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Arts & Culture

San Diego Arab Film Festival Goes Digital

Art from "Mirrors of the Diaspora"
courtesy still
Art from "Mirrors of the Diaspora"

One of San Diego’s newer film festivals about one of the oldest cultures in the world has now joined the still somewhat uncharted territories of digital film festivals.

The San Diego Arab Film Festival, now in its eighth year, normally holds its festival in late March. According to Larry Christian, co-chair of the festival, this year’s program had already been set when the statewide order to close public venues like movies theaters came down.

“We had originally selected nine features and seven shorts,” Christian said.


The theater closures left the festival unsure of what to do next.

According to Christian, the festival contacted the various film directors and distributors to see how they felt about being part of an online festival.

“One feature and one short director didn’t get back to us, one feature couldn’t go online because of agreements with other film festivals, and one was being boycotted for having screened in a film festival in Jerusalem,” Christian said.

However, the film festival was able to secure online screening permissions for six of the original nine features and six of the original shorts, all screening for free, thanks to grants and donations.

The process of getting the festival online was difficult, said Christian, “We didn’t get a website up until June 12,” just a few days before the festival was set to go live.


Wedad Schlotte, a member of the festival’s screening committee, is particularly pleased with the online line-up.

“It’s about building bridges,” she said, noting that anyone who has the patience for subtitles will find the films offer examples of universal human connections.

Schlotte had several films that she recommended in particular.

“Of course, I am biased," Schlotte said, “being from Iraq, but 'Mirrors of a Diaspora' is a very beautiful documentary about seven Iraqi artists, extremely accomplished.” The documentary was shot over three decades and features a number of well-known Iraqi artists art various stages of their careers.

Schlotte also mentioned the Moroccan film “Adam,” helmed by first-time director Maryam Touzani. Starring Lubna Azabal, a Belgian Moroccan actress well known for her work in “Incendies,” and “Above the Law,” “Adam” is the story of a working class widow, Abla, who runs a bakery out of her house in the Old Medina of Casablanca. When an uneducated country girl, Samia, shows up, pregnant and alone, Abla must decide should she show kindness to a total stranger or leave her to fend for herself

Unusual for a Moroccan film, all the major production positions on “Adam” are filled by women, a clear indication that Moroccan women are moving behind the camera as well. ”Adam” has been highly praised for its subtle story structure and the beauty of its cinematography.

“It’s a superb story, heartbreaking and moving,” Schlotte said.

Schlotte also recommended a short from Tunisia, “La Dame et le roi,” a charming story about a young girl, Leila, who travels from France to Tunisia every year with her family. This year is different; Leila wants a visa to bring her best friend, Ahmed, back to live with them.

“The freshness of the story,” said Schlotte. “It touches and delights your heart.”

The Sam Diego Arab Film festival is also fortunate to be able to screen “Soumaya.” The film takes a hard look at what happened in Paris following the November 2015 attack through the experience of Soumaya, a manager for a company at the Charles de Gaulle Airport. Like thousands of others, Soumaya is suddenly suspected of ties to terrorism and fired from her job. Based on a real story, the film follows her as she seeks to clear her name. It’s a rare look at who gets caught up in post-terror attack security measures.

The feature section of the festival is rounded out be three diverse films. The documentary, “The Journey of the Others” follows the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank as they prepare to submit their play for consideration in the United States There is a new Intifada brewing and the theater troupe is hoping against hope they will be able to perform in New York.

Another conflict is brewing in “1982,” a drama from the new wave of Lebanese cinema. Sharply shot and with a compelling young lead, Mohammed Dalli, as Wissam, the film lingers over the last day in school in a Beirut soon to be bombed by Israeli planes while Wissam tries his crush what he really thinks before the bombing scatters them. Based on the memories of director Oualid Mouaness, the ending is not what you might expect.

One slightly unexpected selection is also based on a true story, that of Mohammed Bin Alkassim, a seventh century warrior from Basra, Iraq, who, at 15, sets off to free women and children held captive by pirates in northern India. “The Knight and the Princess” is the first feature length animated film from Egypt. Voiced by well-known Egyptian actors, the drawing style is beautiful, although the animation can be a little clunky at times.

This year’s festival also includes five more shorts which deal with subjects from an Arab American student from Dearborn, Michigan being accepted into Harvard, to musicians in a noisy refugee camp trying to make a music demo so that they can be accepted into a music completion.

The full festival list is available on the film festival’s website at The San Diego Arab Film Festival 2020. While all the screenings are free, viewers are encouraged to “reserve” their access for the films that interest them by creating an account through the festival link and then “reserving” the film or films. The films are then available for three days once they are released for the on-line showings.

The San Diego Arab Film Festival continues through June 28.

You can see the festival’s trailer here.