New pathways

17th Arab Film Festival in San Francisco

Mars At Sunrise
Mars At Sunrise

An artist paints over his work in black ink.

A girl giggles flirtatiously in the next room, explosives in hand.

A boy is crying silently in a white robe.

A woman is sitting in a prison hallway, playing a violin.

The hallway is covered in green vines.

A mother smiles, her eye-shadow gleams blue.

A stairwell bleeds red.

The music is broken momentarily as a soldier addresses the artist:

“Yalla, Picasso, let’s take a little walk.”

These are the colours of a military occupation that can no longer be confined by linear narrative structures. These are the images that are pieced together in Jessica Habie’s Mars at Sunrise, a film that portrays a conflict between two artists on either side of Israel’s militarised borders. While exploring testimonies and stories concerning discrimination, torture and freedom of movement, the film is ultimately about the boundlessness of an artist’s imagination during a period of solitary confinement.

At the premiere screening during this year’s 17th annual Arab Film Festival (AFF) in San Francisco, Habie spoke to the audience about her motivation: “I’ve always been inspired by the relationship between artists and social change, what artists can say and how they can say things in different ways [to] provoke new ways of talking about a situation.”

The AFF programme this year presented an eclectic mix of films from around the world that explore the local “everydayness” of revolution, migration, conflict and creation. A diverse array of commentaries on contemporary Arab life and attempts to reclaim historical narratives through artistic representations challenged conventional media portrayals of the Middle East and exposed a more complex reality.

It’s the largest independent annual showcase of Arab films and filmmakers in the country, and is considered one of the most important Arab film festivals outside the Arab world. The festival, which runs in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego, received over 200 films this year from more than 22 countries. 17 of the 32 selections this year were by Arab women.

When I saw you 1

When I saw you
When I saw you

The festival opened with veteran filmmaker Annemarie Jacir’s When I Saw You. Shot entirely with an Arab cast, crew and funding, the story is centred on Palestinian refugees in Jordan during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and is told through the eyes of 11 year-old Tarek, and his mother Ghaydaa. Feeling maladjusted in the refugee camp and longing to reunite with his missing father, Tarek runs away only to stumble upon a group of Fedayeen (Palestinian fighters) camping out in the forest. While Tarek discovers his heroes in the training camps, Jacir places these moments into a wider historical perspective encompassing the Cold War, anti-colonial revolutions, and the civil rights movement.

In a recent interview with Jadaliyya, Jacir explains that this film was an opportunity to revisit a moment in time, “to change the pace so we [could] linger on the faces of these young men and women, each with their own stories, depth, nostalgia, madness — people so famously absent from the media normally.”

The film ends in a state of uncertainty. Through hindsight, we know what happens after 1967 — the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, corruption and in-fighting within Palestinian national movements, the continuing refugee problem, and the failure of the Oslo process. We know that Tarek and his mother will not return to their village, as new borders dictate new realities. The ambiguity at the end of the film is a reminder that during the sixties, the world was brimming with hope and excited energy, on the verge of unknowable change. Tarek’s vision of the future — to return home to a state of normalcy — may seem idealistic today, but to reject it as illusory is to deny its possibility at the time. On the eve of the 1967 war, multiple trajectories seemed conceivable. The film ends as Tarek disobeys his mother’s call to “wait,” while he rushes towards the border of Palestine. Anything could happen.

Oil and Sand

Many of the films featured in this year’s festival return to historical moments; less as a means of generating nostalgia and more as a way to subtly engage current events and possibilities in the Middle East. Three years after the revolution in Egypt, what was at first seen as an opportunity has quickly turned sour. The struggle to define the future of Egyptian democracy is now at the forefront of national debate — in the media, in the street, and in film. Wael Omar and Philippe Dib’s In Search of Oil and Sand follows Mahmoud Sabit, the son of a cousin to King Farouk, as he uncovers Oil and Sand (1952), a 8mm film shot by the Egyptian royal family weeks before they were overthrown in a coup d’état.

In the footage, the royals act out an intricate plot in which a king is ironically deposed by his own military. It never crosses the aristocrats’ minds that the film script they have written will become their reality. “For them,” Sabit explains, “the movie was comic relief at a time when they felt insecure. I wouldn’t call it escapism, but they were simply waiting things out and trying to entertain themselves at the same time.” The royal home videos humanise the monarchists, and yet their glamorous lifestyles are reminiscent of the regime of deposed president Hosni Mubarak — lavish and out of touch with society. In Search of Oil and Sand portrays the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 as an event that demarcated a “before” and “after” period. By implication, this film is also about the Arab Spring of 2011 and how this “before/after” is negotiated and experienced by Egyptians today.

A World Not Ours

Journeys of familial discoveries through time and space are also explored in Mahdi Fleifel’s A World Not Ours. The film shifts back and forth in history through the use of archival footage shot by Fleifel and his father, and offers an intimate portrait of three generations in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Helweh in southern Lebanon. Reminiscent of Juliano Mer Khamis’ Arna’s Children (2004), the film moves through time to comment on what happens to children and communities that persist and exist in a long-term conflict, and how the occupation manifests itself in their everyday reality.


Another dialogue between past and present occurs in Embers, in which filmmaker Tamara Stepanyan turns the camera towards the life of her deceased grandmother in post-Soviet Armenia by interviewing her surviving circle of friends. The group’s recollections of the Soviet regime are often romanticised, and many express scepticism about their current political reality. While deeply nostalgic, films such as In Search of Oil and Sand, A World Not Ours, and Embers revisit the realities of past generations as starting points for questioning our present. Nostalgia is invoked as a political tool, re-appropriating the past for the purposes of critically responding to the present and constructing a better future.

Middle Eastern cinema today, as showcased at the AFF, is also questioning what it means to be an Arab. The film festival took audiences to Italy, where young Italian-Algerian Said Mahran faces expulsion in Haider Rashid’s It’s About to Rain. Mahran articulates the pain and confusion of second-generation youths. When faced with deportation, he pleads: “‘Going back is a term that I don’t understand, because I’ve never been to Algeria. I am Italian, like you.” Marcio Curi’s The Last Stop also breeches the geographical borders of Middle Eastern identity by tracing the story of the Lebanese community in Brazil. The AFF’s focus on films about mobile identities further breaks down Western conceptions of “Arabness” by showcasing the fluidity of religion, ethnicity, gender, and culture.

I have only discussed a small selection of the films screened in San Francisco during the festival. The collection of films in this year’s AFF reflects the state of Arab cinema today, what Serge Bakalian, the AFF’s executive director, described as “robust” and “hungry.” The films speak to the excitement, anxiety and uncertainty that accompanied the so-called “Arab Spring,” and break with traditional linear structures of filmography to explore what director Jessica Habie called the “space of schizophrenia.” In Mars at Sunrise, for example, Habie makes it difficult for the audience to delineate who is telling the story. All radically new ways of narrating what hurts, what is possible, and where we can go from here.

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