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Spotlight on the Arab Film Festival: 6Qs with Camille Alick and Michel Shehadeh //

byLana Daoud

Film is a profoundly transformational medium. Rarely are we challenged and humbled, provoked and ameliorated, disheartened and inspired all in the span of 90 to 120 minutes, and rarely are such individual experiences multiplied across cities all over the world.  Film festivals have expanded on the idea by providing access to stories from storytellers, not just executives. Arab Film Festival (AFF) expands that access by sharing narratives from 22 countries across the Middle East/North Africa region. Movies showcased include rich, multi-dimensional characters that audiences can sink their teeth into, and stories that open a gateway to understanding. Let’s face it- the world needs AFF right now. This October, AFF celebrates its 15th anniversary, and like any movie-going experience, you need not be anything but yourself to attend the Arab Film Festival.

After a friendly encounter at “Middle Eastern Cinema,” a collaborative event between AFF and University of Southern California’s Visions and Voices, I went behind the scenes with Executive Director Michel Shehadeh (MS) and Board Member Camille Allick (CA).

Last book you read: Samarkand by Amin Maalouf (MS)  Ironically, Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff (CA)
Kindle or iPad: iPad (Both)
Singing in the…: Car or Shower (MS) I live in LA, so definitely the car. (CA)

1. What aspects of organizing film festivals and screenings is most appealing to you?
CA: It’s important to create a space for these artists to have a voice. Many of us have gotten used to watching DVDs or downloading movies to a small screen, but most of the films we exhibit aren’t available to audiences outside of a festival. And…

there is still nothing quite like lights going down and the screen coming to life. It allows the viewer to peer into someone else’s world and share their perspective and experience for a short time. I suppose that is what I find most appealing is that whether a story makes people laugh, cry, angry, disagree, feel validated — it rarely leaves them unaffected.

2. What drives you to continue carrying AFF forward?
CA: Much of Arab talent is still nascent in it’s development, but it’s growing. There is real effort to develop film and filmmaking capabilities in the Middle East, from the opening of the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts in Jordan to dollars invested in festivals in the Gulf, particularly Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha Tribeca. I anticipate a heightened interest in films coming out of the region with recent protests and upheaval in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and others. It is my hope that AFF will continue to be a comfortable place for people to get to know what’s happening in the Arab World, and in the everyday lives of Arabs and Arab-Americans.

3. What has been your most surprising screening experience?
CA: I’m often surprised by the reactions of some, and to films I don’t think are controversial in any way. We’ve had Arab audience members voice upset when the dialogue is in English and complaints from non-Arab audience when the films have to be subtitled. But I enjoy hearing the questions or reactions of students, when we offer free screenings to local high schools through our schools program. I’ve been asked what is the difference between Islamic and Muslim, or what is the definition of an Arab. I’ve even had a student once tell me after viewing a comedy that it was the first time he’d ever seen an Arab joke!

4. How did AFF begin and how has it progressed since?
MS: The Arab Film Festival was established in San Jose in 1996. It emerged out of the need to provide narratives and dispel stereotyping of Arabs through negative imagery in mass media and popular culture. Since then, AFF has become among the most important film festivals for Arab filmmakers and experts.

5. What does AFF provide?
MS: Nothing contributes better to peace and harmony in this increasingly globalized world than familiarity with and knowledge of each other. And nothing brings these issues to people in a more vivid, and clear manner than film.

AFF screens films by and about Arabs, and invites filmmakers from the Arab world to interact directly with American audiences and present their latest works. Panel discussions explore challenges of filmmaking in the Arab world, the social role and impact of films, and relationship to the West.

6. What are some themes the festival has explored?
MS: We strive to address underrepresented themes. In 2009 we focused on the youth’s alienation, challenges, aspirations, and generational struggles within their societies.  In fact one of the hits that year was Casanegra, a Moroccan film examining daily struggles of Moroccan youth grappling with alienation and aspirations to travel abroad for a better life.  In 2010, we focused on strong Arab women and their struggles for independence in traditional conservative societies. Arab society is itself quite diverse and our films explore a broad range across geography and ethnicity, as well as along terms of class, religion, and national origins.


About the Author: Born and raised in Southern CA, Lana Daoud can find herself at home just about anywhere. She has a degree in History with a minor in Middle East Studies, and an Alumni Fellow of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership For Change. Home is where the next great experience lies, heart belongs to her nieces, roots are in Palestine.

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