MOVIES | Mizna’s Arab Film Festival showcases humanity in all its contradictions


The annual Arab Film Festival hosted by Mizna, the Arab arts and literature organization, is one of the most important Twin Cities cultural events. The sixth festival—taking place March 11-14 at the Heights Theater—may well be the best ever, due in large measure to curator Mohanned Ghawanmeh’s deeply developed sensitivity. Ghawanmeh chose films, he says, “based on artistic quality, topical importance, and diversity.”

Opening the festival, Garbage Dreams (March 11, 7 p.m.) is a compelling documentary that feels more like a feature. In Cairo, Egypt, we follow three Zabaleen young men, part of the Coptic Christian peasant minority, who have been the designated “trash pickers” for almost a century, with resourcefulness and pride in their labor. What begins as a human-interest story ultimately takes on corporate globalization and environmental issues when the Egyptian government decides to hire multinational companies to handle Cairo’s waste disposal.

hear interviews with festival curator mohannad ghawanmeh (on catalyst) on march 5, 11 a.m. and with filmmaker hashim bizri (on art matters) on march 11, 7 p.m. on kfai radio, archived at

The film may be “the best documentary I’ve watched in the six editions of the festival,” Ghawanmeh says. “What’s special about the film is how it turns dramatic and takes on so much more. Like [the fact] that the Zabaleen recycle 80% of waste and the companies, [as in] the so-called ‘developed world,’ recycle only 20%. The rest goes in landfills—just like here.

“This film is beautifully shot, too,” he adds. “The district the Zabaleen live in is almost like another character.”

Nabil Ben Yadir’s Les Barons (March 12, 6:30 p.m.) is a wise-cracking comedy that entertains while addressing racism, virginity, and religion in the North African community of Belgium. Three young male layabouts delay adulthood while dealing with parental ambitions and their adopted country’s anti-immigrant sentiments. Ben Yadir uses inventive film techniques and avoids cliché; he’s a director to watch for.

Another don’t miss documentary is Jawad Metni’s Remnants of a War (March 13, 3 p.m.). In the aftermath of Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon, a third of the one million cluster bombs Israel fired remain undetonated and dangerous. The film follows brave de-miners, clearing the bombs before more civilians are killed.

Pomegranates & Myrrh (March 13, 8 p.m.) is the debut feature by Palestinian director Najwar Najjar, one of two female Arab filmmakers who’ve participated in the Sundance Directors Workshop. A lush love triangle involving an orchard-owning Palestinian couple and a returned exile is set against Jewish settlers’ land theft, arbitrary detention, and a too-rare look at middle-class Palestinians’ lives. Sensuous and filled with dramatic tension, the film makes you care about all three complicated protagonists. Ghawenmeh compares Pomegranates and Myrrh to the American film Now, Voyager; both films involve what he calls “the classic romantic melodrama.

“What I mean by melodrama,” he continues, “involves the tension between individual desire and collective necessity. It’s been said that one cannot dictate to the heart who to fancy. If this fancy occurs between two people where one of them is married, we have desire that goes against society’s expectations for what is appropriate behavior. Pomegranates & Myrrh is thus situated in that more is at stake than just the two people involved in the affair.”

Laila’s Birthday (March 14, 7:30 p.m.) is a subtle drama that draws you into how the Israeli occupation nvades Palestinians’ daily lives, through one day in the life of a taxi driver. Mohammed Bakri turns in an emotionally powerful, yet understated, performance as the lead character Abu-Laila (who has a surprising “previous life”). There’s a fascinating variety of engaging passengers, bureaucratic absurdity, and sudden violence. Bakri portrays Abu-Laila as a man of calm intelligence, unshakable integrity, and kindness. When Abu-Laila is pushed to a moment of stunning anguish, Network came to mind, with its “I’m mad as hell!” exclamation. But Bakir’s perfect performance and Rashid Masharawi’s quietly expressive writing and directing, by comparison, make Network‘s TV news anchor seem petty and self-indulgent.

Focus on Filmmaker (March 14, 2:30 p.m.) highlights Hashim Bizra, a Lebanese-American filmmaker teaching at the University of Minnesota. His short works, such as Song For The Deaf Ear, are marvels of poetic expression that entwine his homeland’s history with Western culture—especially cinema. City of Brass is a variation on a story from Scheherazade and the Thousand and One Nights that beautifully evokes D.W. Griffin’s silent-era Broken Blossom. Vertices looks at war in three formerly colonized cities: Beirut, Seoul, and Dublin. Preludes, his newest work, explores separated lovers living as exiles.

Finally, Gaza On Air (March 14, 10:00 a.m.) is a crucial film to see. It breaks the censorship of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead,” the air war on Gaza, beginning December 27, 2008 and continuing for 22 brutal days. Controlling all entry to and exit from Gaza, with a three-year long blockade, Israel banned foreign media from Gaza during the attacks. Palestinian reporters filmed under fire what the world wasn’t supposed to see.

“One discussion between the journalists interviewed in the film is about the graphic nature of the coverage of war. One journalist speaks to the temperament of the world established by broadcast media, that the images they are capturing exceeds what can be conveyed,” Ghawenmeh remembers. “But this journalist says, even though looking at these images will cause anguish, can it compare to the feelings of those who lost family and friends?”

Yes, some gruesome moments—not seen in Western media—appear. However, what burned into my mind wasn’t blood as much as the contradiction s of humanity, people being both cruel and kind: a rescue worker tenderly brushes gray dust off the still face of a women, unearthed from rubble; people carry their loved ones swaddled in green burial shrouds at a mass funeral; burning phosphorous raining down turns a nighttime drive into Hell’s inferno; against clear, blue sky, Israeli drones and helicopters shoot missiles at screaming civilians. Gaza On Air exposes human cruelty with soul-wrenching impact, only equaled by my first viewing of the horrifying black-and-white images of the Holocaust death camps, making this a film that should be required viewing.

The artistic quality and sharp relevance of this year’s Arab Film Festival are a coming-of-age for Mizna and should convince anyone that Arab filmmakers have much to show us, if we’re willing to look.