A new face at AFF: Arab Film Festival exec director Michel Shehadeh speaks about diversity and the festival's wide-ranging program. (The festival opens Thursday with the Noor Awards and a screening of 'Waiting for Pasolini' at the Castro.)

A Talk With Arab Film Festival's Executive Director

Michael Fox October 13, 2008

If there was ever a time when Americans needed to hear a cross-section of voices from the Arab world, it’s now. Sure, the 12th annual Arab Film Festival, as always, is a celebration of community and identity and the art of cinema. But it also provides an all-too-rare window onto the Arab street without CNN obscuring the view. We sat down with executive director Michel Shehadeh, who joined the festival earlier this year, for a wide-ranging interview. First, though, some program highlights: The festival begins Thursday, October 16, with Waiting for Pasolini, a comedy about a Moroccan village’s interaction with an Italian film crew. A pair of Sundance award-winners, the crowd-pleasing Captain Abu Read (October 17 at the Clay and October 18 at the Camera 12 in San Jose), Jordan’s first-ever feature and (needless to say) its submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and the inspiring Palestinian rap doc, Slingshot Hip Hop (October 24 at the Shattuck in Berkeley), make their local premieres. The list of guest filmmakers includes Slingshot’s Jackie Salloum and Khadija Al-Salami, the Yemeni director of the wrenching documentary Amina (October 26), about a death-row inmate convicted of murdering her husband. The Arab Film Festival runs through October 28 at various locations in San Francisco, October 18-19 in San Jose, October 23 in Oakland and October 24-26 in Berkeley. For ticket information, call the festival office at (415) 564-1100 or go to the festival’s web site.

 SF360: Why don’t we start with your background, Michel?

Michel Shehadeh: I’m a Palestinian immigrant. I came to this country in 1975, fresh from high school to attend the university. I graduated with a BA in journalism and a master’s in public policy administration from California State, Long Beach. And I studied for a couple of years at Niagara University, so I have a bit of East Coast experience. My experience in the United States has always been about explaining who we are and dealing with the dominant negative image of Arabs in the United States and in the West in general, whether in the news or in popular culture. I worked as a West Coast Regional director for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which further emphasized those passions of trying to tell our stories. You find that you’re defined and you’re portrayed not through your eyes, but through somebody else’s lens, and dealing with this all the time made me passionate about telling our stories. Also, I’m a film buff. I’m very passionate about films; I’ve done a few shorts through my work with ADC.

SF360: Documentaries?

Shehadeh: Yes. I did something about Edward Said, for example. I’ve also, since I was a kid, wanted to be a filmmaker. It did not happen. So I took a year off to write my own script, and I’ve just finished it. I know everybody on the West Coast has a script. (Laughs.) This is mine. The opportunity to come to the Arab Film Festival combined my passion for telling a story, changing an image and educating with my passion for the medium.

SF360: Is it an advantage presenting an Arab film festival in the tolerant, politically engaged Bay Area, or do you continually run into people who think they already know everything there is to know?

Shehadeh: There are pluses and minuses. If you are in an environment where people know nothing about you, whatever you say, however you say it, is easy. But when you are in an area like this, where this question is passionately discussed and debated almost on a daily basis, it becomes harder. How you tell it becomes questioned, what you tell is questioned, and whether it’s politically correct, not politically correct, whether it’s the right story, not the right story, where you pick your angle, where you put your camera, all of that becomes a discussion. That makes it harder, but better. Because it refines you, it refines your work. So it is a harder place, but it pushes you to be better.

SF360: Who is your audience, and how do you speak to an Arab audience as compared to a non-Arab audience?

Shehadeh: Our Arab audience is 25 percent, so it’s not really the dominant audience, which is great. I’d like to keep it that way. I’d like to bring the numbers up, but keep it 25 percent. When you expand your audience and keep the percentages of your community, at least you’re not speaking to the choir. But again, we aren’t speaking to the choir because the Arab world is not really monolithic. I am learning so much about Arab personalities, Arab characters, Arab regions and subcultures. For example, North Africa was not really something I knew. I came from the southwestern Asian part of the Arab world, which had its own uniqueness and its own personality. North Africa has a lot in common but it also has its particularities, its unique beauty. So we are not speaking to the choir in the sense that we are teaching the Arab community about its different parts, its different characters, its different personalities, different regions.

SF360: Does that idealism ever result in controversy?

Shehadeh: We have a problem sometimes with the Arab community in that you are bringing a story that shows the positives and the negatives. That’s our aim because we don’t want to be one-dimensional here. You don’t want to fight negative stereotyping by becoming stereotypical from the other side. So we want to bring in stories that challenge our community. That’s why [we show] independent film. Independent film is about individuals who interpret their own experience and environment in their own countries the way they see it. Our job is not to interfere in this process or to self-censor or to select with discrimination, but to open venues, to open opportunities and a space for good filmmaking. Our criteria are not about what you tell. It’s about how you tell it, and the medium of film. How good your lens is, the technical and the story arc, how you tell the story. The more diverse, the more evocative, the more angles that nobody has seen or thought about, the better. This is what I say to our community. The more you try to limit the diversity, you are throwing away the wealth that you have. You need to show this diversity, because our problem is people don’t see us as diverse, they see it as a lump-sum caricature that is two-dimensional.

SF360: The Arab Film Festival typically presents local premieres of films that won’t otherwise play here because of the vagaries of theatrical distribution. Is that part of your mission?

Shehadeh: Because of the lack of distributors and places where you can go see these films, we’ve become the only space. Given the times, given what’s going on in the world, that’s another level of importance that these stories have. Beyond presenting a story from the Arab world, it’s education, dispelling negative stereotyping that saturates the media here. Of course, putting on a good, entertaining film is also important, too.

SF360: That brings us to
Captain Abu Read.

Shehadeh: Yes, the Jordanian film. It’s a hit because nobody expected Jordan to produce a film that wins in film festivals of an international level. That’s exciting for Jordanians, but also for all Arabs because they see an Arab product that’s a major film.

SF360: What do you love about
Captain Abu Read?

Shehadeh: First, the technique. It’s a good, well-made film. Sometimes when there are no resources, you can tell, but this is professionally made — beautiful, entertaining, good music, everything. The second thing is it’s bold. Not in a polemical way, and not in a rhetorical way. It’s bold in the simplicity of the daily life of normal people in Jordan interacting with each other. The rich, the poor, the privileged and the unprivileged, and a story that revolves around the aspirations of kids. Through one kid’s dream and one person’s influence, that plot brings in all the interactions and the problems and the joys and the laughs in Jordanian society. It’s not propaganda. It’s just a story. I sat with my kid and we laughed and cried at the same time, at the same moments. It’s just one of those films that hits you.

SF360: There are a few other coups in the program, yes?

Shehadeh: We not only have the first Jordanian feature, we have the first Saudi Arabian feature [the psychological thriller The Shadow of Silence, October 18 in San Jose and October 26 in Berkeley], and the first Bahrainian feature [the epic Bahraini Tale, October 18 and 20 in San Francisco. And the first female-made Yemeni film Amina. That shows you the renaissance that is happening in the Arab world in filmmaking. That’s exciting because we’re situated right now to bring these films and these experiences and this energy of the Arab world to the West Coast and to the Bay Area community.

SF360: You attend film festivals in the Middle East and elsewhere. So tell us more about this renaissance you’re seeing.

Shehadeh: The Arab world loves movies. But [only] Egypt and a few places were producing them. Egypt was the model of Arab cinema. Then Syria produced many serious TV [programs], not films. Lebanon produced films, but not as much. And that’s about it. What’s happening now is everybody is producing films. North Africa took the lead and decided to produce cutting-edge films, but then in the last two, three years, we’ve started to see regions like Saudi Arabia. We never expected Saudi Arabia to produce a feature film.

SF360: A country with such a large population?

Shehadeh: But very conservative. And very closed, as a political regime. You can imagine the challenges for filmmakers. That’s another thing that is exciting about the Arab Film Festival, bringing filmmakers to meet audiences face to face and talk about their experiences and challenges. Also, this filmmaking is not just happening in the Arab world but in the Diaspora also. What’s an Arab? Is it an Arab who lives in Paris, or is it an Arab who lives in Cairo? It’s not just an Arab who lives in his or her hometown or home country, but an Arab who’s experiencing immigration, crossing borders, living with other minorities within a different set of contexts and adaptations. It’s rich and complex and many-layered and it interacts with other universal issues like immigration, race relations, religion, phobias, inter-marriage. There are generational issues. Gender issues, relationships between men and women and families. Nothing else can bring this out like film. Poetry cannot. Painting cannot. That’s why film is very powerful. We love that medium that is able to entertain, to educate, to provoke, and to transform. That is important. This medium is able to transform.

SF360: On Opening Night, you are presenting a Life Achievement Award to Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine, who passed away in July. What is his legacy?

Shehadeh: He is, in my opinion, the modern father of the Arab cinema, of serious Arab cinema. He was a Christian Arab, and he dealt with Egyptian and Arab society in a more in-depth and more complex way. Realism interacted with symbolism, sometimes in a very harsh way. Also, he universalized the system of speaking about Egypt but beyond Egypt. His films are made in the Arabic language but to be viewed beyond an Arabic audience. He inspired more than one generation of filmmaking, and I feel that this renaissance that is happening, Youssef Chahine has something to do with it. He showed that films are not just silly products to be sold and disappeared, but that films can be timely and timeless and could become more than just images on a screen. They become tools of understanding. If you are watching a film about yourself, it triggers things in a way that you haven’t had a chance to [think about]. And it’s also a mirror of the Arab world to the world, so again it’s a tool of transformation. Social transformation, individual transformation and an impact that spills beyond an image on a screen.

SF360: I’ve peppered you with big-picture questions, rather than focusing on the festival program. What’s the most important thing for prospective filmgoers to know?

Shehadeh: It is really an amazing selection. And it’s a one-time-in-a-lifetime chance for people to come and see these films, for we don’t know what’s going to happen [to them, in terms of future Bay Area screenings]. So our challenge is to get people to really understand how rare this opportunity is and grasp it.