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A Window On The Arab World

Credit: courtesy photo

Above: "Mawlana" ("The Preacher"), a new film about Egypt's telepreachers.

— In a year in which travel bans and issues concerning refugees from the Middle East have been front and center, the San Diego Arab Film Festival, now in its sixth year, seems more relevant than ever. This year’s festival brings a diverse program that presents not just a window into life throughout the region, but also brings a perspective on issues like love in recovering economies, bi-national identity as an Arab living in Europe and remembering Palestine. This is probably one of the best line-ups the festival has yet to offer.

This year’s festival opens Friday, October 20th with “Mawlana “(“The Preacher”), one of the most daring and visually excellent films to have come out of what has been dubbed the “New Egyptian Cinema.” “Mawlana” delves into a well-known but little-dramatized phenomena of the telepreacher; state-sponsored clerics who discuss religious issues and social problems on TV. The film follows the rise of a modest imam whose charismatic yet down to earth approach has earned him a devoted fan base. It has also earned him the attention the government that seeks to harness his influence to bend society to its will. “Mawlana” was a blockbuster film in Egypt and a lightning rod of controversy with its condemnation of government corruption and its use of religion for its own ends. A tightly structured film, "Mawlana" is an intriguing story told beautifully. “Mawlana” screens at 7.30 pm Friday at the Museum of Photographic Arts.

What does it mean when your culture and history can be told through thread? For the twelve women featured in “Stitching Palestine,” screening Saturday, it means everything. The documentary interweaves the rich history of Palestinian embroidery - in which almost every village can be traced through its individual motifs, with the stories of twelve Palestinian women living both in and outside of the Occupied Territories. “Stitching Palestine” screens Saturday at 7.30 pm. Keep an eye out for authentic examples of the thoubs, traditional dresses with intricate embroidery, in the audience.

There is a second screening on Saturday as well, this time, from slightly next door in Lebanon. “Tramontane” is both a poignant story and a metaphor for Lebanon. The main character Rabih is a young blind man who supports himself by singing and editing braille documents. Soon, he needs a passport to travel north to Europe- like the Mediterranean wind the film is named for. Unfortunately, for Rabih, his national identity card turns out to be false. He is not the person his card says he is. To find out who is he really is, the blind singer ventures into the heart of the story of Lebanon and the multiple stories of Lebanon’s Civil War, hoping that his own story may be in there somewhere. Beautifully shot, “Tramontane’s” strength lies in its powerful portrayal and in the deeply beautiful music, which like the wind, carries Rabih to his ultimate destiny. "Tramontane" screens Saturday, October 21, at 9 pm.

The San Diego Arab Film Festival moves its screenings to the AMC Mission Valley theatre starting Saturday, October 28. In “Reel Bad Arabs,” Shaheen argues that derogatory stereotypes of people of Middle Eastern origin in works like “Aladdin” and “24” go back decades. Shaheen looks at these portrayals and draws a direct line from media representation to public opinion to US national policy. The documentary was released in 2006, but the events of this year alone give it extra resonance. The documentary opens the weekend on Saturday at 2 p.m.

The films “Small Pleasures,” “Tour de France,” and “Hedi” inhabit that both real and mediated space between France and its former colonies in North Africa. The visually stunning “Small Pleasures” from Morocco, the second film by director Mohamed Chrif Tribak, walks a familiar path, using the past to comment on the present. In this film, the harems of 1950’s Morocco (shades of Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi) and the coastal town of Tetouan is the backdrop of the story for two girls who become fast friends. The two girls experience Morocco on the edge of a major change for women, which will lead to greater independence for one and an arranged marriage for the other. It’s a sweet film, with some surprising twists, and has done very well at the Moroccan box office. “Small Pleasures” screens Saturday at 4:10 pm.

Do you ever think of Gerard Depardieu and wonder what happened to the iconic French actor who seemed like such an everyman? Depardieu is back, as prickly Serge, with a young would-be French Arab rapper in tow, Far’Hook, heading down the French coast towards Marseille. Somewhere between Paris and Marseille, Far’Hook starts to feel accepted as a French man of Arab origins, and Serge begins to understand what attracted his son to Islam and music production. What happens when they get to Marseille may surprise you. “Tour de France” screens Saturday at 6:20 pm.

This year Tunisia is back at the Arab Film Festival with “Hedi,” a film about life, ambition, and the power of unspoken dreams. Like pre-Arab Spring Tunisia, Hedi has just been going along with things - a job, an arranged marriage - until one day he meets someone who changes everything. The question is, what will Hedi do? “Hedi” screens Saturday at 8:30 pm.

Sunday brings documentaries, shorts, and a fun finale. Nearly ten years in the making, “1948: Creation and Catastrophe” is directed by local Andy Trimlett and co-director Ahlam Muhtaseb, who will be on hand for the discussion after. To tell the story of the creation of Israel in 1948, and what happened to the Palestinian people, the directors draw on interviews from those who witnessed the events, major historians, and others involved in the conflict. The film screens Sunday at 2 pm.

Sunday also brings a short film program. In the past, this was one of the strongest elements of the Arab Film Festival. This year is no different, and films from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, and the US tell a variety of stories from being Gay in Iraq to being a Heavy Metal musician to a group of nuns about to lose their nunnery. The shorts program screens at 4:30 pm.

The final film is a slightly surreal comedy about an odd road trip, this time with a goat. “Ali, The Goat, and Ibrahim,” the quirky debut film by Egyptian director Sherif El Bendary was a hit in Egypt. Ali believes his beloved goat is the incarnation of his dead girlfriend and Ibrahim hears odd sounds. Together, the three go from Cairo to where three seas meet. It’s an absurdist yet charming look at Egyptian society and a belief that the power of love can heal what ails it.

You can find out more about the films and screening times at the festival’s website:San Diego Arab FIlm Festival. The majority of the films are in Arabic with subtitles in English.

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