The last Twin Cities Arab Film Festival opened with a short. Voicemail recordings, full of love and fear, played over grainy footage of abandoned buildings and half-finished construction sites. At the end of the seven-minute running time, a man in the audience stood up and cried, “That is not my Egypt!” But for filmmaker Heba Amin, this was Egypt at the height of its 2011 revolution: abandoned by its leaders, but loved by its people.
This is just one example of the diverse programming in the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival. The festival is organized by Mizna, a non-profit dedicated to promoting Arab culture through art and literature. Members of Mizna, based in St Paul, founded the festival in 2003, as one of Mizna’s Arab arts programs in the Twin Cities. So soon after 9/11, the festival provided a fresh take on Arab-American life. Mohannad Ghawanmeh, the current festival curator, attributes the success of the first festival to “the topicality of an Arab cultural event that aimed to present Arab works that related to subjects other than military violence, works that centered on characters without a death wish.”
Eight years later, the TCAFF become a staple of the Arab-American community in the Twin Cities, and is steadily gaining global acclaim. The festival showcases films from around the world, which this year includes Lebanon, UAE, Palestine, US, Jordan, Bahrain, Algeria, France, Germany, China, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Belgium, and India. Many of these films are making their MN debut, and sometimes US or even world premiere. This year, the festival will showcase the US premiere of God’s Horses, a Cannes-nominated film which the Hollywood Reporter calls an “engrossing, realistic study of a Moroccan slum and how it becomes a breeding ground for young terrorists.” Ghawanmeh believes that this is a huge step for the festival’s reputation, both nationally and internationally. “We hope that the enhanced standard of our festival’s selection will be reflected in audience evaluations,” he says, noting how much the community’s feedback has contributed to the festival’s growing success. In total, the TCAFF is screening films from Lebanon, UAE, Palestine, US, Jordan, Bahrain, Algeria, France, Germany, China, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Belgium, India.
Ghawanmeh also names several other exciting additions to this year’s festival. The opening night will take place at the Walker Art Center for the first time ever, and organizers will ask audiences to award their favorite films with prizes. Ghawanmeh hopes that “collaboration with the Walker ought to introduce our festival to new audiences”, while asking viewers to vote for “Best Feature” and “Best Short” will imitate larger festivals like Cannes and Berlin. The TCAFF is expected to draw around 1500 people this year, which indicates its growing prestige among film and other arts communities. Ghawanmeh is most excited to see the reactions to a “secret screening” on the final day. “I would start extolling on it,” he said, “but alas, I have sworn secrecy to the film’s producer who is looking forward to its premiere in a major US film festival.”
Macalester has purchased a limited number of tickets for the festival, which are available for free to Macalester students, faculty, and staff. If you are interested in attending the film festival, contact Khaldoun Samman at [email protected] for subsidized tickets, or visit www.mizna.org/arabfilmfest.