Arab & Middle Eastern cinema festival

Taste of Cherry (1997) Trailer from Close-Up on Vimeo.

We’re enjoying another year of the Cape Cod Festival of Arab & Middle Eastern Cinema. This film festival was founded in 2012 by Rebecca M. Alvin, an independent filmmaker, professor of Film Studies at the New School, writer, and editor of Provincetown Magazine.

Alvin says that the festival addresses “a blind spot in the canon of film.” It includes works made by filmmakers of Arab and/or Middle Eastern descent living around the world. Most of these films are difficult for Americans to access. The films themselves go a long way on their own to foster cross-cultural understanding. Even so, the festival format enhances that by allowing interaction with the filmmakers and critics, and dialogue among the attendees.

Opening night in Chatham featured a Lebanese comedy (the first of the festival’s history), Assad Fouladkar’s Halal Love (and Sex). There was also a delicious spread of taboulli, satay, meatballs, ghorayeba, kunafeh, and more.

In Wellfleet, we saw Taste of Cherry by the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. Jamsheed Akrami, professor of film studies at William Paterson University, led a discussion of Kiarostami’s work and this film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997.

Iranian cinema is a thriving industry, making more than 100 films a year, Akrami points out. At the Oscars in February, the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman” won best foreign-language film. Yet the nation’s laws are stringent: Women are banned from singing and dancing in Iranian films. Any contact between men and women — hugging, even holding hands — is illegal.

It’s remarkable that some of these films were even made. For example, the government in Iran has imposed strict codes that force female characters to keep their hair covered even in the privacy of their homes, contrary to custom. There can be no touching of male and female characters, even if say, a mother and son playing the parts of a mother and son wanted to touch.

However, a focus on the censorship of the films would miss much larger themes. Along with interesting cultural differences, the festival shows the universality of the ways we relate to family, love, sex, work, death, war, and other life issues. They also dispel any simplistic notions that one might have about “the Arab” or “the Muslim.”

To take just one example, “Taste of Cherry includes major characters who are Afghan refugees from the war there, who claim to be unaffected by the Iran-Iraq war, an Azeri from a Turkish family who resides in Iran, and an Iranian Kurd. Moreover, while the characters are undoubtedly shaped by their backgrounds and experiences, these top-notch films show them as complex individuals, whom one can relate to beyond cultural differences.

The festival is a great addition to the cultural scene on Cape Cod. If more people could participate, it could go a long way towards improving understanding of the diverse world we live in.