MENA Film Festival explores the many facets of the Middle East

Showcasing 23 films from 15 countries, the second edition of Vancouver’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Film Festival launched Nov. 20 virtually and runs till Nov. 27.

Arman Kazemi, of Persian heritage, founded the festival last year with a group of like-minded people after seeing a lack of centralized representation of Persian or Middle Eastern films in Vancouver. The MENA film festival is one of its kind in Canada that covers a region with inherent diversity.

“We are diverse by design and we are trying to be as pluralistic as possible. One of our missions is to show a different MENA narrative. We want to introduce alternate visions of the region, while also giving new space to new artists and sub regional motifs that are not often seen,” says Kazemi.

He adds the film festival hopes to serve as a platform for both local up and coming artists on their first or second films, as well as for filmmakers from the MENA region who haven’t had their films screened outside of their home countries.

Struggling between past and future

With three special features and 20 shorts under the three categories of DreamscapeDispell and Daylights, Kazemi explains some films selected this year are more experimental with a dreamlike component and others are more genre focus and documentary-like, but all with a general theme of struggles between the traditional and the modern, or the past and the future.

His personal favourite this year is Slaughter, a Kurdish film from Iran, about a family’s struggle in a rural Kurdish village facing harsh circumstances.

“There is minimum dialogue but there is still drama, the style is stoic, visceral and lyrical and we don’t get to see the Kurdish experience often on screen,” says Kazemi.

In a region with a long and complicated history, conflicts sometimes are naturally the background stories for some of the films. The feature 1982 tells of the impact of the Lebanese civil war through the experiences of school students. A short film In the Middle examines the war in Yemen and another short Until the Last Drop offers a perspective on the Palestinian Israeli conflict through a story of access to the daily necessity that is water.

On the other spectrum, the festival also offers some new angles on the immigrant mindset and experience, from feature films Arab Blue, to shorts such as Holy Land, The land I am Drowning in, My Dream Goes All the Way to Iran, and Poplife.

A coming of age away from home

Sam Mohseni, director of poplife | Photo by Karolina Turek

Poplife, made by Sam Mohseni when he was in his last year at UBC, is a coming of age tale about an immigrant young musician from Iran who has to deal with his parents’ divorce and ec

onomic turmoil in his home country from afar and alone.

“I was thinking a lot about the struggles that immigrants go through. I heard stories of people whose family sends them to a different country to study and how the family dynamic changes when that happens,” says Mohseni, telling of the inspiration for the film.

Mohseni himself is an immigrant who moved to Canada with his family in 2012. He says the film also explores how different forms of art can help us deal with hardships in life, music specifically in his film.

“It is a common thing with a lot of immigrants to use distractions to deal with our issues but the question is how much can it help? In the film ultimately he is kind of left alone,” says Mohseni.

Drawn to European cinema because of its realism approach, Mohseni says he hopes to be a professional filmmaker who makes films about real issues.

“Being genuine is important to me, I am mostly drawn to films about social issues or characters that are relatable. Right now immigration is the main concept because it has the biggest impact on me,” he says.

Mohseni says sometimes it is hard for this kind of films to be seen at film festivals and Canada is great for being so multicultural.

With so many countries represented in the MENA film festival, Kazemi hopes the festival can be a meeting place for different communities to intermingle.

“My perception is there are certain antipathies between communities from the Middle East and our parents’ generation carry that baggage over with them, they end up staying in their own enclaves,” he says. “We are a new generation, we don’t define ourselves by it, this is the first time we have the opportunity to break through these walls and look at what’s on the other side to find commonality of experience.”

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