Arts / Arab films show messages of survival

Still from “I Still Hide to Smoke”.

“ART and film are really encouraged in the Arab world”, says director of the coming 14th Arab Film Festival Australia, Fadia Abboud.

“We don’t select films unless they are good films,” she asserts.

For Abboud, it’s storytelling that’s important and although she’s been pressed to come up with a “theme” for the event that relates to women’s issues, there is something that always shines through.

“If you think about it, the theme is really always the same—survival… the best films are about struggle and survival in a place and time when things are really tough,” she says.

“[And anyway], there are a lot of women filmmakers in the Arab world, especially in Egypt Lebanon and Palestine, who have found their place… they take it up as a way of telling their stories.”

A still from “Gaza Surf Club”.

This weekend, at Arc Cinema, there will be a selection of top films as part of the “boutique” film festival where each full-length feature is matched by a short film.

“In the Arab world we are so diverse,” Abboud says, “even within a tiny country like Lebanon [her ancestry] there are totally different cultures… the festival gives a taste, a range.”

This is nowhere clearer than in the opening film, “Mahbas”, directed by Sophie Boutros, which is a romantic comedy about love and marriage between a Lebanese girl and a Syrian boy. Both the cultural gulf and recent history intrude on true love.

Then there’s Philip Gnadt and Mickey Yamine’s doco, “Gaza Surf Club”, which takes us into the world of the Gaza Strip’s young surfing enthusiasts who find meaning to their lives through surfing on the beaches of Gaza.

“Even I was surprised, I didn’t know there was surfing in Gaza,” Abboud tells “CityNews, “although the blockade has tried to stop them from getting surfboards, somehow they manage to… the expression of freedom is something we take for granted.”

The film also deals with patriarchal expectations, seen when a young woman learns to surf with the help of her father.

Still from “Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim”.

“Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim”, directed by Sherif El Bendary, is an arthouse film from Egypt unlike the lurid blockbusters in that country’s film industry. In it, villager Ali falls in love with a goat, whom he names Nada. Diagnosed by a local healer as “cursed”, he sets off with his mate Ibrahim and Nada on an adventure that takes them to the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Nile.

“This is a film about the people who get left behind because they’re not doing things that more masculine men are doing,” Abboud says, “Ali is an outsider and Ibrahim, who has a hearing disability, are both outsiders.”

“I Still Hide to Smoke”, directed by Rayhana Obermeyer, is one of Abboud’s favourites. Focusing on “a bunch of women” in a hammam or bathhouse, it’s set in the ’80s and ’90s when Muslim extremists were telling women how to dress.

“It shows a microcosm of society for one day,” she says, “there are women married to extremists and women about to get divorces… it’s extremely raunchy, a bit steamy, with the women talking about sex and scrubbing each other, with lots of different shapes and sizes.”

14th annual Arab Film Festival Australia, Arc Cinema, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, September 1–2, with films from Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Tunisia and Australia. Bookings to nfsa.gov.au

The full program is as follows:

Friday, September 1

6pm, “Mahbas”.

8.30pm, “Gaza Surf Club”.

Saturday, September 2

4pm, “Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim” and “Ayny”.

6.30pm, “I Still Hide to Smoke” and “Wintry Spring”.

All films are subtitled in English, have been exempt from classification and are restricted to persons aged 15+ unless accompanied by an adult.

 

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