Hummus dip, twinkling lights, and a few short films
The air was cold, muffled chatter filled the walkways, and the smell of homemade hummus made its way through the tall pillars and straight to our hungry noses. The annual Arab Film Festival was back.
While the Arab Film Festival has taken place in San Diego for the past five years, the Shorts Program was a new addition. It featured an array of experimental films conceptualized and created in different parts of the world. The productions were from various genres including comedy, drama, and even clay animation. The diversity of the films portrayed how different perspectives can create different works of art within the same realm of expression.
My sister and I made our way through Balboa park, half-shivering half-scolding ourselves for not wearing more sensible clothing. We began to realize how long it had been since the last time we were in Balboa, since the last time we were here with our family.
I tried my best to brush off the nostalgia only to be met with scents of J’adore, my mother’s old favorite perfume, and the childish laughter of daughters as their fathers opened heavy doors for them. They were all somehow so familiar to me. Almost as familiar as the half empty plates of hummus, bowls of tabouli, and baskets of pita bread arranged along the patio table outside the building.
Past the warm dishes and dark wooden doors waited the stark white walls of the Museum of
Photographic Arts (MOPA), completely transparent through the glass doors. The films were set to play fifteen minutes earlier but the event wouldn’t be authentically Arab if it wasn’t thoughtfully late. We were waiting in the lounge for a while; two older women to my right debating the importance of Eastern culture as they eyed my short sleeves and my sister’s cropped jeans, and a group of young boys on my left arranged in a silent circle entranced by their more than mortal but less than godly smartphones.
“The theatre is now open. The films will begin in a few minutes,” a woman’s voice called from the hallway that segued into the MOPA theatre. A few of us made our way down the hallway, trickling into the dimly lit theatre sparkling with twinkling lights mimicking stars on the ceiling.
A young man muttered into the microphone a few short introductions about each film and their individual acclaims. He quickly shuffled off-stage as the lights dimmed darker and the screen behind him went black.
“Ave Maria,” an Oscar nominated short film directed by Basil Khalil, opened the program beautifully. It comically illuminated the serious complications between Palestinians and Israelis while capturing the uncertain reality of living and passing through the sparsely populated villages in the West Bank. It set the tone for the rest of the night; each creative production emphasized a prominent issue in the Middle East and abroad all while emanating a peculiarity special to the creators.
One of the most experimental films of the night, and my personal favorite, was Waref Abu Quba’s “In Damascus.” Visuals of the 11,000-year-old city appeared on the screen as the deep reverberating sound of Mahmoud Darwish’s voice filled the room. There were no characters, no scenes, nothing to follow but the clips of Damascus and the subtitles on the screen. The visuals simply served to accentuate the words of the poem. I watched, encapsulated.
As the film began to fade, I whispered to my sister, “that was Darwish’s poem. The name slips–” and suddenly the words “‘The Damascene Collar of the Dove,’ a poem written and recited by Mahmoud Darwish” appeared on the screen. I smiled, satisfied, for a moment. Then I felt myself frowning; remembering the pain the poem always resonated within me. The poem is one of my favorites. It captures the closeness one feels for their home, and the lament that overpowers us when we are separated from it. Syria has had a complicated history and it continues to struggle with issues today. Millions of Syrians are displaced in their own hometown; millions have sought refuge in various countries. Today, they feel the pain Darwish wrote about years ago. They were feeling that pain as I sat in my comfortable seat and waited for the next film to begin.
Before I could fall too deep into my thoughts, soft pink images of cakes and muffins and icing flashed across the screen. “Zaina’s Cake” was beginning. Nada Almojdadi tells the story of a beautiful young girl living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia who has recently graduated from college and struggles to conceal her desire to start a baking business from her father. Through playful visuals and upbeat tunes, Almojdadi wooed us into falling in love with Zaina, her passion, and her unexpected affection towards a charming customer; it was nothing like the films before and it was the perfect finale.
Wide awake, laughing, and filled with warmth, alongside the other guests my sister and I walked out of the small theatre more aware. The stories we watched were incomparable and so original, we couldn’t imagine a more perfect way to learn about each of the situations that were presented in the films. Would I have been as entertained if I had read the words that were acted out? Would I have understood the vision less? It’s hard to tell. But what’s easy to comprehend is the knowledge I gained from watching the films and discussing them with my sister afterwards. There was something about it, something so literary about it all.
We discussed our favorites on our way home; I was flipping through my photo album searching for the perfect picture to post that reflected my satisfaction, she was flipping through stations trying to find the perfect song to end the night. We merged onto the freeway, excited.
The Karma Arab Film Festival takes place every Fall, check out their site to see what films will be featured next year.
Films featured in the 2016 Shorts Program include:
“Ave Maria” directed by Basil Khalil
“Between Heaven and Earth” directed by Sahera Dirbas
“The Rifle, the Jackal, the Wolf and the Boy” directed by Oualid Mouaness
“In Damascus” directed by Waref Abu Quba
“Diaspora” directed by Alaeddin Abou Taleb
“Zaina’s Cake” directed by Nada Al-Mojadedi