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Karama presents 12th Annual San Diego Arab Film Festival

Karama presents the San Diego Arab Film Festival, which kicks off Friday night with in-person screenings and themed food at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.

Karama is a nonprofit organization that focuses on issues of the Arab and Islamic world with a special emphasis on Palestine.

In 2012, it launched the San Diego Arab Film Festival and this weekend it celebrates its 12th festival.


Putting on a film festival is a daunting task under any conditions but what is most impressive about the San Diego Arab Film Festival is that it is entirely run by volunteers who just have a passion to bring Arab culture and film to local audiences.

The festival has two stated goals: to celebrate Arab culture with the local Arab community, and to provide an honest and real portrayal of Arab culture to a broader, mainstream audience. The festival wants to recognize the contribution Arab culture has made and to combat negative stereotypes that often dominate public discourse.

This year the festival committee screened almost a hundred shorts and features from Morocco to Iran and even Sudan.

"We don't see many films from Sudan," said Larry Christian, president of Karama and film festival committee chair. "We were anxious to show one ... because people don't think of Arabs as being (from) there. One of our goals is to show the breadth of the Arab world and Arab culture. And so we we always try to pick a range. So this year we have features from seven different countries and shorts from, I think — maybe five others. And we try to give a range of countries, but also a range of cultural references between urban and rural, generational issues, gender conflict; all these things that are current in the region."

Sophie Dulac Distribution
Ali Cherri's "The Dam" is a rare film from Sudan that the San Diego Arab Film festival was eager to screen.

Best of fest

The Sudanese film is Ali Cherri's "The Dam" and it was my favorite film of the festival. It is a breathtaking allegory set against the political unrest of the Sudan.

It starts as a realistic portrait of Sudanese workers making bricks from the muddy clay earth. They work by the Nile and use their bricks to build a dam. But one worker, Maher (Maher El Khair) secretly slips out and starts building his own creation. I wish I knew more about Sudan and its history because I think the film would be richer and even more impactful. But even knowing very little about the Sudanese revolution, the film had me riveted. The idea of building a dam to hold something back as we hear news reports of resistance and revolution, does a great job of showing how some societal pressure is unable to be stopped.

The film slips more and more into a magical realm where the power of imagination reigns. There is stunning imagery, sublime performances, and a style that feels uniquely African.

Criterion Channel
"Warsha" is one of the short films showcased at this year's San Diego Arab Film Festival.

My other festival favorite is a short entitled "Warsha" from Lebanon. It starts with a gritty, contemporary feel as construction workers head off to work. One man volunteers to work up high, on the dangerous crane, where a series of accidents have already happened. His reasons for taking the job are a wondrous surprise. The film has a flight of fancy ending, that is exquisitely rendered.

Fig trees.jpeg
Bevrijdings Films
"Under the Fig Trees" is a Tunisian film screening as part of this year's San Diego Arab Film Festival.

Another standout is "Under the Fig Trees." As with "The Dam," it eschews a conventional linear narrative plot. But in this case, it simply lets us spend the day with a group of characters working in an orchard picking figs. There are conflicts, politics, and a blossoming love story, all played out with elegant grace and an eye for detail.

Personal connections

For very personal reasons, committee member Maha Gebara will be introducing the Lebanese film, "Memory Box" on Saturday. The film focuses on a mother and daughter, and a box containing notebooks, photographs and audiotapes about the mother's past.

"It really rings a bell for me because it is about our collective shared memory and how it shapes us," Gebara said. "As someone who left at a young age from Lebanon, I left during the height of the civil war in Lebanon, so it's very personal to me. It's very touching because it's a memory of that time. It fills some gaps and it's also for the next generation to share what we've been through with our kids. And hopefully, also it's for the larger public to see not just what we've been through, but just how life was in Lebanon right before."

Jacir (Malek Rahbani)) and Meryl (Lorraine Bracco) overcome differences to form a friendship in "Jacir."

Gebara will also introduced "Jacir," which tells the story of a Syrian refugee who lost his entire family at home and has come to the U.S. in search of a new life.

"He's chasing his American dream," Gebara said. "He's coming to the States and then he hits certain barriers and begins to discover the divisiveness of U.S. politics. And his next door neighbor (played by Lorraine Bracco) is an alcoholic and he tries to help her and yet she refuses and he gets into trouble trying to help her. What Jacir does is really shows the importance of letting go of our biases and preconceived notions and how it's so important to be there for your community and support them because otherwise you will not be happy either. It's about being a community with your neighbors, supporting them and so on."

The film lets you see the world through Jacir's eyes. News reports about Syria sound different in his presence, because we can process them with a more personal and intimate perspective.

But Gebara added, "You start seeing yourself as well. I think it's really good for everybody because (the film) really opens your eyes to what's going on and also how people perceive us here in the United States."

JHR Films
"Alam" is the opening night film of the San Diego Arab Film Festival.

The festival opens with the Palestinian film "Alam (Flag)." Set at a school in Israel, Palestinian where students raise objections to the flying of the Israeli flag as well as to how their history is taught.

Larry Christian noted that Egypt has the longest standing film industry in the region, "But we haven't seen a lot of film activity from there in the last few years. We see a lot of films from Lebanon, from Tunisia, Morocco, from Palestine, and recently from Syria. The level of conflict in some of these places makes it hard for a lot of filmmaking to go on, which means that we're seeing more films from the Arab diaspora, films from France and other countries about Arabs in those countries. Sometimes it's about what happens to Arab immigrants in those countries. Sometimes it focuses more on the interrelationship of staying home versus moving away and kind of conflicts and cultural references."

The San Diego Arab Film Festival runs this Friday and Saturday, and then March 10 through 12 at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.

I cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.
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