At the 2nd edition of Hollywood Arab Film Festival, Arabs in Hollywood voice their need for representation

Founded by Maykel Bakhoum and Abraam A. Mikhael, the second edition of the promising Hollywood Arab Film Festival took place at the AMC theater in Universal City Walk, Hollywood from April 26th to April 29th. Writer, director and editor Sabine El Gemayel wrote about the event exclusively for MIME.
At the 2nd edition of Hollywood Arab Film Festival, Arabs in Hollywood voice their need for representation

This year marked the second edition of the Hollywood Arab Film Festival (HAFF) an event founded by Maykel Bakhoum and Abraam A. Mikhael. The festival took place inside the AMC theater in Universal City Walk, Hollywood from April 26th to April 29th and screened screened a total of 7 narrative features with the opening film from the UAE, Kira Wel Gen directed by Egyptian director Marwan Hamed. The head for the jury for feature films in competition was actor-director Dhafer L’Abidine, alongside jury members Farah Bseiso, Andrew Mohsen, and Nicole Guillemet. The head for the jury for short films in competition was Clay Epstein, alongside jury members director Darine Hotait and Mary Trunk. 

It also hosted several industry panels with thriving Arabs, and Arab Americans, a book signing with iconic Egyptian director Khairy Beshara, and a couple of masterclasses, making it a full round of what a festival should offer to audiences and industry professionals alike.  The festival aims at becoming a hub for Arab Americans to connect and exchange ideas, and for filmmakers from the Arab region to have visibility and networking opportunities with industry professionals in Hollywood.   

One of the recurrent themes of the industry panels was the need for greater diversity in Hollywood, particularly with respect to Arab representation. Many Arab American actors and filmmakers spoke about the challenges they face in changing Hollywood's false and stereotypical narrative of Arabs, which often portrays them as militant terrorists or sleazy oil-rich or dirt-poor misogynists. Arabs have diverse skin tones ranging from light to dark and come from various religious backgrounds. Indeed, some Arabs have blue eyes. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. Mohamed Diab, the Egyptian director of the Arabic drama Amira and Marvels’ Moon Knight (TV), recounted that he once had an American show cancelled because the Arab actor was ‘too white’.  He went on to encourage filmmakers to cultivate their unique voices rather than adjusting it to fit Hollywood’s mold. And Georges Chamchoum, festival director of the Asian Word Film Festival (AWFF) in Los Angeles, to add: ‘Hollywood is not ready for Arabs. Yet. They are ready for African Americans and that’s great, but diversity should also be open to Asians, Africans, and Arabs’. Despite facing challenges in organizing casting calls for Arab actors and actresses in ordinary and everyday life roles, casting director Hamza Saman, CSA of Arab American Casting (AAC) persists by "opening doors to Arab American talent in Hollywood to enrich diversity and expand cultural representation."

Cinema is evolving worldwide, and Arab cinema is no exception to this. As Farah Bseiso, an American Egyptian actress featured in Mo, the American Palestinian dramedy TV show, pointed out: “we need to tell our own stories if we don’t want others to tell them from their westerners’ perspective” and Joanna Zuaiter, producer, and CEO of Flip Narrative added: “as filmmakers going back home, we need to be careful in telling our stories. We have to think of how we can do it so it’s effective but not offensive” in referring to having a kissing scene in an Arab film for instance.  

Louay Karish, independent filmmaker and the Associate Director of the International Programs at Film Independent, a Los Angeles non-profit who helps filmmakers make their movies, build an audience and work to diversify the film industry, shared that “many Arab filmmakers are interested in exploring genre films, but financing remains a significant obstacle”. However, when exploring genre film, producers need to hire Arab and/or local talent for proper representation, like the Arab western Theeb by Naji Abu Nowar. The team was set to make an Arab Western and worked with the local Bedouins for authentic representation.  Several workshops and platforms have been established in the region to develop and give opportunities to Arab talent, such as the Cairo Development, Atlas Workshop, DFI's Qumra, Beirut Cinema Platform, Red Sea Lodge, Afak, Cine Gouna, and others. 

There is a perception in the West that Arab films only focus on social issues thus overlooking the potential of other genres. Festival programmers are mostly curating such films and disregarding the comedic side of Arab culture which reflects how they survive in difficult politico-socio-economical times, as Joana Zuaiter noted. This leaves aspiring genre filmmakers having to find their own ways of financing their projects that currently cater to a mostly European market. Arab filmmakers need to start getting their funding from their own people and Arab investors must invest in Arab films rather than in Hollywood films. This will help change the narrative of Arab clichés in Hollywood films. Several Arab films and Arab American TV series have achieved mainstream success. As Palestinian actor Waleed Zuaiter, an optimist, stressed that “there is a potential for very commercial projects in the Arab world”.

HAFF also showed a commitment to addressing the challenges of climate change by programing an ECO-Film & Greener Shooting panel to raise awareness and provide tools to minimize the environmental impact of film production. Here are the five take away for ‘green shooting’ that Samuel Rubin, the co-founder of the Hollywood Climate Summit (June 21-24, 2023) and impact officer presented on the ECO panel to minimize the environmental impact of film production. 

  • Sustainable Transportation: Encourage the use of sustainable transportation methods such as electric or hybrid vehicles, bicycles, and public transportation to reduce carbon emissions.
  • Green Energy: Use renewable energy sources such as solar panels and wind turbines to power the film set instead of relying on fossil fuels.
  • Waste Reduction and Recycling: Implement waste reduction and recycling practices to minimize the amount of waste generated on the film set, and ensure that any waste is properly sorted and recycled.
  • Sustainable Catering: Use locally sourced, organic, and plant-based foods for catering to reduce the carbon footprint of food transportation and minimize the environmental impact of food production.
  • Education and Awareness: Educate cast and crew members about the importance of sustainable practices, and promote environmental awareness to encourage individuals to make conscious decisions that minimize the impact on the environment.

As the Arab American film industry continues to evolve, it is essential that American films remain mindful of the cultural nuances of the MENA region and explore new frontiers in storytelling as potential for greater diversity and representation in Hollywood. 

Despite the less-than-optimal film screening attendance due to insufficient marketing from various Arab organizations and consulates, HAFF's events showed that the Arab American diaspora is very enthusiastic about initiating conversations, fostering connections, and supporting stars like Dhafer L’Abidine, Leila Elouia, Farah Bseiso, Waleed Zuaiter, Mohamed Diab and Khairy Beshara. To ensure that the festival continues to thrive, the Arab diaspora needs to support the festival by signing up for its newsletter and encourage sponsors to contribute to increase the festival’s visibility in Hollywood. As Dhafer L’Abidine’s pointed out in the Keys to Success panel (pictured in the header above), the first step to personal success in filmmaking is “feeling that it’s something you absolutely need to do”. As such, the Hollywood Arab Film Festival needs to thrive for Arabs to have a voice in Hollywood. 

Images courtesy of the Hollywood Arab Film Festival, used with permission.

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