Lines of division can be cruel and reductive, but necessary to make a point. Mediterranean cinema gets the Oscars, and Iranian cinema gets critics’ attention (and, now with A Separation, also the Oscars). But cradled somewhere between the two is a rich and diverse panoply of filmmaking voices that are not often enough given the international spotlight, much less the time of day in the deepest Scandinavia, U.S. branch.
That’s why it’s so heartening that Mizna, the non-profit organization that serves as a beacon for Arab art in Minnesota (“Beyond belly dancers, bombers and billionaires” is their current mantra), is now entering its second decade presenting the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival. Since 2003, Mizna has worked to enrich the local film scene with a dose of films made by and about Arabs or even non-Arabs living in Arabian territories.
Past fests have brought Cannes Film Festival contenders, vital short features and U.S. premieres alike to the metro area, and this year’s five-day event looks like no exception. Below is a Q&A I shared with festival curator and co-founder Mohannad Ghawanmeh, as well as a preview of some of the highlights from this year’s festival, which begins this Wednesday and runs through Sunday, March 17. Ticket information and more can be found here.
Q&A With Mohannad Ghawanmeh
WCCO: In the last decades, a number of regions have come into vogue on the international cinema scene (i.e. Iran, Taiwan, Mexico), but it sometimes seems as though things remain perpetually Eurocentric. Do you think Arab cinema is about to reach critical mass in the U.S.?
Ghawanmeh: In terms of a critical mass among U.S. film enthusiasts, I think that Arab cinema is ready to make an impact, not because Arab filmmakers have not made artful, impactful films in the past, but because so many more of them are being given the opportunity to work and the result is more works being produced, most under the guidance of film production institutions and film funds. Arab film talents are emerging from the Arab World, to be sure, as well as from among the Arab diaspora in Europe and, only as recently as a decade or so, in North America as well: Ruba Nadda, Annemarie Jacir, and Cherien Dabis, among others.
WCCO: Which filmmakers in this year’s program do you think are pushing the envelope, either politically or artistically?
Ghawanmeh: I think that Rania Attieh — co-director of the opener OK, Enough, Goodbye — and The Last Friday, by Yahya Al-Abdallah, add to Elia Suleiman’s work in the quirky and ironic realms of social and political commentary, displaying distinct stamps of their own filmmakers. I also find Ibrahim Elbatout’s thoroughgoing brand of personal, restrained, politically charged cinema to be intrepid and look forward to Elbatout’s renown garnering attention in the U.S. in the years to come. He has to date made three narrative features, all of which we will have screened upon closing our festival with his most recent, Winter Of Discontent, on Sunday.
WCCO: What movies do you think would surprise Minnesotan cinephiles among this year’s selections?
Ghawanmeh: I think that audiences may be surprised to notice the obvious indie-comedy of the opener OK, Enough, Goodbye, by the exceptional craft of Horses Of God, by the photographic splendor of our “secret screening” in the closing segment, by the standard-setting vividness and virtuosity of such an Arab documentary as Fidai, and by our screening three films with a local connection, including Hisham Bizri’s Sirocco, which has made several film festivals’ official selections, including most recently Sundance’s.
WCCO: Tell me a little bit about your opening and closing selections.
Ghawanmeh: The opening and closing segments are not to be missed. Our opener is due to screen in the Walker Art Center on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., an event that promises glamour and delight, especially with a reception following the screening. The closing segment will include not only the superb Winter Of Discontent, but will also present the mentioned “secret screening” a film due to make its U.S. premiere in a renowned U.S. film festival soon. Following screening of the two films, Mizna’s Twin Cities Arab Film Festival will present its first awards, a gesture that we have looked forward to making for years.
Zabana! (Friday, March 15 at 7:30 p.m.) MN Premiere
Perhaps the single most famous film made within the Arab region is Gillo Pontecorvo’s blistering The Battle of Algiers, a docu-dramatic depiction of Algeria’s battle for independence over France occupation and still one of the most fiercely political films ever made. Zabana! depicts the 1956 execution of Ahmed Zabana, one of the Algerian freedom fighters whose death at 30 by guillotine is considered one of the main reasons the resistance accelerated their efforts on the ground. Imad Benchenni plays the title role.
Detroit Unleaded (Saturday, March 16 at 4 p.m.)
Want a little bit of Clerks with your sayadiya? Handsome, charismatic Sami is a Lebanese-American living in Detroit who ends up taking over the family gas station when his father dies, sidelining his college ambitions. His cousin Mike has big plans for the station, intending to bury the competition across the street, but Sami is more interested in wooing the beautiful Naj. Detroit Unleaded isn’t any sort of groundbreaking template-smasher, but offers a gentle spin on the traditional rom-com template.
Sirocco (Saturday, March 16 at 7 p.m.) MN Premiere
Screening ahead of In Search of Oil and Sand, the short Sirocco (from Lebanese director Hisham Bizri) takes a cue from abstract expressionism and maybe just a dash of David Lynch to spin the fable of an Arab man trying to solve a mystery, but becoming increasingly perplexed by the surfeit of signifiers surrounding him. An astonishing visual atmosphere will take your breath away long before the central riddle is solved.
Horses Of God (Saturday, March 16 at 9:30 p.m.) US Premiere
With heartbreaking performances and unerring interpersonal tension, Horses of God (selected for Un Certain Regard at Cannes) was inspired by the May 13, 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca. Two brothers live in the slums of Sidi Moumen. The elder brother is imprisoned at 13 and emerges years later a full-blown fundamentalist. He convinces his younger brother and their friends to follow the call toward Jihad. Horses of God is a no holds barred look at the circumstances that lead to their decision.
Words of Witness (Sunday, March 17 at 3:30 p.m.) MN Premiere
With the eyes of the world on Egypt, a young woman takes to the streets to cover the unprecedented social upheavals that eventually led to the deposition of Hosni Mubarak. Heba Afify strives to uphold the duties of a citizen journalist, sharing updates of a unique historical moment through the tools at her disposal (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, texts), but to also pay respect to her mother’s concerns for her safety and familial role.