Arab Film Festival returns with a program that is as confronting as it is diverse
Now in its 14th year the Arab Film Festival Australia continues to grow and deliver an authentic program that is anything but stereotypical. We spoke with festival Co-Directors, Mouna Zaylah and Fadia Abboud about this year's program and its filmmakers who are taking risks in the rich and rare stories they tell.
The 14th Annual Arab Film Festival (AFFA) is back for another year - this year’s opening night film is MAHBAS, which is the debut feature of director Sophie Boutros. Can you share with us how you came across Sophie and why you selected MAHBAS to open the festival?
Mahbas is a recently produced film from Lebanon that was well received in Dubai International Film Festival and has been screened in the Arab world with great response from the viewers. We selected it because it is a film that shares a romantic story about love beyond borders – between Syria and Lebanon. It comes across as light and fun but it is also a multi-layered film that takes its audience into a journey about differences between cultures, challenges that Lebanon faced in the past and continues to face today. Sophie Boutros comes to Australia with thanks to a new partnership with the Dubai International Film Festival and as a female Director with her debut feature it’s another great reason to open the Festival with Mahbas.
Now the festival is in its 14th year how have you seen the festival develop and what are your hopes and plans for the future and what motivates you both to do this film festival?
The Festival is in its 14th year but we actually started in 2001 – at the Roxy Theatre in Parramatta. It just keeps growing, we also personally keep growing and learning from the Festival as it progresses. The business structure of the AFFA is unique and reaps the benefits from both industry and community. The festival, being led by an all Arab Australian team and organising committee, ensures the program is authentic and responds to community interest and need. The festival continues to expand and develop new audiences and partners. AFFA is gaining more and more interest from younger audiences too and what we want to grow and see in the very near future is Australian Arab stories on our screens. AFFA has a plan. Stay tuned.
The festival is providing a representation of Arab culture to audiences that might not be available in mainstream media have you seen a significant change in the stories that are being told about Arab culture?
Our films are anything but stereotypical and our filmmakers are taking risks in the stories they tell. We want to present a range of entertaining and challenging stories about our culture. We need that mix, we are that mix. Arab cultures are diverse and our films reflect that. The stories from Palestine are always underpinned by the occupation, and sometimes those films are specifically dealing with that, but it is always about survival. A doco like A Maid For Each – which talks about the human rights abuses of the foreign domestic workers in Lebanon – might be challenging for our community to see, but we need to have those discussions. Our Egyptian film this year is entertaining but certainly pushes the boundaries of what is expected from Arab men – Ali, The Goat And Ibrahim is a touching tale of friendship, reconciliation, self-discovery and acceptance. I Still Hide To Smoke, a story about women in Algeria that offers a very rare look at that world, from the inside of a Hammam, from inside the culture, from a female Arab director, these stories are authentic and warm.
Australian-made Ali’s Wedding is also screening this year. The romcom follows Muslim cleric’s son who is in love with an Australia-Lebanese woman. Do you see a demand for more homegrown stories like this?
Yes, yes, yes. Ali’s Wedding is a fabulous film that is made for both Arab and non-Arab Australian audiences but also for an international audience. Who doesn’t love a romantic comedy? This film is for all ages and all backgrounds. It’s a true story, unfortunately, but it is a story we are familiar with - parents trying to get their children married off because they know best - and because that’s how they think culture can be preserved for future generations. More of these stories need to be made and I am confident will be made and shared with the world in the near future. Australian urban stories are like no other. Lets make some more.
One of the festival’s goals is to challenge negative stereotypes about Arab culture, do you think the festival is achieving this?
Absolutely. By presenting a range of contemporary Arab films we present the diverse and the alternative stories. The festival program this year provides Australian audiences with a valuable insight into contemporary Arab experiences.
The Arab Film Festival serves as an important platform for films that share unique and often unheard or untold stories about the experiences of Arab people today. This year the AFFA shines a light on the lives of generations of Arab women and how they navigate and overcome modern day prejudice.
We also feature stories that provide audiences with an in depth look at the lives of young men and how they battle with expectations of masculinity in today’s society. From documentaries to classic love stories, the program explores the politics of identity and finding one’s place in a world plagued by turmoil.
We are screening films from Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Tunisia and Australia and we will present the Festival at Riverside Theatres Parramatta and then on to Melbourne at Cinema Nova, Carlton, in Canberra at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia before concluding in Perth at Curtin University.
What was your approach to programing this year’s festival and how did you select the which films to include?
Our program selection every year is influenced by the state of the world and the impact the world is having on the Arab community, particularly Australian Arab communities. We select in response to need. We share alternatives to the mainstream. Our intention every year is to find films that are reflective, informative, entertaining and challenging. They need to be current, contemporary and created by Arab people. We always have in mind our audiences – the regulars and the audiences we want to engage. We program for diverse Arab and non-Arab audiences, for young and old, for the people wanting to see comedy, drama or those that want a documentary and be confronted by the realities of the Arab experience.
There are quite a few comedies present in this year’s line-up. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The festival team this year had a number of comedies available to us for consideration. When we watched the films we felt that the selection of the comedies can appeal to many, old and young, Arab and non-Arab. The films are serious and present realities of Arab experiences but do so in a humorous way because sometimes the reality can be so ridiculous that you best just to laugh or cry, and laugh at the same time. I think this year even the comedies will be confronting for many because they come from a place of truth.
Stay up to date with the Arab Film Festival
You can see the full program here: http://arabfilmfestival.com.au/films/