MENA films centre stage at Vancouver International Film Festival

MENA films take centre stage at Vancouver International Film Festival
5 min read
27 Nov, 2017
Society: With significant Iranian and Arab communities, Vancouver's film festival has now become a hot-ticket event for new documentaries and feature films from across the Middle East, writes Hadani Ditmars.
'The Nile Hilton Incident', is a thriller set in revolutionary Egypt [VIFF]
With a significant Iranian and a growing Arab community, the Vancouver International Film Festival has become a sought after festival for North American and world premieres of new documentaries and feature films from the Middle East and North Africa.

While the city is more known for its large Chinese-speaking population, and Asian cinema has traditionally been a major feature at VIFF, a growing community of people from the region in Vancouver and a heightened awareness of regional cinema appear to be contributing factors in a new surge of popularity for MENA pictures.

This year there were five films from Iran (100 Second Red Light, 24 FramesAzar, Life is Lifeless and No Date, No Signature), two from Egypt (Dalida and The Nile Hilton Incident); two with Iraqi themes (Hondros and Reşeba: The Dark Wind); four from Israel and Palestine (Flag, Holy Air, Tashlikh (cast off) and West of the Jordan River); one from Jordan (Rupture); two from Lebanon (Félicité, The Insult); a Lebanese/Tunisian co-production (Beauty and the Dogs);  three from Pakistan (Armed with Faith, Divide, and Invisible Line); the Kurdish/Qatari/German production Cocote Reşeba: The Dark Wind; and four from Turkey (The Animal, C.O.D., Housewife and Sour Apples).

In addition, Ai Weiwei's film Human Flow and The Other Side of Hope by Finland's Aki Kaurismäki explored the experience of Syrian refugees.

While the films spanned the gamut from documentaries like Amos Gitai's compelling return to the West Bank he last documented in 1982 in West of the Jordan River, to political thrillers like The Nile Hilton Incident, it was two dark comedies that stood out.

Holy Air by Palestinian filmmaker Shady Srour recalls earlier works by Elia Soulemain (such as Divine Intervention) in its tale of a Christian Palestinian whose scheme to sell bottles of the Holy Spirit meets predictable pitfalls. But it manages a heartfelt humanity in scenes in which a young Palestinian couple expecting a baby decide against an abortion at an Israeli hospital, embracing in loving resistance as religious and secular hospital administrators bicker.

And Finnish master Aki Kaurismäki's The Other Side of Hope offers a stellar cast of Finnish character actors alongside Syrian actor Sherwan Haji, as a refugee dodging violent skinheads and escaping a homeland in flames, evoking both humanity and humour via a series of absurdist and poignant scenarios.
With greater Vancouver's 100,000-strong Iranian community, the largest regional diaspora by far, it's no wonder the largest programme of festival films from the MENA are Iranian

Little Tehran in Vancouver

But why are there so many films on offer from the Middle East in a Pacific port town with closer ties to China?

VIFF's programme director, Alan Franey, explains: "Our interest and inclusion of films from the Middle East is definitely based both on the quality of work and the interest of our audience. Vancouverites - and I suspect audiences of international film festivals everywhere - love the opportunity to travel to other countries through cinema, to hear other cultures' stories and languages, and to gain insight beyond what traditional media offers. We also have sizable immigrant communities from around the world, and it's important for these Canadians to be able to not only share their heritage but to keep abreast of the best cinema - and current perspectives - from their home countries."

With greater Vancouver's 100,000-strong Iranian community the largest regional diaspora by far, it's no wonder the largest programme of festival films from the MENA region are Iranian.

Ramin Mahjouri, founding editor of Paivand, a Persian community newspaper, attributes the growing audience for and number of Iranian films to two factors: an ever-expanding Iranian film industry and a burgeoning local population.

"Iran's film production is booming," says Mahjouri, although he points out that all films must be approved by Ershad, the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. "Many films are specifically geared toward the foreign festival circuits. They know the formula, they know what Westerners want to see, and historically, festivals are prone to favour films from oppressed countries."

Mahjouri says that Vancouver's Iranian population, which initially surged in the 1980s with a large refugee community fleeing the regime, has in the past decade again grown by a third. The newcomers are not refugees but "wealthy immigrants with ties to the regime", he says. There are even government ministers with mansions in the Tony enclave of West Vancouver, he says. It's these newcomers, he suggests, that are filling festival seats.

Yet many of the Iranian films in VIFF's programme have been somewhat anti-regime, like 2009's No One Knows About Persian Cats by the award-winning Bahman Ghobadi (of A Time For Drunken Horses), which documented Tehran's underground club scene, or the Australian/Iranian film My Tehran for Sale about a young women with AIDS confronting social hypocrisy.

And in some ways, Vancouver - with its "Hollywood North" industry and a growing independent scene - not to mention a friendlier immigration policy compared with Los Angeles, the more traditional Iranian expat community - is an incubator for new Iranian cinema.

A case in point is Vancouver-based film maker Hossein Martin Fazeli, whose 2007 film Two Nazanins was a hard-hitting documentary about the efforts of former beauty queen turned human rights activist Nazanin Afshin Jam to save a child named Nazanin Fatehi, who was facing execution in Iran as punishment for stabbing an attempted rapist.

The film and a concurrent international campaign to pressure the Iranian government into dropping the charges, helped save the girl's life.

Fazeli has since produced and directed 2011's The Legacy of Nonviolent Movements in Iran, and 2013's Women on the Front Line about Iranian women activists. His current project Phoolan, about India's "bandit queen", is in post-production.

While the Iranian community here is much larger than Vancouver's tiny Palestinian community, filmmakers such as  Sobhi Al-Zobaida also call the city home and continue to practice the seventh art in this far-flung Pacific town, once carved out of rainforest.

One hopes that next year's festival will make further inroads into Vancouver's fledgling Middle Eastern film community. And while VIFF's programming of cinema from the region is still not as prominent as, say, the Palm Springs International Film Festival that showcases contenders for the Oscars best foreign film nominations, it's becoming an important West Coast hub for films from the Middle East.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq. A former editor at New Internationalist, she has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. Her next book, Ancient Heart, is a political travelogue of Iraqi heritage sites.

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars