Ringing in 2019’s Arab Film Festival with solidarity, intersectionality at UC Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies

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On Oct. 3, the UC Berkeley Center for Middle Eastern Studies hosted a prescreening kickoff for the upcoming Arab Film Festival, which is set to take place from Oct. 11-20 throughout the Bay Area. The Arab Film Festival is in its 23rd year and hosts a variety of films from Arab directors around the world. 

The evening’s agenda began with introductions and thanks by Arab Film and Media Institute executive director Serge Bakalian, who heads the festival. Bakalian expressed his gratitude for all of the work that went into this year’s festival; his pride in the final product was evident. As with every year’s kickoff, the main event of the night was a showing of a few short films to whet the crowd’s appetite for the week to come. The title of this year’s program of short films was “Aswat Jadida” (New Voices), a medley of five shorts from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia. 

In the first short, “Dunya’s Day,” a comedically pampered young woman named Dunya (Sara Balghonaim) must prepare for the festivities of her graduation party herself when her domestic servants are nowhere to be found. What ensues is a hilarious chain of events in which Dunya orders her unfortunate BFFs to do her bidding, uses her manicured hands to slaughter a lamb and later faces the criticism of her archenemy at the celebration. The next morning, Dunya crawls out of a sandpit and devours the leftover cake from the celebration with her hands, defeated by the ordeals she had to face. Wrought with the drama of an Arab soap opera, well-timed humor and beautifully vivid cinematography, “Dunya’s Day” had the audience howling with laughter. 

Next came the Egyptian film “Jebel Banat” or “Girl’s Mountain,” which has a decidedly more somber tone and takes place in a Bedouin camp. The short revolves around twin sisters who witness the fate of their friend when she is married to the chief of the village. The sisters decide to make a run for it before they end up in the hands of an abusive husband as well. The short, based on an Egyptian tale from the 19th century, ends on a tragic, bittersweet note. The subtle intimacy between the sisters and the artful composition of each scene leaves a poignant effect.

“Into Reverse,” a film on a traffic dispute in the crowded streets of Cairo, was another crowd favorite, while “Mosul 980” was an emotionally wrenching feature on the destruction of post-ISIS Iraq. The last film of the matinee was “Nefta Football Club,” a delightful adventure involving two young Tunisian boys who find a mule carrying a cargo of drugs and must decide what to do with it. 

Afterward, a Q&A with Bakalian took place, opening up the audience to an intriguing discussion. A majority of the viewers were most curious about “Mosul 980,” the film centering around the kidnapping of Yazidi women in ISIS-dominated sections of Iraq. The film was a collaborative effort by director Ali Mohammed Saeed and the Arab Film and Media Institute, which helped fund the film. According to Bakalian, the film’s production involved numerous meetings in Berlin to ensure Saaed’s safety — a measure that was clearly necessary, as the film displayed the massive destruction that remains in that region.

“Aswat Jadida” presented viewers with fresh and thought-provoking perspectives and left the audience wanting more. With such a wonderful kickoff, there is certainly a lot to look forward to next week. Directors, such as Algerian filmmaker Chahine Fellahi, will showcase their work, as the Arab Film Festival will have a variety of Arab films screened each day. The enthusiasm of the audience on the evening of the prescreening was palpable, and it was delightful to see the diversity of the Arab world and its talent presented in each film. Hopefully, this imaginative, inclusive energy will live on throughout the Arab Film Festival’s upcoming run.

Contact Luna Khalil at [email protected].