by GREG KING
Over the past eleven years the Arab Film Festival has established a strong presence in Sydney and Canberra. But here in Melbourne, the festival only screens for three sessions at Melbourne’s Nova Cinemas over one weekend. 2012 marks the fourth year the Festival has played in Melbourne. But it seems to be gaining in strength here as well, explains Fadia Aboud, the Festival director, on the eve of the 2012 festival.
“We’ve got a good audience in Melbourne,” she says. “I think sooner or later we’re going to have to put more sessions in Melbourne, because our audience has grown. All the films we show here are great. In Sydney we show more films and I wish that we could bring them all to Melbourne. Because there’s only three sessions in Melbourne, we had to pick the best of the best.”
The three feature films screening in Melbourne come from Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon and are all Australian premieres. Aboud says that she always tries to program a Lebanese film in Melbourne, because there are a lot of Lebanese-Australians living here. As well, all the screenings will be accompanied by a short film. One of the short films is Fighting For Air, from Melbourne-based filmmaker Fatima Mawas, whose short Mary screened at last year’s festival. The film is a drama about a 17-year-old girl named KJ, who is part of an underground women’s boxing tournament. “Fatima’s here studying and making films, and she’s one of our hopeful Australian filmmakers,” says Aboud. “We hope to have a feature from one day. We love seeing her work.”
Fighting For Air will screen with Asmaa, a ground breaking Egyptian film in terms of the story. Asmaa tells the story of a strong woman who is living with AIDS in Cairo. It’s based on a true story, says Aboud. “And, as you can imagine, there are very few people who live openly with AIDS in Egypt. This film is about a woman who speaks out and tries to get fair and equal medical treatment even though she has AIDS. So, it’s a really amazing story, and kind of like a personal revolution in amongst all those larger revolutions happening all over the Arab world.”
This year the opening film is from Palestine. Habibi is the new drama from Susan Youssef, a former schoolteacher and journalist who makes controversial and challenging films. A story of forbidden love and passion, Habibi won the Best Film award at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2011, where Aboud first saw it on the big screen. “That means ‘my darling’,” elaborates Aboud. “And it’s a really common phrase that people use. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase habib used for young Arab boys running around the place, but this is actually a term of endearment.” And Youssef will be a guest of the Festival.
Also screening on opening night is the short film Yasmine And The Revolution, from Karin Albou (Little Jerusalem, etc). “There were so many films that came out about the revolution after it and during the revolution, and we showed one of them last year, that was the opening night film. There were so many that we could have chosen. But this one wasn’t about the revolution, it was about everything else kind of around it. And all I can say is that people were still having sex during the revolution, and it’s kind of about that,” Aboud says with a laugh.
Sydney’s opening night screening will have the added bonus of a performance by a live choir, accompanied by a three-piece live band and a conductor. Aboud explains that because of the size of the choir it would be difficult to bring them all to another state.
Also screening in Melbourne is Tayeb, Khalas, Yalla (OK, Enough, Goodbye), the debut feature film from Lebanese director Rania Attieh and her longtime collaborator Daniel Garcia, who hails from Texas. “It really speaks to our Arabic audience,” says Aboud. “It’s another common phrase and it will attract a lot of people and it’s a really common term for ‘Come on, let’s go! It’s set in Tripoli. Tripoli has been getting a lot of media attention in the news lately. There has been a lot of trouble there, but this is not about that at all.” The film is about a 40-year-old man who is still living with his mother and they have a pretty co-dependent relationship. One day she just ups and leaves, and he has to find himself. “It’s kind of like a coming of age story for a 40-year-old man, and it’s really good,” enthuses Aboud. “It’s a pretty common story though in Lebanon where people are still living with their parents in their 40s. It’s not a culture where people move out and have their own place. It’s pretty spectacular on the big screen, though, and I’m really happy to be showing this one.”
Tayeb, Khalas, Yalla is accompanied by Tania Safi’s short animated film called Traub Laus, which is the Arabic name for Tripoli. Aboud deliberately programmed these two films together because it was based in Tripoli. This Australian made short is about a girl who lives in an inner western Sydney suburb. She has a really punky looking hairdo, piercings and tattoos. One summer she goes back to Tripoli, to the city of her parent’s birth. It’s just a beautiful animation about her journey as she leaves her comfortable life in Sydney for her grandmother’s impoverished apartment.
When talking about the state of filmmaking in the Middle East and the tricky issue of state censorship, Aboud explains that it is not so much censorship that stops people from making films in the Arab world. “As in anywhere, it’s funding,” she says. “But what’s changing now is that a couple of the big festivals – like Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the Gulf Film Festival – have funding arms to their festivals. They have really encouraged the growth of Arabic cinema from the Arab world by Arab filmmakers, not by people coming in from abroad or America to make their films there. So that’s really great for us to have much more selection, and each year it just gets bigger and bigger.
“I think filmmakers get around the censorship,” she continues. “I think people will find clever ways to make their films. It would be easier if they didn’t have censorship issues.”
The Arab Film Festival screens in Sydney from June 28-July1 at the Riverside Theatres. In Melbourne it screens at the Nova Cinemas from July 6 until July 8. In Canberra the festival runs from July 12-July 19, and screens at the ARC Cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive. For screening details you can visit the website at www.arabfilmfestival.com.au