Arab Film Fest 2017: The Takeaway

The lineup scoured modern Arab experiences—at home and abroad—for one of the state’s timeliest entertainment events

Photo by Makeen Osman

As far as Twin Cities film events go, Minneapolis’ Arab Film Festival—which screened for its twelfth year last week—earns distinction as most of-the-moment. No wonder: The lineup of local and foreign flicks, written and directed by Arab and Arab American filmmakers, feels as if it’s keeping an anxious pace—a speed-reader’s urgency familiar to any who have tried to stay on top of world news while breaking-story after exponentially complicated breaking-story spins more themes and introduces more characters than one person could possibly cover. Recent political discussions, of Muslims and Muslim nations, hung over this year’s fest.

About ten countries—Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, and the U.S. among them—contributed to a checklist of genres: animated, documentary, sex comedy, abstract. If the number of Arab stories to tell feels intimidating these days—some banned by their governments, including a gritty Moroccan film about prostitution in this year’s selection—the way those stories are told has proven just as inspiring (or agitating). For filmmakers who can find access, part of the challenge must involve choosing where and how to direct focus.

Take, for example, a documentary so fraught with developments that it took filmmaker Mahmood Soliman more than a decade to finish. We Have Never Been Kids follows a disadvantaged Egyptian woman, whom Soliman met on the street, named Nadia. At a young age, she was forced into an abusive marriage that denied her an education. After divorcing, she found work as a blade sharpener to support her four kids. And that’s where we find her. Egyptian politics, meanwhile, boil over—demonstrations, elections—and Nadia’s children grow, abreast of what strikes the viewer as the bounding pace of time, into the country’s next generation of social movers, two of the brothers at odds with each other. Soliman’s film, while he filmed it, deepened, and Nadia’s screen presence compelled him to continue year after year. (Nadia sums up her life and her children’s lives in succinct, unsentimental, sometimes beautiful voiceovers.) Soliman finally finished the film when their circumstances deepened beyond his reach. They leave off at the same international tipping point where we find ourselves today.

Nadia and her children; Shot Courtesy of Mizna

Given the myriad stories to tell in the Middle East, choosing one begs the question: Why not the others? Soliman’s journalistic handling of Nadia’s story finds its stride in a tense moment when an Egyptian man accosts Soliman’s camera crew while Nadia sells second-hand produce on the street. He repudiates Nadia as a representative of Egypt, especially for a documentary American audiences will see. Egyptians understand their disadvantages, he says, but Americans might extrapolate Nadia’s hard-knock existence to the entire country. Soliman seizes the moment, pursuing the man, whose protective stance—taken in pride—does not faze Nadia. Her story is what it is.

In the Trump era of international reputation rehab, Americans today might sympathize with that man’s prideful defensiveness. During the Q+A after the screening, an almost confrontational older man in the audience, sitting forward in his seat, asked Soliman what percentage of Egyptian lives Nadia’s would approximate. Soliman answered that hers approximates many.

Another example of that pride amid pain—albeit in a form far removed—actually came in goofy sex romp Halal Love (And Sex). Here, director Assad Fouladkar uses what often feels like a Garry Marshall approach to the Muslim world. It’s the formula that made such American rom-coms as 2003’s Love Actually and 2011’s New Year’s Eve so popular: an ensemble cast mugging their way through a feel-good melodrama about how complicated love can get. But instead of, say, Cameron Diaz, it’s Lebanese actress Mirna Moukarzel trying to convince her overbearingly sexual husband to take a second wife so she can get a full night’s sleep for once. And instead of Hugh Grant, it’s actor Hussein Mokadem’s impulsive, jealous Mokhtar tripping his way through an inadvisable scheme to win back the woman he has married and divorced one too many times for Sharia law to let them marry again. (The loophole, of course, is a matter of Islamic minutiae.)

Shot from “Halal Love (And Sex)” Courtesy of Mizna

The movie’s five story arcs leave little room for character development. That’s always been this genre’s challenge. But if few of the relationship-bungling players in Halal Love (and Sex) feel real, that’s partially the point. There’s an argument to be made for how a commercial, often vapid art form can feel bold—even revolutionary—in a new context. Conflicts rise out of the characters’ religious and cultural values, yes, but their treatment remains light. A woman who actually wants her husband to marry a second wife, for example, comes across as unexpectedly relatable. And Fouladkar doesn’t flinch while examining the abuse in marrying and divorcing and incessantly accusing a woman of infidelity. Uncomfortably, he sometimes plays this couple’s quarrels for laughs. The wife, ditzy yet self-possessed, does have the proper screen presence for one half of a screwball-comedy team. Still, you might consider that light treatment tonally suspect, something lost in translation—or maybe, again, liberating.

The audience that evening decided which way to go: While gasping at the injustices (most oafishly perpetrated by men—at best, rude; at worst, violent), that Saturday-evening crowd also came to laugh, so much that they more than once started in prematurely.

Based on Halal Love‘s packed showing, Fouladkar’s work hints at the direction in which people (in Minneapolis, at least) would like to steer conversations about the Middle East: back toward humor, toward warmth, toward levity and the equalizers of love and sex—even if the love comes bubbling up in new cultural confines, and even if the sex obeys different rules.

In contrast, the smattering who attended a retrospective of Lebanese American filmmaker Hisham Bizri’s avant-garde shorts revealed another trans-cultural truth: Most people do not want to watch avant-garde shorts (full-lengths even less). The audience’s questions during the post-screening Q+A with Bizri circled universal topics—rather than those, for example, posed specifically about Egypt after We Have Never Been Kids. Unlike the woman, after Soliman’s film, who waxed self-consciously about the importance of hearing Nadia, and unlike the woman who asked whether anyone had rallied support for Nadia after Soliman’s first version of the documentary came out (to which Soliman answered that, yes, some audience members had made plans to reach out, though they never got around to it)—unlike that audience, which pulsed with a fast-draining energy, the audience at Bizri’s retrospective asked questions about, say, how to read a film in general. Puzzling over the ways rom-coms assimilate Middle Eastern identities, you might forget that Arab and Arab American films deserve a place in the cinematic canon, not just for their content but for their formal achievements. It doesn’t help that these stories often fall under a word with unavoidably political connotations: “urgent.” It’s been a while, culturally, since the avant-garde felt like the suitable form for anything urgent, associated as it is with unwelcoming complexity. (Ironic, since the point of the avant-garde is to push spectators into uncomfortable new territory.)

But if you watch Bizri’s short documentary The Wanderer (Shooq), you’ll find a timeless sense of reflection unattainable in movies that pursue plot. Think of skimming a newspaper versus sinking into a poem. The Wanderer is that poem, a collage of shots of Jordanian artist Mamdouh Bisharat’s home—full of artifacts, of Arab history books, and of his own solemn works of art. This meditation-through-film goes on to study Bisharat himself. Bizri’s camera dismembers the old man—in successive cuts of his wrinkled hand, of his face, of the back of his bald scalp—finding in this space, and in the accumulated ticks, furrows, and angles of Bisharat’s three-dimensional person, that nauseous, swimmy coincidence of identity, location, and time. The question of what it means to be exiled from your home country courses underneath.

It’s no good to sum up the Arab Film Festival, with so much, so different, going on. The perspectives complemented Minnesota this year as the state answers its own questions on home and how to retain culture after immigration. The festival’s New Homes, New Stories series looked no farther than here. Makers of documentary The Dream Still Is found the impact of the travel ban in the lives of three Minneapolis high school students and staff members—as you need only infiltrate everyday places to find the big stories. The Barbershop, for instance, follows a young Iraqi man on a Sunday afternoon, when a haircut resurfaces his childhood trauma. Post-9/11 stereotypes of Iraqis and Muslims get an unpacking in Our Iraq, facing audiences with refugees who own a St. Paul grocery store, and Muslims at a Minneapolis Catholic church. No matter your ethnic background, we all shape these stories every day. Yet many of us still need the Arab Film Festival to face us with them.