Arab Film Festival 2006

Robert Avila September 7, 2006

The Arab Film Festival marks its tenth anniversary this year with its most ambitious lineup to date: a total of 45 films (including full-length features, documentaries, and short subjects) representing 12 countries from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. With screenings in San Francisco, Berkeley, and in the South Bay at Camera 12, as well as the Stanford, AFF has become a small festival with a considerable reach.

“To me, it’s somewhat of a different operation than it used to be,” explains AFF executive director Bashir Anastas. “It still is volunteer-driven and volunteer-run, but we have a much bigger volunteer base and we’re trying to emulate the bigger, more successful operations.” To that end, Anastas, AFF’s director the last two years running, has personally steered the festival through some important organizational changes. Last year, for instance, the festival got on a better financial footing by securing tax-exempt 501©(3) status, which makes corporate sponsorship easier to obtain. Programmatic changes include the “Festival at the Schools” screenings for Bay Area high school students, now in its second year, which will feature opening night’s “Zozo” — Sweden’s official 2006 Academy Award entry — as part of AFF’s outreach to over 400 high school students from both sides of the bay.

Founded in 1997 by Bay Area chemist/Palestinian American Dina Saba, the Arab Film Festival began as an initiative of the San Francisco chapter of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, an international progressive organization devoted to the liberation of Arab peoples from “economic, cultural and media domination.” The country’s first independent Arab film festival, AFF aimed to showcase the cultural richness and staggering variety of the far-flung Arab world, in contrast to the misleading and dehumanizing stereotypes all too common in mainstream representations.

Ten years on, AFF’s mission has never seemed more timely or urgent. It’s probably fair to say no Bay Area film festival this year carries the burden of the times quite like AFF. (“Zozo,” one of the two opening night features on Friday, is about a boy orphaned during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s who ends up in Swedish exile — is an eleventh-hour addition scheduled in response to the US-facilitated Israeli attack on that country that began in mid-July.)

At the same time, the goal of advancing public understanding of the Arab world promises to help make this year’s tenth anniversary season a must-see for a wide spectrum of Bay Area moviegoers eager for information, communion, and positive alternatives to the distortions and clichés of the mainstream media. In fact, Anastas reports that pre-opening interest in the festival is running high this year.

The plethora of genres, styles, and formats this year include several distinct approaches to the plight of Palestine. Among the full-length offerings, “Occupation 101: Voices of the Silenced Majority,” by documentarians Sufyan and Abdallah Omeish, is a fairly thorough and powerfully constructed introduction to the history of Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine, featuring a host of leading Middle East experts and activists. Maya Sanbar and Jeffrey Saundrers’ 2006 doc, “Goal Dreams,” meanwhile, approaches the reality of the occupation from the perspective of the Palestinian national soccer team’s bid to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. Led by their Austrian coach, the team, comprised of disparate players from the global Palestinian diaspora, as well as the occupied territories, faces a range of unique challenges that speak eloquently to the complex nature of Palestinian identity and the existential limbo of ongoing statelessness. These themes are taken up again with a wry, knowing irony in Rashid Masharawi’s feature film “Waiting,” which premiered locally as part of this year’s SF International Film Festival.

Two films from Iraq also bear special mention. The first, “Ahlaam,” is a US premiere by Iraqi filmmaker Mohamed Al-Daradji, who fled Iraq for Holland in 1995 before returning in the wake of the US invasion and occupation. Set brilliantly and hauntingly against the background of the fall of Baghdad, with a flashback to 1998 and the US military’s Desert Fox campaign, “Ahlaam” tells the story of a young woman placed in a mental institution after the wedding-day arrest of her fiancé by the Bathist regime only to be unexpectedly freed by the US bombing of Baghdad in 2003. Based on three true accounts, “Ahlaam” interweaves the story of an ex-soldier incarcerated in the same institution after the death of his comrade, and the kindly young doctor who sends him out to retrieve Ahlaam and the other escaped patients from the eerie, war-torn streets of the city. Billed as the first feature-length film from post-Saddam Iraq and a seemingly miraculous achievement under the circumstances, “Ahlaam’s” cast and crew were reportedly subject to harassment from all sides of the post-Saddam conflict, including a lethal kidnapping, in the process of making this humane and heartrending drama.

Another fascinating and insightful insiders’ perspective on US-occupied Iraq comes across in “The Blood of My Brother” (USA/Iraq 2005). Andrew Berends’s documentary (co-presented with Global Exchange) chronicles a family’s reaction to the death of beloved eldest son Ra’ad, a portrait photographer killed by American soldiers while guarding the ancient mosque at Khadimiya, in a visceral 84-minute narrative that comes suffused with the wearying grind of the occupation itself.

AFF continues its trend of presenting an impressive array of Algerian films with Jean Pierre Lledo’s self-reflective 2003 documentary-odyssey “Algéries, Mes Fantômes” (co-presented with San Francisco Cinematheque), Djamel Bensalah’s 2005 adventure comedy “Once Upon a Time in the Wadi,” and Rabah Ameur-Zaïmesh’s “Bled Number One” (2006), a well-acted and arrestingly photographed drama about two unconventional misfits in an Algerian village torn by traditional prejudices and a rampaging gang of fundamentalist thugs. Actress Meriem Serbah will be on hand for a Q&A after the Sept. 10 screening of “Bled Number One” at San Francisco’s Roxie cinema.

Ameur-Zaïmesh, meanwhile, whose fine work won the 2006 Youth Award at Cannes (selected by a jury of European film critics ages 18 to 25), will be one of several filmmakers participating in a panel discussion on Sept. 14 (other participants to include Lebanese director Philippe Aractingi (“Bosta”), Egyptian director Samir Nasr (“Seeds of Doubt”), and “Occupation 101’s” Sufyan and Abdallah Omeish). (A meet-the-filmmakers party at Roe restaurant follows this event, with dance-floor beats provided by Bay Area-favorite DJ Cheb I Sabbah.)

Also this year, AFF partners with New York-based ArteEast and Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive to present a special program of Syrian films, a rare Bay Area glimpse at a rich national cinema movement.

Anastas admits that programming so many films pushed the capacities of AFF’s modest-sized operation (and he’s frankly not sure if they’ll do quite as much next year), but he’s quite pleased with the breadth of work on offer. “If you want to talk about Israel-Palestine, Iraq, or Lebanon, we have all of that very strongly represented in the festival. But we have also snippets of things that really touched me. I’ve never been to Yemen, for example. I can tell you about one short film that I’ve seen, “A Stranger in Her Own City,” that really taught me something. (The 29-minute film by Khadija Al-Salami follows a fearless and extremely charismatic street urchin named Nedjmia through the capital Sana’a as she single-handedly flouts her society’s traditional proscriptions regarding female appearance and behavior.) You know, the Arab world is so diverse. You go to Lebanon, it competes with European societies in the setup in Beirut, then you go to the south of Lebanon and you get a different society, and so on.”

“We’re lucky here in the Bay Area,” says Anastas. “We have very sophisticated audiences, because of the mix of people and the number of immigrants here. The type of audience we get in the Bay Area is not what you’d expect elsewhere in the Midwest or the South, for example. But we thought — Dina thought, and we thought — we owe it to this society we live in, as a contribution, to enlighten [people] about this Arab world we came from; about our history, but [also] about current events caricatured constantly in the media (with sometimes severe ramifications for people of Arab descent who haven’t even been in or visited the Arab world). So we think of it as a mission to serve both ourselves and the people around us by creating a more enlightened, educated, savvy community. Because we think there’s power in knowledge, and that’s one way to address what’s going on around us.”