Featuring a variety of movies, documentaries and short films, this inaugural event is sure to be a Tulsa tradition.
The Arab Film Festival was an intimate and cheerful affair. It was a great weekend packed with compelling films and documentaries. Tulsans have so few chances for exposure to films like these, so it was a truly unique and wonderful experience to see these works on the big screen.
After the showing of the weekend’s first film, “Souad,” people slowly trickled out of the theater, talking about the film. Some were arguing over whether or not they liked it, others were simply taking it in. “Souad” was a fitting start to the film festival. The movie is about two Egyptian sisters and the complexities that arise as they grow up in Egypt as young women, navigating the world offline and online. It is a must-see.
After the film, people gathered in small groups to enjoy the food, which was provided by Shawkat’s Mediterranean Restaurant, a local Lebanese restaurant. There was live music from Mateo Galindo which made for a pleasant soundtrack against the chatter of the post-moviegoers. In the room where the reception was being held, Circle Cinema displayed several prints from Mizna, featuring the covers of the literary journal as well as previous Arab Film Festivals’ posters.
Mizna is a film and literature organization which publishes works by Arab and Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA) writers and artists. Lana Barkawi, executive and artistic director of Mizna, introduced the films alongside Moheb Soliman.
Soliman, a poet and Tulsa Artist Fellow, was one of the primary people who helped this event come to life. He used to be a program director for Mizna, and said, “landing here and encountering Circle Cinema…It just seemed really obvious that maybe we could all work together to pilot an Arab Film Fest Tulsa using [Mizna’s] experience and backlog.” Soliman notes that the Tulsa Artist Fellowship was very supportive of this project and excited to be a part of it.
The festival showcased five films and documentaries and five shorts. Along with the opening film, “200 Meters,” “Talking About Trees,” “We Are From There” and “1982” were the other feature-length films. The shorts included “The Tomb,” “It Still Rotates,” “I Say Dust,” “Like Salt” and “Tallahawssee.”
These contemporary films were completely produced by SWANA creatives. Films from Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, the U.S. and Sudan were featured, which provided a strong display of the myriad of stories that SWANA filmmakers have created.
“I’m really happy with what we wound up with. I think one thing that’s a concern is that people think the Arab world is just one thing or one group but it’s made up of multiple countries and multiple ethnicities within each of those countries that go back hundreds of thousands of years. It was really at the forefront of my mind to showcase different nationalities,” Soliman explained.
Saturday featured “Sudanese Film Retrospective,” which provided insight into Sudan’s rich film history as well as the current state of cinema in Sudan today, where it is still heavily censored. Despite this, the documentary provided a hopeful ending. Sudanese cinema is still very much alive, even amidst conflict.
The film festival was made not only special by the types of films that are being shown, but also from the Q&A sessions held with the directors of the film. For “Souad,” the Q&A with the director was pre-recorded, but still provided insight for the viewers. On Sunday, after the showing of Darine Hotait’s short films, she tuned in for a virtual Q&A, taking audience questions. It was a dynamic conversation. Only Circle Cinema, which is an independent theater, could provide such an unique experience.
The night ended with what the curators of the festival called an “instant classic,” “1982.” This Lebanese story is set against the backdrop of the conflict of the Lebanese Civil War and follows a young boy as he attempts to tell a girl he has a crush on her. As Soliman said, “this film is very accessible“ and a great story about Lebanon’s history that many in Oklahoma might not know.
This inaugural film festival was truly a special weekend with films that deserve to be seen and celebrated. Mainstream film and television is sorely lacking in terms of actual representation (both onscreen and behind the camera) of SWANA stories. Circle Cinema is a valuable, historic theater that provides a space for films that might not be displayed in larger theaters. There are so many wonderful movies, documentaries and shorts created by SWANA writers and directors. The Arab Film Festival is here to stay.