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Muslim Cinema: UCLA Film Series ‘Visualizing the Sacred’

Muslim cinema: Brick Lane Sarah Gavron
Muslim cinema at UCLA. Pictured: Brick Lane.
Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

“What we wanted to say is, if these people [Iranians, Muslims] scare you, look closer: They have parents, they have lovers, they have hope, they have stories.” That’s filmmaker and cartoonist Marjane Satrapi, referring to Persepolis, at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

(Right photo: Of Love and Eggs by Garin Nugroho.)

Whether or not following on Satrapi’s lead, this weekend the UCLA Film & Television Archive is launching the film series “Visualizing the Sacred: Islam on Film,” which runs Friday, May 9 – Monday, June 9. “Visualizing the Sacred” will show a side of Islam and Muslims apart from terrorist attacks, Mohammed cartoons, or hysterical short films created by far-right Dutch politicians.

“The films in this series,” explains the UCLA press release, “offer a timely counterpoint to prevailing media trends as well as stirring examples of how filmmakers from around the world have grappled with some of the unique challenges of representing Islamic history, faith and practice on screen.”

I’m unfamiliar with most of the titles in the series, but I do have a couple of recommendations:

    • Albeit lopsided toward traditionalism, Ismaël Ferroukhi’s The Great Journey / Le grand Voyage is an extremely well acted portrayal of the troubled relationship between a hardline Muslim father and his wayward European-raised son.
    • Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven, which I haven’t seen, was the big winner at the German Film Academy’s Lola Awards last month. A cross-cultural tale focusing on the friendship between two women – one German, one Turkish – The Edge of Heaven earned Akin the best director award at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. The film was also Germany’s submission for the 2008 best foreign-language film Academy Award. (Despite what the synopsis says, that means The Edge of Heaven can’t be a contender for next year’s foreign-language film Oscar.)

Additionally, veteran Youssef Chahine’s Destiny sounds like a must-see. (By the way, Chahine, 82, released his latest film, Chaos, last year.)

Quoting Satrapi once again: “The only real divide in this world is between the idiots and non-idiots.” UCLA’s “Visualizing the Sacred” may well be a good way to see that both idiots and non-idiots exist within the realm of Islam. In other words – paraphrasing a well-known proverb – The Other Is Us.

The schedule and synopses below are from the UCLA Film Archive website:

Friday, May 9
7:30 p.m.
Pakistan / Kuwait / Morocco / Libya / UK / Lebanon, 1976
DIR / PROD: Moustapha Akkad. SCR: H.A.L. Craig. CINE: Jack Hildyard. EDIT: John Bloom. CAST: Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, Michael Ansara, Johnny Sekka, Michael Forest.
Moustapha Akkad’s impressive directorial debut chronicles the birth of Islam in 7th-century Arabia. Determined to make an enlightening primer on the basic teachings of Islam, Akkad balances Koranic exposition with the kind of spectacular set pieces expected in Hollywood-style religious extravaganzas. While Mohammed plays a central role, the film refrains from depicting him via body or voice in accordance with Islamic custom.
35mm, 177 min.

Saturday, May 10
7:30 p.m.
Turkey, 2006
DIR / SCR / EDIT: Reha Erdem. PROD: Ömer Atay. CINE: Florent Herry. CAST: Ozkan Ozen, Ali Bey Kayali, Elit Iscan, Bulent Yarar, Taner Birsel.
In a rural village on Turkey’s rocky coast, the growing pains of a Muslim community’s adolescents play out in time to the rhythms of nature and Islamic tradition. The muezzin’s call to prayer serenely inaugurates each of the film’s five sections while Florent Herry’s cinematography powerfully conveys the pastoral beauty against which the touching, yet melancholic, ensemble piece unfolds.
35mm, Turkish w / English s / t, 111 min.

Monday, May 12
7:30 p.m.
Islam on Film / Archive Previews
Germany / Turkey, 2007
DIR / SCR: Fatih Akin. PROD: F. Akin, Klaus Maeck, Andreas Thiel, Jeanette Würl. CINE: Rainer Klausmann. EDIT: Andrew Bird. CAST: Baki Davrak, Tuncel Kurtiz, Nursel Kose.
Writer-director Fatih Akin (Head On) takes his exploration of cross-cultural dislocation and reconciliation to new heights with this bravura ensemble piece that Variety called “utterly assured” and “profoundly moving.” Shifting between Germany and Turkey, the film traces the tragic intersections of six lives bound by fate and forgiveness. Reminiscent of Babel, it promises to be an early Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language Film.
35mm, 120 min.

Wednesday, May 14
7:30 p.m.
Morocco / Tunisia / France, 1989
DIR / SCR: Farida Ben Lyazid. CAST: Chaidia Hadraoui, Eva Saint-Paul, Zakia Tahri.
Farida Ben Lyazid’s directorial debut brought a bold, feminist perspective to the shifting values of Moroccan society. The Sufi-inspired tale vividly enacts the spiritual awakening of Nadia after she returns from France to her native Fez for her father’s funeral. Inspired by the chanting of Koranic verses, she begins a journey of self-discovery that simultaneously challenges the orthodoxy of Islamic tradition.
35mm, Arabic and French w / English s / t, 107 min.

Saturday, May 17
5 p.m. •note later screening this same day
Join a panel of Islamic scholars for an in-depth look at representations of Islam in film and other media.
*NOTE: Panelists TBA. Please check or call 310.206.FILM for up-to-date information. Running time: approx. 90 min.

*FREE admission!

Saturday, May 17
7:30 p.m. •note earlier panel this same day
France / Morocco, 2004
DIR / SCR: Ismael Ferroukhi. PROD: Humbert Balsan. CINE: Katell Djian. EDIT: Tina Baz. CAST: Nicolas Cazalé, Mohamed Majd, Jacky Nercessian, Ghina Ognianova, Kamel Belghazi.
Réda, a French-Moroccan teenager, begrudgingly agrees to drive his devout father on his pilgrimage to Mecca. While their relationship in the car grows claustrophobic, their view grows more expansive as the landscape changes from Europe to the Middle East. The film culminates in spectacular scenes of pilgrims converging on the holy city that trigger in Réda a new understanding of his father’s faith.
35mm, Arabic, Bulgarian, French, Italian and Turkish w / English s / t, 108 min.

Saturday, May 24
2 p.m.
Family Matinée
USA, 2004
DIR: Richard Rich. PROD: Mowafak El-Harthy. SCR: Brian Nissen. EDIT: Joe Campana. CAST: Eli Allem, Nicholas Kadi.
This delightful animated feature is suitable for all-ages as a rousing and moving story of the origins of Islam. Narrated in flashback, the film recounts Muhammad’s life from the time of his first revelation to the final victory of his egalitarian message over the forces of repression that controlled Mecca. In keeping with Islamic tradition, director Richard Rich never directly represents Muhammad on screen.
35mm, 95 min.

Friday, May 30
7:30 p.m.
Indonesia, 2004
DIR: Garin Nugroho. SCR: Armantono Ginting, Sakurta Ginting. CINE: Josep Fofid. EDIT: Choiril Anam. CAST: Nova Eliza, Sakurta H. Ginting, Didi Petet and Neno Warisman.
On the eve of the Lebaran holiday, the residents of a Jakarta marketplace raise money to buy a cupola for their humble mosque while navigating the, by turns, comic and poignant adventures of everyday life. Director Garin Nugroho employs intimate camera work and a richly textured mise-en-scene to craft a warm, colorful portrait of a close-knit Muslim community.
35mm, Indonesian w / English s / t, 90 min.

Saturday, June 7
7:30 p.m.
France / Egypt, 1997
DIR: Youssef Chahine. SCR: Y. Chahine, Khaled Youssef. CAST: Nour El-Sherif, Laila Eloui, Mahmoud Hemida.
After The Emigrant (1994) was met with official censorship for its on-screen depiction of the prophet Joseph, director Youssef Chahine responded to his critics head on in Destiny. From the life and thought of 12th-century Islamic scholar Averroes, Chahine weaves a rousing potboiler of political and religious intrigue, peppered with romance and song, that doubles as a powerful assault on religious extremism, then and now.
35mm, French and Arabic w / English s / t, 135 min.

Monday, June 9
7:30 p.m.
Islam on Film / Archive Previews
UK, 2007
DIR: Sarah Gavron. PROD: Chris Collins, Alison Owen. Based on a novel by Monica Ali. SCR: Laura Jones, Abi Morgan. CINE: Robbie Ryan. EDIT: Melanie Oliver. CAST: Tannsihta Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik, Christopher Simpson.
This sensual rendering of Monica Ali’s bestselling novel begins with the arranged marriage of Nazneen, a young Muslim swept from her beloved Bangladesh to a cramped East London flat. Tensions, cultural and generational, quickly close in as Nazneen negotiates between her oafish husband and two modernized daughters. A rebellious affair offers some respite until 9 / 11 rocks the community and forces Nazneen to make an unexpected choice.
35mm, 101 min.

VENUE: Billy Wilder Theater, 10899 Wilshire Blvd. @ Westwood Blvd. (courtyard level of the Hammer Museum)

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