Middle East huge for Sundance

Fest to feature four films from region

BEIRUT — Palestinian hip-hop, tall tales in Jordan, the gritty realities of war in Lebanon and a pair of star-crossed lovers straddling the Arab-Israeli divide. The Sundance Film Festival has lined up a record number of films from the Middle East for its Park City outing in 2008.

“It’s an exciting time for film in that part of the world,” says Alesia Weston, associate director of the international feature-film program at Sundance and creative director of the Sundance Institute’s 4-year-old screenwriting lab in Jordan, run jointly with the country’s Royal Film Commission. “And it’s not just politically earnest films. There’s a lot of creativity bubbling up.”

There are three features and one documentary from the region competing in the World Cinema Competition at Sundance, an initiative that splintered off the domestic competition in 2005. That’s double the number of Middle Eastern films at Sundance in 2006 and 2007. Last year’s festival included two Israeli films, Shimon Daton’s “Hot House” and Adama Meshugaat’s “Sweet Mud.”

In 2006, Lebanese director Jocelyne Saab’s “Kiss Me Not on the Eyes,” about love, lust and longing in contempo Cairo, went head to head with Yoav Shamir’s “5 Days,” from Israel.

This year, the selection is not only larger but more varied.

Amin Maltaqa’s “Captain Abu Raed,” from Jordan, is a rumored favorite going in with its human story of an airport janitor who spins wild stories of elaborate adventures for an audience of youngsters who mistake him for a pilot.

French-Lebanese filmmaker Philippe Aractingi is following up his debut “Bosta” with “Under the Bombs,” a more sober tale from his war-torn country. The Israeli filmmaking team of Erez Tadmor and Guy Nattiv delves into the lives of an Israeli man and a Palestinian woman who have a passionate affair during the 2006 World Cup soccer finals in Germany for “Strangers.”

Mahmoud al-Massad’s “Recycle,” about the mounting frustration of a family man living in the rundown Jordanian city of Zarqa, which also happens to be the hometown of late Islamist militant Al-Zarqawi, is competing in the international documentary category.

As 2008 marks Jordan’s first blip on the Sundance radar, it seems that the country’s push to establish a major film industry to rival Morocco and Egypt on one side, Dubai and Abu Dhabi on the other is paying off.

But filmmakers are a notoriously feisty lot. Al-Massad, a graduate of one of the screenwriting labs at Sundance, says: “What Sundance gave me I’ve never had in my life. They are interested in you as an artist.”

While Al-Massad says he looks forward to the day a film can be made from start to finish in Jordan without outside financing or expertise, he is a bit wary about contributing to a national film culture, one being spearheaded, after all, by Jordan’s king.

“I don’t want to have the perspective of the government,” he says, “the government of any country.”

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