Arabian Sights director delivers milestone films for 20th anniversary

Friday 13/11/2015
(L to R) Shirin Ghareeb, founder and director of the Arabian Sights Film Festival, moderator Colin Brown, Khadija Al Salami, director of I am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced.

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.