Fill the void: Championing the melting pot of MENA cinema in Canada
Vancouver, Canada's third-largest city, known for its booming film industry that caters to American productions, has earned the nickname "Hollywood North" and is now a gateway for MENA cinema.
The MENA Film Festival is now in its fifth year and will run in-person until February 1, and online until February 11.
This festival celebrates not only cinema but also music, art, and most importantly, community.
"The festival was established to address the issue of underrepresentation of Iranian and other minority communities in the city's film culture. As the festival's director, I have witnessed its growth over the years, largely due to the unwavering support of our administrative team and the thousands of followers and viewers who rely on us to showcase their films"
"When we started in 2019," declares Ghinwa Yassine, co-founder and director of strategy, who is a Lebanese Canadian artist and activist, "we had a mere $400."
Despite the presence of a large Iranian community (around 100,000) and 14,000 Arabic speakers in Greater Vancouver, their representation in the local cinema scene was woefully inadequate.
This situation prompted Yassin and her co-founder, Arman Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian filmmaker, to take matters into their own hands and initiate the MENA festival. Since then, the festival has garnered significant support and now partners with the VIFF (Vancouver International Film Festival) Centre, receives backing from Telefilm Canada for its workshops and boasts a team of nine dedicated staff members.
The city of Vancouver hosts several film festivals every year, showcasing a variety of styles and cultures from around the world. However, there is a missing demographic in the local film scene - members of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) community, also known as Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA).
The MENA Film Festival aims to address this gap by featuring the works of local and national filmmakers and artists who identify as part of the Canadian-MENA/SWANA community. The festival seeks to create a platform for their voices to be heard and celebrated.
Arman Kazemi explained to The New Arab: “The festival was established to address the issue of underrepresentation of Iranian and other minority communities in the city's film culture. As the festival's director, I have witnessed its growth over the years, largely due to the unwavering support of our administrative team and the thousands of followers and viewers who rely on us to showcase their films. We strive to bring competitive and thought-provoking work from the MENA region and beyond to Vancouver.”
This year's festival received over 150 submissions, featuring five feature films and 37 short films from 22 countries and regions, including Iran, Yemen, Sudan, and Armenia.
The theme of the festival this year was "exploring bodies through space and time," which was touched upon in all the entries. There was a particular focus on Gaza and the West Bank.
The festival's opening night was a sold-out event attended by a diverse range of cinephiles, local diplomats, and members of MENA communities.
The short film, Hair, directed by Iranian-Canadian Sara Jade Alfaro-Deghani, showcased the festival's theme. The 14-minute film portrayed an inter-generational gathering of Persian immigrant women who meet for tea and traditional hair removal rituals, revealing family drama.
The festival also featured Palestinian-American Yousef Srouji's documentary Three Promises (2023), which was the filmmaker's Canadian debut. The film weaves together footage his mother took during the second intifada in 2000 with his personal narrative. The film reflects on the anguish of parents trying to protect their children from harm and choosing between home and exile.
"This year's festival received over 150 submissions, featuring five feature films and 37 short films from 22 countries and regions, including Iran, Yemen, Sudan, and Armenia"
Other festival highlights include the Palestinian-Canadian co-production, Vibrations from Gaza, (2023). The 14-minute documentary offers a powerful testament to the experience of children from the Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children in Gaza, who have to face the constant hum of Israeli drones and airstrikes.
Malak Jabareen's experimental short film Ariha from the West Bank offers a surreal yet nostalgic take on a family trip to Jericho.
Meanwhile, the Yemeni film The Burdened makes its first appearance in Canada after its success in Palm Springs. The film offers a rare glimpse into the long-suffering nation via the story of a couple with three children struggling with an unplanned fourth pregnancy amidst soaring healthcare costs and conservative abortion laws.
Finally, the 14-minute film In the Garden of Tulips (2023), written by Iranian-American Ava Lalezarzadeh, recreates her mother's bittersweet final car ride with her father in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. The film is named after "the beauty of Iran's soil and also the oppression it fell upon" and offers a lyrical yet searing portrayal of the experience.
During the festival, young filmmakers were given the opportunity to network and learn new skills through workshops, panels, and cultural events, which were organised in between screenings.
One of the events was an Armenian cultural evening that featured a special screening of two movies - 250km by Hasmik Movsisyan and An Armenian Triptych by Aram Bajakian, Kevork Mourad, and Alan Semerdjian, accompanied by traditional food and music.
An excellent panel discussion on MENA/SWANA representation in film was held, which offered important perspectives from young actors, screenwriters and filmmakers.
They discussed the difficult task of balancing cultural authenticity with industry expectations. Iranian-Canadian actor and screenwriter Shayan Bayat pointed out that only 0.3% of Hollywood writers identify as being from the MENA region.
As a result, characters from this region are often stereotyped, either as exotic or demonised. Examples include 'the terrorist,' 'the belly dancer,' or 'the oil baron,' instead of being portrayed as professionals like doctors, lawyers, and teachers.
To overcome the problem of one-dimensional, stereotypical characters, Shayan Bayat encouraged young professionals to write and produce their own stories. The MENA festival is now in its 5th year and is critical to reflecting the actual realities of the Middle East back to its young creators. This festival is key to a narrative shift and a sea change in Hollywood's view of the region.
Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and has been writing from and about the MENA since 1992. Her next book, Between Two Rivers, is a travelogue of ancient sites and modern culture in Iraq. www.hadaniditmars.com
Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars