At the 2012 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, 30 films shed light on the complex and changing Arab world

Posted on 04.12.12

Editor's note: Al Milgrom is a founder of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival and one of the programmers of this year's festival. In this essay exclusive to the Daily Planet, he writes about a series he helped assemble.

From the marketplaces to the minarets and behind the veils of the Arab street there is a curious world out there on the verge of discovery for thousands of Twin City locals. Tuned in to the nightly television bedlam of the Mideast, they have some new options to get current on the demanding social realities now stretching from Morocco to Mesopotamia, starting this weekend!

Behind the news of what has been called the greatest social upheaval since the Russian Revolution, one will be able to fathom the many back-stairs subtexts of daily living via a special sidebar at the just-opened 30th Annual Minneapolis/St.Paul International Film Festival—films that can make you a privileged insider to these changing lives.

30 Mideast films, ranging from love stories in the medina (the title of one of the films) to the hot-button political issues between Israelis and Palestinians, from the inspired hopes of an Arab Spring a year ago to today’s stalled Arab Winter as Islamists and “revolutionaries” spar over parliamentary elections, comprise the featured ambitious festival sidebar.

A Sunday (April 15) panel, “Media and the Middle East,” at fest locus St. Anthony Main Theatre, will touch on the break with the past and includes U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison along with a half-dozen other experts and activists representing the region. They are University of Minnesota film scholar Imed Labidi; Jay Philips Center Interfaith Coordinator Rabbi Amy Ellberg; Mazen Halabi, Syrian community activist; Daniel Tutt, Washingon DC interfaith foundation executive; and moderator Ken Abdo, entertainment attorney. The showing of Islamic Art, subtitled Mirror of the Invisible World, will follow the panel at 1:30 p.m.

The 40-year changes in Arab life have been better documented by filmmakers than by the compromised complicity of TV broadcasting, according to a group of indie documentarists at the recent Berlin International Film Fest who are involved in this different kind of reporting. “We are watching now but can’t do anything,” said Syrian filmmaker/journalist Mohammad Ali Atassi, 50, for fear of arrest and inability to put their names to their work.

“I would be arrested not because I am a filmmaker, but because I’d be considered an activist,” he said. “It’s only the YouTube at the moment. There is no financial support and no time to write scripts” in his strife-torn country, he said, where a cease-fire is being brokered by Kofi Annan.

“Film is not effective in Syria because of inability to get government clearances and thus no market for Arab films, only in festivals. Because of the regime I have never felt I belong to Syria. I relate more to Egypt now. At the end we are all related to human justice.”

On a question of Egyptian elections, Atassi commented, “Today people are not asking for an Islamic republic. ‘So what?’ they say. People are asking for dignity and liberty. They went to the street and paid a high price for that.”

Breaking the barriers to previous isolation, filmmakers at the festival spoke of confrontation with conformist Islam by filmmakers themselves. Hala Galal, a feminist Egyptian producer/director, echoed how she deals with month-to-month, week-to-week changes in the Mideast scene now. “I’m not sure I want to make films now,” she said. “It’s not an 'Arab Spring.' More like a winter.” (Egyptian films Asma’a, A Balloon for Allah, and Tahrir 2011, among many others, turn on roles of women in the revolution.)

Beirut festival director/producer Hania Mroue, looking at Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, focused on the “several revolutions.”

“We need more time to document what is happening at the moment,” she said. “There is a very delicate balance between reporting the crimes and not reporting them. The images now on YouTube are very important.”

Taking a secular stance, politically engaged French-Tunisian director Nadia El Fani (Neither Allah, nor Master in MSPIFF), sees secularism as the answer. “The domino effect of Tunisia’s official edict on rights of women failed to follow modernity, but women are in the forefront of this revolution,” she proclaimed.

Israeli director Adi Barash is scheduled to be on hand for screenings, April 23-24, of his lauded The Collaborator and His Family, a riveting story of a Palestinian’s fate for selling secrets to Israel, and is among more than 35 visiting directors/producers.

Peripheral but important to the current picture of front-page issues surrounding Mideast debate is the Dutch film Wilders, a rare up-close look at rabble-rousing right-wing racist legislator Geert Wilders.

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