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Tribeca Film Festival Focuses on Middle East


The five-year-old Tribeca Film Festival has quickly established itself as a showcase for international films and documentaries.

Filmmakers from more than 40 nations were represented at the 2005 Festival. Documentaries explored topics from tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka to the takeover of a Russian school by Chechen rebels, a U.S.-Russian co-production narrated by movie star Julia Roberts.

Films about the Middle East figured prominently in the festival's documentary section. Not surprising, says Peter Scarlet, the executive director of the Film Festival.

"The Tribeca Film Festival was born five years ago as a direct response to the events of September 11th," he said. "And so ever since films from the Middle East have played a major part in our programming. We are very happy that once again this year we have new films from Iran, from Egypt, from Lebanon, from Saudi Arabia, from Morocco. I think the festival has become an important window for Americans, and for New Yorkers in particular, into the Islamic world and into the Middle East in particular."

Several of the documentaries are from Iran, dealing with subjects as diverse as transsexuals and underground rock and rap artists. Another batch of filmmakers, including Americans, look at Iraq. The War Tapes is based on 800 hours of footage filmed by three U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq. Producers hope the film will have wide appeal because the three soldiers have differing points of view about the war.

When I Came Home examines the life of an Iraqi war veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress and lives in his car.

Encounter Point follows ordinary Palestinians and Israelis working for reconciliation and an end to violence. In this scene a Palestinian who has lost his brother to violence, talks with a former Israeli settler.

The film crew spent 16 months following members of groups advocating non-violence. Encounter Point Director Ronit Avni says the film team made a conscious decision not to include political figures, but, instead, to focus on ordinary people.

"I feel that the longer you are involved in this issue, the more you realize that politicians come and go, but that what is happening on the ground is constant, in fact in some ways growing," he said. "There are more and more people saying we are not going to leave it to the politicians. Civil society is getting somewhat cautiously sometimes cynically activated. This is the story that is not being told. That is the running thread of optimism that I sense."

Robi Damelin, one of the participants, joined the Bereaved Families Forum after her son, an Israeli soldier, was killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2002.

"Really this work has nothing to do with politics," she said. "There are much more brilliant people than us who can give you Middle Eastern interpretations. You will find politicians, you will find experts from Harvard, no doubt, who all know what the answer is. It is not only that we live there. It is that we work on the ground and that is very different."

Ali Abu Awwad became active with the Bereaved Families Forum after his brother was killed by an Israeli soldier.

"To see the film feels like somebody took the truth and gave it to the people," he explained. "It was so clear. It was so clean. It was so deep. It was so emotional and so right."

Previews and the world premiere of Encounter Point sold out during the festival. Director Avni says she was bracing for a variety of responses.

"We had a very diverse community of Arabs, Jews, Israelis, Palestinians and just the general public," he added. "Overwhelmingly, people were quite moved. I think also very delighted to meet the film subjects themselves."

Festival director Peter Scarlet hopes that films help Americans broaden their view of the world.

"I always believe that knowledge helps bridge gaps," he said. "There still is insufficient information about the cultures of certain parts of the world in this country and I hope the Tribeca Film Festival does something once again to repair that."

International influence at the festival is not limited to documentaries. There are dozens of feature movies, including the largest budgeted films ever from China and Egypt. The festival offers audiences a panorama of foreign films to open their eyes to the world beyond.

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