Highlights From Canada’s Middle East and North Africa Film Festival

In its fifth year, the MENA Film Festival in Vancouver is set to showcase its most expansive and regionally diverse array of films on the big screen from January 27 to February 1. With over 150 submissions, the event will present five feature films and 37 short films collectively representing 22 countries and regions including Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Armenia, and Gaza and the West Bank, all touching on this year’s theme of exploring bodies through space and time. 

Founded in 2019, the festival works to bridge the gaps in the arts and provide Middle East and North African (MENA) — also known as South West Asian and North African (SWANA) — representation. Director Arman Kazemi told Hyperallergic that the festival aims to highlight “the commonalities in our histories rather than the differences that keep us apart.” This year, it has extended programming outside the theater, collaborating with the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the Armenian Cultural Association of British Columbia for an evening celebrating Armenian film, food, and music on January 31.

Each year, the festival chooses a MENA-identifying artist to create the event’s posters and accompanying visuals. The 2024 artwork, sold as a limited-edition print, was crafted by Egyptian artist Marwan Shahin from Shahin Studios in Los Angeles. Drawing upon inspiration from Henri Matisse’s “The Dance” (1909–10), Shahin said his “Melting Pot” weaves together themes of “peace, diversity, identity, and fluidity.”

On the opening day, in partnership with the Palestinian Youth Movement, the festival will screen Palestinian Yousef Srouji’s Three Promises (2023), which pieces together clips from videotapes taken by the director’s mother with narrative storytelling to chronicle the family’s experiences and anguish during the Second Intifada in the West Bank

“The footage reinforced that my memories are real, and not the imagination of a child,” Srouji told Hyperallergic. Suha, Srouji’s mother, documented their daily lives marked by violence, unnerving fear, constant uncertainty, and psychological suffering and heartbreak while also capturing small moments of joy, playfulness, and humor before and during this intense period.

The importance of the film in my eyes actually diminishes today, since the film tells the story of a family that had the option to leave, and eventually come back as I did,” Srouji continued. “Today in Gaza, most people do not have that option and those who do fear that leaving means they will never return.”

“The humanization of Palestinians, and families living in a war zone anywhere in the world, is more important than ever,” Srouji added. Many of the Palestinian directors will not attend the festival in person.

Palestinian artist Rehab Nazzal’s 16-minute documentary “Vibrations from Gaza” (2023) features interviews with several children from the Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children in Gaza. The sign-language film, underlaid by a constant military drone hum, captures the children’s memories of Israeli bombardments through various senses. 

Other highlights include Yemeni director Amr Gamal’s The Burdened (2023), which draws inspiration from a true story to portray challenges and hardships since the onset of civil war in 2015. Expecting their fourth child, Isra’a (Abeer Mohammed) and Ahmed (Khaled Hamdan) are faced with an impossible decision amid insufficient resources for a growing family and societal stigma around seeking an abortion. The 90-minute feature won the Amnesty International Film Award at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival. 

Iranian-American Ava Lalezarzadeh’s 14-minute film “In the Garden of Tulips” (2023), named after the “beauty of Iran’s soil and also the oppression it fell upon,” recreates her mother’s bittersweet final car ride with her father in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. Blending personal narrative, religion, girlhood, and Iranian political history, it depicts moments of joy between the father-daughter duo singing about gojeh sabz (small, crunchy green plums) right before a police officer interrogates them, prompting Caroline (Lalezarzadeh) to swallow her gold Star of David necklace. Shortly after, the pair bid farewell and Caroline gets into a smuggler’s car to finally leave the country.

“They could only say goodbye with their eyes,” Lalezarzadeh told Hyperallergic. Her mother remembers this experience as “being thrust into adulthood in a singular moment.”

The MENA Film Festival aims to make the online screenings available in the United States next year, the festival’s strategy director Ghinwa Yassine said.

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