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Josephine Baker, Abbas Kiarostami, THE BAND'S VISIT, THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS: Arabs & Muslims on TCM

The Battle of Algiers, La Battaglia di Algeri
Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers

On July 22, 76 people were killed at a couple of terrorist attacks in Norway. Immediately, Arab/Muslim groups were suspected/accused of the mass murder. Imagine the shock and horror of those clamoring for the expulsion of the Muslim Menace from Europe when the death and mayhem turned out to be the carefully planned acts of a white European nationalist, Anders Behring Breivik, a self-proclaimed “Crusader” for “Christendom.”

That Muslims were initially labeled as the perpetrators of the Norway attacks should come as no surprise to anyone, as, however unfairly, in the minds of millions Islam has become synonymous with terror. Coincidentally, this month of July Turner Classic Movies has been presenting various portrayals – usually stereotypes – of Arabs and Muslims in English-language (mostly Hollywood) movies.

As the series comes to a close tonight, TCM is showing five international productions featuring Arabs, Muslims, and, huh, Josephine Baker. Those offer depictions of Arabs and Muslims as people dealing with “people issues”; those characters' ethnicity and religion thus become less important to the narrative than, say, their sense of ethics (or lack thereof) and the situations in which they find themselves. [TCM Schedule.]

An American immigrant (or “expat,” take your pick) in France, Josephine Baker was given opportunities supposedly denied her in the United States. Watching Princess Tam Tam (1936), one has the right to wonder about how good those opportunities actually were, at least on the big screen. The film is a must-see merely because the legendary Baker – as a Tunisian (!) shepherd passing for royalty – is in it. The highly likable Albert Préjean co-stars.

Gillo Pontecorvo's La battaglia di Algeri / The Battle of Algiers (1966) caused a furore upon its release, a mere four years after Algeria became officially independent from France following a bloody war that may have left as many as one million Algerians dead. Pontecorvo's film is so effective, in fact, that it was banned in France for five years. Additionally, the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department reportedly had American military personnel watch the movie at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, though considering the bloody mess that country has become those guys clearly didn't learn any lessons from the film.

That's too bad, as The Battle of Algiers is cinéma vérité at its most gripping. The film deservedly received an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category of 1966, and two years later Pontecorvo himself would get nominations for Best Director and, with Franco Solinas, Best Original Screenplay. (In those days, the Academy – fairly and intelligently – allowed films nominated in the Best Foreign Language category to be nominated in other categories even if released in Los Angeles at a later date.)

Eran Kolirin's much-admired Israeli comedy-drama The Band's Visit (2007), about an Egyptian police band stranded in Israel, caused a different kind of furore after it was denied an Academy Award nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category because more than 50 percent of its dialogue is in English. Critics at the Cannes Film Festival couldn't care less what language the characters in The Band's Visit spoke; the film won the International Film Critics' Prize for Best Film in the Un Certain Regard sidebar.

Tonight's other two movies are Hany Abu-Assad's Rana's Wedding (2003), about a Palestinian woman searching for her lover in occupied Jerusalem, and Abbas Kiarostami's Palme d'Or co-winner Taste of Cherry (1997), which tied with Shohei Imamura's The Eel at Cannes. Here's hoping Robert Osborne will mention Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, both currently serving lengthy prison sentences imposed by Iran's sociopathic Muslim regime.

Unfortunately, Hany Abu-Assad's Oscar-nominated Palestinian drama Paradise Now, the highly controversial story of two young, sympathetic Palestinian suicide bombers-to-be, wasn't included in tonight's schedule. As much as I admire TCM's decision to show those five international films tonight, the absence of Paradise Now – for whatever reason – is lamentable.


         
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