The 11th Arab Film Festival

Robert Avila October 18, 2007

The Arab Film Festival, now in its 11th year, is featuring not just 80 movies from 13 countries, but is also including screenings in Los Angeles, a first for a Bay Area-based fest. It’s also increasing its outreach to Bay Area schools and introducing the first annual Noor Awards (cash prizes for outstanding work in features, documentaries, and shorts) to precede the screening of festival centerpiece “Cut and Paste” (the new romantic comedy by acclaimed Egyptian director Hala Khalil) at the Castro Theatre.

Despite the multiple milestones, however, executive director Bashir Anastas insists AFF remains a modest outfit. “People think we are pretty big and we’re not. We just barely moved into a big office this year.” You can see what he means. AFF’s ample but sparsely furnished new digs on Brannan Street do betray a certain paucity and haste, as if a much smaller office were simply plopped down in a corner of the new one. And permanent staff still numbers only four. If the fest bounds ahead, it’s in large part to keep pace with a new and active 11-member board (which Anastas credits with pushing the expansion into Southern California), as well as steadily growing public and filmmaker interest.

“Since we transitioned from a founder-led organization,” notes Anastas, “our attendance has soared. We went from 3000 to 4200 to 6200; we’re looking at 8000 this year, and maybe more. That’s a result of both better organization but also more interest. You can tell not only by the festival but by reading the media, the number of people involved in Arabic Studies programs, and the interest in the Monterey Language Institute. We have received a ton of emails from Monterey and Santa Cruz and that area. That’s all new. We never had that before.” Coupled with this, Anastas confirms “a lot more submissions” from filmmakers.

While AFF continues to rely heavily on submissions, this year (in still another milestone nudging AFF in the direction of big-league players) the organization managed to send artistic director Sonia El Feki to two major international festivals, at Carthage and Cairo. As a result, roughly half the 2007 AFF lineup comes from discoveries made by El Feki amid Arab and international audiences, filmmakers and cineastes, as well as the grapevine buzz these settings foster.

“I’m always in search of films that show a rare aspect that you don’t usually encounter,” says El Feki. “We want to be surprised. It’s not always possible but we try.”

The scrutiny and networking such festival hopping affords seems to have lent quite a few surprises to the 2007 lineup, not to mention an added degree of cohesion and quality that dovetails nicely with AFF’s rising profile generally. A significant number of this year’s films, for example, reflect variously on cinema itself as a crucial form of reflection, communication, self-fashioning, and survival. Leading Moroccan filmmaker (and festival attendee) Moumen Smihi offers one such film in his humane and beautifully made “A Muslim Childhood,” reminiscent of “Cinema Paradiso” in its self-referential homage to the confluence of childhood and cinema in 1950s Tangiers, with a strong undertone suggesting cinema’s duty to voice hidden and suppressed histories, both personal and national.

Opening night’s “Making Of,” from veteran Tunisian filmmaker Nouri Bouzid, exemplifies this overarching theme in even more complex ways. An earthy drama about a rowdy, wayward but gifted break-dancer and social rebel, it stars the impressive and charismatic Lotfi Abdeli (scheduled to attend), who at crucial points breaks character and confronts the director to voice his growing unease with the storyline’s exploration of religion and terrorism (acting in such moments not only as “himself” but, indirectly, as an unofficial representative of the average Tunisian audience member).

In this somewhat arch but pointed manner, Bouzid wrestles with the problem of rebellion, self-expression, and dissent in an era of violent ideologies and authoritarian repression. Indeed, “Making Of” — whose controversial subject matter, together with its Brechtian subversion of its involving naturalistic narrative, caused a considerable stir at its Carthage Film Festival premiere, according to El Feki — is in part its own answer to that dilemma. Cinema, no longer a merely passive experience, presents itself as a forum for critical engagement and democratic dialogue.

In its own way, “VHS Kaloucha” points a similar moral. Nejib Belkadhi’s warmly entertaining and quietly distressing 2006 documentary profiles a 45-year-old Tunisian house painter from the tough but lively town of Kazmet, near the coastal tourist destination of Sousse, who blazes an intrepid path as an action movie filmmaker and star. Having roped friends and neighbors into low-budget productions since the late 1990s, and exhilaratingly bereft of talent, Moncef Kahloucha exudes a certain greatness all the same, well — earning his rep among his Kazmet neighbors, surrounding villages, and an immigrant community abroad longing for contact with the familiar faces and patterns of home.

The doc, with a fine rhythm and light touch, follows its hero as he completes his latest production, “Tarzan of the Arabs.” But Belkadhi’s narrative, unfolding episodically, takes in a whole social panorama with its portrait of Kahloucha. Thus, we start in Italy, where a group of Tunisian ex-pats are gathering to watch the latest VHS tape from Kahloucha, and cracking up to scenes of its filmmaker-star leaping around Kazmet in a leopard-skin loincloth. “It feels real,” says one man, referring to the connection the movie provides with people and life back home. As hard as that may be to believe given Kahloucha’s preposterous forays into the action genre, it is a theme that returns more than once. Kahloucha’s cameraman (who otherwise earns a living taping weddings in Sousse with his VHS Panasonic 3500) explains his boss’s unyielding passion in equally blurring terms: “With him everything’s real. He’d like to play all the parts.”

In an art form and business famous for cynicism, “VHS Kahloucha” effortlessly captures the fun and adventure of making it all up for yourself. Not that it’s always a picnic. Preparing to shoot at a nearby beach, director Kahloucha, unhampered by a working script, is explaining what’s going to happen to his three actresses when a clerk from the adjacent hotel comes over and angrily shoos them away. “I have a permit!” bluffs Kahloucha. (A quick-thinking ruse that, unfortunately, sinks just as quickly upon his inability to produce it.) Clearly finding the presence of men and women together suspicious, the hotel clerk shrieks, “This isn’t a brothel!” The older actress takes umbrage at this, but the clerk stomps off to call the cops as the frustrated film crew retires, undeterred, to another beach.

If the VHS visionary Kahloucha is a model of perseverance (occasionally spilling over into stubbornness and gentle megalomania), his admirably boyish passion and confidence is all the more impressive for being set off against an environment all too easily characterized by frustrated ambitions. There’s a serious backdrop of unemployment, limited opportunity, jail terms, patriarchal privilege, and emigration throughout “VHS Kahloucha,” as the comically innocent violence of Kahloucha’s action movies finds its real-life counterpoint in the frequent street fighting, alcoholism, and petty crime that are ubiquitous facts of life in Kazmet.

The cinema of resistance is perhaps most inextricable from the works, however varied, that come from such centers of conflict as Israel-Palestine and Lebanon. Among the dozen or so Lebanese films on offer, several have directly to do with the recent Israeli invasion and bombing. “Especially the digital works. We have quite a bit of shorts that were in response to, and were filmed during, the conflict in 2006 summer,” says Sonia El Feki, adding that decades of turmoil in that country have left what she sees as an ubiquitous climate of insecurity, even in films whose subject matter ostensibly lays elsewhere.

“The feature films show the latent uneasiness with having war looming every few years. I think that’s what the films are about. Even the vampire film [Ghassan Salhab’s excellent ‘The Last Man’]. It’s this danger. ‘Falafel’ [by Michel Kammoun] as well. [The main character is] out to have a good time, but just the turn of the street and he’s almost going to be in a fight with somebody because of it, just because everybody’s on edge. That’s what I’m understanding from these films. Everybody’s internalized the conflict.”

In this context, the act of filmmaking becomes more than a way of reflecting or interrogating reality; it’s an object itself ripe for contemplation and sublimation. “Some of the shorts are showing how people persevere, want to keep making films and keep living,” notes El Feki. “That’s part of their resistance.”