The Middle East has been in the headlines for decades, but it’s rare that its people get to tell their own stories. New York City’s first-ever Arab Cinema Week, kicking off Nov. 18-24 at Cinema Village, is an opportunity to see works that explore not just the eight countries they span, but stories about our shared humanity.
“New York is a cosmopolitan city, and we want everyone to see these films,” says Perihan AbouZeid, founder and CEO of Movie Pigs, a year-old New York-based on-demand video platform for Arab films, which organized the festival. “We mainly book films that have participated in film festivals and will reach a global audience, not just an Arabic one.”
Among the lineup are high-profile titles like the Jon Stewart-associated “Tickling Giants,” whose subject, Egyptian political humorist Bassem Youssef, will appear after the screening. Also appearing at the festival is Tunisian actor Dhafer L’Abidine (“Children of Men,” “Sex and the City 2”), who will be at the screening of his mother-daughter drama “As I Open My Eyes.”
What Arab Cinema Week doesn’t include are big-budget films. “The commercial ones are comedies, romances or ones with local stories others might not connect with,” says AbouZeid. “Most of the Arab world’s commercial film making is done in Egypt, where strict censorship developed since the 2011 revolution.”
Though these films wrestle with the themes and cultural issues of their homelands, AbouZeid chose ones with universally relatable stories at their core. They are also often told at great peril to their filmmakers, making Arab Cinema Week a showcase of some of the bravest artists of the region.
“Making a film in Syria or Yemen is very difficult and dangerous right now,” AbouZeid says. “But filmmaking in the UAE and Saudi Arabia is getting easier. Morocco does an incredible job, but Egypt, Syria, Yemen and even Lebanon are getting more difficult. Palestine is very difficult for filmmakers.”
There is one film that shows modern-day Arabic life away from the tragedy and brutality seen on the news: “The Idol” follows the singer who went on to win the “Arab Idol” contest and became a big star.
“Though it had obvious commercial appeal, it’s a story about hope,” says AbouZeid. “Arab filmmakers give a taste of Arab culture and society, and this shows there is the capability to be hopeful and positive.”
Arab Cinema Week
Cinema Village,22 E 12th St.
For the rest of the best entertainment in New York City this season, visit ourWinter Arts Guide