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by Tifanie Joudeh

This year the Sundance Film Festival featured more films from the Middle East than ever before. During the fest, a panel discussion entitled "On Plurality: The Middle East in Perspective" addressed how these filmmakers provoke thought and understanding on issues such as politics, Islam, culture, youth and religion in the Middle East. Moderator Reza Aslan, author, religion scholar, and NPR commentator; and filmmakers Philippe Aractingi (Under the Bombs), Amin Matalqa (Captain Abu Raed), Guy Nattiv (Strangers), Sabiha Sumar (Dinner with the President), Tanaz Eshaghian (Be Like Others), Mahmoud al Massad (Recycle), and Jackie Salloum (Slingshot Hip Hop) shared their insights and each featured a clip of their films.

The panel opened with a comment by Jackie Solloum (director, Slingshot Hip Hop) that her film was intended to let the "youth speak and not the politicians." Slingshot Hip Hop follows three Palestinian hip hop artists in their struggle to initiate change through music while facing ongoing military attacks, checkpoints and the hardship created by the separation wall between Gaza and Israel.

Captain Abu Raed was filmed in Jordan on location in refugee camps. Writer-director Amin Matalqa remarked, "Through movies we inject some understanding across cultures and we strive to find solutions to the problems." Captain Abu Raed is about an elderly airport janitor who wears a discarded airline captain's hat and entertains a group of children who come to hear about his invented adventures from around the world. While storytelling, Abu Raed discovers the grim realities of these children's lives and tries to make a difference. The film won the World Cinema Dramatic Film Audience Award.

Philippe Aractingi's Under the Bombs was initially planned to be a documentary on the aftermath of 34 days of bombing on Lebanon by Israel. Instead, Aractingi felt a narrative film could be more insightful and appropriate. The film was shot partially during this war and used non-actors in the region to capture real emotion and authenticity. Zeina, desperate to find her family amongst the trauma of war, convinces a cab driver to take her into a heavily affected region of Lebanon. The film presents the audience with the effect of the Israeli/Hezbollah conflict on the Lebanese who ultimately find peace, family, hope and resolution.

While filming Recycle in Zarqa, Jordan, writer/director Mahmoud al Massad commented that, "Some people were friendly and some people were shooting at me." Zarqa is a center point for political Islamists and a town infamous as the birthplace of Abu Musa al Zarqawi. Recycle reveals an invasive view of life and survival in a town known for terrorism and extremism. Recycle was made, in part, because of the support from the Sundance Documentary Lab.

Homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran, however sex-change operations are legal. Iranian transsexual men and women resort to the only option they have in order to avoid shame, humiliation, criminality, and religious oppression. In Be Like Others, cameras follow a doctor who performs sex-change operations and his patients, who go to great lengths to try and conform in a society where its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has announced that there are no homosexuals. Director/producer Tanaz Eshaghian took a "fly on the wall" approach to her filmmaking. She added that the film addresses the idea of homosexuality as being universal and how Iranian transsexuals "deal with a culture that has no tolerance for anyone being different."

The country of Pakistan is embroiled in an unprecedented struggle to create a democracy in an atmosphere of ancient culture, Islamic ideologies and one of the largest growing civilizations in the world. In Dinner with the President: A Nation's Journey, filmmaker Sabiha Sumar is granted a request to attend a family dinner with President Musharraf and his mother. The documentary includes interaction with people from across Pakistan who express views on government, modernization, religion and ethnic loyalties. Sabiha, who has the only independent film company in Pakistan, commented that this film was not only about Pakistan but also about her own struggle to understand the future of her country.

An Israeli man and a Palestinian woman fall in love, when two worlds meet at the World Cup finals in Berlin in Guy Nattiv's Strangers. The struggle between identity, politics, culture and history finds this pair having to confront intimacy vs. Israeli/Palestianian allegiances. Shot in the summer of 2006 amidst real events and improvisational performances, this film, says Nattiv, "leaves a sense of identity in conflict with politics; an escapism from war for people to find hope."

The panel closed by Moderator Aslan stating that over 75% of Middle Easterners are under the age of 35. With such a young generation at hand, the panel expressed the hope that through influence of film one could make a change and help to find peace.

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