Posted by & filed under Arts & Entertainment, Featured Arts & Entertainment, Festivals.

By Mark Morellini

The highly anticipated 14th Arab Film Festival comes to Sydney and audiences should be captivated by the diversity and high quality of films screening at this prominent annual cultural event.

The program consists of six features and five short films from Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Tunisia and Australia, with festival director Fadia Abboud saying that quality is paramount to quantity.

“This is a boutique film festival, every film honestly says something about us that is important and if you went to all of the sessions you would love each and every film. Because we have so much to choose from and we try to keep our festival manageable and running year to year, we just try to bring you the best”.

The opening night film Mahbas is a Lebanese comedy about what transpires when a young man arrives with his family at his Lebanese girlfriend’s home to announce their engagement. The hilarity accelerates when her mother discovers he’s Syrian.

“This film is like Meet The Fockers, but in an Arab world Lebanese usually see themselves as great (and I can say that because I’m Lebanese!) and we’re usually the snobbiest but I’ve never seen it in an Arab film where a Lebanese family is trumped by a snobbier Syrian family – I’ve never seen that combination and I really love that!” laughed Abboud.

Australian audiences will learn that Arabic people are a religious and culturally diverse group who have the same fears, desires and the need for a better life for their families. These films also demonstrate that Arabic people are good storytellers, but do they also attempt to change the Western world’s perception of Arabic people and Islam in light of the Islamophobia evident in today’s society?

“The festival exists for many reasons. We want to address the misconceptions of Arab people in Australia. Arabs have a collection of religions and one of them is Islam – we do aim to address the misrepresentations and the way we do that is by hopefully not perpetuating them, but by not being afraid to show our people and our experiences and by presenting alternative stories,” explained Abboud.

And what is the main purpose of this film festival apart from the entertainment value?

“Why? Can’t we just be entertained by our own stories?” laughed Abboud, “We’re allowed to enjoy our stories on the big screen and to see ourselves reflected in ways that are authentic, challenging and entertaining. These are probably the main purposes and also to share those stories in a room full of other people that might be connected to those is a really powerful experience”.

Mahbas expresses that regardless of nationality or religious beliefs, communities all share the same human frailties – people have prejudices, mothers may deceive and scheme for their children and there may also be infidelities within marriages.

When Sophie Boutros, the director of Mahbas, was asked whether this was the underlying theme of the film she replied: “Since the film’s release, I did my best not to tell people what they are supposed to think once they watch Mahbas. In the story and screenplay, we tried our best not to convey direct messages nor preachings, and I would like to leave it up to the audience to come up with their own understanding and feelings. But all I can say is that the film definitely carries a positive human message through a story full of racism, intolerance and prejudice. We tried to be bold enough to self-criticise, to look the problem in the eye, something our societies are not really used to doing.”

Sophie Boutros is adamant that her film will correct Australian audience’s misconceptions of Arabic lifestyles: “There have been long years of wrong propaganda about Arab societies. For the west, it is the “Middle-East”, one entity, one colour, one nation which in reality is far from being true. Unlike what a lot of people still think, we do not have old souks (Arab marketplaces) full of dust and we do not ride camels or even donkeys. I would be happy if my film contributes to giving a more genuine image about my society, my people and about our culture.”

“All audiences including our non-Arabic friends should attend this festival. A lot of people do because they find the films are something to be proud of and the festival itself is a fun event and a great hangout for four days,” concluded Abboud.

For the full interview with Sophie Boutros see www.altmedia.net.au

MAHBAS is screening on August 17th at 8:00pm $42 (includes opening night gala)

TOP PICKS

I STILL HIDE TO SMOKE (Algeria) – A great feminist film about women rising up against their society and challenging each other to be independent and supporting each other and not reinforcing men’s ideals and expectations of them.

A MAID FOR EACH (Lebanon) – A daunting but important introspective documentary which details how Lebanese communities treat their domestic workers and sends a message that change is required in society’s attitudes to eliminate this appalling treatment of those less fortunate workers.

ALI’S WEDDING (Australia) – Should a young Muslim man follow his heart and be with the girl he loves or marry the woman his parents have chosen for him? An audience favourite at the recent Sydney Film Festival, this hilarious home-grown Muslim film is sure to delight audiences.

Aug 17-20. Riverside Theatres. Crn Church & Market Streets, Parramatta. $42 (opening night) $22-$88 (Marathon Package). Booking & Info: www.arabfilmfestival.com.au or 8839-3399