Changing perspective: Arab Film Festival Australia

Established in 2001, the Arab Film Festival Australia (AFFA) has laid witness to a wave of filmmaking coming out of the Middle East. Daisy Carrington discovers how, this year, festival organisers have noticed a spike in the number of submissions 

What sets AFFA apart from other festivals is its dedication to presenting films from an Arab perspective, and that delve into issues often overlooked by non-Arabs. According to festival co-director Fadia Abboud, a primary aim of the festival, “is to address the (mis)representations of the Arab peoples and cultures by providing a critical space to present alternative representations of Arab subjects.”

The formula has proved popular, as AFFA has reached 25,000 audience members since its inception, and has moved from screening only in Sydney to presenting its selection in five cities throughout Australia.

While the organisers refuse to pinpoint a favourite region for innovative film, they have noticed some interesting developments coming from the UAE.

“The stories and styles of films coming out of [the UAE] are getting more and more interesting,” notes the other co-director, Mouna Zayla, who, along with Abboud, has been a regular attendee of the Dubai International Film Festival.

This year, Dubai-based Egyptian director Moustafa Zakaria is premiering his film The Pillars, an allegorical tale based on the five pillars of Islam about a recently divorced Emirati couple. Like many of the other films being screened, The Pillars touches on the upheaval felt by many in the Arab world this year. In an interview with The National, Zakaria had said that his film, “is really about finding ways to cope with different kinds of pressure. The Arab world is at a very interesting fulcrum.”

The organisers also found that the role of women has been a big theme in this year’s selection, and they’ve noticed a record number of female writers and directors enter the mix. This is a trend that the UAE seems to share in, as only last week, 19-year-old Fatima Al Dhaheri won a AED 50,000 development deal with Image Nation (the company that created The Help) at the Arab Film Studio short film competition, an intensive, six-month training that culminated in a contest between five up-and-coming Emirati directors. Al Dhaheri’s film, Something Called Fear, is about a high school student with a phobia of people.