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Tribeca Film Festival Puts Spotlight on Middle Eastern Cinema - 2004-05-11

More than 200 feature films, documentaries and short films from nearly 40 countries made the third Tribeca Film Festival in New York as adventurous and diverse as the host city.

Actor Robert de Niro and several business partners launched the Tribeca Film Festival in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Their aim was to bring the area surrounding Ground Zero, the former site of the World Trade Center, back to life. Now in its third year, the festival has blossomed into a major international event, offering something for everyone - from political documentaries and screen dramas to panel discussions, a family festival, a street fair, even outdoor films at a theater by the Hudson River.

The ideal festival is a big tent open to all, says Peter Scarlet, the festival's executive director.

?We have films made by people up the street, people at the other side of the world,? he said. ?We also have films made by filmmakers in their 90s and filmmakers in their teens and that's because this is such an international city. People come here from all over the world. It is the crossroads for cinema, as it is the crossroads for the world and has been for hundreds of years.?

This year, during the first nine days of May, audiences had a chance to see a vast range of films, with an emphasis on Middle Eastern filmmakers. According to Mr. Scarlet, the festival is making a special effort to introduce Middle Eastern films to Americans.

?I think, in part because of 9/11, I always felt it important to bring films here from the Middle East,? he added. ?We had the first two films from Afghanistan ever shown in the competitive festival last year. This year we have three programs from Iraq, including the first two documentaries shot in Iraq since the fall of Saddam.?

Iranian-American filmmaker Yassamin Maleknasr praised the festival's attempts to broaden people's understanding of the world. She brought along a documentary shot in Afghanistan, in which she tried to show the country through different lenses.

?When you say Afghanistan, people only think of one thing - the Taleban, the Kalashnikov, the burka and the desert,? she said. ?I passed these images, because I wanted to say, "Look, there is something more."

Yassamin Maleknasr says other countries and nationalities are often seen only through the stereotypes created by the media. Ms. Maleknasr says that because she was educated in the United States, young people in Iran often ask her, "What is America like?" She says they think it is only MTV, Hollywood, red carpets and celebrities, as they have seen in the movies and television.

?They don't know you work 14 hours a day to make a living,? she added. ?So, I think we just have images and I think media needs now to play a much more important role than before and documentaries can be a great help in this, to show the real image about ourselves, to show a different image. I think there is a great human thing in Americans and in Iranians and in Europeans. We all have hearts. We all have mind. We fall in love, we cry, and we care for the same things. Maybe we should just wash our eyes and try to see one another.?

One of the most powerful films at this year's festival, the winner for the best documentary, was the Israeli-Dutch co-production Arna's Children. The Israeli director, Juliano Mer Khamis, tells a very personal story. In his youth he spent several years working with a children's theater group set up by his mother, Arna, as part of an alternative education system in the occupied West Bank. Two years ago, after his mother died, he returned to find out what happened to the boys.

?Unfortunately, I discovered that one of them became a suicide bomber,? he said. ?One of them was leading a resistance group against the Israeli army and was killed. One was killed during the filming, on camera. Three of them are buried under the ruins. We haven't found them until today. The last boys died during the shooting of the film. The last one of the group died three months ago, just a few minutes before the first screening of the film.?

The Israeli director was truly surprised by the reaction of the New York audience. Mer Khamis feared a negative response because the film deals with terrorism and was shown just steps from Ground Zero. However, he got the opposite, three full houses and heated but informed debates.

?I am touring with the film around the world,? he said. ?This is the biggest surprise. I thought, I come to New York and the movie is going to be shown to three or five people and I am going to have some good times in New York. But, hey, if there is something during this tour that surprised me and encouraged me and empowered me, it was the last screening in New York.?

According to The New York Times, in just three years the Tribeca Film Festival has become one the fastest growing cultural institutions in New York and will most likely be a major player in the new downtown cultural center planned at Ground Zero.