Arab Film Festival Rotterdam: When past illuminates future

By Nehal Hossam El-Din

Art and cinema are international languages. This what the Arab Film Festival Rotterdam works to convey. Its chosen films, which premiered earlier in the year in Rotterdam, were displayed last weekend at FilmHuis Den Haag. The Arab Film Festival Rotterdam is an artistic forum showing a nuanced image of the cultural, political, social, and artistic situation in the Arab world.

The Tower

In the animated film “The Tower”, Warde a young Palestinian girl searches for ties to rekindle her grandfather’s long lost hope of ever returning to Palestine. As a fourth-generation refugee living in a refugee camp in Lebanon built in the shape of mounting blocks, Warde collects the stories of her family as she climbs to the top of the tower. She knows the importance of the past to step forward into the future. Through the tales of her relatives, she experiences how wars and grief exhausted her family across the years. No matter what happened and how exhausted they became, however, they never let go of their origins and beliefs. For “The Tower”, Norwegian director Mats Grorud spent years in Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp collecting stories from real people to come up with this estimable movie. He declared the reason behind choosing the animation form is that “having them as puppets makes it easier for anybody to identify with people in the film and to feel this could be their story as well”.

Arab Film Festival Rotterdam
When Arabs Danced, a film by Jawad Rhalib


When Arabs Danced

This concept continued with “When Arabs Danced”. It’s a long documentary telling the story of old Easterners who used to dance, sing, and live in freedom. Through the eyes of Jawad Rhalib, the film’s director, you see the beauty within Arabian culture symbolized in the belly dancing suit of Samia Gamal, the Egyptian dancer who became an icon of freedom and beauty. The film highlights the social and artistic life of Arabian society that used to exist decades ago before the outspread of radicalism. From Egypt along the way to Morocco and across the sea to France and Belgium, Arabian art exists as prominently as fear. This film shows that artists have decided it’s better to talk for the sake of their countries, gathering many pieces of one story: people fighting for their rights to be free and standing for their identity and art.

Look at Me

A narrative film about a man who left his family behind and went in search of a new life, Lotfi has found himself face to face with his son after the passing of his wife. Between a life left in France and his original in Tunisia, Lotfi found, in the old life, beauty he never saw before. He goes on a series of attempts to make his son, who suffers from autism, look at him and notice his existence. He had to correct his old mistakes and reset relations messed up years prior. Through this series of corrections, he provides himself new perspective.

Without dealing with our past we don’t have a future, this is what “Look at Me” the event’s third film presented. Symbolism is the main mode of message delivery among the three movies. When the grandfather gave Wardi the old key to his house in Palestine, he gave her hope. He spent his life believing he would return home and gave his granddaughter hope as well. In another scene, a teenager is afraid because he ended up with his friend’s corpse, so he ran away and let go of his friend. Too hard for him to accept, flashbacks of comforting memories came to his mind to ease the pain, his mother’s hug and her soft voice singing a Palestinian lullaby, being one. The mother’s hug in this scene is attached to the homeland. It shows how the earliest Palestinian generations after Nakba 1948 experienced orphanhood in being stateless.

Arab Film Festival Rotterdam-Look at Me
Look at Me, a film by Nejib Belkadhi

On the other hand, once Lotfi arrived home, he took off his earring as a sign of returning to a past he abandoned, like living with two identities. Lotfi observes Yousif, his son, looking at the things and people he loves. He doesn’t make eye contact with his father, pointing to the aimlessness Yousif sees in him. As the events pass forward, Lotfi looks for a way to be seen, to be worth being looked at. As Lotfi notices his son’s passion for lighting, he wears glasses attached to electrical lamps. With this act, he succeeds in grabbing his son’s attention. Autism is difficult but is also hides inner beauty. Yousif stands for Lotfi’s life in Tunisia. When he tried to have a deeper look, he found pureness that he did not expect.

The films are also rich with Arabian music. In the background of a domestic scene in “The Tower” comes the sound of Om Kalthoum – one of the most famous Egyptian singers – on the radio while the family members are having a conversation about memories. “When you’re away I remain alone with my doubt, It approaches you and moves you away from me, And I don’t know what to do with it or with you,” Om Kalthoum sings.

It’s clear in “When Arabs Danced” that the chosen musical pieces are an indication for the artistic freedom prevalent during the old times. The movie starts with a lady singing a song for Asmahan, a Syrian singer popular in the 30s and 40s. Musical scenes continue throughout the documentary with songs for Fayrouz and Sabah who appeared decades later. These choices show how the Arabs are attached to their past, refusing the recent and preferring to live in their old times. The majority of the musical choices were by female singers as a sign of women’s freedom. Throughout the director mixed old music with modern. This mixage made it clear to the point: how to use the past to create a better future.

“It doesn’t matter how dark it becomes, always find yourself a ray of light” – a quote from “The Tower”. Sometimes it gets dark. It seems like there’s no way out. People can always bring light and create a path to a better future. Aims may differ from one society to another but the real concept hides in the journey to restore dignity and claim rights.


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