Arab Film Festival to open; Election Night with Theater of Public Policy

Courtesy of Estrella Productions
Lubna Azabal, Morjana Alaoui, and Nadine Labaki in “Rock the Casbah,” which opens the Arab Film Festival on Thursday.

Foreign-film festivals are travel without the cost, the inconvenience and the crowds. From your comfy seat in a climate-controlled movie theater, popcorn in hand, you can journey to exotic, faraway places – like a palatial villa in Tangiers and a garden in northern Iraq. Or an apartment in Damascus, with bombs exploding nearby, a prison in Beirut, a factory in Cairo and a labor camp in Dubai. Those are places most of us wouldn’t go, even if we could. But for 90 minutes or so, if we’re willing, filmmakers working under vastly different circumstances from Hollywood can take us there.

Founded in 2002 by Mizna, the Twin Cities-based organization that promotes Arab American culture with a literary journal, public arts events and classes, the Arab Film Festival is now in its 9th year, sufficiently well-established to partner for the first time with the Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul and move into its St. Anthony Main Theatre. From opening night Thursday (Nov. 6) through Sunday evening, it will present dozens of features and shorts from Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Syria, Morocco and other places.

The festival has a purpose beyond showing films by and about Arabs that have not yet been seen in Minnesota. For a change, the Arabs on screen are not terrorists, temptresses, villains or thieves, the usual Hollywood stereotypes. They are men and women, parents, children, factory workers, artists. This year, the festival broadens its scope to include non-Arab peoples of the Middle East (South Asian expats, Turkmen Iraqis) and non-Arabic speaking citizens of Arab countries (Somalis).

The program includes several Minnesota premieres. Four films are by female directors (there goes another stereotype); two Arab women directors (Éliane Raheb, “Sleepless Nights,” and Nadia Shihab, “Amel’s Garden”) will be present for Q&As. Two screenings will be followed by panel discussions, including one (after “Scheherazade’s Diary”) about drama therapy in prisons.

Written and directed by Laila Marrakchi, “Rock the Casbah,” the French-Moroccan film that opens the festival, is a family drama with twists. Wealthy patriarch Moulay Hassan (even Minnesotans will recognize Omar Sharif) has died unexpectedly, and the traditional three days of mourning are about to begin. Sofia, the youngest daughter, has flown home from America, where she works as an actress (and is often cast as a terrorist). Her two older sisters cut her no slack for leaving Morocco and marrying an American. Among rituals, visits and tears, secrets emerge, and memories of a fourth sister who died years earlier.

Beautifully filmed, bitter and sweet, with a very engaging cast, “Rock the Casbah” draws you into the story, the scenery and the family battles. The song on the soundtrack that will break your heart is “The Great White Ocean” from the album “Swanlights” by Antony and the Johnsons, whose lead singer, Antony Hegarty, lived for a time in Minnesota. It’s a small world after all.

If you saw “Slumdog Millionaire,” which swept the 2009 Oscars, “Champ of the Camp,” which screens Sunday afternoon, may remind you a bit of that film. Yes, there’s a contest with screaming crowds and an unlikely winner, but the parallels end there. “Slumdog” was a fiction, “Champ” is a documentary, filmed in a labor camp in Dubai, where men from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh live eight to a room and work long hours in baking heat to support distant families they seldom see. Men like these helped build Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, but they will never set foot inside.

Once each year, workers compete for prizes (vouchers for money to send home, flat-screen TVs) by singing and demonstrating their knowledge of Bollywood songs and stars. They sing anyway, in the camp and while they work, as a way to relieve their sadness and loneliness. The contest is something to aim for, a temporary spotlight, a glimmer of hope beyond their daily drudgery.

The film is too shiny in places, and it makes the men’s lives look not so bad, which is where the fiction comes in. Many paid large sums to recruitment agents for their jobs; they earn less than $300 a month, and they have few or no rights. To gain access to the camp and the contest, which was founded by Western Union (the company many workers use to wire their wages home), Lebanese director Mahmoud Kaabour couldn’t dwell on the working conditions, the human rights violations, and the UAE’s treatment of foreign workers. The camp looks remarkably clean, and a room we’re shown seems no worse than some dorm rooms we’ve seen. But the faces of the men tell more of the story, even when they’re singing.

Visit the festival website FMI, including a complete schedule, trailers, director bios and ticketing. All screenings except opening night are $8. Festival passes are still available.

***

A belated happy 40th birthday to Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, the oldest, most successful state arts advocacy organization in the U.S. We spoke with executive director Sheila Smith last week about MCA’s latest survey of where candidates stand on arts issues but totally forgot to sing her the birthday song. Mayors Betsy Hodges, Chris Coleman and Don Ness (Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth) all proclaimed Nov. 1 Minnesota Citizens for the Arts Day. Former Minnesota governors Arne Carlson and Wendell Anderson, along with Minnesota State Arts Board chair Peggy Burnet and McKnight Foundation president Kate Wolford, collaborated on a commentary praising MCA in Saturday’s Star Tribune. “Without this organization,” they wrote, “we simply wouldn’t be the nation’s leader in arts funding policy that we are.”

When we tell people in other states about MCA and the Legacy Amendment, they think we’re joking. New Yorkers are jealous. We actually have 25 years of dedicated funding for the nonprofit arts written into our state constitution. Thank you, MCA. And happy birthday.

The picks

Tonight (Tuesday, Nov. 4) at Bryant-Lake Bowl: Election Night 2014 with the Theater of Public Policy. T2P2 presents an evening of sketches, political analysis by a panel of experts (including former MinnPoster David Brauer and Politics in Minnesota’s Sarah Janacek) and live music by The Explainers. The evening will be broadcast live on KFAI. 8–10 p.m. FMI and tickets ($12 in advance, $15 at the door).

Wednesday at Common Good Books: Brad Edmondson discusses “Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s.” We scream for ice cream, especially Ben & Jerry’s. (What was that flavor with Jack Daniels mixed in?) Edmondson tells the inside story of the rise, mistakes, fall, recovery and renewal of a company with an insanely ambitious three-part mission: make the world’s best ice cream, support progressive causes, and share its success with all stakeholders, including cows. Edmondson will be introduced by Eric Utne. Sadly, ice cream will not be served. 7 p.m. Free.

Wednesday at the Fitz: Talking Volumes: Azar Nafisi. MPR’s Kerry Miller speaks with the author of the national bestseller “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books.” Nafisi is on tour with her latest, “The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books,” in which she explores three American classics: Mark Twain’s “Hucklebery Finn,” Sinclair Lewis’ “Babbitt,” and Carson McCullers’ “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” Talking Volumes is a collaboration between MPR and the Star Tribune. Here’s more about Nafisi and her new book. 7 p.m. Tickets here ($34.78) or at the Fitzgerald box office ($25; no fees).

Opens Wednesday at Intermedia Arts: “The Blacker the Berry.” Shá Cage, currently starring in Frank Theatre’s “Grounded” at the Playwrights’ Center, co-curated this multidisciplinary theater performance featuring the voices of more than 50 Twin Cities women of color. A response to the culturally provocative prompt, “The blacker the berry …,” the performance is accompanied by a companion visual arts exhibition. When was the last time we saw 30 to 50 women of color on the same stage at the same time? Never? Performances will layer stories with movement, song with spoken word, poetry, monologues, and original devised performance. Post-show dialogues will feature special guests. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($12/$15). Ends Saturday, Nov. 8.

Thursday at the Showplace Icon Theatre in St. Louis Park: “Of Mice and Men.” The hit Broadway production of the play based on Steinbeck’s novella, filmed on stage by National Theatre Live. With James Franco as George, Chris O’Dowd as Lennie. Here’s the trailer. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($18).

Thursday at the Basilica of St. Mary: Vienna Boys’ Choir. The one-and-only, world-famous, 500-year-old boys’ choir in our own magnificent Basilica. Part of Classical MPR’s 2014–15 choral series, “Men and Boys.” 7:30 p.m. Tickets here ($45–$80).  

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