Demystifying Arabia

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Whether you’re a native to the Middle East or American born and raised, you’re invited to take a break from cardboard stereotypes and fear-blinded perspectives when ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services) and Ahlam Film Group unveil films created by and about Arabs and Arab-Americans at Henry Ford Community College this weekend. The festival is called MENA, and this is its first year alive and kicking in metro Detroit, home to more than 250,000 people from the Middle East.

The MENA festival begins with the Detroit premiere of The Closed Doors, an Egyptian film directed by Atef Hetata, who has worked with film directors Graeme Clifford and Spike Lee. It’s the winner of the 1999 Montpellier Mediterranean film festival’s Critics Award and Golden Antigone, in addition to winning prizes for best actress and best screenplay at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. The Closed Doors is one of several filmic explorations of conflicts within conflicts, be they religious, cultural or personal — of turmoil on the outside mirroring that on the inside, either as a representation or instigation of the other.

The Middle East is not a homogeneous area, and MENA illustrates this admirably through its choice of films that contain a multiplicity of ethnic dimensions, as well as diverse genres, styles and methods used in the portrayal of those dimensions. 100% Arabica is a troubled and complex motion picture held together and torn apart by Rai music, a mesmerizing keyboard-guided hybrid of Euro-pop, rap and vocals touched with that distinctly Middle Eastern drawn-out and dancing vibrato.

100% Arabica explores a world within a world, an Arab and African community within but cut off from the Parisian suburbs. It’s a community propelled by money and survival, but mostly by a competition of loyalties between Islamic leaders and the popularity and draw of Rai music. This prayer vs. song clash isn’t confined to celluloid. The film’s director, Mahmoud Zemmouri, received a fatwa (or death warrant) from Islamic fundamentalists after his film’s release — a serious matter considering that Rai musician Cheb Hasni was assassinated in 1997 on the order of religious extremists. But even under this weight of reality, the film manages to continually bring us back to the dance and music that create an environment for the possibility of freedom.

Many of the MENA films present processions of internal and external struggles that aren’t necessarily solved in the end, but the reasons why they exist become a little clearer.

My American Grandmother is Iraqi filmmaker Aysha Ghazoul’s beautifully executed attempt to understand her Texan grandmother. Ghazoul journeys into the life and times of Dorothy, a glamorous Billy Rose showgirl of the ’30s and ’40s. This film reveals the daunting process of its filming while trying to uncover why the filmmaker’s grandmother, a very American-minded girl from Fort Worth, gave up all that she loved for an Iraqi pilot and moved to the Middle East, only to return to Fort Worth and the “Texas” mentality after his death.

My American Grandmother is a searching visual jewel piecing together bits of home movies, black-and-white visions of Texas, Gulf War footage, romantic backstage anecdotes and the communication, or lack of it, between Ghazoul and her grandmother. It’s a love letter in film form, intensified by Ghazoul’s determination to comprehend and appreciate someone who confuses and infuriates her. “I want to remember my grandma as a woman who reached out, even though she may not remember it herself.”

MENA takes us from the search to understand a mind from a foreign country to the search to understand a country by a foreign mind. In the film The English Sheik and the Yemeni Gentleman, director Badr Ben Hirsi, born and raised in England, travels to touch and appreciate Yemen, the country and culture of his parents. He does this, oddly enough, with the help of Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a non-Arabic Englishman drawn to Yemen since his youth, who has successfully acclimated himself to the country.

The film is a portrait of “another Arabia,” or “Arabia Felix,” the happy Arabia. Yemen is foreign even to its immediate neighbors, having kept a stronghold on its ancient traditions spanning thousands of years. Smith comfortably leads Hirsi through Yemen’s luscious green terraces and villages built as extensions of the mountains. He also helps Hirsi to understand why he has embraced such a strange and different place.

“I would say it was a bit like one’s first taste of strong drink. It’s a shock. It’s difficult to swallow, but you know you’re going to enjoy it. And the longer I stayed here, the less strange they became, and the more strange the place I had come from began to appear.”

Don’t pass up this opportunity to see the world through Arabian eyes. Take an out-of-country vacation in a Dearborn theater, and check out the films at MENA.

Anita Schmaltz writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]
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