20th Annual Arab Film Festival Kicks Off Tomorrow At Castro Theatre

In 1996, the Arab Film Festival was founded by a group of local women who wanted to showcase films from the Arab world. Since then, the festival, which will launch tomorrow night at the Castro Theatre, has blossomed into the largest and longest-running Arab film festival in the United States. This year, it will feature 60 films from 21 countries across the Arab world.

Serge Bakalian has been the festival’s executive director for four years. He told us that prides himself on the festival’s willingness to take risks.

“We often say that our mission is to challenge the narrative," he said. "But that doesn’t mean challenging just the American media and film industry, but also our own community as well.”

Since his arrival, the festival has included more LGBTQ films, and this year, 40 percent of the films are by female directors.

When it came to selecting a film for this year's opening night, Bakalian and his team again decided against playing it safe, choosing Clash, a film about a divergent group of detained Egyptian demonstrators in the wake of the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. 

Even though Clash takes place in Cairo, it has roots here in San Francisco. Director Mohamed Diab developed the project while on a film residency with the San Francisco Film Society in 2014.  

“If you would have told me that for our biggest night of the year, I would show a 90-minute film where most of the film is shot in the back of a police paddy wagon, I would have said there’s no way," Bakalian said. "There needs to be some kind of scenery, a love story, something.” 

He described the film as raw, personal, gritty, and engaging. “What I want is that people in the audience leave the film asking questions. It’s all great to be entertaining and educated, but the most important thing for me is that people leave wanting to know more." The film screens tomorrow, October 7th, at 7:30pm. 

For Bakalian, the festival’s biggest challenge is one that he’s been aware of since he was 10 years old: the Arab world is often portrayed negatively. He believes that the media presents a flawed depiction of the Arab world, whether on television or on the big screen, and spanning both journalists and filmmakers.

“When you come to our film festival, you’re going to see an authentic portrayal of the Arab world,” said Bakalian. “It’s not countering the negative stereotyping in the U.S. with flowery, positive imagery. I want to show people a genuine depiction of our world."

Photo: Mohamed Diab/Clash

“The Arab world is such a diverse place: we have different religions and dialects and ethnicities. Even the pita tastes different in Lebanon than it does in Egypt,” said Bakalian. “For me, it is the difference, not the commonality, that shows the beauty of the Arab world. And what's a more impactful medium to convey that beauty than film?”

The Arab Film Festival runs through October 16th. Following Friday night’s premiere at the Castro Theatre, the festival will move to the Embarcadero Center Cinema for four days before heading over to Oakland’s New Parkway Theater and Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas. Tickets for Clash are available here, and the full schedule can be viewed here.

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