Iraq's 'Kick Off' is set in a stadium that became the home of 300 refugee families in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Arab Spring Arrives in a Festival-Packed Fall

Susan Gerhard October 10, 2011

Arab Film Festival Executive Director Michel Shehadeh speaks to building an all-encompassing international space.

Once nestled in a very full fall film calendar in San Francisco, the 15-year-old Arab Film Festival has now grown into a multicity event with mushrooming audience numbers and a wide-ranging collection of cinema from Arab cultures all over the globe. I spoke with AFF’s ED, Michel Shehadeh via email this past week, about the history, expansion and scope of the Festival.

SF360: How did the Arab Film Festival get started? What was the initial impetus?

Michel Shehadeh: The Arab Film Festival started in 1996 by three Arab American Women in the SF Bay Area to counter the negative stereotyping of Arabs in the mainstream mass media. It aimed to present authentic images, narratives, and stories to American audiences to help debunk the widely held myth in the West that all Arabs are the same viewed in one-dimensional caricature images. Through the power of film, the AFF has successfully challenged assumptions and evoked strong reflections from audience members, resulting in their personal transformation that has played a significant role in shifting community awareness towards tolerance and harmony on the local level and beyond.

Building cultural bridges is a keystone of the Arab Film Festival’s community impact. The AFF activities build cultural bridges by enhancing broader communities’ familiarity with and empathy towards the range of cultural, social, and political issues facing contemporary Arabs in order to promote understanding, acceptance, respect, and cultural synergy. Through Arab films, these issues are presented by diverse Arab voices, which represent the rich array of cultural, religious, socioeconomic, national, and ethnic backgrounds that comprise the Arab world.

SF360: Films with Arab language or cultural content come from a broad geographical area; in this year's festival, I see films with England, Italy, the Netherlands as sources. Can you talk about the internationalism of the festival?

Shehadeh: The Festival screens films by and about Arabs. Its films come from all over the Arab world and from Arab immigrant communities throughout the globe. It accesses Arab talents and Arabs who are interested in telling stories about Arab lives and issues. What makes the festival international [is that it] not only taps films from the Arab world, but also from other countries that have Arab immigrant communities and filmmakers. These films deal with Arab communities’ interconnectedness, their relationship to the societies they live in. The interaction between Arab immigrant communities with events and developments in the Arab homelands creates a bi-directional influence, a process that is dynamic, inspiring and productive. The Arab Film Festival is part of this broad, diverse, and complex process. Add to that the relationship of Arabs in general to the West at this particular juncture and it makes the festival an all-encompassing global space.

The cumulative and long-term ripple effect of American peoples’ deepened understanding of the region in the context of globalization today has strategic and global implications for public policies, peace and war issues and international trade and economic relations. The opportunity for the audience to dialogue directly with artists coming from so many countries contributes to a better understanding of the world in which we all live and the issues we face together as a global community.

SF360: It's now grown to a large event; can you offer a measure of its growth and its effects (political or otherwise) on audiences? How do audiences here in the Bay Area differ from those in Los Angeles, where you also play?

Shehadeh: Established in 1996 as the first in the US, the Arab Film Festival (AFF) is the largest independent annual showcase of Arab films and filmmakers in the country. The festival has an international standing and is considered one of the most important Arab film festivals outside the Arab world. The AFF strives to present the best of contemporary films illuminating Arab lives through authentic narratives and images and to provide insight into the beauty and complexity of the Arab world. It offers the Greater Bay Area and Los Angeles the only access of its kind to the diversity of authentic Arab experiences seen through Arab eyes.

The festival has grown from a humble volunteer-driven activity with a few hundred in the audience to a professionally staffed festival with over ten thousand audience, with many year-round activities.

San Francisco currently sits at the forefront of innovation and creativity in the arts. Given its diverse demographic makeup, it is a natural hub for a rich array of cultural expression through art and film. Accordingly, the Arab Film Festival has positioned itself as a trailblazer in this realm in a city that prides itself in showcasing the works of all walks of life and pushing the envelope in bringing forth the often unheard narratives from communities all over the world. For the last decade and a half, the Festival has enriched the experience of filmgoers, art enthusiasts and those with a passion for learning about other cultures. It has expanded to cities across California and extended this privilege to other communities outside of San Francisco who would not have otherwise have had access to this caliber of film. The Festival strives to build on its strong presence in San Francisco, while continuing to strengthen its presence in other cities in a more meaningful way.

The difference of Los Angeles and San Francisco audience in a nutshell: the first focuses more on the filmmaking aspect more, the craft, the techniques, the presentation—the form and the body. The San Francisco audience focuses more on the story, the emotions, relationships, conflicts, and messages—the heart. Both audiences are fantastic educated, tough and [offer] wonderful critiques. Their feedback and advice makes it complete. Each pushes us in a direction that makes our experience all rounded and is incorporated in our work continuously. They are the toughest audience anywhere in the world, because no one knows about films as much as Californians!

SF360: What would you say is the must-see of this year's festival?

Shehadeh: This is the hardest question out of all your questions. The selection this year is fantastic, and this is not a cliché, a fact. It’s hard for me to recommend one specific film.

The Opening Night film Egyptian Maidens is a must see. The Egyptian situation that led to the recent revolution is contextualized through the story of two young women in their struggles to find love, relationships, and themselves in a society that is swirling downward. The background of the plot is the other story of a brewing revolution.

The Iraqi film Kick Off is a fantastic film set in a stadium that became the home of 300 refugee families in Iraqi Kurdistan. The cinematography, the music, and acting is superb and connects to emotions in a story that is brilliantly put together.

Magid is an Arab Moroccan Dickens’ [David] Copperfield, the story of an orphaned child in search of his parent's picture. This film brings tears, laughs, and amazing child actors whose performances are deserving of an Oscar. You accompany these children in a drama that pulls in and doesn't let you go until the lights are on.

One of my favorites is the Egyptian film, Hawi, also a film that puts Egypt prior to revolution, the fear, the alienation, the lost existence of Egyptians, those living at the bottom of society, put in a new way of storytelling that takes your breath away. The acting and the cinematography in this film are brilliant.

SF360: Can you offer notes on three or four other of the year's offerings?

Shehadeh: We have established a program for student, the AFF Festival for the Schools. We do also year-round screenings and special events. I like to highlight our website and blog, another service to film enthusiasts that we offer, and a Facebook that we urge people to visit and like.

SF360: What would you say are some of the biggest changes in Arab film in the time you've been working with this festival?

Shehadeh: I always said that Arab films have beautiful stories and great ideas, but they lacked the technology of the craft such as editing, lighting, framing and camera moves. We are witnessing great leaps and strides in this area. It still needs work to get to a level that competes with Hollywood, and it’s getting there, many of our films stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Hollywood films. I am sure when the resources become available to Arab filmmakers they will show that they are not less than their counterparts in the US. I think the Arab Film Festival is playing a role in this march towards excellent Arab films that can be enjoyed by anyone across different cultures.

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