by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Back for a second year, the extremely successful Cape Cod Festival of Arab and Middle Eastern Cinema is at Waters Edge Cinema in Provincetown and Wellfleet Preservation Hall this weekend with a number of thought-provoking and beautiful films. This year the six films are from Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, the USA, and Egypt, and tell stories as disparate as the experiences of people who live in these different countries.
Curator Rebecca Alvin—whose own documentaries include Women of Faith and Our Bodies, Our Minds and who teaches film studies at The New School—feels strongly about the festival. “When we see great movies about different cultures, we identify with characters who are unlike ourselves, and yet with whom we can personally connect,” she says. “Many people thanked me [last year] for bringing the work of Arab filmmakers to Cape Cod, a place with virtually no Arab community, because it was a way to explore the Middle East and the issues of Arab Spring countries without falling back on the usual stereotypes and without focusing only on American films about the region.”
This year’s films include Jerry & Me by Iranian-American filmmaker Mehrnaz Saeedvafa; Sanctity by Saudi actress and director Ahd; The Professor by Tunisian director Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud; Sheikhates Blues by Moroccan Ali Essafi; Wanderers of the Desert by Tunisian writer and poet Nacer Khemir; and The Closed Doors by Egyptian director Atef Hetata.
The people we meet in these films are the strongest indicator that there is no single “Arabic” voice, or experience, per se—something that may unfortunately come as a surprise to many Americans. In The Closed Doors, young Mohamad is confused about too many things—the Gulf War, his family, his sexual feelings—and runs away from it all into the waiting arms of Islamic fundamentalism. French-educated director Ali Essafi brings traditional Moroccan folk music to his work in Sheikhates Blues, as he introduces western audiences to these women musicians (called sheikhates) and their lives. Wanderers of the Desert is a fantasy that seems to have stepped from the pages of the Arabian Nights: a ship washes up in the desert, children run through underground passages, and legendary figures step out of the village well. Sanctity is the first film to focus on the lives of Saudi women living in poverty and asks questions that Saudi women struggle with every day, shedding light on a long-neglected social class in the Kingdom. In The Professor, a man is asked to publicly defend official positions with which he does not necessarily agree, and finds his life further complicated by circumstances beyond his control. And Jerry & Me draws a parallel between the American comic Jerry Lewis and an Iranian woman who grew up dazzled by the bright lights of Hollywood
While curator Alvin notes that she is not herself an expert in Arabic culture, she has arranged for one to be on hand: Nargis Virani, an assistant professor of Arabic who holds a PhD in Islamic studies, will be leading discussions for the Saturday and Sunday programs.
The weekend is meant to open eyes—and perhaps minds and hearts as well. “When the revolutionary Arab Spring kicked off, I found myself immediately wondering how filmmakers in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and other countries in the Arab world were responding to it,” says Alvin. “This is the second year [of the festival], but in the first year the title was different. This year, I expanded it to include Middle Eastern as well as Arab cinema, because I wanted to open it up a bit.”
And based on what she has opened up, what does Alvin see as the future? “I’m not sure I can really predict where Arab film is going in the next five to 10 years,” she says, “except to say there has been an incredible surge in interest from the greater film community—film societies and festivals in particular—and we are seeing festivals like Berlin, Venice, and Tribeca adding Arab Cinema components because of this. I also think the absence of Arab characters (other than crazy terrorists) in Hollywood and television productions has become glaringly obvious and, as a globalized society, we want to see these characters and hear the voices of the region, beyond the Israeli-Palestinian question, beyond terrorism and anti-American rhetoric. We are finally coming to understand that people in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, etc. are not just a bunch of anti-American fundamentalists—that there is variety, diversity, and most of all, complexity to the Arab World.”
The Cape Cod Festival of Arab & Middle Eastern Cinema will present films at the Waters Edge Cinema, 237 Commercial St., 2md Fl., in Provincetown on Thursday, September 12 at 5:30 p.m. and Sunday, September 15 at 1 p.m.; and at Wellfleet Preservation Hall, 335 Main St. in Wellfleet on Friday, September 13 at 6 p.m. and Saturday, September 14 at 5:30 p.m. For tickets and complete information e-mail [email protected] or visit CapeCodFilmSociety.com.
NOTE: The curator of this festival is also the editor of Provincetown Magazine.