Celebrating Films from the 7 Banned Muslim Countries
“The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.” - Roger Ebert, Life Itself.
In light of President Trump’s executive order barring citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering the US for 90 days, the late great film critic’s words are more instructive than ever. At this crucial moment in our nation’s growth, we must reach out and empathize with those whose welcome in this country has been questioned. Here are seven films from the banned Muslim countries to shift your perspective.
Iran - A Separation
Iranian cinema is rich and worth exploring for any cinephile. The Iranian Government’s oppressive censorship has made watching Jafar Panahi’s subversive work like This is Not a Film and Taxi an act of protest in and of itself. Abbas Kiarostami's Palme d'Or winning Taste Of Cherry is a beautiful meditation on life and death. For my pick, though, I’m choosing work from the Oscar-nominated filmmaker who likely won’t be attending this year’s ceremony do to the ban for his 2017 Oscar nominated film The Salesman. Asghar Farhadi’s previous film, A Separation, is an emotionally complex masterpiece where the tensions of a modern nation trying to operate under Islamic law is heightened by characters compelled by justice but hampered by virtue. Farhadi's gift for delivering memorable, heart-wrenching, dramas is even more impressive considering how nuanced his approach is. There isn't a single bit of flashy camerawork, dialogue, or performance in A Separation, yet the final shot is an all-time great. Do not miss this film.
Iraq - Zaman, the Man from the Reeds
Like many of the countries on this list, racial, political, and religious conflicts in Iraq have hampered film production and accessibility for long periods since movie production companies first arrived in the 1940’s. For that reason, it’s only appropriate to discuss a film that, in 2003, was billed as “the first film from Iraq in 15 years.” Zaman, the Man from the Reeds covers everything from Iraq’s deep history as the root of civilization in Mesopotamia to modern Iraq’s crippling bureaucracy and Gulf War repercussions. Director Amer Alwan’s film is especially interesting given that, since it was shot in 2003, it provides a glimpse into life in Iraq just before the Iraq War.
Zaman, the Man from The Reeds can be purchased on DVD at Amazon.
Libya - The Message
This movie is sort of a cheat because Director Moustapha Akkad was Syrian and Hollywood-based at the time of shooting The Message. Moreover, the film stars Anthony Quinn in a race-defying casting move that would be more controversial today than it was in 1977. The reason to watch this film is contextual. When Hollywood wouldn’t finance Akkad’s expensive account of the birth of Islam, the director turned to Muammar Gaddafi, the now deposed leader of Libya, for financing. Despite state backing, the film’s release triggered a 39-hour siege of three office buildings in Washington DC in 1977 by African-American Islamists, involving 149 hostages and the death of a reporter. The attacks were sparked by a belief that the film depicted the prophet Mohammed (it doesn’t). Consequently, many Arab countries refused to screen the film outright and it never made back its costs. Even so, The Message is the rare Hollywood-scope epic told from a Muslim perspective. While Libyan cinema post-Gaddafi is still evolving, it’s worth taking a look at one of the few major projects to survive his regime.
The Message can be rented on Amazon Video.
Somalia - Tree of Life
Somalia has an interesting cinematic history due to its resemblance with India’s Bollywood. In the 1970’s and 80’s riwaayado, Somali musicals, were the driving force behind the country’s cinematic economy. Inspired by Bollywood musicals, Somaliwood has recently emerged out of a Somali community in Columbus, Ohio. However, sticking strictly to cinema produced in Somalia, we have to talk about the short film Geedka Nolosha (or Tree of Life) directed by Abdulkadir Ahmed Said in 1988. The film is incredibly visual and provides a unique window into Somali spiritualism. Said's film won the Prize of the City of Torino in the Best Film - International Short Film Competition category at the Torino International Festival of Young Cinema and is free to watch on YouTube. It’s really a gem (and shot on beautiful 16mm if you're a dork about that like I am). Here you go!
Sudan - Tajouj
Here’s the thing, I haven’t seen Tajouj and I’m not sure there’s a way to watch it in the states right now. I’m putting it on this list because it was the first African film shot in color and the story of its director, Gadalla Gubara, is kind of amazing. Gubara was born in Sudan in 1920 and served with the British Army Signal Corp in World War II. The British Colonial Film Unit sparked a cinematic interest in Gubara, who became a cameraman in Cairo, produced documentaries for the Sudanese government, and eventually created the Sudan Film Unit in 1949. He got a certificate in film from UCLA and returned to Sudan to document Khartoum in its heyday; when it was a bustling, multicultural, city housing many different ethnic communities.
Gubara would go on to create Sudan’s first movie studio, Studio Gad, which produced Sudan’s first feature film, Tajouj. There is a lot more to Gubara’s story, including tragedy at the hands of Sudan’s increasingly oppressive government, that I strongly encourage you to check out. You can read about Gubara’s life in greater detail here and here.
Syria - Damascus Roof and Tales of Paradise
Keep an eye out for HBO’s new documentary Cries From Syria, which follows the harrowing tales of Syrian refugees and premieres on March 13th. Looking back to just before the refugee crisis began, Damascus Roof and Tales of Paradise is a documentary about the passing of Syrian traditions being threatened by modernization. The film offers a dynamic look at Syrian culture and the role of storytelling, making it incredibly valuable during a time when Syrian culture is being violently dismantled. It's a tough watch knowing the human rights atrocities that were just around the corner for Syria in 2010 (for a moving account of the refugee experience, check out this 360 documentary). Right now, however, it's as important to see Syria for its cultural past as it is to recognize its troubled present.
Luckily, you can watch Damascus Roof and Tales of Paradise for free on YouTube.
Yemen - Karama Has No Walls
The cinema of Yemen is very small, but that hasn’t stopped Yemeni filmmakers from creating. Sara Ishaq grew up in Sana’a, the largest city in Yemen, until the age of 17, where she moved with her family to Edinburgh to complete her education. She returned a decade later to produce the short documentary Karama Has No Walls, which follows the Arab Spring as it relates to Juma'at El-Karama (Friday of Dignity), a turning point in the Yemeni revolution when pro-government snipers shot dead 53 protesters. It's worth noting that, to tell the story, Ishaq had to shoot in possibly the worst place on Earth to be a woman. Her bravery didn't go unnoticed. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject), and remains a powerful and historical look at the seeds of a revolution.
Karama Has No Walls can be purchased on YouTube here.
Looking at these films, recognizing the people whose struggles exist many miles away and for many different reasons, would be worth it even if it were purely an exercise in empathy. For filmmakers, though, it’s much more than that. By paying attention to cinema from the seven banned Muslim countries, we get to see the work of filmmakers who, in their own ways, have taken a path of artistic resistance to oppression. At a time when many Americans may be feeling a dire urge to resist, we can take a page from the very people we’re fighting not to exclude.