a place for dialogue

megan carrigy applauds the sydney arab film festival

Beirut Diaries

Beirut Diaries

THE SYDNEY ARAB FILM FESTIVAL, MANAGED BY INFORMATION AND CULTURAL EXCHANGE (ICE), EXISTS IN ORDER TO CREATE A CRITICAL SPACE WHERE THE COMPLEXITY AND DIVERSITY OF ARAB EXPERIENCE CAN BE EMBRACED. OBVIOUSLY, THIS IS A VERY IMPORTANT UNDERTAKING WHEN THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA IN AUSTRALIA RELIES UPON AN ARRAY OF PREDOMINANTLY NEGATIVE AND MISLEADING STEREOTYPES. THE FESTIVAL PROVIDES THE OPPORTUNITY TO ENJOY ALTERNATIVE REPRESENTATIONS OF ARAB CULTURE, WITH AN EXPLICIT EMPHASIS ON PERSONAL STORYTELLING AND SELF-REPRESENTATION.

Viewers came out in force for the 2008 festival, making it clear that there is not only a political need for these alternative critical spaces in Australia, but a deep hunger for them. Films serious and whimsical, unashamedly romantic and stridently political were all embraced by sell-out crowds.

The history of the festival itself reveals that this vision has taken shape over a number of years. The first Sydney Arab Film Festival was held in April 2001 over three days at The Roxy Parramatta in association with Casula Powerhouse’s East of Somewhere exhibition. In 2004, ICE hosted A Big Night of Arab Shorts, showcasing local short films by Arab-Australian filmmakers. In 2005, a major event was staged with 48 local and internationally produced films screened across Campbelltown, Parramatta and Bankstown. After a break in 2006, the 2007 festival was held over four consecutive Sundays at Parramatta Riverside Theatres with three international guests and additional forums presented at other venues along with TONE, an exhibition presented by Casula Powerhouse.

The 2008 festival has taken a much more streamlined shape, running over four days in one venue—a strategy that appears to have paid off in terms of attendance and profile.

The festival opened with a sold out Australian premiere of Caramel, a luscious Lebanese and French co-production directed by Nadine Labaki, who also stars in the film. The film traces the complex stories of four friends whose daily lives intersect at a Beirut beauty salon. Recently released in Lebanon and France, Caramel has become the most successful Lebanese film ever to be released in both countries. Nadine Labaki has been named by Variety magazine as Middle East Filmmaker of The Year. Hopscotch will release Caramel in Australia in mid-2008.

Three other feature films screened at the festival. Seventh Heaven, a new feature from Egypt was introduced by festival guest, director Saad Hendawy. His film explores the complex relationship between Bakr, a celebrated but conflicted Sufi dancer, and Hanan, an independent and wealthy single woman who works as a high-class prostitute, previously uncharted territory for the Egyptian cinema.

On an entirely different note, the Tunisian film TV is Coming, directed by Moncef Dhouib, offered audiences a whacky and biting satirical comedy. In the sleepy Tunisian town of el-Malaga, news of the arrival of a German television production sends the town’s cultural committee into a frenzy of cultural production and intense self-censorship.

The festival’s closing night introduced Underexposure, billed as the first Iraqi feature film since the beginning of the war on Iraq and the first uncensored feature film from that country in over a decade. Directed by Oday Rasheed, Underexposure weaves together stories of fictional characters with real footage of the landscape of war-torn Iraq. This strategy worked to highlight the difficulty for filmmakers of even thinking through how to represent what has happened to their country and the difficulty of negotiating the huge volume of televisual imagery that has already come to stand in for their experience.

The closing night also saw the launch of ICE’s Changing Lives project which includes a website that facilitates digital storytelling by young Arab-Australians. The first group of these beautifully crafted digital stories by young Iraqi-Australian women can be found at www.changinglives.com.au.

Two major forums, one on Palestine the other on Lebanon, were presented at the festival, both chaired by Dr Paula Abood. The festival marked the 60th anniversary of “al Nakba”, the Catastrophe of 1948 for the Palestinian people when their land was taken from them. In the first part of the substantial double session—Palestine Films & Forum—Maher Maghrabi, a writer and a journalist for The Age, powerfully worked the metaphor of the wall for the audience in order to introduce a documentary, The Iron Wall. Directed by Mohammed Alatar, it potently illustrated the political significance of the Israeli settlements and outposts that have been built in Palestinian territories and provided a detailed picture of how the ongoing building of the wall is fracturing Palestinian land and people. The film featured interviews with prominent Israeli and Palestinian peace activists and political analysts. The second part of this forum revealed a very different approach to the Palestinian situation in the fictional short film Before the Wind Blows, by Samer Najari. Three young people—a World War II Japanese pilot, a young Lebanese woman during the civil war of the 1980s, and a young Palestinian man from a refugee camp in the Occupied Territories—are each having their portrait taken as they prepare to depart on their respective suicide operations.

The second forum focused on women’s contributions to the Palestinian struggle. It was introduced by Randa Abdel-Fattah, lawyer, writer and author of the acclaimed novel Does My Head Look Big in This? The short film Make a Wish, directed by Cherien Dabis, carefully crafted the graceful story of Miriam, a young Palestinian girl determined to muster together enough money to secretly buy a cake to celebrate the birthday of her missing father. The documentary Women in Struggle, directed by Buthina Canaan Khoury, introduced four Palestinian women who were former political prisoners in Israeli jails and who spoke about their resistance, their experiences in prison as well as their current daily life under occupation.

The equally packed session on Lebanon focused on films made by Australian residents who traveled there, documenting the aftermath of Israel’s 2006 attack. In the short documentary A Wishful Smile, Mirna Nassar explored the experiences of two residents of Qana in southern Lebanon devastated by the bombing of their village. Lebanon Burning, directed by academic and journalist Peter Manning and produced by businessman Mohsen Safieddin, reported on the targeting of civilian factories and infrastructure by Israel. Manning has written Us and Them: A Journalist’s Investigation of Media, Muslims, and the Middle East, examining many of the issues with which the Sydney Arab Film Festival is in dialogue. A major medical supply factory run by Mohsen Safieddin’s family was targeted by the Israeli offensive and obliterated in the attack. It was disappointing to learn at the forum that Lebanon Burning, a story that so far has not been told by the Australian media, has been rejected by both SBS and ABC.

In another documentary session, Beirut Diaries: Truth, Lies and Videos followed the experiences of a young woman who takes part in a downtown Beirut tent camp that served as the physical and emotional heart of the protest movement after the February 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. This feature length documentary, directed by Mai Masri, provided powerful access to the everyday political activism on the streets of Beirut, revealing a wide range of divisions and alliances among young people concerned about the future of their nation.

Professor Ghassan Hage had launched the festival with a beautiful, strong speech that emphasised the importance of the event as a space where positive identity formation and dialogue can take place, perhaps in a way similar to the hopes of the tent camp in Beirut Diaries. The power of film, in particular, as a medium that can, as Hage describes it, help us pull ourselves together, was certainly exemplified by the success of this year’s festival.

It’s exciting to see the Sydney Arab Film Festival truly start to come into its own in 2008 as the result of years of grassroots community activism. The vision, the hard work, the hopes and the dreams of the organising committee are clearly beginning to pay off.

2008 Sydney Arab Film Festival, festival directors Fadia Abboud, Mouna Zaylah, organising committee Firas Naji, Phillip George, Alissar Gazal, Mohamed Duar, Paula Abood, Khaled Sabsabi, Fatima Mawas; Information and Cultural Exchange, Parramatta Riverside Theatres, April 10-13

RealTime issue #85 June-July 2008 pg. 21

© Megan Carrigy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2008