By Azhar Sukri
A film festival in India's capital this week highlights many social and political themes of a rapidly changing Asia - and offers a window into an Islamic world that's rapidly gaining the international community's attention. The festival's most talked-about debuts include "Today and Tomorrow," the first feature film made in Saudi Arabia. The Osians-Cinefan 8th Festival of Asian Cinema, running through July 23 in New Delhi, comes as India is still reeling from one of its worst terrorist attacks.
Eight bombs tore through Bombay commuter trains on July 11, killing 182 people and injuring 800 more. Predominantly Hindu India has pointed a finger of blame at Islamic militants fighting New Delhi's rule in part of the divided Himalayan territory of Kashmir, part of which is controlled by Pakistan. The long-time rival countries both claim all of Kashmir.
But despite the Bombay attacks, or perhaps partly because of them, interest in the festival's Arabic section is particularly high this year, organisers and film directors said.
"Arabesque came into being three years ago, and that section is getting more important each year," said festival director Aruna Vasudev. "Not only because of the prevailing political situation, but also because we feel that Arabic cinema is going to be the next thing to hit world cinema."
Audience numbers were not immediately known Monday night, but Vasudev said there were 300 filmmakers, journalists and other film industry attendees _ double the number at last year's event. While still small compared to other major Asian film festivals like the one in Busan, South Korea, Osians-Cinefan has become an important event on India's independent movie calendar. India's Hindi-language film industry based in Bombay has become the visible face of Indian cinema with its well-known song-and-dance spectacles.
However, the country has a long tradition of making and watching non-commercial films by independent producers.
"Today and Tomorrow," directed by Toronto-based Palestinian filmmaker Izidore K. Musallam, made its world premier Monday at Osians-Cinefan.
The first feature film made in Saudi Arabia, it also boasts the first Saudi actress to star in a full-length movie. It is billed as a social drama and romantic comedy that poses controversial questions about the social oppression of women in Saudi Arabia, their secret romances and the assertion of their identity, according to a festival news release.
Also showing at the festival is Ahlaam or "Dreams," directed by Iraq-born Mohamed Al-Daradji, 29. The film is a harrowing account, said to be based on actual events, of the run-up to the U.S.-led coalition's 2003 invasion of Iraq seen through the eyes of the occupants of a Baghdad mental hospital. First shown in Dec. 2005, it received critical acclaim at European and U.S. festivals. It compares the harsh realities of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime with the power vacuum created after its fall.
"For me, I am against any war, in any place. Because for me, war is the language of the animals," Al-Daradji told The Associated Press.
He said it was hard to say whether Saddam's regime, accused of multiple crimes against political and other prisoners, was more brutal than militants now bent on destabilizing the U.S.-backed post-war government.
"Brutal is brutal, each one in different ways," Al-Daradji said.
In other sections, the festival pays tribute to Hong Kong auteur Stanley Kwan with a six-film package including Centre Stage, and his latest venture, Everlasting Regret.
Apart from Today and Tomorrow, nine other films premiere at the New Delhi festival. Naseerudin Shah, an icon of Indian commercial movies, makes his directing debut in What if? The film links the fate of four people from dissimilar backgrounds who are involved in the same accident.