Arab Film Festival highlights stories of resistance


Mainstream media often portray Arab and Muslim people as “other” to Americans. Mizna‘s Fifth Annual Arab Film Festival presents a stunning array of revelations and surprising recognitions.

Mizna’s Fifth Annual Arab Film Festival runs October 16-19 at the Heights Theatre, 3951 Central Ave. N.E., Minneapolis. Admission to individual films: $8 general/$5 student. Festival pass $55 in advance/$40 at the door. Complete schedule and passes at DAM and DJ K-Saalam perform October 18 at 9 p.m., Cedar Cultural Center, 416 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis. Admission $25 general /$18 students.

Hip-hop in the Middle East

Hip-hop blazes across the Middle East. Two films and a concert showcase Arab culture converging with an African-American musical genre.

“This is not ‘bling bling’ hip-hop. It’s not about guns, women, and money. As soon as hip-hop leaves the shores of the U.S., it becomes political,” says Fouzi Slisli, the film festival’s curator. “Hip-hop is the voice of the downtrodden.”

The film I Love Hip Hop is from Slisli’s homeland Morocco. “Hip-hop offers youth a medium for their anxieties. The film is about organizing the first hip-hop festival in Morocco and shows the social and political dynamics there,” continues Slisli.

Palestinian youth resist the Israeli occupation with beats instead of bombs in the film Slingshot Hip Hop. DAM, one band featured in the film (“dam” means “blood” in Arabic and Hebrew), perform October 18 at the Cedar in Minneapolis.

A story of resistance

Resistance is a thematic thread running through the festival.

Who are U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq? Two American journalists, Molly Bingham and Steve Connors, spent ten months doing the dangerous work of finding out for the film Meeting Resistance. The two will present a Q&A session after the film’s screening.

“It’s fruitful for debate about the war to understand why these people are fighting us,” says Slisli.

Several “rebels” are shadowed in the film, each named with a moniker: “the Teacher” (a middle-class father of three); “the Warrior” (a former Special Forces officer, tortured by Saddam Hussein); “the Traveler” (used to hate Saddam Hussein, but the U.S. invasion changed that); and “the Local” (a working class laborer). This disturbing documentary has as much suspense as any work of fiction.

“After Abu Ghraib the ‘noble war’ was over,” says the Warrior. “We know we can’t kick out the U.S. Army. The Iraqi Army couldn’t do that. But we can let them know they are not welcome here. We are not throwing flowers.”

The American-made The Path of Most Resistance is tremendously powerful. Robert Wise joined the Army as a homeless teenager. Daniel Baker joined the Navy, hoping to do humanitarian aid. Both young men had spiritual and moral awakenings that forced them to recognize they couldn’t be part of a war. The film follows their journey as they apply for Conscientious Objector (CO) status.

Allies to the two soldiers are equally inspiring. “It takes more guts to refuse than to just go with the flow,” says Daniel Blalock of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. ”It takes more bravery to say ‘No, I’ll be a CO.’” Wes Davey, president of the Minnesota chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, will speak at the screening.

Asked why Mizna chose the film, Slisli says, “We are an Arab-American organization. We stress American as much as Arab…we owe it to these soldiers to tell their stories and why they object to the war.”

Slisli notes that films about the Iraq occupation are getting very little distribution. “They say Americans aren’t ready to see films about the war,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s true at all.”

Courageous women

My one wish is that the festival had more films centered on women, but the one that does is a complete knockout. Women is Courage portrays Louisa Ighil Ahriz, who as a young Algerian woman was part of the underground against French colonialism. She endured torture, seeking justice 40 years later. We follow her quest from the villa where she and others were tortured to international court. Ahriz embodies the will of all occupied people and the lifelong scars torture leaves. Very effective use is made of clips from the cinema classic Battle of Algiers, made during France’s colonial war in Algeria. Slisli says American military leaders have viewed the French classic for insight into Muslim “insurgent” movements against foreign occupation.

“You can’t help but see this film’s relevance to our debate here in America about torture. What you come to understand is that torture is not used to extract intelligence,” he says. “The purpose of torture is to demoralize a people. Torture is intended to kill resistance to an occupation.”

Love stories

Another kind of resistance is the human heart’s longing for intimacy, revealed in perhaps the most touching film of the festival, Jihad for Love. The film spans multiple countries, chronicling devout Muslims’ struggle to reconcile their strong faith with their sexual identity. In South Africa, a Muslim imam is a gay man. A lesbian woman in Turkey takes her lover home to meet her mother. A gay Iranian man endures a year in prison, becoming a refugee seeking asylum. I highly recommend this film embodying the power of love.

Detroit Unleaded is an Arab-American love story made by a young Arab-American filmmaker, Rola Nashef. Nashef will speak at the film’s screening..

Views of Palestinians

In mainstream media, Palestinians are often labeled “terrorists” or are simply left completely invisible. A variety of films in the Mizna festival remedy that: shorts like Tunnel Trade (young men smuggle cigarettes and medicine past the wall between Israel and Palestine) and Norman Sayigh: A Palestinian Mural; the full-length feature Jerusalem: East Side Story; and Recognized.

This year’s festival is packed with films worthy of a wide audience—but Mizna is providing your only chance to see them in local theaters.

Lydia Howell, a winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism, is a Minneapolis independent journalist writing for various newspapers and online journals. She produces and hosts Catalyst: politics & culture on KFAI Radio on Fridays at 11 a.m.