To claim that Cinemayaat, the Arab Film Festival, has an agenda of demystification does it no favors. Certainly the programmers are determined to avoid stereotypes, and have painstakingly orchestrated a broad chorus of authentic Arab voices. But to demystify is to reduce, and Cinemayaat is nothing if not an act of cultural amplification. The best of the festival’s nearly two dozen films — roughly half of them documentaries — are superbly mystifying. They haunt and confound, and refuse to deny the lure of the exotic, whether it appears in an ancient culture’s most elegant or horrific rituals, or in the notion that human nature is finally borderless.
The scope is inexhaustible, and thus well suited to annual installments in the common dialect of the movies. “I think that film is a beautiful way to connect with people,” program director Tarek Elaydi says. “It’s amazing how we have been received.” Cinemayaat, now in its seventh outing, has clearly come of age; it needn’t rely on current affairs for relevance, but is helped by how effectively the films annotate American headlines — or repudiate them. “A lot of people who come are activists, who want to know more,” Elaydi says. “Since we started, the majority of our audience is not Arab, which was really surprising to us at first. But it has been successful here — despite what’s happened.”
The slyest and most ambitious aspect of the festival’s agenda, however, is an aim to legitimize the entire field of Arab Cinema while also decrying its ghettoization. If the films have anything in common beyond the obvious, it is that they present a multiplicity of pilgrimages. A searching spirit unifies them, an interest in what it means to escape from and also to reclaim the burdens of heritage. In The Bookstore, from Tunisian director Nawfel Saheb-Ettaba, the protagonist tells his restless wife that “a man can’t live without roots.” “What have your roots done for you?” she retorts, aptly cutting him to the quick. Whether or not the characters are Arab and fictional, they’re recognizable as people searching for ways to honor God, ancestors, families, and selves, while navigating the labyrinth of modern life.
It shouldn’t surprise the non-Arabs among us to encounter such a broad spectrum of techniques and stances, from the conventionally dramatic to the bluntly confrontational to the openly curious. Abdelkrim Bahloul’s character-driven thriller, Night of Destiny, opens with a pair of murderers chasing a witness into a mosque full of praying men. Jackie Salloum’s nine-minute Planet of the Arabs is a self-described “montage spectacle of Hollywood’s relentless dehumanization and vilification of Arabs and Muslims.” Under the Baghdad Sky, by Mario Balsamo and Stefano Scialotti, follows twenty Italian musicians to Iraq, where they listen to the voices in the streets.
The fest’s real payoff, perhaps, comes from consciousness-raising. What kind of cultural exports have we offered the world — the Arab one or any other — in exchange for treasures like these?
The 7th Annual Arab Film Festival opens September 25 at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco, and runs through October 5, with screenings in San Francisco, San Jose, and at Wheeler Hall, Berkeley. Full festival pass $95, screenings $9 from AFF.org