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Arts & Culture

San Diego Arab Film Festival Turns 5

Farah, 18, is a rebellious rock singer on the eve of Tunisia's Arab Spring in Leyla Bouzid's debut feature film, "As I Open My Eyes."
Courtesy Shellac
Farah, 18, is a rebellious rock singer on the eve of Tunisia's Arab Spring in Leyla Bouzid's debut feature film, "As I Open My Eyes."

San Diego is slowly becoming a film festival town, with a new festival seemingly popping up like coffee shops every year, filling niches San Diego didn’t even know it had.

Until recently, one of those niches was a Middle Eastern/Arab film festival. This year, the San Diego Arab Film Festival turns a respectable five years old with a programming to match its developing maturity.

Put on by Karama, the local non-profit Arab and Islamic World information project, the Arab Film Festival springboards off the Arab Film Festival in San Francisco, one of the oldest such festivals in the United States.


For its fifth anniversary, the San Diego Arab Film Festival has pulled together an impressive line-up that features a wide-ranging look at the Arab world, post-Arab Spring.

The festival opens Thursday with the feature-length documentary “Iraqi Odyssey,” which follows three generations of an Iraqi family whose story and subsequent exiles, spans a major part of both Iraqi and world history. Swiss-Iraqi filmmaker Samir Jamal Aldin (who goes by Samir) mines his family’s experiences to trace an Iraq that went from sophisticated center of culture to the torn and tattered country we see on the news today. As his mostly progressive family slowly runs afoul of increasingly totalitarian governments, various members start to flee, spreading across the globe from New York to New Zealand and points in between.

At almost three hours, the documentary runs rather long; nonetheless, Samir creates a fascinating and poignant portrait of a family longing for home and connection and of a home whose progressive destruction has driven them away. “Iraqi Odyssey” was Switzerland’s entry for the Best Foreign Film category of the Oscar’s in 2015.

Thursday night will also feature various Iraqi foods prepared by restaurants from El Cajon’s large Iraqi community.

“Odyssey” is not the only Oscar submission on this year’s slate. On Friday, the festival will screen Jordan’s official entry into the 2017 Oscar’s, “3000 Nights,” by veteran Palestinian-American documentary maker Mai Masri. This is Masri’s first foray into the narrative feature. Masri is more known for hard-hitting documentaries such as “Children of Shatila” and “33 Days,” about conflicts in Lebanon.


“3000 Nights” is the story of Layal, a young newly-wed Palestinian school teacher who finds herself on trial, falsely accused as a collaborator in an attack on an Israeli checkpoint, days before she and her new husband are scheduled to leave for Canada. In prison, she eventually discovers she is pregnant and defies everyone to keep her child. When the prisoners go on strike, Layal is faced with a difficult decision.

Masri’s fiction feature contains many of the elements that characterize her documentaries such as deeply personal tight framing and a well-researched story. For “3000,” Masri interviewed various women who had given birth in Israeli prisons. However, fiction has allowed Masri some leeway, and the film is also a story couched in symbolism becoming an allegory for the hopes and dreams of Palestinian independence.

Viewers will get to ask Masri about this and more on Friday night when Masri joins the festival for a rare appearance in Southern California.

Also, on Friday, the AFF follows the lead of several local, more established festivals and has programmed a very diverse program of shorts. The shorts run from poetic to animation and come from across the Arab World. Be sure not to miss the stunning (and heartbreaking) ‘In Damascus” and the very funny, surprising, “Ave Maria” about five nuns and an Israeli family in the West Bank.

What do Lebanon and the show “Weeds” have in common? Quite a lot, actually. Where this year’s Oscar entry from Lebanon is concerned, it’s the border and drugs. Oh, and sharply observant comedy. Lots of that.

In “Very Big Shot,” screening Saturday, brothers Ziad and Joe deal out of their pizza shop. A third brother, Jad, is about to be released from prison, having done time for a crime his brother Ziad committed. Determined to go straight, Ziad and Joe, are ready to turn over a new leaf, to make it up to Jad. However, change is easier said than done, and Ziad’s supplier has one last job for them. The brothers take it, but they have a little surprise for Ziad’s supplier that involves a little canister of film, a clueless filmmaker, and a shot at the big leagues. “Very Big Shot” is a well-paced, sardonic romp through Beirut where being a big shot may well get you on the news and a sizeable pay-off.

It’s been a little over five years since the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia. The revolution not only overthrew Ben Ali’s government but also disrupted one of the most sophisticated cinemas in the Arab World.

Now, Tunisian cinema is back with Leila Bouzid as one of its young torchbearers. Bouzid, daughter of famed Tunisian director Nouri Bouzid, sets her first feature film, “As I Open My Eyes,” in the months before the Arab Spring. It’s a dynamic homage to the youth of Tunisia, who make up the bulk of Tunisia’s population. Farah is a fiery 18-year-old singer who expresses her generation’s frustration in the suffocating Tunisia of the old guard and Ben Ali.

Beautifully shot and set to music specifically composed for the film by virtuoso Iraqi musician Khyam Allami, Bouzid’s film is a stylish, compelling look at a generation about to make the leap into revolution. “As I Open My Eyes” is Tunisia’s official entry for the Oscars.

Bouzid isn’t the only one looking at young creative Arab artists. Director Farid Eslam spent much of the Arab Spring following some of the most innovative young Arab artists to see how they were responding to the cultural and political upheavals. The result, “Yallah! Underground,” is an eye-opening foray into the youth-driven underground music scene currently rocking the Middle East. German-born Eslam drops in on musicians from Cairo to Amman and places in between. “Yallah!” is an exuberant invitation to hang out at the ever-shifting intersection of art and politics in the Arab World. What you hear will open your mind and blow your ears. “Yallah! Underground” shows Saturday and “As I Open My Eyes” screens Sunday afternoon.

The festival closes with one of the most beloved films to come out of the new Arab Film movement, the story of Mohammed Assaf, an aspiring singer from Gaza. Based on the life of the real Assaf, “The Idol” follows his story from growing up in a Gaza constantly under occupation to the harrowing journey he takes across the border to compete in the “Arab Idol” finals in Egypt. “Idol” mines several themes familiar to those who know director Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now,” “Omar”), but this time the underdog wins. The film, the first feature to be shot in Gaza in decades, “Idol” is Palestine’s official entry to the 2017 Oscars.

It’s been a long and sometimes uncertain learning curve for the San Diego Arab Film Festival, but this year’s line-up is one of the strongest the festival has ever had. If this year is any indication, San Diego film buffs can look to the San Diego Arab Film Festival as a major player in screening Middle Eastern film in San Diego.