Article by Rebecca Romani
April 12, 2019
The San Diego Arab Film Festival (SDAFF) has been unusually prescient in its screening choices this year. The opening film (4/5), “10 Days Before The Wedding,” directed by Amr Gamal, could not have been better chosen. A film about the audacity of small hopes in the midst of rubble and conflict in Aden, Yemen, “10 Days” screened barely a day after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to withdraw aid to the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
This final weekend of the SDAFF could be easily dubbed the weekend of the woman, with so many films directed by women on subjects that have immediate resonance; doubly so, with the removal of Sudan’s long-time leader Omar Al-Bashir earlier this week, in a coup largely the result of peaceful protests led by Sudan’s women.
This Saturday, women dominate the short film program. Two of the directors, Hanadi Elyan and Farah Nabulsi will be there for a discussion with the audience after.
Elyan’s film covers some familiar ground but from an interesting perspective, that of a woman desperately seeking a visa to visit her family in the US. Elegantly shot, “Nadia’s Visa” is a tightly constructed short that covers a lot of ground in terms of the “Muslim Travel Ban,” how people are treated at US embassies abroad, and more. Originally based in Dubai, Elyan is now in Los Angeles, pursuing a master’s degree in film.
“Nightmare of Gaza,” British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi’s film, is easily one of the most beautiful experimental films the SDAFF has shown to date. But don’t let the sometimes ethereal look of the cinematography fool you. Nabulsi, whose work has been compared to that of British Filmmaker Ken Loach, has devoted herself to creating work that delves into the deeper psychology of living in a Gaza that is constantly besieged and under occupation with the intent of helping Western viewers feel that reality. “Nightmare” follows a woman who, in helping others recover their bearings after several Israeli bombing campaigns, discovers that she, too, may have lost her footing.
Arab poetry is considered some of the most profound poetry in the world and Samia Badih’s documentary on young spoken word poet Farah Chamma does not disappoint. Chamma became an online sensation at age 17 when her poetry went viral. While spoken word is difficult to shoot, Badih does justice to one of the rising stars of modern Arabic poetry and her struggles to keep her authentic voice in the face of cultural expectations.
The features program continues the theme of women and relevance with the Tunisian film, “Beauty and the Dogs,” Tunisia’s entry for the 2017 Oscars. Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania, bases her film on a real case from 2012, of a Tunisian co-ed who sued the policemen who raped her. The film caused quite a stir when it came out and Ben Hania has remarked that it is not a film that would have been possible in pre-Arab Spring Tunisia.
But post-Arab Spring Tunisia has turned out to be surprisingly good for women with major changes to the country’s constitution, and Ben Hania’s film has turned a welcome spotlight on institutional abuses women can face when assaulted. Ben Hania shoots her film in chapters, marked by long opening takes — beautiful sequences in a film about a very un-beautiful incident.
The Saturday screenings end with Gaya Jiji’s provocative new film, “My Favorite Fabric.” Originally from Syria, Jiji, has broken the mold in more ways than one in her first feature. First, Jiji is a female filmmaker in a country where films about women tend to be made by men, Second, she made her film from France to which she fled during the Arab Spring. Third, she is working with autobiographical material.
The film follows Nahla in the early spring of 2011. Nahla is 25, unmarried, and longs to break out of her confining social restrictions. She lives with her widowed mother, two sisters, and an assortment of semi-erotic fantasies. In the streets, the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad is beating up his people, in her house, Nahla is trying to liberate herself. It all comes to a head when her family wants her to marry a Syrian-American as an escape route before all out-war engulfs Syria. When Nahla rebuffs him, she turns to an unusual source to help her sort out her needs and desires, Mme. Jiji, who runs a clandestine brothel upstairs.
“My Favorite Fabric” shows a lot of promise for a first feature. It’s fun in places, daring in others and Manal Issa, who plays Nahla, is enchanting. The extraordinarily versatile Ula Tabari, seen in several films in past SDAFF screenings, does a brilliant turn here. The only issue that seems to plague the film is the tendency towards a slightly exaggerated, overly dramatic handling of Nahla and her quest for romantic and sexual knowledge.
That aside, it’s an interesting look at what Gaya Jiji feels are pressing issues for young women in more conservative Arab countries.
“The Blessed” by Sofia Djama, which opens the last day of the SDAFF, is another prescient screening choice. This week saw peaceful demonstrations throughout Algeria that forced the ailing elderly president Abdelaziz Boutflika, to step down after a 20 year rule that saw as much mismanagement as it saw progress.
Djama’s film focuses on Algiers, a few years after the horrific civil war devastated the country and lasted almost the entire decade of the 90’s. College professor Amal and gynecologist Amir, married 20 years, are going out to celebrate their anniversary. For their generation, the war was a shock, severely battering the hopes they had for post-Liberation Algeria. However, for their children, the war in ancient history, trapped as they are in a country with an uncertain future and a past from which they feel alienated.
If it sounds a bit bleak, it isn’t. Djama has cast some of the most talented North African actors today. Sami Bouajila as Amir and Nadia Kaci as Amal, have an on-screen chemistry which is a warm antidote to the messy political and social waters they must navigate. Djama’s film is a complicated story with a number of threads examining youth, unemployment, and the specter of returning Islamic fundamentalism and one that is echoed in the events happening on the Algerian street today.
Other films screening this weekend are “Screwdriver,” a debut feature from Bassam Jarbawi about a Palestinian who comes back to the West Back after 10 years in an Israeli jail, starring well-known actor Ziad Bakri; “Cactus Flower,” Egyptian photographer Hala Elkoussy’s debut film, focuses on three unlikely friends on the streets of Cairo; and “On Borrowed Time” is the debut film from video music pioneer Yasir Al Yasiri. Focusing on four older men living in an assisted living facility, Al Yasiri’s film is a surprising comedy about life’s surprises and learning that dreams may not have an expire by date after all.
The SDAFF continues this weekend at the Mission Valley AMC. For more information on screening times and tickets, please see http://sandiegoaff.org/.