A crowd of people were already overflowing onto Via Camillo Cavour from the packed Cinema La Compagnia when I arrived. It was strange to see the area so lively, especially on a Tuesday night. April 4th was the opening of this year’s Middle East Now film festival in Florence. Marked by a musical performance by Bachar Mar-Khalife and a screening of Last Men in Aleppo by Firas Fayyad (the winner the Sundance film festival), the festival had drawn in Florence and all of the seats in the cinema were filled from 9pm to midnight. I could go on for hours about the rollercoaster of emotions Last Men in Aleppo put me through, but I think it is better for everyone to watch it for themselves.
The film was in Syrian-Arabic with both Arabic and English subtitles, and the festival had installed an extra screen that overhung below the film with Italian subtitles. Similarly, the organizers of the event graciously flowed between English and Italian when introducing the film, and later when interviewing Fayyad. The continuous shifting between languages highlighted an underpinning desire to understand a region of the world that tends to be less accessible. This desire, I am finding to be the essence of the film festival. I have attended a handful of short films since the opening night, and all seem to open a window onto a more intimate aspect of urban life somewhere in the Middle East.
One of my friends told me that he would not go to the festival because “the films are for privileged Europeans to watch and cry to before going back to their daily lives.” I thought about this, but I do not think it is fair or entirely true. For one thing, the alternative of having the films screened in the Middle East would not be possible in many cases, at least not without being heavily censored. So with that off the table, we must ask the question: If not here, then where? The director of a film, Withered Green, spoke to the same issue by saying that he raised his own funds so that he would not be subject to censorship by producers in Cairo. For such filmmakers, the emphasis placed on freedom in art at Middle East Now serves as an important platform. While I am sure that many of the cultural nuances in the films are lost in translation for European audiences, I believe that an attempt at facilitating empathy is still important, and that film is one of the most powerful mediums to drive understanding.
At the end of every film is a long list of credits. While that is usually the queue for people to start packing up their things to leave, I have always enjoyed trying to race against the rolling credits to read through the titles and names of the crew. I wonder, how long would the list of credits be for the film festival itself? I have met so many volunteers, from Middle Eastern photographers to translators to Italian university students checking tickets. I see the bright blue and yellow posters plastered all around Florence, and social media alerts remind me of the festival events. Yet, I know that there are still so many more vital players in the process who I will never know of.
These are the musings of my Middle East Now experience so far. I am excited to see what other surprises the festival throws at me in the days to come.