At last year’s festival, there was a minor contretemps over the last-minute removal of Vatche Boulghourjian’s Noble Sacrifice, a short documentary about the Ashura observances of Shiites in Lebanon. The film is a bloody affair, with images of men streaming through city streets bleeding from voluntarily received scalp wounds.
But the gore wasn’t what made the festival finally balk at showing the film. Rather, it was the film’s thesis that the Ashura celebrations have been hijacked by Lebanese Islamist groups in order to justify “martyrdom” operations. After local academics raised objections to the linkage, and with bombs falling on Baghdad at the time, festival director Nancy Buirski pulled the film on the eve of the festival, citing political sensitivities. She did, however, assure festival-goers that the film would resurface at another time.
On Friday at 11 a.m. at the Durham Arts Council, Noble Sacrifice will receive its belated screening–with the 28-year-old director in attendance, alongside several area experts on the topic: Miriam Cooke and Negar Mottahedeh of Duke and Ja’far Muhibullah.
A year later, the political climate is quite different–at least in this country. The war planners’ shock and awe optimism of a year ago has given way to the long, hard slog. Former Bush aides blow whistles while Spanish voters punish their Bush-toadying leadership. The world is, if anything, more dangerous nowadays–just ask any Palestinian man under 40 or any U.S. soldier on patrol in Baghdad–but the intellectual and political climate has become safer for criticism, skepticism and adventurous inquiry, and safer for the humble, 40-minute Lebanese documentary Noble Sacrifice.
Another relevant development is a cinematic one. Another film that features the fetishization of mortified flesh has been released since Noble Sacrifice was escorted back to Lebanon a year ago. That film, of course, is The Passion of the Christ, which just recently passed the $300 million barrier in box office revenues.
The irony isn’t lost on Boulghourjian, who terms it “overwhelming” in a recent e-mail. However, he goes on to write, “But I’m sure also that the differences are many, not just in terms of production but also between what he attempts to achieve and what I try to achieve.” In the year since the war on Iraq started, Boulghourjian has made several trips to Iraq to work on new projects unrelated to Ashura.
“Funny enough,” Boulghourjian writes, “now that the Shia of Iraq represent a sizable political force and will not accept [subjugation] under a new U.S.-sponsored constitution (since they are by far the majority in the country), suddenly everyone is interested in Shiism and how religion can be politicized.”