Phantoms in the darkness

The 2nd Annual Twin Cities Arab Film Festival shows a lesser-known side of Middle Eastern life

by Tom Horgen

Here’s what Hollywood knows about the Middle East: Arabs are either terrorists whoregularly pester Arnold and other celluloid superpatriots, or they’re a lowly bunch of people, besieged by eternal war.

One or the other.

Well, how about something a little different? A love story maybe?

Minnesota’s 2nd Annual Arab Film Festival can handle that and much more. The four-day festival will open doors to Arab realities rarely talked about on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, said Mazher Al-Zo’by, a festival co-organizer.

“For many of us in America, to imagine the Middle East as a space where love stories can emerge is not really common,” Al-Zo’by said.

But such stories do occur. In fact, many of the festival’s best films deal mostly with personal dilemmas – sex, marriage – rather than the larger, historical issues some Westerners might expect from Arab filmmakers.

That’s not to say the festival, which will show more than 20 features, documentaries and shorts, doesn’t have its share of politically charged pieces. It has plenty of those, too – many of which deal with the post-Sept. 11, 2001, fallout.

But a paramount goal, Al-Zo’by said, is to break away from Arab stereotypes and let emerging voices in Arab cinema represent themselves in the ways they want to be represented.

The Minnesota event is one of only a handful of Arab-focused film festivals in the nation. Others are held in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle.

Last year, the festival took place as the United States was invading Iraq, which made it hard to get filmmakers to come and present their films. Some artists didn’t feel safe, Al-Zo’by said. This year, festival organizers are excited to have three directors on hand to discuss their works.

“The festival is one of the very few moments where Arabs become the subjects of their own representation,” Al-Zo’by said, “and not the object, as is the case in Hollywood.”

For these four nights, the people on the screen are also behind the camera and in the driver’s seat.