Just as the tales of Sheherazade captivated the king for 1001 Arabian nights, films by contemporary Arab directors captivated Washington D.C. for 12 nights. The annual Arabian Sights Film Festival has become one of the most important venues for Arab moviemakers to give American audiences a glimpse of how the average Arab lives and thinks.
With all the attention on the wars and political conflicts in the Middle East, Arabian Sights brought themes of love, poverty and traditions to Washington D.C.
"These films are all new films. They are all award-winning films. They're films that travel from one festival to another and are being seen in other countries," says festival director Shirin Ghareeb.
Ms. Ghareeb says she looks forward to selecting each year's films, which are shown with English sub-titles. The festival drew hundreds of viewers to each of the 13 films in this year's series. Ms. Ghareeb says one of the most exciting elements of the Arabian Sights Festival is the discussion with the filmmaker that follows most of the screenings… a give and take that makes the audience members more than just spectators.
"Of course there are Arabs and Arab Americans that come, but there are lots of Americans that come every year, too," Ms. Ghareeb says. "And that attendance is growing. They [the viewers] are eager to talk to the filmmakers, ask them about their films. How they made it… the hardships that they encountered in making their films. They want to know the reactions in other countries."
Renowned Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah is one of five filmmakers who came to Washington for the festival this year. He says Arabian Sights provides a window for Americans to see Arabs from a different perspective than they usually get on the TV news.
"For me as an Egyptian, having been exposed for years and years to American films, when I saw the World Trade Center explode, I felt directly concerned," Mr. Nasrallah says. "I felt it was part of me that was being bombed. I think this is largely due to my exposure to American films. I think the same would happen if Americans were more exposed to our culture. If they know more about us, they'd feel the same way about the things happening in our region."
Mr. Nasralla's film, The Door to the Sun, was one of three at this year's festival exploring life from a Palestinian point of view. Based on a novel of the same name by a Lebanese novelist, it follows a Palestinian man from the Galilee in the 1940s to a refugee camp in Lebanon in the 1990s. Mr. Nasrallah says he had two reasons for making this movie.
"I lived in Lebanon for four years during the war between 78 and 82, where I met Elias Khouri, the author of the novel, and we became great friends," he says. "Also, because we've been tortured by our Arab regimes for the last 50 years with this Palestinian issue - telling us that we don't exist as individuals and that democracy was delayed until this issue was solved. Here I had this novel that talked about the Palestinians rather than the Palestinian issue."
Three Palestinian women are the focus of Women Beyond Borders, by Lebanese director Jean Chamoun. These women have broken boundaries- literally and metaphorically. Director Chamoun says taking part in the festival gives him the opportunity to get his message of understanding to a wider audience.
"It's to tell people in a very spontaneous way that we are human beings. We suffer like others. We are not terrorists. We are people who have a long history, culture, traditions and long civilization," Lebanese director Jean Chamoun says.
The Olive Harvest was the third movie in this year's Arabian Sights Film Festival to deal with Palestinians as individuals. It's a story of two brothers in love with the same woman. Director Hanna Elias says he believes that women in the Middle East are the only ones who can to bring the change to the area.
"Arab women can bring an alternative that doesn't exist right now with the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians," Mr. Elias says. "Women can take the initiative and could create the environment of change in the Middle East because this macho patriarchal society, the Arabs and the Israelis, didn't create any change, and they will not create any change. Women's energy is different because women usually are rearing children, taking care of the family, they have the responsibility to do that. They bring more harmony, more non-conflict elements to resolving problems. I think the change has to be non-violent change. We have to get rid of the violence in our system."
Arabian Sights Festival director Shirin Ghareeb says this is the most successful series in the festival's nine-year history… even though one of the invited film directors couldn't attend due to security reasons.
"Unfortunately he didn't get his visa… it was held up in the Homeland Security. He was looking forward to his screening," Ms. Ghareeb said. He wanted to talk to the American audience so badly. This is a new problem that we have to face and be aware of. It can always be a problem unfortunately with filmmakers from the Arab world."
Among the other films shown at the 2004 Arabian Sights Festival were features from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria… and for the first time, Iraq… creating a cinematic bridge between America and the Arab world.