Three very different films, each putting a face on the complex world of the Middle East, will play on-Island in the coming week. “Precious Life,” about an Israeli effort to save a Palestinian baby, screens Sunday, July 17, at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center as part of its Summer Institute series.
Tuesday, July 19, brings “Poster Girl,” the story of an American veteran from the Iraqi war and her struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to Oak Bluffs’s Union Chapel for the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society’s (MVFS) summer program, along with its companion short, “Iraq, Paper, Scissors.”
“Cairo 678,” a powerful portrait of how Egyptian women are sexually harassed and what they try to do about it comes to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival (MVFF) at the Chilmark Community Center on Wednesday, July 20. Preceding it as part of MVFF’s Cinema Circus is a compilation of children’s animated shorts titled “High and Low.”
In “Precious Life,” Israeli broadcast journalist Shlomi Eldar takes on a “mission impossible.” Muhammad, the four-month-old son of Palestinians Fa-ozi and Ra-ida Abu Mustaffa, has a failed immune system and will die without the bone marrow transplant available in an Israeli hospital.
Mr. Eldar helps bring together the Abu Mustaffas with Israeli Dr. Ray Somech. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, where the Abu Mustaffas live with their four children, makes almost insurmountable the negotiations to get little Muhammad and his parents across the border to the Tel Aviv hospital that can save him.
As the war heats up, unexpected obstacles keep cropping up, and Mr. Eldar’s camera exposes this Palestinian family’s often mixed viewpoints about their Israeli benefactors. At times, the film feels intrusive and exploitative as it explores the vast cultural and socio-economic differences among the principals.
The risks the film takes in allowing that to happen, however, are more than worth it. It puts human faces on a political conundrum. And ultimately the audience will appreciate the complex, poignant, and compelling insights that “Precious Life” offers about the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Robynn Murray, an eloquently emotional spokesperson for Iraqi veterans, tells the story of her struggle with PTSD in Sara Nesson’s “Poster Girl.” She is also, literally, the soldier pictured on “Army Magazine.”
Ms. Murray, a former cheerleader and National Merit Scholar, didn’t seek the role of Army icon. A tough, idealistic 19-year-old, she enlisted, hoping to help people, and ended up as a gunner shooting at civilians including children.
Including occasional segments about Ms. Murray’s military career, the filmmaker, who lived on-Island for six years, keeps her camera firmly but sensitively trained on the veteran’s struggle to piece her life back together. It’s a story the young woman shares with wrenching honesty.
“Poster Girl” succeeds in deconstructing the tough façade that often comes with soldiering and the terrible personal consequences that can result from participating in the violence of war. The film was nominated for a 2011 Oscar as Best Documentary Short, and plans are underway to turn the 38-minute film into the full-length feature it deserves to be.
“Iraq, Paper, Scissors,” Ms. Nesson’s first short, will share screen time with “Poster Girl.” This second documentary short outlines the story of the Combat Paper Project, a series of workshops held across the nation, including at the Grange Hall in 2008.
Developed by two veterans, the workshops demonstrate how soldiers and veterans can cut up their uniforms to make paper, which they use to express artistically their feelings about their military experience. The filmmaker met Ms. Murray at the West Tisbury workshop, and the veteran appears in “Iraq, Paper, Scissors.”
Both Ms. Nesson and Ms. Murray will attend the screening at the MVFS’s new summer venue, the Union Chapel, and answer questions.
Wednesday’s “Cairo 678” at the Chilmark Community Center compresses a series of assaults experienced by three separate Egyptian women into one melodramatic fictional tale about the indignities Middle Eastern women undergo daily. Although the movie will surely anger the audience, the good news is that the film’s women find a way to take action against their oppressors.
The movie, director Mohamed Diab’s first feature, opens in an extreme close-up of Seba (Nelly Karim) as she fashions dolls out of wire and metal with her hands. It then cuts to a scene with the more traditional and working class Fayza (Bushra) on a crowded bus. A male hand gropes her.
At home an angry Fayza rejects her husband’s amorous advances, and when she sees Seba interviewed on TV about an empowerment workshop for women, she scribbles down the address. After six visits to the one-day workshop, Seba confronts Fayza, who like the other attendees denies she’s been harassed sexually, and offers her a needle to retaliate with.
Seba herself is subject to catcalls when she goes jogging, and her husband, a fanatic soccer fan, drags her off to a game. When Egypt wins, Seba is grabbed and groped by the crowd in a scene reminiscent of the incident involving CBS correspondent Lara Logan. Seba’s husband is more upset about the impact of the assault on himself than its effect on his wife, and her own mother advises her to forget the incident.
The third person in “Cairo 678’s” triumvirate of feminists is Nelly (Nahed el Sebai), Egypt’s first stand-up comedienne. After her fiancé Omar, a successful comic, introduces Nelly to the audience, she finds her jokes all fall flat.
Before long, Nelly is grabbed by a man in a pickup truck and dragged down the street. She and her mother chase the perpetrator and bring him to the police station. The officer there tries to persuade Nelly not to bring sexual harassment charges against the perp, but she insists.
Interweaving the incidents happening to these three characters, the filmmaker adds a touch of detective story, as TV news reports on Fayza’s needle attacks on gropers. He also uses a variety of cinematic techniques to create a sense of urgency — fast forwards, sideways shots, blackouts. The result is a vivid representation of how women are treated in this Middle Eastern nation, the rage that it inspires in them, and their struggles to change the culture.
Attending the “Cairo 678” screening will be journalist Elizabeth Rubin. Embedded with troops in Afghanistan while pregnant, this staff writer for The New York Times Magazine has covered the Middle East extensively and was present for the uprisings this winter in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
“Precious Life,” Sunday, July 17, 7:30 pm, M.V. Hebrew Center, Vineyard Haven. $10 suggested donation. For information, see mvsummerinstitute.com.
“Poster Girl” & “Iraq, Paper, Scissors,” Tuesday, July 19, 8 pm, Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs. Note new venue. $10; $7 for MVFS members. Doors open at 7:30. For information, see mvfilmsociety.com.
“Up and Down,” Cinema Circus, Wednesday, July 20, 5 pm, Chilmark Community Center. $10; $5 for MVFF members. For information, see tmvff.org.
“Cairo 678,” Wednesday, July 20, 8 pm, Chilmark Community Center. $14; $7 for MVFF members. For information, see tmvff.org.