Given the radical changes rocking The Middle East of late, the Arab Film Festival has never felt more relevant with a program of films capturing the revolutions and the everyday life.
Unbeknownst to many, Arabic is in fact the second-most spoken language within New South Wales, a telling fact that highlights the thriving cultural existence the Arab Film Festival embodies. This year's festival will continue in this proud tradition of faithfully serving the country's Arab contingent a dose of personal resonance, whilst a great number of new tales will seek to contribute to the already culturally diverse Arab experience and tap into new audiences. In light of the contemporary political landscape, the festival has never seemed more pertinent, with the world-altering events of the Arab Spring not only fashioning a newfound significance for the Arab film industry, but also forging a path for new, politically charged features emanating from the region.
Boasting over 18,000 attendees since its inception in 2001, the festival serves up stories from a multitude of countries, including Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, and throughout the Arabic Diaspora. Be it a four-minute short film, or a feature-length picture, each deals with themes one is unlikely to come into contact with at their local multiplex. The recent success of the Iranian-made A Separation - which snagged the Oscar for Best Foreign Film - demonstrated the depth and quality of filmmaking from the region, and its legacy is sure to kindle a fierce interest in the films on offer this year.
The festival undoubtedly relishes the opportunity to position alternative perceptions of the Arab cultural experience; however what proves equally fascinating is their take on some of the more universal moments of life. The Lebanese film Tayeb, Khalas, Yalla (‘Ok, Enough, Goodbye' - pictured) presents an infinitely quirky take on the ‘adult-son-still-living-at-home' motif, against the backdrop of neighbourhood Tripoli. The novelty of a forty-year-old man playing poker with his elderly mother, or routinely taking part in dying her hair, proves cause for a chuckle, but it is upon her sudden departure that a restrained poignancy seeps into the film. We behold an aimless man, devoid of purpose, forced into a maturity that he is not truly ready to accept. The film carries a decidedly voyeuristic tone, with a number of scenes cleverly shot through mirror reflections, both stylistically and metaphorically vivid. Whilst at times verging on the banal, the film is rescued by a number of uniquely charming supporting characters that each transform our man into, well, a man.
Outside of the screenings themselves, and in line with the festival's commitment to critical and cultural reflection, an enlightening and provocative panel discussion on the presence of Arab women in film is scheduled for the final day of the Sydney run. Sure to feature in the discussion is the excellent Moroccan feature The Rif Lover, a tale of the delicate tightrope Arab women must negotiate between honour and freedom. The increasingly promiscuous and preternaturally gorgeous Aya, residing in a community in Morocco's Rif Mountains, has her naive romantic fantasies cast asunder when her brothers sell her virginity in exchange for drugs. Such a transaction, in a culture where a woman's virginity is her most prized asset, is crippling, and the most dark of tragedies ensues. The film is visually sumptuous and shot superbly by Narjiss Neijar, a Moroccan filmmaker with a keen symbolic eye. Her expert use of the blue-saturated environment beckons the limitless potential Aya craves, played paradoxically against the seemingly never-ending passageways that imprison the town. The tale is interspersed with intimate, reflective exchanges between Aya and the camera: grungy, tainted shots that reek of self-loathing. Harbouring moments of both gritty realism and heartfelt potency, The Rif Lover is an innately challenging piece of cinema. Aya retrospectively questions, ‘How much humiliation would still remain silent?', and, such is the nature of the Arab Film Festival, it seems this will not be the only hard-hitting question posed across the suite of films shown.
The Arab Film Festival runs in Sydney (28 June - 1 July), Melbourne (6-8 July) and Canberra (12-15 July). For more information, head here.