lady was leaning on the truck with her right hand in her purse, and perhaps she had a gun and shot Neda while her hand was in her purse.”

Soon after Agha-Soltan was killed on June 20, 2009, eyewitnesses reported that a plainclothes security official or militiaman, not the civilian woman highlighted in the film, had shot her in the back.

But the Iranian government video insinuates, ultimately, that the People's Mujahedeen Organization (often known as the exiled terrorist group the MKO) may have played a role in the killing. The MKO is an Islamic Marxist opposition group that the Iranian regime has periodically cited as an instigator of civil unrest. Other more independent sources view them as a small, insignificant and nearly defunct organization.

The logic of the movie becomes a bit clumsy as the MKO is presented as an enemy of the regime as well as responsible for a protester's death.

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IRAN: Behind HBO's "For Neda"

Neda As June 12 saw the anniversary of Iran's contested presidential election pass, the Green Movement is once again making news. HBO's new documentary, "For Neda," is a poignant reminder of the movement's human cost, and Babylon & Beyond wanted to know more about the project.

Pundits are now dissecting the Green Revolution, either to build up or tear down its impact on Iran's politics. For the director of the documentary, Antony Thomas, however, the story lay with the suffering borne by young Iranians, as he relayed in an interview prior to a screening in Los Angeles.
Thomas is the acclaimed director of "The Tank Man," which examined the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre by focusing on the anonymous protester who was famously photographed standing before of a line of tanks, and said that he was "absolutely haunted" when he saw the footage of Neda Agha-Soltan's death.  Thomas was more than ready when HBO's Sheila Nevins approached him last year about directing a documentary on the Green Movement and the death of Agha-Soltan.

Nevins' proposal -- "I challenge you to tell her personal story" --stuck with Thomas.  As Thomas said in a post-screening Q&A session, from this challenge he set three goals for the documentary: to commemorate Agha-Soltan's death, to give a voice to her family, and to let the Iranian activists know "they are not forgotten."

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IRAN: Tehran judiciary frees filmmaker Jafar Panahi on $200,000 bail [Updated]


A famed Iranian filmmaker jailed in Tehran for allegedly making an illegal movie was released from prison on bail Tuesday, the semiofficial Mehr News Agency reported (in Persian). 

Jafar Panahi, 49, was jailed more than two months ago after police raided a gathering at his north Tehran home. His arrest and jailing launched an intense campaign by fellow filmmakers worldwide to get him released.

[Updated, 9 a.m. PST: Jafar Panahi's son, Panah, has posted fresh pictures of his dad, appearing emaciated but in good spirits, to his Facebook page.]

Actress Juliette Binoche, after winning the best actress award at Cannes over the weekend, made a public appeal for the release of Panahi, who had been slated to serve as a judge at this year's festival. 

A report by the semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency (in Persian) said Panahi's family had put up $200,000  bail to have him released.

The Mehr report, citing the judiciary, said prosecutors continue to pursue their case against the filmmaker, who is a vocal supporter of the green-themed opposition movement born of Iran's disputed 2009 presidential elections.

-- Los Angeles Times 

Photo: A 2006 picture shows Iranian director Jafar Panahi at the 56th Berlin International Film Festival. Credit: Wolfgang Kumm  / EPA

IRAN: Cannes 2010: Imprisoned filmmaker Jafar Panahi is honored at film festival [Corrected]

Amid the glitter and gaiety of the 63rd Cannes Film Festival opening, one of the nine chairs for jury members remained empty. 

Internationally acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, slated to serve as a jury member at the festival, couldn't attend because he was being held  in Tehran’s Evin prison.

Jafar_Panahi In March 2010, plainclothes security officials raided Panahi’s Tehran home and arrested him along with his wife, daughter and 15 house guests. Though Iranian authorities shortly released the others, they held on to Panahi, accusing him of “making a film against the regime following the post-election events," according to the French daily Le Figaro.

Despite this, the prosecutor's office in Tehran argues that Panahi’s imprisonment has no political motive. 

"The arrest of Jafar Panahi is not because he is an artist or for political reason[s]," prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi told the Iranian Students News Agency. 

"He is accused of some crimes and was arrested with another person following an order by a judge," reported BBC News.

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