The Osian Cinefan Asian Film Festival (July 16-25) is in its sixth year and ran an eye-opening sidebar on Arab cinema. The festival's strength of showing Asia's unseen faces and unheard voices was particularly felt in how many Islamic filmmakers have shown their independence in their struggles against state censorship. Philip Cheah reports from New Delhi where the festival ran last week.



Syrian journalist and film critic, Hasan Yousef, thoughtfully scratched his beard when he talked about how his country's censorship works: "They won't officially tell you what is allowed. Nor do they officially tell you what's not allowed. You just don't know."

Oussama Mohammad's
The Stars in Broad Daylight.

Oussama Moham-mad's The Stars in Broad Daylight was made in 1988 and suffered that fate. It was never officially banned or passed. As a result, it was never commercially released and was only shown sporadically in film clubs or to school audiences. Oussama only managed two more films in the next 16 years, The Night (1992) and Sacrifices (2002).

At the 6th Osian Cinefan Asian Film Festival (July 16-25), where it received a rare screening, Hasan Yousef introduced the film and positions it as one of the films of Syrian young cinema and "a film that shows a generation in opposition to the older one. To this day, the film remains as fresh as ever."

The film shows a fairly taboo subject, that of Muslim girls objecting to the arranged marriages that their families subject them to. Already in this debut film, Oussama's sensual cinema is in evidence, a man suckles a cow's udder, a man fondles a sleeping girl's breast while pretending to be asleep himself and the omnipresent obsession with sleeping arrangements.

The film begins with a girl running off on the night of her wedding in protest against the arranged marriage to a deaf man. Her best friend, who is sister to the deaf man, is angry at her friend's rebellious behaviour. Soon she finds herself subject to the same treatment. At the end of the film, she too must decide whether or not to rebel against her family.

Typical of Oussama's films, the themes are layered. The disintegration of the family unit could be a microcosm of society. Could the Syrian censors have worried that the film encouraged individualism in society, a personal rebellion that they fear?

When Oussama introduced his film at Cinefan, he said: "The devils are gnawing at me. My films are born from my dreams and my devils." Oussama himself, is a clear individual. This is why his characters have to suffer so much for their own individuality. In many ways, he destroys any notion of a fundamentalist Islamic cinema. (As Edward Said once pointed out, Christians can be fundamentalist too. - Ed.) He shows that there is a multitude of individual voices from the Islamic world, which we are not hearing often enough.

U-Wei Haji Saari's
Swing My Swing, My Darling.

That aspect of the Islamic individual has been coming across more clearly in cinema. Take U-Wei bin Haji Saari's Swing My Swing High, My Darling (2003), which was also shown in Cinefan. Most foreign film critics fail to see the film's theme of Islam and sexual desire. Many critics write off the film as a poor remake of James M Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice.

But the essence is in the struggle with religious dictates. The spiritual elder comes to advise the protagonist to consider marriage as a way to ward off all gossip of the couple's adultery. It's hypocritical but it's the only way that society will accept their relationship.

The key sequence, which most viewers completely miss, is when the protagonist is in jail. He is shown talking to the religious elder and regretting his crime of passion. When he mentions how desirable the woman is, the elder concurs: "Yes, she is a very lovely woman." It's a very subtle moment, a moment of desire for the religious elder.

Unfortunately, by this time, most viewers have switched off from the film. Perhaps, what is significant about Swing My Swing High is that it is an intensely local film. This probably explains why it is appearing in the Asian festivals more than in the West.

Hanu Khalifa's Staying Awake at Night.

Meanwhile even the Egyptian film, Staying Awake at Night (2003), by Hanu Khalifa, screams about the changing sexual mores. Here four couples are facing relationship problems ranging from the ubiquitous adultery to a woman who craves a more erotic sexual life than her conservative husband can give her. While this subject has been broached in other films, Egyptian film critic, Hisham Abdel Khalek, confirms that it has never been concentrated as the main theme in a single film. For this reason, Staying Awake at Night has been a huge box office hit in the Middle-East. If anything, all these films are crying out about a moral crisis, which is anchored in hypocrisy.

Finally, there is Mohsen Makhmalbaf whose filmmaking family, consisting of wife, Marziyeh, daughters Samira and Hana, and son, Maysam, was given a special tribute at CineFan. Makhmalbaf's filmography suffers a momentary blank. Both Time of Love and The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood, made in 1990, are still banned in Iran. Time of Love, which tells of an adulterous triangle from three different angles, was banned for its moral "ambiguity" on adultery. Whereas Nights on Zayandeh-Rood, which dealt with those who died in the 1979 revolution, was probably deemed too unpatriotic.

The most poignant poetic irony for Makhmalbaf was when the Iranian authorities banned his new film script, Amnesia, earlier this year. The story is about a blind film censor.

Can one say anything more about the kind of censorship plaguing Asian cinema?

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