Established in 2001, the Arab Film Festival Australia has grown into a key cultural event says festival co-director Mouna Zaylah; it offers Arab speakers and non-Arab audiences to explore the rich and complex diversity of the Arab world.
These films touch upon a lot of the issues that a lot of people believe – and I believe – led to the Arab spring
Like so many small film festivals, the AFFA relies on community support, volunteer staffing and generous sponsorship to keep going. And it's worked. The festival, Zaylah says, enjoys a growing support amongst the Arab communities and fans of Arab language cinema in its destination cities: Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.
Fifty-five percent of its core audience is Arab speakers. “They're people who are part of the Arab diaspora or else they're second and third generation Australians of Arab descent,” says Zaylah, “and we definitely get a strong cross section of the Arabic communities and non-Arabs – we call these supporters our friends.”
Film festivals are quite simply costly, which is why the AFFA only programs a small number of films: 12 in all this year, including two shorts by Arab Australians, Fighting for Air from director Fatima Mawas, and Trab Laus, directed by Tania Safi.
“[The program] is all we can afford,” she admits. “We usually screen some of the films on 35mm prints – and transporting prints is expensive.”
A professional arts manager and producer and a veteran of the International and Cultural Exchange, Zaylah was born in Australia. Her parents immigrated here in the 1970s from Lebanon. Her AFFA partner is co-director Fadia Abboud, cultural producer and filmmaker.
Zaylah explains that a sponsorship with Etihad Airways allows Abboud to travel to both the Dubai and Abu Dhabi film festivals. There is also an open call for entries. Abboud says Zaylah watches “hundreds of films, makes a long list of recommendations and brings them back to our committee and we spend a couple of months sifting through the films. The committee is diverse: some of them are from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine… some are in media, others are cultural development managers and some are filmmakers.”
Zaylah says that the crucial programming criteria – aside from the relative merits of the actual pictures and their excellence – is one of ethnic and cultural balance. “One has to be careful,” she says. “The cultures within the Arab world are so diverse, even within societies. There's a major difference between Morocco and Lebanon and Palestine and Egypt.”
She says that there are different dialects, religions, cultural taboos etc. but what connects them all is the Arab language. “We want to make sure we've picked the right films and I know Fadia loses sleep over it!”
After experimenting with the structure of the festival for many years, the AFFA has settled into what she calls enthusiastically, a “four day marathon”. The festival is launched in Parramatta in Sydney's west, an area traditionally considered “the centre”, she argues, for the Arabic speaking communities of the city. “If we had the AFFA in the Sydney CBD I don't think our core audience would come [in the numbers they do].”
Zaylah says the AFFA is a chance for all audiences to get a timely glimpse into the contemporary Arab experience. “There are a lot of people interested in the Arab Spring at the moment,” she explains. “So you have journalists and producers coming to the screenings so they can experience an alternative representation of events [that have been covered in the news media].”
This year, the program features a number of films that speak to many of the issues that gave rise to the Arab Spring. There's the documentary feature No More Fear from Mourad Ben Cheikh, a raw and vital film that offers an immediate portrait of the Tunisian uprising. In a way, the Arab Spring, says Zaylah, dominates the selection this year but often in subtle and non-specific ways.
For instance, there's Asmaa, an Egyptian feature directed by Amr Salama, about a HIV positive woman who is faced with a grim choice: stay silent or die. The Last Friday (pictured), from Jordanian filmmaker Yahya Alabdallah, deals with a poor man who has to revisit his past when he turns to old friends and family to raise money for a life saving operation. And there's director Mohamed Diab's Cairo 678 (screening only in Canberra), a film that attacks head-on what the AFFA program calls the taboo of institutionalised sexual harassment against women in Egypt.
“There's all this stuff in the Arab world that people are very frustrated about: medical treatment, education, poverty, the treatment of women,” she explains. “These films touch upon a lot of the issues that a lot of people believe – and I believe – led to the Arab spring.”
Zaylah notes that this year there are a number of films directed by and about women, like Susan Youssef's Habibi, from Palestine (opening night film), an intense and sexy romance story where the lovers do not even kiss; and Tayeb, Khalas, Yalla (OK, Enough, Goodbye), from Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. Directed by Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia, it's a mother and son light comedy set in Tripoli. There's also The Rif Lover from Morocco, directed by Narjiss Nejjar, about a beautiful young woman obsessed with Carmen. It's sexual, even erotic, and has a powerful feminist undertow concerned with desire and liberation.
Zaylah says that these movies may readjust an audience's casual cultural assumptions (and clichés) about women in the Arab world. “I get disappointed when I see stories about suppressed Arab women – it's not the case.”
In an age where typically and predictably all Arab ethnicities are shaped by racism and bigotry into one cultural monolith and defined as 'Other' by an indiscriminate mainstream (and community) media, the AFFA in its own modest way, says Zaylah, “is another way to get to know the community”.
“[The Arab speakers who live here] do watch tabloid TV,” she explains. “And the stereotypes of Arab communities are always negative stereotypes. So this occasion is an alternative for our Arab audience too!”
The stereotypes are certainly hurtful as well as harmful. Does it perhaps present a chance for a kind of 'healing'?
“Or a reality check,” she says. “The films we present offer a chance to explore the Arab [experience] and their culture and difference[s] rather than just relying on the local newspaper.”
The Arab Film Festival Australia opens at the Riverside Parramatta on Thursday 28th July before travelling to Melbourne and Canberra. For more information visit the official website.