Australia is home to one of the largest Arabic communities outside the Middle East, and celebrating the culture of the region is the Arab Film Festival 2012 taking place in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra until 15th July.
What started in 2001 as a stage for the region’s cinematic endeavors, is now a way of connecting cinema lovers in Australia. It has become one of the world’s biggest Arab film festivals bringing together 18,000 people since its inception, including filmmakers from Egypt, the UAE, Jordan and Lebanon. This year’s festival brings cinema that reflects the growing momentum of change in the region, sparked by rebellion, as well as a renaissance in youth culture and arts.
Best demonstrating this is the documentary No More Fear, which captures the defiant spirit on the streets of Tunis since early last year. Hard-hitting social issues are tackled with Asmaa, based on the true story of a young woman living in Cairo and suffering from HIV. Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia’s edgy drama Tayeb, Khalas, Yalla follows the life of a mother-dependent 40-year-old man from Tripoli, Lebanon who begins a life of his own with some heartwarming consequences. All these and more will be shown over the course of the 18-day festival.
Festival co-director, Mouna Zaylah, says, ‘Arab films reflect the experiences of Arab people. Politics, social and cultural, is always embedded, whether it be through comedy or romantic drama.’ She believes the event will help change perceptions of the Middle East and its people, through the filmmakers’ truthful, humorous, and sometimes sideways accounts of everyday life in the Arab world. ‘Negative stereotypes of Arabs in the media often brings the (Arabic) community together, either out of a desire to redress the balance, or for the sake of reconnecting and affirming the truth. The Arab Film Festival is a major event in Sydney that actually brings people together to celebrate beauty, to bond and to connect,’ she adds.
Fadia Abboud, another festival co-ordinator, speaks of the changing social dynamics in the Middle East, exemplified by the fact that six out of 12 films shown this year are directed by women. The festival, she adds, also offers a rare podium in Australia for discussion and dialogue about the Middle East and its cinematic culture. ‘Mainstream cinema misses everything that isn’t part of the norm. Even independent cinemas struggle to stay open and only offer a safe choice of films. Arab films are not usually safe. I could count on one hand the number of Arab films screened in cinemas in Australia in the last 10 years.’
There is much for the artistic community in Australia to learn from Middle East cinema, Abboud believes, owing to centuries-old forms of narration in the Arab world. ‘The rich tradition of storytelling has been part of Arab culture for thousands of years. As technology and access develops, our stories are being transferred to the screen and increasingly, we are producing and presenting the stories ourselves rather than waiting for the Western media to retell them,’ she concludes.
*To find out more about the event, visit http://arabfilmfestival.com.au
Photography: Courtesy of Arab Film Festival Australia