Arab Film Fest Spotlights Under-Exposed Genre
The Arab Film Festival concluded Sunday after more than a week of screening works by filmmakers from across the Middle East and North Africa.
More than 40 films – from features to animated shorts – showed to audiences in five cities in California, including Berkeley and San Francisco.
The festival - now in its sixteenth year, and its sixth in Los Angeles – aimed to showcase the talents of Arab filmmakers as well as plots and characters that typically get short shrift in the Hollywood studio system.
“Arab filmmakers are still innocent,” said the coordinator for the Los Angeles segment of the festival, Mike Chaanine. “There’s not yet an emphasis on commercial films and the filmmakers have not been tainted by the studios.”
The event was also an opportunity to elevate the work of Arab actors, who are typically limited to roles that align with Western stereotypes, said Chaanine.
“Arab actors are…casted as cab drivers, terrorists or liquor store owners,” said Chaanine.
Prominent Arab and Arab-American artists are involved in the Arab Film Festival, with Kathy Najimy (Sister Act I, Veronica’s Closet), Tony Shalhoub (Monk), and poet Naomi Shihab-Nye all sitting on the festival’s advisory board.
At the opening of the Los Angeles outpost of the festival on Friday, the most prominent Arab actor present also served as the night’s emcee. Haaz Sleiman, who gained fame as Edie Falco’s gay colleague Mo-Mo in the Showtime series Nurse Jackie, introduced the night’s centerpiece film, Man Without a Cell Phone, with remarks that referenced the xenophobia that burdens Arabs in the United States. Sleiman framed the freighted portrayals of Arabs as an opportunity for community building.
“The black-and-white depiction of Arabs in the media today….is forcing us Arabs to connect among each other,” said Sleiman.
Seeking distributors or buyers for the films was thus not a priority for the festival, despite its location at the Writers’ Guild Association Theatre in Beverly Hills.
Although the festival was in the cradle of the film industry, the players were absent, noted Sydney Levine, a blogger at IndieWire and longtime observer of the domestic and international film scene.
“This is a grassroots community-building event,” said Levine, who lauded the five-city tour of the festival.
“It’s very progressive,” said Levine. “Toronto, Berlin and Sundance are all adopting this rotating model.”
Man Without a Cell Phone, written and directed by Sameh Zoabi, built on the night’s theme of community-building with a slice-of-life tale about a Palestinian village in Israel. In Zoabi’s feature debut, a curmudgeonly father rails against a cellphone tower as his son searches for love – among Jewish, Christian and Muslim girls – with his cellphone as a compass. The film elevates the mundane and absurd to deliver satire and humor, no small feat for a film set at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Much of the humor in Man Without a Cell Phone – rooted in the idiosyncrasies of Arab families and habits of the shebab, or young single Arab men – might fly over the heads of some audiences, but that’s ok, said some festival-goers. Merely showcasing works by filmmakers is “important,” said Carolfrances Likins, a screenwriter and activist.
“These films have the power to help us get over our fears of our natural ally,” said Likins, who has attended the festival annually since 2008.
The issue is not one of politics, but rather, audience preference, said Mitchell Block, a professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and a jury member at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“Non-English language movies don’t do well in America,” said Block. “It doesn’t matter what language its in; Americans like English language movies.”
Block added that blockbusters are favored over art house flicks.
“American audiences like 100 million dollar, 150 million dollar action pictures,” said Block.
The challenges facing Arab filmmakers in the United States are no less operative in the Middle East and North Africa, where a larger potential audience exists, but accessing that market proves difficult.
In the Arab world, movie theaters are few and inconvenient, even banned altogether in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Piracy is also rampant and inexpensive, disincentivizing the more expensive cinema ticket, and films arrive later than other countries and show for less time, as in Pakistan, where Block said films have a one-week release. Although the Arab world is united by the Arabic language, each of the 22 countries has unique dialects and customs, further adding to the list of barriers.
Yet growing investment – including ImageNation, an Abu Dhabi-based production company behind The Help and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – along with the opening of institutions like Jordan’s Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, a partner of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, are laying the foundation for Arab cinema, buoying the hopes of Arab filmmakers.
“At some point there will be production companies in the MENA region to turn profits with filmmaking skills,” said Chaanine.