Middle Eastern directors tout films at Venice

Aractingi's 'Bombs,' 'Gitai's 'Disengagement' vie for attention

VENICE — Hollywood fired the opening shots of its campaign to bring the war in Iraq and on terror to U.S. auds with the Venice world preems of Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” and Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah.” Meanwhile, Middle Eastern helmers battled to have their own voices heard in the debate.

Lebanese helmer Philippe Aractingi’s “Under the Bombs,” about a Lebanese mother’s search for her young son during last year’s war with Israel, and Israeli helmer Amos Gitai’s “Disengagement,” starring Juliette Binoche in the story of an Israeli family’s struggles during the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, both vied for attention at this year’s fest. The two American pics, the first of a slew of Mideast related films set for release in the coming months, bowed in the official competition. “Disengagement” screened as a late addition to the out-of-competition Masters section, and “Under the Bombs” featured in the Venice Days sidebar.

Aractingi’s pic, partly shot during last year’s hostilities, received a lengthy standing ovation following its Lido bow. Gallic sales agent Memento is handling international sales, and Mideast rights have been picked up by Lebanon’s Planete, which will co-distribute with Aractingi’s shingle Fantascope. “Under the Bombs” will open in Lebanon in December on eight prints, with a rollout elsewhere in the Mideast to follow.

“It is very important for us to be a part of this conversation,” said Aractingi. “Our problems in the Middle East concern the rest of the world. I was amazed when I went to the States by how many American people were talking about the Iraqi problem while there were no Iraqis talking about their own country.” The desire to get people talking in America is high on the agenda for De Palma and Haggis, who are both highly critical of the U.S. media’s reporting of the war. Though both films deal with Iraq and its bloody aftermath, the helmers have followed different paths.

“Redacted” is set almost entirely in Iraq, with Jordanian locations doubling up for Samarra, as the pic follows a platoon of U.S. troops. Shot on digital in a faux video diary style, De Palma’s harrowing film includes scenes of Iraqi civilians mowed down by American armory, U.S. troops blown to pieces by a roadside explosive device and beheaded by insurgents, as well as a shocking nightvision setpiece that features the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl by two drunk U.S. soldiers who kill her family. Pic’s title refers to the Army’s policy of blacking out passages from soldiers’ letters to and from home.

“Everything in the movie is based on things that happened, but one of the difficulties in making the film was navigating through the legal issues. We were forced to fictionalize things that were actually real. Even with the montage (of photos showing actual Iraqi civilians killed during the war), we weren’t allowed the dignity of showing the faces of the people. The great irony of ‘Redacted’ was it was also redacted,” De Palma said.

Haggis opts for a subtler and probably more audience-friendly approach. His tale of an ex-military policeman (Tommy Lee Jones) searching for his son after he goes AWOL on his return from Iraq is aimed squarely at America’s heartland, with a cast including Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon.

Pic got early backing from Clint Eastwood, who shopped the script to Warners in 2003 at the height of President Bush’s popularity and before public opposition to the war had grown.

“I think it was very important for me to tell the story from a nonpartisan point of view,” Haggis said. “We’re all as guilty straight across the board. We all supported this, and even those of us who didn’t are just as responsible because we let it occur.”

Ironically, all four helmers are anticipating controversy in their own countries. Haggis has already been attacked by conservative websites, while Gitai saw a deal with Israeli pubcaster Channel 1 to buy TV rights to his back catalog nixed after board members complained about his “leftist” politics.

“I think that the best thing someone can do for the country he loves, his own country, is to be critical,” Gitai said. “For me, being critical is being compassionate. It means that you want things to get better. Strong cultures don’t need cheap PR.”

Gitai has received a boost from the Haifa Film Festival, which selected the pic as its opener, a first for an Israeli film. Fest runs Sept. 27-Oct. 4.With a slew of Iraq war films set to open by the end of the year, including “The Kingdom,” “Rendition,” “Lions for Lambs” and “Charlie Wilson’s War,” it remains to be seen whether auds worldwide get combat fatigue.

If the early reaction to “Redacted” and “Elah” is anything to go by, however, auds will be hard-pressed to avoid the tough questions asked by these films.

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