THE BLOG
04/11/2011 05:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2011

Tribeca Film Fest 2011: Shakespeare, Wisdom and Love in the Arab World

2011-04-10-Grandma_A_Thousand_Times_2.JPG The task of deciding what films to watch at the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival can be downright overwhelming. I find myself putting off going through the screening list until a time when I think my mind will be free of anxiety and focused, which turns out to be never, be it that I live in chaotic NYC. Scrambling last minute to fill my iCal, I can't admit to even being close to somewhat organized. But what I am instead is thematically focused, my interests always pointing to the Arab world and to their love for the good life, great food and yes, Shakespeare. I can't be the only one who's noticed that several leaders in the Region today bear more than a slight resemblance to the Bard's villainous Richard III?

This year's TFF line-up offers some incredible treats for those interested in traveling the world through the cinematic lens. A great mixture of documentaries, narrative features and shorts offer glimpses into such diverse topics as an American mother's search for her adult gay son disappeared in Austria in Gone, post-Apartheid elections in South Africa as witnessed by a group of young photojournalists in the Tribeca Films release The Bang Bang Club, the plight of three Roma (Gypsy) children who become the pioneer participants in a government effort to integrate the segregated Romanian school system in Our School and the politics of greed that accompany child marathon prodigy Budhia, plucked from the slums of India and catapulted into his countrymen's hearts and instant fame in Marathon Boy.

Yet with all the recent uprisings in the Region and the Palestinian struggle seeing a renaissance in importance due to some less than subtle pressure from Iran, this edition of TFF seems to belong to the many Arab documentaries and Middle Eastern films featured in the festival. Always at the forefront of the movement that looks towards the Orient (eastward) for meaning and guidance in dealing with our ever-expanding world, the folks at Tribeca Film Fest have again outdone themselves through their challenging selections and provocative subjects. It is an undeniable fact that if we wish to prosper in the future we will need to interact more with our counterparts in the Middle East, and great artists like TFF founder Robert De Niro and now Kevin Spacey -- with his upcoming Middle East Theater Academy -- understand that and are leading the way.

Speaking of Spacey, as executive producer he brings to the festival a documentary directed by Alex Rotaru titled Shakespeare High. Following the principle taught to him by mentor Jack Lemmon, Spacey never misses a chance to "send the elevator back down", helping those who are still at the start of their career. While the Southern California teens portrayed in the film face poverty, the threat of neighborhood gangs and a lack of appropriate role models, they do find a way to spread their wings through the annual So Cal Shakespeare Festival, reminding the audience of the importance of the arts in a successful society. For those who may be wondering how a film about Shakespeare fits in a list about the Arab world, Spacey's first play scheduled for the Region is rumored to be Richard III, while acclaimed Kuwaiti playwright Sulayman Al-Bassam will bring to BAM in October his modern reinterpretation of Twelfth Night, titled The Speaker's Progress which eerily mirrors the current struggles in Syria and Libya. Shakespeare will always be alive and well in the Arab world, as long as dictators and miscellaneous tyrants abound.

Koran By Heart is another must-see. In the spirit of Spellbound and Liz Mermin's Team Qatar -- the latter shown at TFF in 2009 -- the documentary follows kids from Muslim countries as far and wide as Tajikistan and the Maldives who descend on Cairo for the annual preeminent Koran-recitation competition. As much a study in each child's life as an inspirational competition film, the documentary directed by Greg Barker is an enlightening must-see but also promises to melt hearts in the process.

Cairo Exit (El Korough) is an Egyptian co-production with the UAE. Directed by Hesham Issawi, the film deals with an impossible romance in Cairo, between a Muslim man and a Coptic Orthodox Christian woman. Issawi's film is important in drawing awareness to the complicated class and religious structures which exist within the Arab world and are perhaps even more incomprehensible than we think.

A "Tribeca Talks: After the Movie" presentation of Grandma, A Thousand Times by Mahmoud Kaabour is another event not to be missed. A chance to hear the director speak about his charming 2010 DTFF Audience Award Winner for Best Documentary and making movies in the Middle East, the film and following talk are hosted by the Doha Tribeca Film Festival.

Finally, there are two films in this edition of TFF which redefine love in the modern, Arab world. If the revolution in Egypt was started on Facebook, then it's not unlikely that a woman, exiled in Paris by her political beliefs, would live life and romance through Twitter and YouTube. That is the basic premise in David Dusa's Flowers of Evil (Fleurs du Mal) about the Iranian student Anahita and her love story with Gecko, an Algerian bellman and parkourer. Talk about modern, I had to look the word "parkourer" up, which made me feel ancient, of course!

And last, but not least, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as seen through the eyes and hearts of Jasmin and Assi, newlyweds living in exile because of their modern Romeo and Juliet love story. In the documentary Love During Wartime Jasmin is Israeli and Assi a Palestinian while Gabriella Bier directs this true-to-life story promising to put new meaning to the biggest political struggle in the world today.

It's impossible to end this piece any other way but to honor slain 2004 TFF Best Documentary director Juliano Mer-Khamis. He was shot dead on April 4th by a masked gunman in front of his beloved achievement, The Freedom Theater in Jenin. Within the speculations and accusations from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides of this conflict that made Mer-Khamis yet another irreplaceable martyr, we find unmistakable proof that art is too often made the scapegoat of politics.

As Palestinian journalist and Miral writer Rula Jebreal said in a statement mourning the loss of her friend "To me, Juliano was a true humanitarian and artist, who used theater as a tool to help children in a war zone salve their wounds. He embodied the possibility of coexistence and forgiveness. Juliano's vision for peace and justice will live on in his work, and he will continue to be an inspiration for us all." And with the films at this year's TFF, that vision and inspiration will hopefully live on.

The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 20th through May 1st in NYC. Single tickets begin to go on sale Tuesday, April 12th.

Photo courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival and Image.net