The 24th annual Arabian Sights Film Festival opened Friday with acclaimed Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s award-winning film, It Must Be Heaven. Organizers welcomed almost 400 people at the AMC Mazza Gallerie in Friendship Heights.
Shirin Ghareeb is the deputy director of the Washington, DC International Film Festival (FilmFest DC), the umbrella organization behind Arabian Sights. Standing before a seated audience of diverse national and professional backgrounds, Ghareeb commenced by thanking sponsors and garnering anticipation for this year’s lineup.
“[It] has been an amazing year for Arab cinema,” Ghareeb spoke into the microphone. “During Arabian Sights you’re going to see some of these films that are just off the runways [from] festivals like Cannes and the Toronto [International] Film Festival.”
Thrillers, comedies, and films with themes that deal with societal questions and cross-cultural conflicts dominate this year’s features from numerous Arab countries including some European co-productions.
Ghareeb launched Arabian Sights (where she also serves as Director) in 1996 after noting that the number of Arab films included in the lineup of International films screened at FilmFest DC was disproportionate.
“These films do not have exposure in the U.S. because they [do not] have American distribution,” Ghareeb said. “It became evident as a result of attendance that we were filling a void in the whole cinematic area.”
Including a collection of internationally recognized films from the Arab cinema, one of which is the American premier of Baghdad in My Shadow, the festival is showing two other films recounting stories from Palestine; Ambience and Advocate.
Ambience by Wisam Al Jafari was screened on October 20. It tells the story of two young Palestinians’ attempt at recording a demo amidst the chaos of a refugee camp while trying to meet a music competition deadline. Advocate by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche will screen on October 27. It tells the story of Israeli attorney Lea Tsemel who despite continuously losing cases, continues to defend Palestinians charged with serious crimes at Israeli courts. The film raises awareness about the absence of fair trials in cases involving Palestinians.
IT MUST BE HEAVEN IN NAZARETH, PARIS, AND NEW YORK
It Must Be Heaven presents farcical frames of Elia Suileiman wide-eyed and observing as mundane life and its exaggerated stereotypes take place around him.
The plotless film begins with a church in Nazareth where a bishop and his followers are hilariously prevented from entering by the intoxicated gatekeeper. Much of Suleiman’s film presents similar instances of tension turned into normalcy. A neighbor is seen stealing from Suleiman’s lemon tree while watering and caring for it. Brothers gulp glasses of whiskey while scolding a restaurant owner for serving their sister a chicken-dish cooked in wine. Police officers snatch binoculars from a poor seller on the street to surveille a beat-up Palestinian man a few steps away.
Suleiman then boards a plane to Paris, where a long, uncomfortable montage of women in mini-skirts is displayed. Suleiman is sitting outside a café having his coffee and gazing at fashionable bare legs. The following morning, Paris is deserted on Bastille day, police officers on hover boards are seen chasing a flower seller, and in a different scene they tail behind (what looks like) a homeless woman in the subway. Representations of the “police state” are well and alive outside of Palestine as Suleiman shows in Paris, and then in New York when a group of police officers dodge a mommy-fitness group to catch a topless woman with words “Free Palestine” and the flag painted on her torso.
In New York, Suleiman walks amongst citizens carrying guns and rifles as they shop for groceries or cross the road. Suleiman is watched suspiciously by his African-American cab driver who becomes joyous when he finds out where he’s from. The cab driver proceeds to expresses his love for “Karafat” (read: Arafat).
Many snippets amuse the viewers throughout the film. All speak to one common reality where surveillance, class divisions, violence, cross-cultural perceptions and social tensions are found, in different forms, in each of the three cities.
THE AUDIENCE REACTS IN LAUGHTER, CONFUSION, AND AWE
Aviselle Diaz, 22, an Accelerated Master’s student at Georgetown university is a fan of Suleiman’s work.
“I [was] very excited to see the film that sort of explores [Suleiman’s] struggles with identity and belonging,” Diaz said. “I think as a daughter of Cubans in the diaspora, I’ve also struggled with that.”
Humaira Wakili, a public relations advisor, found the film to be a beautiful representation of a country that has been misrepresented in Western media.
“My favorite scene was probably when [Suleiman] was watching the [activist] woman [in New York] being attacked,” Wakili said. “as soon as the police jumped on top of her, she [disappeared] into the ground. It reminded of the quote, ‘they tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.’”
Deena Nasr, 35, a physician assistant, said that she was disturbed by a scene showing two Israeli soldiers driving behind Elia Suleiman’s car, comically exchanging sunglasses and staring at their reflection in the rear view mirror while a blindfolded young Palestinian girl sat in the back. The detainee had a striking resemblance to Ahed Tamimi, who became a symbol of Palestinian resistance after being jailed for slapping an Israeli soldier in December 2017.
“That part actually bothered me a little bit,” Nasr exclaimed. “I [thought] that [Suleiman] was speeding on purpose because he wants [the soldiers] to pull him over [to] help the girl escape, but then that never happened.”
Colin Davies, 73, a film and theatre actor, recognized cinematic elements derived from other great work in the industry.
“[The film] had some brilliant touches to it, I thought there was some Buster Keaton in the chases,” Davies explained referring to the seemingly choreographed police chases in different scenes of the film. “I think there were touches of Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’, observing.”
Davies also said that the film was too short, but that Suleiman was a very likable character in the film.
“I think the image of his face [stuck] with me,” Davies laughed. “Staring and observing these bizarre things going on around him.”
Arabian Sights Film Festival is running through October 27 at AMC Mazza Gallerie. http://www.filmfestdc.org/arabiansights/