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NYC Film Festivals

NY Arab and South Asian Fest Biggest Yet

By S.T. VanAirsdale

It's a first -- well, kind of.

Launching tonight at Tribeca Cinemas, the New York Arab and South Asian Film Festival is the inaugural event bearing this name, though its mission and message are outgrowths of the well-established Alwan Film Festival that began in New York in 2005. Even prior to that, the New York chapter of the South Asian arts organization Third I had combined forces with New York's Arab community group Alwan for the Arts to cross-promote cinema from both cultures. As festival co-curator and Third I veteran Prerana Reddy told The Reeler in a recent interview, the overlap -- not to mention the practical need to clarify its emphasis -- led to the event's recent name change.


Sara Zaker in a scene from Tareque Masud and Catherine Masud's Homeland, one of several Bangladeshi entries in this year's NY Arab and South Asian Film Festival (Photo: Alwan for the Arts)

"Our biggest challenge," she said, "is not just getting the South Asian community or the Arab community -- though those communities are very diverse, and it's hard to get Egyptians to see non-Egyptian films or for Arabs to see South Asian films and vice versa -- but to (welcome) a mainstream film festival audience. ... Instead of doing outreach just in our own communities, what we're really hoping this year is to get the word out to other audiences -- people who would go to a French film festival or to the Almodóvar retrospective. People who go to Film Forum or Lincoln Center. I feel like That's our biggest challenge, and have it on those sets of radars."

As such, the festival's growth reflects both its success and ambition: A whopping 78 films (including 15 US premieres) from almost 30 countries are set to screen at a sprawling multitude of Manhattan venues, from Columbia University to the Pioneer Theater to the headquarters of another loyal festival partner, Downtown Community Television. Selections and programs include only the third feature ever made in Bahrain (A Bahraini Tale), a slate of rare feature documentaries from Afghanistan and a sidebar of Palestinian resistance films from the 1970s. "These are propaganda films, for the most part, that were filmed in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon," Reddy said. "There was an archive in Beirut that was lost after 1982 -- we don't know if was destroyed or moved -- but some of the films were tracked down, and we were able to obtain some of them. We're actually subtitling them for the first time for English-speaking audiences."

Films from the Asian subcontinent are represented as well, including the Indian coming-of age story Vanaja, the US premiere of the Bangladeshi family drama Homeland and the Pakistani/Indian/Japanese documentary War and Peace. Additionally, Tunisian filmmaker Nacer Khemir will be on hand for a retrospective of his work as well as a master class for Columbia film students.

"Maybe 10 years ago, half the program would have been Egyptian, because that was really the place where production was happening in the Arab world," Reddy said. "But now we're really seeing a lot of activity in North Africa, in the Gulf States and in other places, so we wanted to capture some of that diversity as well."

The New York Arab and South Asian Film Festival runs Feb. 23 - March 4; check the festival's Web site for program, schedule and venue information.

Posted at February 23, 2007 10:54 AM

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