The Worldwide Celebration of Arab Cinematic Treasures
By: Holly Johnson/Arab America Contributing Writer
Film is not just an escape from life, but also a glimpse into the very fabric that binds us together. From Hollywood blockbusters to Bollywood gems, and indie flicks in-between, films have the ability to capture us with their magic, sprinkling a bit of fairy dust into our lives and leaving us with a new perspective. Film is a direct representation of culture, and is often used as a means of educating others on the society, or lifestyle, at hand. While film can often mix a variety of customs, celebrations for culture-specific films are becoming an increasingly popular form of entertainment.
Film in the Arab World
In the Arab world, film is seen as a celebration of local traditions and culture, and is becoming more prevalent in international markets. In 2019 alone, a number of Arab-infused films took the world by storm, premiering at iconic film festivals such as Cannes and Sundance. While there are a number of film festivals worldwide that focus on specific genres of films, Arab specific film festivals are not only increasing in size, but are gaining in popularity as the quality of films featured improves each year.
When focusing on the United States, perhaps the most well-known Arab film festival would be AFF (the Arab Film Festival). A flagship of the Arab Film and Media Institute, AFF is the largest and longest-running independent Arab film festival in the United States. Founded on the principle of fighting bigotry and racism, AFMI’s AFF has grown to become one of the most renowned festivals worldwide. Held annually in California, the founders of AFMI work closely with respective board members and supporters to promote the positive association of Arab characters, in front of the screen and behind. Their mission is to eradicate the stereotypical images of Arabs. These stereotypes often include depictions of Arabs as villainous, stupid, sleazy, dangerous, and more.
Film Festivals in the United States
Another Arab focused film festival based in the United States is the Middle Eastern Film Festival, held annually in New York City. Aiming to both entertain and enlighten moviegoers, the festival focuses on short and feature-length films revolving around topics related to the Middle East. Despite it being a relatively new festival, the diverse culture of New York City has produced a vibrantly eclectic artistic brainchild complete with education and amusement.
Interestingly, a number of United States-based Arab film festivals are now focusing specifically on one Middle Eastern faction, an example is the rise of festivals dedicated to the issue of Palestine. The Boston Palestine Film Festival, Houston Palestine Film Festival, and Chicago Palestine Film Festival each work to promote the plight of Palestinians while also focusing on constructing a realistic view of Palestinian culture and experiences.
Celebrations Across the Atlantic
In Europe, a continent known historically for its contribution to and fervent promotion of the arts, Arab-esque festivals are in abundance. Created in 2011, the London Middle East and North Africa Film Festival provides an annual platform for filmmakers to not only display works that might not otherwise be shown. These films also help strategically connect with audiences that might otherwise never learn about Arab culture, through education and outreach.
Also, in London, lies the United Kingdom’s longest-running festival focused primarily on film, as well as the world’s oldest organized celebration of Arab media: the London Palestine Film Festival. Featuring screenings, panel discussions, and artist talks, the gathering also boasts book launches, conferences and art exhibitions. Taking place annually amidst the blooming willows of Spring, this festival is the brainchild of the UK-based Palestine Film Festival, and is a hit among locals and tourists alike.
Interestingly, following a pronounced period of historical oppression of Arab culture in Spain, fervor for the education and appreciation of the once embargoed heritage has reached a new fever pitch, culminating in the creation of the Amal Euroarab Film Festival. Conceived in 2003 in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, it seeks to promote long aspired connectivity between Spain and Arab countries, by building a cross-cultural bridge.
Whether one is taking in an Abu Assad film amidst the sun-kissed streets of California, or perusing an Arab art exhibition in Spain, Arab culture continues to be celebrated through cinematic expression.
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