Arab Film Fest Collab 2020

“Representing Diaspora” A Short Film Program Review

A boy sits with a plate of food in front of him.
Photo credit: Foued Mansour

About a month ago, I was fortunate enough to snag an all-access pass to the virtual Arab Film Fest Collab 2020, hosted by the Arab Film & Media Institute, the Arab American National Museum, ArteEast, and Mizna. All four are phenomenal organizations that preserve and spotlight Middle Eastern art, culture, and voices. The film fest was amazing. Being an Arab-American who was born and mostly raised in the U.S. by my white mother, I have to work a little harder to preserve my brown culture. So when I came across the film fest — I, being a huge film nerd and making a point to dive a little deeper into my cultural roots lately, jumped at the opportunity to participate to the fullest extent. I unfortunately ran out of time on viewing a few of the features but was lucky enough to catch some amazing feature length films, documentaries, Q&A’s and short programs, in addition to a really cool writing workshop put on by Ramy El-Etreby. This particular program I chose to review consists of 13 short films that illustrate the longing that comes with living outside of your homeland. The story protagonists take many different forms but speak to the same idea that home is where the heart is. The first in a series I’ll be doing on the films I had the pleasure of watching via the film fest, I present to you, my review on “Representing Diaspora”.

“Rosa”, 2020 Directed by Suha Araj

A close up image of a woman with curly hair looking beyond the camera.
Photo credit: Zelmira Gainza

The film opens with Rosa taking phone orders at her aunt’s florist shop and preparing pallets to ship. Cut to Ali, an Iraqi immigrant, sitting beside his recently deceased father, watching YouTube videos on how to properly cleanse the body the Islamic way. Ali is of course distraught, pained, burying his face in the bed, tears flowing. This scene forced me back to the moment my mother died. Seeing her shrouded in sheets looking so peaceful. There’s something very beautiful about the care and tradition that goes into mourning the loss of a loved one when you’re of the Muslim faith. My mother was Muslim, however was not practicing at the time of her death. I thought about how difficult it would have been as a sixteen year old, but even now as an adult, for me to help my older sister cleanse my mother’s body like that in preparation for the next life.

The man needs to get his father returned to their home country of Iraq. It’s customary in Muslim culture for the dead to be buried in their homelands. He enlists the help of Rosa to make this happen, as his father is undocumented, thus the process is more complicated. Rosa has a history of helping people return their deceased loved ones home, I think this is her true calling. Throughout the film, we see the man struggle with being forced to let go of his religion and culture in order to fulfill his promise to his father. It’s interesting to think about how modern times bring a fresh onset of challenges for immigrants, like the process of smuggling your deceased father back to Iraq.

The system Rosa and the other players in the game have in place with returning loved ones home is impeccable and impressive. They’re doing important work that isn’t often thought of unless you find yourself in that unfortunate situation. We later learn Rosa’s first time doing this was for her own mother, with that came an unfounded passion for helping other undocumented immigrants return home. It was a great short and maybe that was in part due to me having an extreme soft spot for films that depict parents who have passed away and the struggles the children endure.

Audience Award Submitted: 4/5

View film trailer.

“Ahmed’s Song”, 2018 Directed by Foued Mansour

Ahmed is a lonely older gentleman who works at a bathhouse in France and is close to retirement. He gets up early in the morning, unlocks the bathhouse, spends the day cleaning up after patrons, he goes home — repeat. Mike, a young wayward teen begins working alongside Ahmed, breaking rules by day 2 of his new job. The two develop a friendship, with Ahmed doing his best to mentor the boy amidst his own fatherly struggles. Similar to our deceased protagonist in “Rosa”, Ahmed has been working abroad in France for 29 years while his family has been living in their home country. He sends them money, clothes, things they need, yet doesn’t speak to them at all. Mike’s presence ignites fatherly instinct within Ahmed as he spends the short amount of time they have together trying to direct Mike down the right path. As maybe predicted, this doesn’t work. However the film ends with Ahmed now having a renewed sense of being as he reconnects with his loved ones overseas.

An older man sits in a cafe reading a newspaper.
Photo credit: Foued Mansour

I appreciated the message this short relayed. Sometimes the most unlikely relationships, however short they are, can help guide us onto our paths. Here, a lonely old man remembered what it means to be a father and was set on his correct path to reconnect with his estranged loved ones. It’s absolutely never too late to start over.

View film trailer.

Audience Award Submitted: 5/5

“Under The Safe Sky”, 2019 Directed by Ali Kadhum

A man and a woman ride a bike, smiling.
Photo credit: Ali Kadhum

Wassim is an Iraqi man living in Belgium with his girlfriend, Nina. For Nina’s birthday, he plans a surprise party along with all of their friends. To Wassim’s dismay, the day of the party his sister arrives with a black eye and a choppy story to back it up. He attempts a solid cover up to yield an outward appearance of normalcy amongst the native Belgians however things unravel when his sister’s burly abusive boyfriend crashes the party. Like a true comic book villain, the bald, bearded, uni-browed, Khaled manages to ruin the surprise and leave Wassim exasperated and angry.

I think that the Arab-pride this film relayed was something I just can’t relate to being half Middle Eastern, half American. Although I lived in Bahrain for about a year as a kid and my American mother did practice Islam for some time, I just wasn’t raised with that desire to shield the world from my discrepancies. On the flip side, I probably overshare more than my family in the Middle East would appreciate. My father on the other hand, has spent the majority of his life separating himself from his culture and tradition as best he can.

I enjoyed the film for the surface level entertainment it provided but I couldn’t find myself connecting on a deeper level. I like films that leave you with something, and this one felt a bit unfinished, even for a short film.

View film trailer.

Audience Award Submitted: 3/5

A woman walks down a hallway, two men look in her direction.
Photo credit: Latifa Said

“La Chambre”, 2019 Directed by Latifa Said

A woman receives a call that her estranged father has passed away and she needs to come clean his room out as she’s his only next of kin in the country. She tells the man she has no father and hangs up. We hear a phone ring and the scene cuts to her in a waiting room at the hostel where her father lived. She’s expecting her mother, however she bails, leaving the woman to do the job on her own. The woman gets to work and begins to find traces of her father’s love for her amongst his possessions. A surprise to her, as he abandoned their family in France to start a new family in Algeria amongst his own.

This film resonated with me deeply on a personal level. I grew up with an absent father and a mother who suffered from ailments of all kinds which made childhood rocky. It wasn’t until my mother passed away that I really began a solid relationship with my father. By this point, he had his own family here in San Diego, that was beautiful enough to welcome me into their hearts.

When the woman first arrives at the hostel, you can sense her distance in the unwillingness she has to be there. Not just because her father is gone, but because he was never there to begin with so why should she care? As she goes through his things, she begins to lean into who her father was. She tries on his coats as she packs them away, inhaling the scent he left on them. She tries to recreate a photo of him in the mirror. Anything to hold onto while she can. Until some of his hostel friends come to inquire and reveal their possession of “Teddy”, the bear he had given her as a child. She takes everything in, finally at peace with her father. I liked the way this film left me feeling. Even if things don’t always work out with your parents, you can still find some kind of peace and resolution in the end.

View film trailer.

Audience Award Submitted: 5/5

“We’re Back!”, 2019 Directed by Moheb Soliman

The film stars Director, Moheb Soliman in a pseudo country music video that explores what being a ‘Merican is from an immigrant POV, cowboy hats and all. I think this film more than anything is his letter to America, being an Egyptian immigrant who touched base in Oklahoma at a young age. The film features what they call a “hick-hop” interlude performed by a scrawnier version of Tim Blake Nelson wearing macaroni colored basketball shorts and a matching hat.

I really wanted to enjoy this film. I read the synopsis, which was a lot longer than the others, and was intrigued at what the director aimed to relay. Unlike some of the films in this program, this one was maybe… too much. In my opinion, if you have to overexplain in the synopsis what the film will entail, then you may not have delivered fully on the film execution itself. It’s really hard for me to critique films negatively.. because I love the moving picture and believe that any homegrown film has something to bring to the table in some way. I just… I couldn’t wrap my head around this one. It sounded great on paper. Maybe I’m just not refined enough to fully ‘get’ it?

I did tune into the Q&A put on by the Director to give it another go, and it just didn’t hit for me.

Audience Award Submitted: 2/5 (because I’m not a monster)

“The Seven Villages”, 2020 Directed by Farah Abou Kharroub

An illustrative drawing of a woman holding a child.
Photo credit: Farah Abou Kharroub

This short really moved me. The format in which it’s shot is based on a video call the director has with her grandmother paired with quick sketch animation to illustrate the narrative. Farah and her grandmother discuss the realities of being refugees granted Lebanese citizenship in 1994 and the struggles they’ve endured since then.

This is a topic I cannot personally relate to as I was born in the U.S. and my immigrant father is extremely Westernized, however I found it compelling nonetheless. A poignant short with an important message, I recommend for all Middle Eastern Americans who may not be able to directly identify with the struggles our brothers and sisters in the East have had to endure. This was eye opening.

View film trailer.

Audience Award Submitted: 5/5

“Holding Fire”, 2019 Directed by Hana Elias & Eleonore Voisard

This is an impactful narrative following a Muslim activist in the heart of a vastly Republican district. I’ve often thought about how the failed science experiment that is the election of Trump would’ve impacted my Muslim family if they lived here. How I can pass since I am half white, was born here, and am not Muslim. However despite these things, I have still experienced racism in this country, particularly around 9/11. To imagine the horrors Muslim-Americans and Middle Eastern peoples in this country have had to face the last 4 years of having an openly racist, immigrant-hating, Islamophobic president in house is unimaginable. This short documentary not only illustrates the point beautifully — however terrible it is to watch the hate that people can spew — we also get to see the pivot of cultural traditions to fit a happier and more progressive narrative in 2020. As Somia states in the beginning of the film “It’s like holding fire. If you remain holding it, you’ll get burned. If you drop it, you’ll burn everything around you.”

A woman in a hijab stands amongst a crowd of women holding signs during a protest or gathering.
Photo credit: Hana Elias & Eleonore Voisard

It was incredibly empowering to see female Muslim Activists fearlessly speaking out on injustices against their community. I would encourage everyone reading this to seek this film out to better educate yourself on the realities Middle Eastern and Muslim people face daily in America.

View film trailer.

Audience Award Submitted: 5/5

“Short Shorts”, 2019 Directed by Karina Adriana Dandashi

Oftentimes being born and growing up in America as a Muslim can hold it’s own challenges when it comes to fitting in at school and navigating puberty. This short wonderfully illustrates being pulled in both directions with the desire to fit in with your peers and stay true to your culture and religion at the same time. Director Karina Adriana Dandashi plays Fatima, a Muslim teenager who sneaks wearing short shorts to school. As she moves through teenager-hood and defying her parents, she has flashbacks to pivotal moments from her childhood that made her feel like an outsider.

I grew up with my American mother who wasn’t a practicing Muslim at the time, so I was given a lot more freedom than most of the other brown kids I knew. Nonetheless, the film is a great example of the interpersonal challenges Muslim youth face, things as simple as wearing a one piece swimsuit or not.

View short film.

Audience Award Submitted: 5/5

“Immigrant At Home”, 2020 Directed by Sufian Abulohom

A woman sits with her finger to her mouth.
Photo credit: Fatima Alfulaij

I appreciated the POV and story this short brought with it. An Arab-American comedian battles with holding onto tradition and her close relationship with her mother while still working at gaining independence as an adult woman. The onset of trauma as a result of the death of her father being the catalyst in her stagnancy, Safa narrates her pain along with the stigma that comes with growing up in a culturally traditional Arab household.

A refreshing perspective and unique story, “Immigrant At Home” was a wonderful watch that produced an empathetic and open ended conclusion to the story.

View film trailer.

Audience Award Submitted: 5/5

“Tabbouleh & Pie”, 2019 Directed by Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

A tale of two cultures intermingling ensues in this light hearted short about a retired older gentleman gaining a new neighbor. Retired, Richard lives a quiet, mundane life until Fatin, an Iraqi woman moves in next door. They bond over food and an unlikely friendship is born. I appreciated the cinematography and the quirky comedic vibes this film gave off. A sweet story, that maybe yielded a few unnecessities, I enjoyed it. It made me crave my father’s cooking.

Audience Award Submitted: 3/5

“Syrialism”, 2020 Directed by Dalia Al Kury

This film is an interesting cross between a documentary and surrealist narrative set in Norway. Salam is a Syrian refugee suffering vivid dreams filled with his family he left behind in war torn Syria. We watch him re-enact his dreams and how he wishes things could have been. I enjoyed the concept of the film, however it was a little difficult for me to wrap my head around. I think if Salam hadn’t been in a position to set the story up, we may have had a hard time understanding what was happening. The film yielded some impressive editing and eerie surrealist scenes that had my hair standing on end. The subject matter is sensitive, as it depicts death and destruction in Syria. Kudos for creative storytelling.

View film trailer.

Audience Award Submitted: 3/5

The profile of a woman with “Frayed Roots” overlaying the image.
Photo credit: Nay Tabbara

“Frayed Roots”, 2020 Directed by Nay Tabbara

Raya returns home to bury her estranged father, whom she hasn’t seen in over 10 years. She faces up against cultural norms and her bitter Aunt Wafa in a somber short about being a stranger at home. The film had some solid camera work and I appreciated the stillness emoted. I can’t imagine returning to Bahrain after the 20+ years that have passed and experiencing the sort of icy welcome Raya does. One thing about older Middle Eastern women, they can run hot — and when they’re hot, try not to get burned. They also run extremely cold, the kind of cold that can also burn you. I think this is built into every Middle Eastern woman in some way or another.

View film trailer.

Audience Award Submitted: 4/5

“Habib”, 2020 Directed by John Rizkallah

The titular character, Habib, is an aspiring stand up comic with a penchant for Middle Eastern jokes. He must hide his passion for comedy from his strict, traditional father to avoid ridicule and shaming the family. Watching this, I gained more appreciation for my very Western Middle Eastern father. He would never stifle my creativity or passions, the way Habib’s father does. My father is traditional in his own ways but he’s never infringed on my individuality or goals as an adult. The film yields some solid jokes about Middle Easterners — some of which I can relate to — and has a solid short story about honoring our parents.

Audience Award Submitted: 5/5

This collection of 13 short films was lovely to watch. Some I could relate to more than others but I was left with something after watching all of them. I enjoyed how they all tied into the theme of being somewhere other than your homeland which is a big deal for Middle Eastern people. Home is where the heart is, the family is, the food is, the culture is. In the same breath, home can bring a lot of devastation and sadness. The Middle East is such a beautiful and at the same time heartbreaking region for so many reasons. Each country has it’s own unique story, traditions, people, and vibrant history. These shorts made me appreciate being part Balochi/Bahraini even more than I did before. We are people with fiery passion and a chokehold on tradition that wells up and spills from us — no matter how connected or disconnected you are to your culture. A pleasure to watch and learn, “Representing Diaspora” deserves a standing ovation. Check these out if you ever get the chance and as always, let me know what you think.

In large text the copy reads “Arab Film Fest Collab” and in smaller text it reads “Dec 3–13 2020”
Photo credit: Arab Film Fest Collab 2020

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Aliya Nicole Al-Balooshi

Aliya Nicole Al-Balooshi

Bahraini/Baloch Audience & Revenue Strategist II, Community a la Camber Creative + independent film fan with a casual writing style & a pocket full of thoughts.