Arab Film Festival biggest yet

In September 2001, just when it was needed the most, the Arab Film Festival in the Bay Area was canceled, having been scheduled days within 9/11. It was “needed” because the mission of “Cinemayaat” is “to enhance public understanding of Arab culture and to provide alternative representations of Arabs that contradict the stereotypical images frequently encountered in the American mass media.”

Later, in the infamous year of 2003, months after the war in Iraq began, and in the midst of another unofficial but very real backlash against Arabs and Arab-Americans, writer-director Jack Shaheen had a big impact with his “Reel Bad Arabs” in the Castro Theatre, at the opening of the seventh AFF.

His point, profusely illustrated from an analysis of 900 movies, was that Hollywood has a historical bias against Arabs, ranging from ugly cartoon characters to Arnold Schwarzenegger blowing hundreds of them away in “True Lies,” to Samuel Jackson slaughtering Yemeni men, women and children in “The Rules of Engagement” — and no portrayal of Arabs as “normal people,” much less as positive role models.

Now comes the 11th festival, not only to San Francisco (Wednesday through Oct. 28), but also to San Jose (Oct. 20-27), Berkeley (Oct. 23-28) and Los Angeles (Oct. 31-Nov. 4).

Says Artistic Director Sonia El Feki, “This year is special, with so many new programs — over 100, including 40 feature films and full-length documentaries — and our first awards to be given to works at the festival, and taking the event to Los Angeles for the first time.”

The Middle East crisis and political and ethnic conflicts continue to dominate, but the festival is also providing a variety of topics and genres.

Even the film’s settings have a range. For example, “Winterland” (screening Oct. 19 at the Roxie), which is set in Norway, is about a Kurdish immigrant from Iraq, waiting to meet his bride-to-be for the first time. Algerian director Nasser Bakhti’s “Night Shadows” (Oct. 24 at the Roxie) is about the intersection of lives of immigrants from Morocco and Mali in the Swiss city of Geneva.

Officially opening the festival Oct. 18 at the Clay Theatre is the Tunisian feature “Making Of,” Nouri Bouzid’s award-winning entry at last year’s Carthage Film Festival. In the movie, Lotfi Abdelli portrays an unemployed man fundamentalists are trying to turn into a suicide bomber. Abdelli will be present at the screening.

The first-time Noor (Arabic for “light”) Awards for Outstanding Feature, Outstanding Documentary and Outstanding Short will be announced at the Centerpiece Film Night at the Castro on Oct. 25. The program also features “Cut and Paste,” a romantic comedy about a young couple’s efforts to emigrate fromEgypt to New Zealand.

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