Quick Q+A: Lana S. Barkawi + Mizna Arab Film Festival

Arab Film Fest 11

Kicking off tonight and going through the weekend, the Mizna Arab Film Festival brings the best current, independent Arab cinema to a wide audience here in MPLS + STPL. It’s not only a great yearly exercise in self-representation brought to us by Mizna—the only journal of Arab American literature in the U.S. and forum for Arab American literature, film, and art—the film selections are just great entertainment for film fans.

In addition to the movie screenings, there’s panel discussions, a block party on Sunday, and a free kickoff party tonight! To help spread the word and get you excited for the films, we sent Mizna’s Executive and Artistic Director Lana S. Barkawi a Quick Q+A. 

Secrets of the City: If someone has never been to this or other film festivals, why should they go to the to the Mizna Arab Film Festival? What’s the draw of these films, especially in this current political moment?

Lana S. Barkawi: First, expect to see great films—comedies, dramas, documentaries, and shorts that do what you want cinema to do, transport you into another world that is both new and in which you find connections to your own life and experience.

Now more than ever, “Arab” and “Muslim” have become shorthand for a people who are unknowable. Our stories are continually told by others—by the 24 hour news cycle and Hollywood. We are the ultimate Other, the ultimate bogeyman. This festival allows people a chance to see Arab filmmakers telling Arab stories, bringing our humanity to the foreground. The community is multi-dimensional and these films reflect that.

Also, expect to see many films made by women filmmakers and with women protagonists driving the story—another thing that you won’t get from Hollywood!

What’s it like for a literary journal to curate a film festival, especially after 11 years? Seamless? Complimentary? Stressful?

Mizna’s two long-running flagship programs are the literary journal (Mizna: Prose, Poetry, and Art Exploring Arab America) and the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival—so Mizna is very much both of those programs. We also present classes and other visual art and performance art projects, always with the goal of presenting current Arab creative work on its own terms.

What’s it like to produce the Arab Film Fest for the 11th time? It’s thrilling to get to bring these incredible films to a Twin Cities audience who wouldn’t otherwise be able to see them. In moving to an annual schedule a few years ago, we’ve been able to get a little more momentum and institutional memory propelling us from year to year. So there is stress of course in putting on a big festival like this, but there’s a lot of love and dedication from the team, including the stellar volunteer film festival screening committee. And in the end, it’s just magical to experience the festival with our audience—watching the filmmakers’ artistry in the theater and building community in the lobby.

Which movies are you specifically interested in seeing? And which panel discussions would you recommend?

You can’t go wrong with any segment of the festival, but some that are very special are the midday segments on Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday at 1 PM, we have a segment of short Iraqi films, including a number from local Iraqi filmmakers who have gone through the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project’s Iraqi Voices film program. They will be discussing their films afterward.

On Sunday at 11:30 AM, we have a segment titled “Media & the Distorted Present” with some very strong short films, including a short Palestinian film called In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain by Larissa Sarsour. She’s a multimedia artist whose work drew attention in 2011 when she was removed from a short list of artists in France who were line for a prestigious award because of the political nature of her piece. This latest short film of hers is must-see, and it’s exciting for us to continue to blur the categories of films you expect to see in a theater and films you expect to see in an art gallery.

Also, the world lost a major filmmaker this year when Egyptian director Mohamed Khan passed away. He is legendary and his films work on multiple levels—seeming straightforward and entertaining on the surface, but actually exploring themes of class and the role of women in society. There will be a discussion after that film with scholars Sonali Pahwa and Mohannad Ghawanmeh.

The artist discussions after both screenings of the documentary film Yallah! Underground should be wonderful, though only the second is open to the public (the first is exclusive to high school students). The artists are all local folks whose work joins art and activism in one way or another.

And we’re very much looking forward to the discussion after the beautiful Syrian film Queens of Syria, which includes local filmmaker Andrea Shaker speaking about her short film “on silence” and a Syrian activist Mazen Halabi.

How crazy are you going to get at the opening party?

Well, given that the dope local DJ Egyptoknuckles (aka Ali Elabbady) has just come on to perform, I’ve got to think it’ll be lit—as the young people say. We’re definitely going to celebrate the films and the community!

We’ll have a write-up in tomorrow’s newsletter for the Dear Gaza block party and some film picks, but be sure to get tickets for the whole thing ahead of time and stop in to the festival tonight, too.


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