Diversity is the theme of this year’s Arab Film Festival in Sydney, Australia. The festival’s directors Mouna Zaylah and Fadia Kisrwani Abboud have chosen films that most represented the richly diverse Arab culture.
“We want to break down the stereotypes of what an Arab is. What is today known as the Arab World is not only the desert; there is Beirut the amazing city, there are Algeria and Morocco and Tunis, all of which are distinctly different from one another; and there is Palestine and Iraq,” Ms Zaylah says.
Out of the thousands of films submitted every year, Zaylah and Abboud try to make their selections of films tell different stories so a variety of material is offered to the Arab community, especially in Sydney.
One of the films showing this year is Huriyya and Her Sisters, an eight-minute animation created by young film makers Aya Sukkarieh and Sarah Khodr. The four characters in our story were actually each made differently to show people that we are not all the same; one has a scarf, one doesn’t; one is black and one white. We are all different and we all have different views.” Aya Sukkarieh says.
Being first-time film makers and taking part in the festival, the girls could not help but feel the excitement of it all. “I am very happy and excited; I never thought the film would be screened in a place like this with 800 seats. I saw three-quarters of them were full so I was very happy with the people who came here today,” Aya added.
Another young talent is Nawal Abdi, an 11th-grade student, who has produced a 10-minute film, My Journey, which is tells of her grandfather’s journey from Palestine to Australia in 1948. Abdi, who has lived all her life in Australia, wished to depict human rights issues by tracing her grandfather’s path from Palestine to Lebanon and then to Australia.
Abdi has learnt a lot from her first experience as a film maker. “First of all it took a lot of time and effort. You’ve got to put a lot in to get it out. I also learnt a lot about my grandfather’s journey to Australia. One of the things I didn’t know was [that] he almost died on the way to Lebanon and that he didn’t see his mom for 21 years,” she says.
Films about Palestine as My Journey and The Secret World by Nicholas Rowe were presented in the forum “Dreaming of 1001 Rights”, an exploration of human rights and social justice.
Farid Farid, a PhD student at the University of Western Sydney, is an avid festival goer and has attending every year since 2005. He praised the new story idea and representation offered in the films at this year’s festival.
“I think a new story line … and humane story lines that we’ve never seen before, where it is not talking so much about war and occupation from a decentred media perspective but from personal understandings of daily life, that’s the thing that kept on coming back to me about the daily grind in different places be it Iraq, Jordan, wherever,” Mr Farid told Watani.
The similarity in the themes discussed in the different films across the Arab region was felt by Nijmeh Hajjar of the university’s department of Arabic and Islamic studies.
“I look at the language of the film, not only the language of the people but the film as a film because the film to me is an art and I read it like a text so when I look at a film I look at it as a whole,” Dr Hajjar says.
The variety of films represented was seen as a positive aspect in the festival by Saleh Saqqaf, a member of the committee of the Arab Film Festival, said it encouraged more film makers to represent their works internationally.
Mr Saqqaf, who spent his childhood in Amman, was touched by the first Jordanian film to be screened at the festival, Captain Abu Raed. He liked the technique, the story, the scenery and the addressing of a variety of issues raised in the film including the marriage of daughters and domestic violence.
Mr Saqqaf said Captain Abu Raed showed that the film industry in Jordan had developed compared with when he left it 20 years ago, when there was hardly any film industry at all in Jordan.
Khaled Sabsabi, a member of the Arab Film Festival committee, agreed that diversity as an essential part of the Arab Film Festival was achieved by ensuring the selecting committee was open to different talents bringing their experience and skill in various fields over the years.
“I think all the films are very good, and also the Arab world is quite diverse so we try to balance the selection to give as much scope as possible,” says Mr Sabsabi, who was at the festival as a filmmaker and artist in 2001 before becoming a member of the organising committee in the last three years.
The festival took place over four days with the opening night on Thursday featuring Captain Abu Raed. On Friday night Doukhan Bila Nar (Beirut Open City) by Samir Habichi was screened, while the Saturday and Sunday programmes were taken up with a variety of films running in three consecutive sessions. The last session on Sunday was dedicated to the Egyptian film Ain Shams by director Ibrahim al-Batout, which was attended by a large audience.
Other Egyptian shown at the festival were At Day’s End by Sherif al-Bendari and Her Man by Ayten Amin. The festival also paid tribute to acclaimed Egyptian director Youssef Chahine by screening his film Bab al-Hadid.
The first Arab Film Festival was held in Sydney in 2001 under the organisation of the Information and Cultural Exchange (ICE). The festival, which is always based in Sydney, will be touring in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra.