THE 12TH ARAB FILM FESTIVAL
Universal themes of home and family resonate in more than 20 films by Arabs and Arab Americans
By Lianna Matt
In the Palestinian documentary, “Gaza Surf Club,” you see the ocean waves rolling into the sand underneath an overcast sky, and you know there are people heading out there. “Gaza is nothing without the beach,” says a man to the camera. “It’s the only escape for people.”
There are more than 20 other films in the lineup for the 12th Twin Cities Arab Film Festival, presented by Mizna and the MSP Film Society. Similar to “Gaza Surf Club,” a majority of them touch on refugees, revolution, occupation and diaspora because that’s what life is in the Middle East. However, that is not all life is. From Sept. 27-Oct. 1, Arab American and Arab film artists share a bit of what their worlds look like—and what they could look like—in the most tragic, funny, beautiful and universal ways.
Opening on the first night at the Walker Art Center, the festival moves to St. Anthony Main Theater for its remaining four days. Besides a couple of short film-specific slots, such as one called, “Unfamiliar Scenes,” featuring child protagonists and the first film in the Nubian language, the festival has also peppered in discussions with four film directors, including a feature on Hisham Bizri and his short films as well as a free, catered roundtable discussion Oct. 1.
The Twin Cities Arab Film Festival is one of the largest and longest running of its kind in the nation, second only to California. While we've tried to categorize this year's lineup of Minnesota debuts, be warned. Just because a film is under the heading “Music” doesn’t mean it’s only about music, and when we put a movie under the “war” category, don’t expect “Saving Private Ryan.” You’ll get something much richer.
Home and family are the two biggest themes in the festival lineup, and they are difficult, perhaps impossible, to separate. “Burning Hope” shows the creation of family as two young women and a teenage boy cross paths the night President Ben Ali fled Tunisia in 2011, while the drama “House Without Roof” brings together estranged siblings to fulfill their mother’s last dying wish to bury her remains in the Kurdish area of Iraq, next to their father. In its North American debut, “Withered Green” shows the difficulty of following family duty as the protagonist tries to set up her younger sister’s engagement in a system designed for men’s agency. In the film, “Those Who Remain,” a 60-year-old Christian farmer digs in his heels and stays there despite a rapidly dividing region, and in “Go Home” a young woman returns to Lebanon and discovers her home in ruins, ransacked and violated.
A special high school-only screening entitled “New Homes, New Stories” features a collection of Minnesota immigration stories, and the documentary “Stitching Palestine” weaves together the stories of 12 women with their shared art of embroidery. Also set in Palestine is a collection of short documentary stories the festival has entitled, “Dreaming of Palestine.”
Political turmoil and fighting is in the background in many of the movies, but the documentary “Occupation of the Mind: Israel’s Public Relations War with the United States” brings one of the conflicts to the forefront. Through media clips and interviews, the filmmakers examine how the media shaped people’s understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The documentaries continue to queue up with films like “The War Show” and “Nowhere to Hide,” which follows a nurse in Diyala, Iraq, as he works through the Iraq-American war and eventually must flee himself. The longevity of documentary “We Have Never Been Kids” amplifies the heartache; director Mahmood Soliman comes back to a single Egyptian mother and her children after almost a decade has passed since he filmed them for a 2003 documentary, and he shows what happens to a family as the social, political and economic situation around them seems to fall apart surrounding the January 25 Revolution.
Opening night takes place at the Walker Art Center with the film “Tramontane,” a drama about a young, blind musician who is crossing Lebanon trying to find out who he is after he learns his identity card is fake, followed by a free multimedia album release party by local Syrian musician Hello Psychaleppo. Once the festival moves over to St. Anthony Main, viewers can watch a young man struggle to hide his love for music in “Abdullah” or a documentary about the famous Egyptian rock band Les Petits Chats. Nestled among the collection of short films in “Dreaming of Palestine,” is the documentary “The Pianist of Yarmouk,” about the classically trained pianist who performed in the rubble-filled streets of his town.
The films “The Preacher (Mawlana)” and “Much Loved” are very different, but they both question some of the most controversial topics in the world: religion and sex. “The Preacher,” based on the novel of the same name, is about a televised celebrity preacher in Cairo who is pressured from his government to align more with their views. Away from the pious and the bright lights are the protagonists of “Much Loved”: four sex workers in Morocco who rely on each other for survival and the recognition of dignity.
For those who want a love story of the ages, “Listen” flies neatly in, telling the story of a man who is trying to regain the heart of a woman with a different religious and social status through the sound of his voice. “Solitaire” is the classic comedy of bringing home a man the family isn’t expecting—in this version, a Lebanese daughter brings home a Syrian suitor—and “Halal Love (and Sex)” offers humorous and serious portrayals of traditional courting in a modern world.