By Blair Simmons, NYU ’16
On Wednesday, April 9th, the Middle East Now Film Festival took over the center of Florence for its opening night. The Odeon Theatre, which seats over 400 people, was standing room only with at least a hundred patrons pushing to get inside. An air of great anticipation perforated the theater as audience members vigorously held their bladders to keep their seats before the show. The NYU student jury, who had been handpicked by Jim Carter and Alice Scolto-Douglas, was present and pleasantly surprised to see what they had gotten themselves into. I, being a member myself, was aghast at the sheer volume of people inside of the Odeon. It was exhilarating.
Kicking off the festival was Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese indie-rock band that is currently changing the face of Middle Eastern music, and was followed by a viewing of the 2014 Oscar nominated film Omar, directed by Hany Abu-Assad. This film depicted the life of a sensitive young Palestinian baker gone freedom fighter who has to face some difficult decisions, Omar left the crowd yearning what the MEN Festival had in store for them next. It was truly a great way to kick off the event.
The festival, which continued through Monday, April 14th, is the only festival in Italy entirely dedicated to contemporary Middle Eastern cinema, featuring the latest films from Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Afganistan, Syria, Bahrain, Algeria and Morocco. Showcasing a myriad of feature films, documentaries, animated films and shorts, the film festival was designed to underline the importance of the Middle East, a region that is completely visible in international media and politics in recent years. These films were overall eye-opening and heartbreaking. Other than one film, which appeared to be mimicking a Disney-short, the subject matter was quite intense. It was unclear whether the heavy subject matter was a product of the choices made by the festival, or if these films were a true representation of the cinema which has spanned the last couple of years in the Middle East. It is true that with war and heartache, cinema tends to follow suit. However, it is also true that with heartache comes an urge to laugh and an upsurge of comedy seems to be just as present. That was not the case during this weekend. Perhaps this was an attempt on the part of the festival to take the subject matter at hand seriously. Regardless, the films were important for the international community to see. After four days of watching these films, the struggles (in the family, in growing up, in everyday activities, in death, etc.) that permeate the Middle East, were apparent. The students all discussed, a number of times, the newfound emotional awareness about the Middle East they felt that could not be portrayed purely through the news and straight facts. It is cinema that humanizes a cultural experience.
The Cultural Map of Creation, under the artistic direction of Lisa Chiari and Roberto Ruta, organized this festival and rounded up the group of NYU student panelists to judge the short films. After a long weekend of screenings and intense deliberation, where fingers were pointed, yelling was permitted and opinions were shot down, the jury came to an agreement just in time for Monday night. The jury leaders, Jim and Alice, were happy to announce, in both Italian and English, that dialogue-free film, Condom Lead by Mohammed and Ahmad Abunasser, won the majority vote. They expressed that it was visually stunning, but also so subtly conveyed, that its emotional implications effectively imparted its intended message. This film portrayed how living through extreme bombings affected every aspect of a normal mundane life with ones family.
As a whole, the festival was not only well organized and heavily frequented by many Florentine people, but it was a necessary entity. It was a place where Middle Eastern culture and society could simply be represented and explored, without a filter.