by GREG KING
The Arab Film Festival offers a selection of some of the best contemporary cinema from Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. The Festival commences screenings from July 21 in Sydney. In Melbourne the screenings commence at the Nova Cinemas from July 29. The opening night attraction is the romantic comedy Halal Love. Greg spoke to festival director Fadia Aboud about this year’s lineup of films.
Last year the festival had a very strong response to the Lebanese film that screened, so this year the opening night film is the Lebanese romantic comedy Halal Love (which some critics have already dubbed Divorce Sharia Style). The film’s actual title is Halal Love And Sex, and it’s all about marriages and divorces, what’s legal and what’s not. The film was partly financed by the Sundance Institute as well. Such is its universal appeal that it could be any romantic comedy set in any European country, or even America. “It’s just got that feel to it,” says Aboud.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she continues. “It’s done really really well and it’s for a mixed audience, not specifically for the Lebanese community. It has a kind of wider reach to it. It just happens to be set in Lebanon, it just happens to be about Muslim couples. A lot of people don’t get the rules, and you probably still won’t get the rules when you watch it, but you’ll see how they engage with it, how they make the rules work for them.”
The director is Assad Fouladkar, who used to live in Melbourne twenty years ago. He also was educated and studied film in Boston. Aboud continues: “I don’t really know what he was doing here in Australia and I can’t wait to find out when we meet him. We’re flying him over from Lebanon and he’ll be here in Sydney. But this is also the first time we’ve been able to bring our guest to Melbourne as well. He’ll be there for the Melbourne screening to present his film. And when you see it there’s a few little Australian scenes in it, some Skype scenes with someone in Australia, and you’ll find it really interesting. Look out for it! Some of it’s very stereotyped, conceptualised Aussie stuff. Luckily Arabs are educated all over the world but always return home. It’s good that he has had that influence, that it has influenced his story in that way.”
Waiting For The Fall is a feature length fiction film from Syria, and is the first feature film from that country to screen here in Australia. It tells of the excitement surrounding a major volleyball match by the local ladies’ team. It’s set in a small town, where life goes on while they are waiting, and hoping, that the war doesn’t come to their part of the world. The film has an interesting mix of satire and really poignant scenes, and it has high production values. “They don’t make a lot of films,” explains Aboud. Syria does still make a lot of tv series though, that’s what they’re known for. They are very famous for their tv series although production did slow down with the war. “War isn’t happening everywhere, that’s just what we hear,” adds Aboud. “But it feels like it is and it’s devastating, and it is affecting the countries, no doubt about it. But the way people survive is to carry on. If there’s an industry for something, like tv series, which they actually export to other parts of the Arab world, they’ll make it happen.”
El Clasico is kind of classic road movie set amongst the Kurdish community in Iraq. It is a beautiful love story about a diminutive man who falls in love with a normal-sized woman, but her father won’t let her marry him. He has to prove his love in some way. And it is all connected to soccer. “I find that a lot of Iraqi films are connected to soccer in some way,” laughs Aboud.
A special highlight of the festival is Bennesbeh Labokra Chou? a documentation of an important Lebanese play that took place in 1978. The play was directed, written by and starred Ziad Rahbani, who is still alive, the son of a singer who is a living legend in Lebanon. It’s a cultural and political satire that’s set in 1978, during the civil war. It became very iconic in the lives and the world of many Lebanese. Many didn’t get the chance to see the play as it only ran for a few months. But it became available on tape and it would be played nearly every week on the radio. Everyone had the tape and listened to the play.
“It’s a musical play and there are all these very iconic songs in it,” says Aboud. “Everyone knows the jokes, and they are instilled in the minds of many Lebanese. The filmed footage of the play that was taken has been pieced together, and this is the documentation of it. It’s not a traditional film in the sense of a film festival, but it’s an important piece of cultural history for the Lebanese, and I suppose it echoes a lot of the sentiments of people living there now.”
Roshmia is a documentary from Palestine about an older childless couple who live in a house that’s about to be demolished by the Israeli government. In the Arab world it is very unusual for this older couple not to have had children. They sit in the house all day and smoke and drink coffee, and they just fight with one another because they are under pressure and they don’t know where they’re going to go. “On the one hand it’s quite scary, on the other hand it’s quite tragic, but it’s just another side of the story of occupation,” says Aboud. “I hardly see these types of characters on screen, which is why I loved to watch this.”
And all of the features in the festival are accompanied by some carefully chosen short films that complement the feature. For example, Dialing is the short that accompanies El Clasico. “If you watch that Iraqi feature film you might think that there’s nothing going on in Iraq at the moment, everything’s fine and it’s just a love story,” explains Aboud, “but it is important to show that there is a lot of heartache and that there is a war happening in Iraq. That’s what this short film does. And it does it very well. Dialing is about a woman waiting for her son to call, he’s gone off to war.”
Life Is A Woman is a beautiful short film that accompanies the opening night film Halal Love. “I love films that show the older people in our society, and that’s what this does,” explains Aboud. “It’s another short film with two older people, but they have children, and the children have grown up and these two people live alone. I can’t say more than that. When people go and see Halal Love they only see one side of Lebanon, so it is important that we show them another side, and we do that through the short films. It’s a comedy, so it’s a good match.”
Home, which screens with Roshmia, is a short film made in Australia by Shahin Alanezi, an emerging filmmaker who came through all of the Information Cultural Exchange film workshops. I.C.E. is a very important community arts centre in Sydney that runs many different programs, some of them being film programs, for migrant and refugee communities. Home is a refugee story about a boy and his mother in Australia. He is totally getting into his new life and this new world and being a teenager but she is not. She is having a really hard time accepting the change in her life and seeing her son changing and not really connecting with him. “It’s a really important story that we felt like we had to bring to the festival,” says Aboud. “It works well with Roshmia. With or without children I suppose you can still have heartache.”
Hind’s Dream is a magical short film from Qatar. And Zeer Story, which is screening with Bennesbeh Labokra Chou, is a gorgeous animated film from Egypt. It’s very funny, but it says exactly what it has to say about the Egyptian political situation right now. It’s a political film that’s done in comedy so it works well.
Given the volatile situation in the Middle East at the moment it is not surprising that some filmmakers have become a little bit political. “It underpins everything,” confesses Aboud. “They don’t ignore it, it’s always there, whether it’s on the news or there’s something in the background, it becomes part of the story. Even if it’s not always the story it just becomes part of the everyday. It’s ever present.”
The Arab Film Festival screens at Riverside Cinemas in Sydney from July 21 – July 24, at the Cinema Nova in Melbourne from July 29 – July 31, at the ARC Cinema, National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra from August 5 – August 7, and at the Curtin University Exhibition Space in Perth from August 11 – August 12. For more information, screening details and ticket bookings go to the website arabfilmfestival.com.au