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Arabian Sights Film Fest-Washington, DC

Ghadi” Steals the Show at Washington, DC’s Arabian Sights Film Festival

The Arabian Sights Film Festival concluded its 19th season in Washington, DC last weekend with a sold-out last screening and a reception sponsored by the Algerian embassy.  Festival goers bought 2,000 tickets to see 9 new films from Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia, 3 of which were American Premieres.

American film festivals showcasing the new cinema from the Arab world can be counted on one hand: San Francisco and Los Angeles, CA, Dearborn, MI and Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN.   Dedicated festivals are rare, which is why Arabian Sights in Washington, DC is so important.

This year’s selection addressed themes of family relationships, history, culture and social justice.  The impact of religion was explored, particularly in the Algerian film, Certified Halal, and as artifice in the theatrical sleight-of-hand in the Lebanese film Ghadi.  Among others, the entertainment included the popular dramatic comedy, Rock the Casbah, directed by Laila Marrakchi, about a wealthy Tangiers family harboring a long-stifled secret and Giraffada, directed by Rani Massalha, about a boy’s love for a Giraffe set in the context of family life on the Occupied West Bank.

Besides drama, tossed with plenty of laughter, two examples of cinematic bravery shined through in Ghadi and Certified Halal. Set apart from the 7 other films, these reflect the directors’ mission to challenge ignorance, raise awareness and acceptance, and promote respect for women and minorities.  With great planning, both directors were in town for post-screening conversations: the Ghadi audience was thoroughly entertained, happy and complimentary while the Certified Hallal audience was reflective and a bit edgy with pockets of disbelief in the film’s raw-edged premise disguised in a comedic spoof.

In its American Premiere, the Lebanese comedy Ghadi won the Audience Choice Award and left a warm “Ghadi glow” long after leaving the theater. Ghadi is also Lebanon’s entry for the Academy Awards.  Filmed over two months in the village of Batroun, the film raises important societal issues in an engaging, comedy-infused plot with a message of tolerance while building a fanciful tale with brilliantly cast characters whose foibles, small-town meddling  and evolving morality charmed the audience.

Popular Lebanese actor Georges Khabbaz wrote the screenplay and stars in the main role as Ghadi’s father Leba.  Spoiler Alert:  The plot unfolds as devoted Leba contrives a Wizard of Oz-worthy scenario to win the town’s acceptance of Ghadi, who has Down Syndrome.  Beautiful choral voices enrich the celestial mood for Leba’s other-wordly scheme by which he convinces the town that Ghadi is a very special child.  The film is a comedic morality tale about the possibility of change as the town transforms into an accepting and harmonious community.

One viewer said “All the heroes were minorities. I didn’t expect it to be so profound.”  “I have never seen such a movie” said another.  “Everything was perfect; the cinematography, the casting, the acting and the story.  To star a handicapped child has to challenge the director. I am full of admiration.”  “We loved it!” said another viewer. “People fall into the trap of the routine of life, then the jolt of this child fixed their community and made them find harmony. Once people put their mind to something, they can take it on.”

Ghadi Director, Amin Dora, is young and a rising star. A Google employee happened to be in the audience and approached him afterwards saying, “I was so impressed…our business is all about transcending cultural barriers… I’m going to try to arrange a Google Talk for you.” He also mentioned getting the film into the Google Play store.

The Ghadi child actor, Emmanuel Khairallah, was scouted from the Lebanese SESOBEL institution, which provides care and education for handicapped children.  Dora explained how he trained Khairallah for 4 weeks prior to filming, “using games to communicate.” He described how the child “had a positive vibe and created a very special presence on the set.  He was never tired and always happy.” Dora added, “If this film affects even 2 percent of viewers to make people respect disabled people, it will have been worth it for me”. There are a number of Down Syndrome actors in the U.S. but, Khairallah’s role in this film is probably precedent-setting in the Arab world.

Several other films explored threads of damage that arises from the simmering of all that is left unsaid, unapproved, opposed by religious interpretation or abused in a social justice context and suggest hope for change.

Certified Hallal is the most daring film of the lot with a message that seems intended for a regional audience versus more universal appeal. Director Mahmoud Zemmouri and Producer Marie Attias emphasized their conscious provocation to confront cultural norms and raise awareness and debate about the still prevalent treatment of women as objects in much of the Arab world.  Zemmouri said the comedic foil came to him while sitting at a café when he noticed three bridal caravans getting mixed up in a roundabout.  He thought the idea of marrying the wrong bride was original until his mother told him that such stories had already happened in real life. He used the mix-up to illustrate how marriage matches are often decided solely by brothers and fathers, dowries negotiated and women thus traded—even on Skype—in deals that may also be conditional on certified virginity.  Hence the film’s title.

Zemmouri and Attias hit the subject head on—with the kidnapping of a French Algerian activist named Kenza by her brother who brags about his efficiency using “GHB, the date rape drug.”  He’d negotiated online to deliver her to an Algerian groom because her family decided she’d become an embarrassment and should be married off into oblivion.  Kenza is shown in a wheelchair, barely able to hold her eyes open being shepherded through Algerian immigration while her French passport is stamped by a suspicious but complicit female immigration officer.

The ruse continues with all kinds of antics as Kenza and Sultana, a farmer’s daughter, are shrouded in white burnooses with hoods covering their faces.  Once in the car caravans, the inevitable mix up occurs in the parade of errant cars, petty accidents and fights.  Ultimately, the peasant bride is married to the wrong groom and Kenza manages to evade her captors.  The comical ending finds both brides “escaping” on the same bus and causing a feminist riot where one woman tells another: “Don’t say love; it’s a sin!”  In the end after raucous fights, some women rip off their veils, a party atmosphere ensues and both men and women are seen laughing and having a grand time.

Producer Attias explained that their target audience is broad and family focused, so they planned scenes sensitively and that customs, clothing and even accents were mixed so that broader Maghreb audiences would relate to the film. During the Q&A, an Algerian woman said the film “stereotypes Arabs and is not realistic. “ Zemmouri and Attias stood their ground with Zemmouri saying how for years he’d lived 25 kilometers from Algiers and heard of countless such cases both in villages and even in the city itself and that treatment of women as property remains prevalent.

Interestingly, the Algerian government provided 40% co-production financing for the film.  In February, Certified Halal will be shown for the first time in Algeria, with simultaneous openings in Tunisia and Morocco.  It is meant to be provocative and expected to elicit much controversy.  Zemmouri said the DVD will be issued three months after the openings in North Africa.

The Arabian Sights festival grew out of the Washington, DC International Film Festival, when Director Shirin Ghareeb saw strong demand for movies from the Arab world.   Referring to the variety of films in this year’s festival, Ghareeb said she believes “in the power of film to reach across boundaries and there’s such a need to share information about Arab culture in the United States where people only get limited and often negative exposure to the Arab World.  Arabian Sights fills a void in Washington…It’s really quite extraordinary “ she said “that there’s no other opportunity to see Arabs or Arab life…other than perhaps through film in this way.  It’s sad but it’s true. The subtitles of these films make that whole world accessible.  The films deliver exposure to Arab culture, with its music, arts, customs, textiles, cooking, politics and so much more. “

One viewer, who works for the U.S. Department of State, said he was “so happy with Arabian Sights” and that “there’s such an underrepresentation of Arab culture and understanding in the U.S.  I love the film festival he said.  “It’s so important.”

While Ghareeb has screened and selected the films for the spring International Festival for 24 years, she is also the passionate powerhouse whose unwavering enthusiasm has guided the fall Arabian Sights Film Festival forward for 19 years.  Between the two festivals, she puts her heart and soul into screening up to 100 international films each year.  A graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and Georgetown University, Ghareeb previously worked at the World Bank.  “When I started working with Film Fest DC, I thought this is not what I studied but I’m really using my degree in ways that I never thought that I would.”

Ghadi and Leba

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