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CIFF: Short Films from the Middle East

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 18, 2012 4:00PM

This is part of Chicagoist's coverage of the Chicago International Film Festival.

2012_10_18_CIFF_MiddleEast.jpeg You might expect any remnants of the Arab Spring blowing in from Syria to be rather hot, but Bassam Chekhes’s Waiting For P.O Box (Falastein, Sandouk Al Intezar Lil Burtuqal) plays it very cool. Chekhes was the first Syrian director to be selected for competition at Cannes, and his stylish, intriguing short, a clever portrayal of two filmmakers' anxious dreams as they worry about funding their film, more than justifies the honor.

Waiting For P.O Box is among the highlights from the Chicago International Film Festival's Middle East Shorts program, one of seven shorts programs studding the fest's schedule. These shorts programs are one of the smartest bets at CIFF, like tasting menus to hedge one's bets when commitment to a single entree can seem risky. This one is even more attractive because getting multiple perspectives on both the commonalities and the particularities of cultures we too often only encounter via the business end of a cable news camera is a strong tonic against insularity and closed-mindedness.

It is not just medicine, though, as this selection both transports and entertains. Jordanian filmmaker Said Najmi's 15-minute portrait of a Bedouin family, Wojoh (Faces), mesmerized us. Though the desert landscape of Petra is a stunning and pacific backdrop, neither the family’s daily life nor their decision about whether to abandon a traditional way of life and move into the nearby town strike us as very easy.

Israeli director Shay Levi's Hazara (Return) showcases the most memorable performance of the bunch. Tom Hagi plays a young man trying to fit back into his life after a mental breakdown. Struggling to relate to his family and find his place in society, Hagi conveys the weight of an ominous burden with an admirably economic performance. When he finds someone to whom he feels able to communicate freely, his expressions betray a relief we could not help but share.

This is London (Huna London), a Bahraini short about the difficulty of two bickering parents in getting the perfect photo of themselves to send to their son, is a more lighthearted effort from Mohammed Rashed BuAli. In Cafe Regular-Cairo, director Ritesh Batra cleverly sets up a clash between modern relationships and traditional values as a couple has a frank and revealing conversation. Also on the program: TSTL/King Lost His Tooth (Lebanon), Under the Colors (Iran) and Land of the Heroes (Belgium/Iraq).

The 126 minute Spotlight Middle East - Shadows and Light shorts program screens Saturday, October 20th at 3:45 p.m. Tickets are $14 ($11 with a discount). tickets are available online. There is also a panel discussion on film-making in the Middle East today at 2 p.m.