Arabian Sights director delivers milestone films for 20th anniversary
Washington - Thousands of Washingtonians have been introduced to Arab films because of one woman’s passionate commitment. Shirin Ghareeb, deputy director of Filmfest DC, launched the Arabian Sights Film Festival in 1995 to showcase contemporary Arab cinema. It is one of only a handful of such festivals in the United States. This year’s 20th anniversary festival featured ten films, including two US premieres.
First, the story behind the story: Shirin Ghareeb is a quietly dedicated Arab-American and the ultimate practitioner of cultural diplomacy. Her father, Majid Khadduri, was a prominent Iraqi-born scholar of Islam and the Middle East who founded the Middle East Studies Department at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Her husband, Edmund Ghareeb, is a scholar of the Middle East.
She recalls an idyllic childhood. “I grew up in an incredibly loving household,” she said, “surrounded by the best of Arab culture… My parents loved to entertain so there were always interesting people around.”
Ghareeb earned graduate and undergraduate degrees in Middle East studies. Reflecting on her career, she said: “I had no idea that this was how I would use my education, but now it all makes sense.”
Ghareeb attends the major international film festivals in the United States and overseas and “probably watch[es] 1,000 films a year. I always select new films that I believe are really good and important. I also know what will resonate with my audience. They are always honest. They don’t hold back on opinions.” Patrons cast ballots after each screening.
The 2015 edition of the festival included two US premieres within documentary, thriller, drama and historical fiction genres from Egypt, France, Jordan, the Netherlands, the Palestinian territories, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Yemen. Five directors attended the festival: Palestinian Najwa Najjar (Eyes of a Thief) Syrian-American Abe Kasbo (One Thousand and One Journeys), Yemeni Khadija al- Salami (I am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced), Jordanian Majid Al Ansari (Zinzana) and Egyptian Sherif Nakhla (Les Petits Chats).
Kasbo’s sweeping documentary about the history of Arab-Americans prompted one viewer to say: “I’m 64 years old and this is the first time in my life that I’ve truly felt proud of my heritage.”
Kasbo told The Arab Weekly: “Arab-Americans have been in the weeds of American history for too long and it’s time for the flower to blossom.”
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Kasbo said: “I saw how incredibly important it could be to bring a really important story to the public about our shared values and the remarkable contributions made by Arab-Americans in all the professions over two centuries.” After the film’s debut, it opened in New York and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) television network is planning to air it nationwide.
Salami’s film tells the true story of a Yemeni child bride. Watching it requires grit and enduring moments of gut-wrenching revulsion.
Salami overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to make this film. The director with 25 documentaries to her name doubtless battles demons from her own child bride experience and that of her mother, who was married off at age 8, two years younger than star character Nojoom, who falls asleep in her new husband’s bed holding her doll.
With her documentarian’s eye, Salami’s cinematography delights with rarely viewed landscapes and scenes of village life but the film inexorably returns to the plot’s brutal essence: the horrid abuse of young girls.
To her credit, Salami does not broad-brush men as consummately evil but lends them miserly empathy as ignorant victims of entrenched cultural predation. Nor does she hide the complicity of older women, who — also victimised — force the bride-slaves to clean and haul water and encourage beatings.
In real life, Nojoom’s remarkable victory in court gives a glimmer of hope for change, while 15 million girls are married off before the age of 18 every year, many before puberty. Salami took home the Audience and Jury awards to add to many others garnered worldwide.
A panel discussion highlighted the dramatic evolution in the Arab film industry. Nakhla described the impossibility of conquering the “three major production companies” in Egypt but his success proved their irrelevance. The trend is clear: old rules don’t apply. Young directors are going it alone. They are digitally savvy, confident and creative. Younger film-makers are discovering new funding models, training indigenous actors and demanding location authenticity.
Promotion budgets continue to limit distribution success but there’s a growing recognition of the importance of “American-style marketing”. Surely, these new cinematic wizards will stretch their resources by innovating ways to reach audiences. There’s a thriving “Arab spring” in the film industry. Known for its big push in the arts, the United Arab Emirates was the lead Arabian Sights sponsor and is investing heavily in film financing, capacity-building, marketing and production, besides having developed successful Abu Dhabi and Dubai festivals.