09/02/2014 04:23 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Venice Diaries: Words With Gods (of Cinema) and the Political Outcry Behind Villa Touma

From "The Book of Amos" by Amos Gitai in Words with Gods

What does it mean to be religious in today's world? To me, spirituality is a very personal thing, a one-way conversation with my God, in private. God doesn't answer to a specific name, doesn't preach a specific doctrine, He or She (depending on the day) simply allows for my failures to be a learning experience and helps celebrate my successes.

Yet here we are in a world where religion has become a means to suppress, oppress, kidnap, drive out and kill. It is the rise of the apartheid of belief, where the fundamentalists from various sects have hijacked religion to perform the most heinous acts in the name of their personal god. Acts none of the holy books have ever supported.

Out of these troubled "my god is better than your god" times, rises an incredible film, premiered at this year's Venice Film Festival, out of competition. Words with Gods is produced by Guillermo Arriaga, Alex Garcia and Lucas Akoskin, and features nine short films by Arriaga, Héctor Babenco, Álex de la Iglesia, Mira Nair, Amos Gitai, Emir Kusturica, Hideo Nakata, Bahman Ghobadi and Warwick Thornton. If there ever were gods on earth, these would be mine. Cinema is my religion.

After the film's public screening on Saturday afternoon, in the magnificent Sala Grande of the Biennale, the audience stood for a fifteen minute applause, leaving the filmmakers touched and me, in tears. Apart from the deeply felt connections with each of their gods in their films, these master filmmakers clearly included a part of their soul in their individual segments. Arriaga finally sent us home by yelling "Grazie! Grazie! Grazie!" And gesturing kindly for the audience to go about their day. I could not stop humming the Peter Gabriel soundtrack for hours.

Words with Gods Trailer from PINBALL LONDON on Vimeo.

In the evening, I was once again privileged to spend time with the Theeb crew, thanks to a dinner at the Hotel Quattro Fontane organized by their sales agent Fortissimo Films. If there ever were gods of film sales, I would say Fortissimo is it. Everything they touch turns to gold, probably because their motivation is to fill the world with great cinema, and the business aspect, the monetary gain come last. In a world where it's so rare to find generosity of spirit, this is a company that always does right to my eyes.

At the next table from ours, Venice 71 jury members Tim Roth and Elia Suleiman enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and great food of the hotel's charming al-fresco restaurant.

Bright and early on Sunday morning, I got to sit and talk with a few of the legendary filmmakers who made Words with Gods such a deeply spiritual experience for me. Amos Gitai explained that his short, titled The Book of Amos, uses the original text by his namesake, the prophet Amos. I'll admit I cried from the moment the film started to the very last moment, because the words could have been written today. Amos was a prophet who didn't want to belong to the prophetic guild and was critical of Israel, going as far as calling it "an enemy of God" because guilty of injustice toward the innocent, poor, and young women. The ideas of Amos were, well, prophetic, with God being present in everything man does, good or evil. Peace and war.

From "God Room" by Mira Nair in Words with Gods

Iranian-born Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi was charming and disclosed to me that upon meeting Al Pacino again, here at the festival, he felt like telling him, "I'll gift you the rest of my years, just leave me with two so I can make a film with you." Tell me you don't get the character of this gentle, generous, wonderful filmmaker from that statement!

Mira Nair talked about her beloved Maisha Film Lab in Uganda, a concept founded in 2004, which helps film enthusiasts in East Africa become the filmmakers of the future. Deep admiration to a woman who makes me proud of our gender. And she's always ready to help other up and coming filmmakers, share a laugh and disclose her favorite fashion designers. Her short, God Room, sheds light on the contrast that is India today, where the haves and the have-nots live side by side, and Hindus and Muslims seem to coexist, at least tolerating one another, all bonding over the great Lord Ganesh. For now.

A scene from Suha Arraf's Villa Touma

The afternoon belonged to Suha Arraf's Villa Touma which screened as part of the Settimana della Critica in Venice. While the film has been in the news a lot lately because of the controversy surrounding its funding (by several Israeli film funds) and the filmmaker's choice to brand it Palestinian (a scuffle which Venice smartly avoided by leaving out the country of origin in the catalogue) Villa Touma goes beyond the headlines. Behind the cacophony of "he said, she said, my film fund, your country," Arraf reveals a poetic film about four women caught in a timelessness that is both self-imposed and impossible to escape. While in real life many in the West Bank felt their world collapse in 1967, the women of Villa Touma have found a very unusual solution to this despair, allowing for 1967 to be a thought in the distant... future. It's a panacea that left me, and the rest of the enthusiastic audience, breathless.

So what are my thoughts about the controversy behind the film? Should the Palestinian Arraf have called it a Palestinian/Israeli co-production to avoid issues? Probably. Yet the story is so deeply personal, it's hard to give it any country of origin, truly. And with row after row of Israeli Film Fund and several other Israeli funding organizations making up the opening credits, Villa Touma will find issues everywhere it goes. Even within the open arms of the Arab world, who will love her message but will not know what to do with the first minute of the film.

Yet a nice bit of controversy never hurt anyone and I'm glad to see Al Jazeera and other world media organizations giving this charming, profound film the attention it deserves. Even if for all the wrong reasons.

All images courtesy of the filmmakers, used with permission.