Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

San Diego’s Arab Film Festival Back For Its Second Year

Wide selection of film from the Arab World screens in San Diego

Still from

Credit: Courtesy Sara Ishaq

Above: Still from "Asmaa," an unusual film from Egypt screening this Friday

— The newest member of San Diego’s film festival is now 2-years-old and celebrating by rolling out an ambitious program.

Opening Wednesday night at the Museum of Photographic Arts, the San Diego Arab Film Festival is screening 15 films from 10 countries, said Stephanie Jennings. She's a board member of Karama, the Middle Eastern cultural group running the festival.

“Last year, we sold out all the screenings,” Jennings said. “We’re hoping to get a similar turnout this year.”

“It’s a bigger and more diverse festival,” said John Halaka, Karama board member and local Palestinian-American artist on the art faculty of USD. An offshoot of the Arab Film Festival in San Francisco, now in its 17th year, the San Diego festival is a “flavorful taste…of a very broad world,” Halaka said.

Choosing the films was a challenge, said Nasser Barghouti, part of the festival committee. “Whenever you choose by committee, it’s complicated.”

According to Barghouti, the screening committee sifted through more than 25 films to make their choices.

“We were looking for films that express the diversity of the Arab experience and community.”

The selected narratives, documentaries and shorts represent a cross section of films and videos currently being made throughout the Arab world and community abroad.

Among the countries represented are Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

According to Barghouti, the San Diego Arab Film Festival is looking to appeal to local Arabic-language viewers and to educate filmgoers as well about Arab cinema.

“Who thinks of Arab film when you think of foreign film?” he said. Few Arab films are distributed into the U.S. and fewer still get wide play.

One of the more recent Arab films to screen in San Diego was the Lebanese film, “Where Do We Go Now?” by Nadine Labaki.

“Very few foreign films get theatrical distribution to begin with. The Arab/Muslim "market" is small,” Jordan El Grably, executive director of The Levantine Center, a Middle Eastern cultural center based in Los Angeles, told KPBS in an email.

John Sinno, director of Arab Film Distribution in Seattle concurs.

“Many people are not open to foreign films…with subtitles,” he said, and mentioned that many viewers are not sure how to read the political and cultural messages. “After 9/11," said Sinno, "there was a burgeoning interest but then there was a paradigm shift towards seeing the Middle East as either full of terrorists or refugees,and filmgoers may have become overwhelmed by the stereotypes.

And that, says Barghouti, is precisely why such a festival is timely. “We want to get beyond that,“ he said, adding the festival is an opportunity for people to see the richness and diversity of life in various Arab communities and to showcase a cinema whose roots go back 100 years.

Friday night opens with the unusual Egyptian feature, “Asmaa,” about a young Egyptian woman confronting her own HIV status. Directed by Amr Salama, and starring Tunisian actress Hind Sabri ("The Yacoubian Building"), “Asmaa” is the first Egyptian film to break the silence around AIDS in Egypt with its daring look at how a married Egyptian woman struggles to cope with the stigma of the disease after she contracts AIDS from her husband.

In addition, the festival will host guest filmmaker Jessica Habie, a rising star in documentary film, on Saturday. Habie will lead a discussion after the screening of her award-winning film, “Mars at Sunrise.” A new release, “Mars at Sunrise,” was awarded Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes Awards. Based on true stories, the film explores how two artists, one Palestinian, the other Israeli, deal with the Israeli occupation and express their frustrations through art.

Several shorts are also worth keeping in mind. Little if any film comes out of Yemen, and yet one of its latest productions, “Karama Has No Walls,” has been taking the documentary world by storm. Short listed for the Oscars documentary shorts category, Sara Ishaq’s powerful piece takes a close look at the day Yemenis took to the streets in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, to protest their president and claim their rights as part of the Arab Spring. “Karama” is scheduled to screen on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.

Another short, connected to another hot spot and part of the Arab Spring commentary comes from Syria, a well-known producer of elegant films. This particular short, “Jasmenco,” borrows a page from the Spanish director, Carlos Saura, and uses the intense emotional structure of Flamenco (a dance with Arab roots), to express an equally intense struggle: the on-going fight between the Syrian government and large sections of its population.

Halaka also recommends several other films, including “Blind Intersections,” from Lebanon, which is about three strangers whose lives suddenly and violently collide; “While They Slept,” a short from Morocco about a girl and her grandfather; and “Nation Estate,” from Palestinian/Danish artist Larissa Sansour, a humorous, sci-fi approach to the deadlock in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

What may be in the future for one of San Diego’s newest festivals? Both Halaka and Barghouti look forward to expansion.

“It’s a young festival,” Halaka said. ”It takes time to develop and grow but we have dreams…”

Barghouti added, “we’re looking forward to adding more screenings during the year and cultural components as well as collaboration with other groups.”

The San Diego Arab Film Festival screens at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park from Nov. 15-17. Detail and screening times are available on the website. Online ticket purchase is strongly encouraged as the festival sold out last year.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.