2016 has been a memorable year, mostly for the wrong reasons. This past year, we lost a number of beloved artists and celebrities, seen the rise of the most unlikely and unqualified presidential candidate in American history, followed by a wave of hatred and intolerance, and watched war and other senseless violence rip apart communities and countries all over the world. Needless to say, most people are ready for this year to end with the hope that 2017 will bring better luck to us all. Despite all of this, or maybe because of it, let’s remember that not everything was awful and that a lot also happened that was pretty darn great. Join us as we remember the amazing strides Arabs took within the film and television industries in 2016.
Maybe it’s a little gauche to start this piece by tooting our own horn, but we are very proud of the strides we made this year! To kick things off the Arab Film Festival celebrated its 20th Anniversary of bringing Arab films to California. And with our anniversary came a number of other important milestones: we unveiled a whole new look and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee officially recognized the Arab Film Festival for its 20 years of dedication to the arts and declared October 7th Arab Film Festival Day in San Francisco. This was also our first year hosting a selection of animated films at the festival with our Animated Shorts program. And our biggest milestone yet, the announcement of our plans to launch the Arab Film and Media Institute in 2017!
Other Arab film festivals and film series also made strides this year. The Boston Palestinian Film Festival celebrated their 10-year anniversary this past October. And one of our partners, the film streaming site MoviePigs, hosted their first Arab Cinema Week in New York City. Even Variety magazine noticed the increase in interest surrounding festivals dedicated to Arab film and wrote about some of the most notable Arab film festivals worldwide.
Some of the most well known and highly regarded international film festivals also took notice of Arab film this year. The Tribeca Film Festival put a spotlight on Arab film with 6 strong selections from the Arab world and even a dedicated guide to their selections. The Cannes Film Festival also showcased a number of Arab films and shorts, including the Egyptian film Clash as part of the festival’s “Un Certain Regard” selection. (Clash also had its US premier at AFF!) The festival’s Marche du Film also included Dubai Goes to Cannes and Lebanon Goes to Cannes showcases.
The 66th Berlinale also saw the return of Variety Magazine’s Arab Filmmaker of the Year award! This year’s winner was director Emirati Majid Al Ansari from Abu Dhabi.
Arab Cinema Center (ACC), a center created by MAD solutions that aims to be an international promotional platform for Arab cinema by providing networking opportunities, was present at a number of the most notable film festivals this year and even collaborated with MoviePigs on their first Arab Cinema Week. ACC also launched the Arab Cinema Magazine, the first English-language magazine dedicated to Arab film!
MAD solutions kept the ball going and, along with the Creative Documentary Platform (CDP), officially launched Minaa at the 66th Berlinale this year. Minaa is “a collaborative, evolving self-sustained public-engagement and distribution scheme offering creative documentary teams, partners and audiences a sense of ownership and growth.” Basically, it’s an experimental approach to supporting documentaries while building audiences through a video-on-demand service and distribution to TV stations, festivals, cinemas, universities and more.
The Cairo-based talent agency, Creative Arab Talent (CAT), which boasts being the only Middle Eastern talent agency, opened a Los Angeles branch this year. Founder Amr Koura hopes to bring Arab talent to Hollywood and Hollywood stars and projects to the Middle East. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Koura said, “I really want to keep [Middle East talent] constantly in the minds of Hollywood. What I heard every time I met people before I started was that they’d love to have Arab talent, but ‘we don’t know who to talk to.’ I want to be the guy they can talk to. I’m trying to establish a trust base, and being in L.A. will help me do that.”
The Jordanian film Theeb was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Award at this year’s Oscars. It was also recently announced that Lebanese short film The Rifle, the Jackal, the Wolf and the Boy, (which showed at AFF this year,) just made the shortlist for the 2017 Oscars!
And how could we talk about awards without talking about Mr. Robot? This television show from the USA Network has been the talk of the town since its premiere. The writer and director of the show is Sam Esmail, an Egyptian-American. When Mr. Robot won Best TV Series, Drama at the Golden Globes this year, Esmail accepted the award by thanking his family in Arabic. The show’s lead actor Rami Malek is also Egyptian-American, and Malek has been making some major waves for Arab-American actors. Malek won the Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Drama Series this year, which was the first time the award went to a minority actor since 1998 and made Rami Malek the first Arab-American to EVER win in this category. He was also nominated for Best TV Drama Actor at the Golden Globes for the second time. If he is able to cinch this victory he will be the first minority actor to win a Globe in this category in 20 years and he will be the first winner of Egyptian descent.
Quantico star Yasmine Al Massri has also seen her own star rise since her film debut in Caramel in 2007. She is a Palestinian and Egyptian-American who was born in Lebanon to refugee parents. In 2016 she used her newfound fame to speak at the UN and also to bring attention to Palestinian and refugee issues. She also has been advocating to improve the Arab-American image in the media.
Palestinian-American YouTube star Yousef Erakat, known for his channel fouseyTUBE that began in 2011, embarked on a world tour this year with fellow YouTuber Roman Atwood. He also appeared in his first feature film, Boo! A Madea Halloween which was released this past October.
A new online web series entitled The Secret Life of Muslims launched to help fight Islamophobia in the West. Though not limited to Arab subjects, this online series still does a great service to many Arabs and Arab-Americans who experience discrimination based on their religion. One of their first episodes features Dena Takruri, a Palestinian-American journalist with the online news channel AJ+, who is also on the board of AFF. Her work with AJ+ has been especially important in highlighting Arab issues in both the Arab and Western worlds.
Netflix released two films by or about Arabs this year as Netflix Originals. The first is the French-Qatari film Divines written and directed by French-Moroccan Uda Benyamina. The film tells the story of a teenage girl living in a shanty town on the edge of Paris with her mother. She begins a life of hustling for money with her best friend by shoplifting from supermarkets and reselling the goods to their classmates. Divines was screened at the Directors’ Fortnight section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival and won director Uda Benyamina the Camera d’Or. The film was also an official selection in the Discovery section at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
The second film is Sand Storm. The film tells the story of a Bedouin teen girl whose forbidden love affair challenges the traditions of her family and the generations before her. This film was shown in the Panorama section of the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic section at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Though some have questioned director Elite Zexer’s handling of Bedouin culture, especially with the ongoing political, cultural and religious tensions in Israel, the film does feature an Arab cast and crew. It is notable that Netflix chose to release this film, especially since it features a title in Arabic script and prominently features a woman wearing a hijab on the cover.
There is still a lot of work to be done in 2017: stay positive, stay hopeful and feel proud of the strides Arabs have made in film and media! What do you think about everything that has been accomplished this year? Is there anything we forgot to include in our list? We want to hear about it all, so please leave a comment below.
From all of us at the Arab Film Festival, we wish you all a wonderful new year!