“Cinema with a Conscience”: Could a Festival Help Solve the Middle East Crisis?

Once a year, representative from the entire Middle East come together in Florence, to work on world peace through their arts.

A photo from the exhibit “Saudi Tales of Love” by Tasneem Alsultan

When I see headlines of an Israeli soldier beating up a Palestinian boy, or a man from East Jerusalem brandishing a knife and getting shot down at Damascus Gate, I feel helpless. I assume most of us feel that way when we watch the news and are constantly reminded how our fellow human beings are losing their humanity. What can I do, I’m one person, I think, and does that really carry any power? Is the power of one capable of making a real change?

Well, maybe. In my native city of Florence, once a year in April, members of almost every country in the MENA (“Middle East and North Africa”) region come together and share their artistic vision for a new kind of Renaissance, one that could provide that elusive world peace effect, on top of presenting a common vision for artistic excellent. These new ambassadors of hope are filmmakers, artists, designers, dancers, chefs and musicians from countries as varied as Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and more. Too many to name. And yet they come together in Florence to participate in the Middle East Now festival, a boutique event with a colossal vision.

Founded in 2010 by Lisa Chiari and Roberto Ruta, the festival is now in its eighth edition. This year, Middle East Now will include a photography exhibit titled “Saudi Tales of Love” by Tasneem Alsultan, a US-born Saudi photographer who gives us an unprecedented insight into the world of women in Saudi Arabia, from the inside out; an installation and pop-up shop by the Harakat Sisters, two young sisters who live between Beirut, Casablanca and Paris and created a brand of accessories that includes a coveted cult piece called the “K-ssetta bag”; a food event called “Urban Delights” as well as a cooking class held by Anglo-Iraqi chef Philip Juma, famous for his popular Juma Kitchen pop-up events around London; Arabic language courses by the Palestinian Maha Yakoub; a series of films from Israel presented by the Greenhouse Documentary Program and including a must-watch titled ‘Nazareth Cinema Lady’ by Nurit Jacobs Yinon; and a focus on New Egyptian Cinema which includes one of my favorite films of 2016, Tamer El Said’s ‘In the Last Days of the City’, a last lingering look at the city of Cairo with a mournful eye for what it used to be both personally and universally.

Oh, and not to be forgotten, of course is Ceydan Torun’s ‘Kedi’ (‘Nine Lives: Cats in Istanbul’) a film from Turkey about the thousands of cats that roam the streets of the metropolis.

A still from ‘Kedi’ by Ceydan Torun

Chiari admits that “from the very first edition of the festival our idea was to look at the Middle East in its entirety and complexity, limitless and without censorship,” and Ruta clinches that point by adding, “we are not geopolitical experts and our selection is based always and only on quality, how strong a story is and how much it informs us about its country of origin.” It is this spirit of choosing projects from the heart, that provide human relevance and storytelling above all that helps create this outstanding bridge for peace in Florence, during Middle East Now.

Chef Philip Juma of Juma Kitchen

When pressed about why they mix so many diverse art forms in one forum, Ruta replies, “the idea behind Middle East Now is to let our audience breathe the air, feel the atmosphere,” and while cinema is undoubtedly the strongest conduit, Chiari continues, “photography, music and food are also significant components of a culture, a way of life, and a means to understand what it really feels like to live in Lebanon, Gaza, Dubai, or Israel — we want to reach as many hearts and ears of as many people as possible with our event!”

Perhaps it is this concept of making the audience feel like they are momentarily transported to Beirut, or Dubai, or even Jerusalem through food, fashion and film, that creates a movement for change. When we lose our own identity for an instant, we become someone else, and if that moment occurs in the midst of a movie about Palestinians, or during a Lebanese meal, maybe we can begin to understand the other side. And discover our similarities instead of insisting on highlighting our differences.

The Harakat Sisters who will host a special pop-up shopping event in Florence

In fact, last year I sat at a dinner event for Middle East Now facing a group of favorite Palestinian filmmakers whose film had opened the festival, while they chatted away with a couple, an editor and a film program director from Israel. It didn’t strike me as odd in that environment, while the delicious menu created by Lebanese food activist Kamal Mouzawak was being served. The chef’s own slogan “Make food not war” which he turned into a TEDx talk was the inspiration for an evening that taught me not just about tolerance, which isn’t the best word lets face it, but complete acceptance — this concept of letting go completely and embracing “the Other”.

Will Middle East Now offer the solution for world peace? Probably not. But the sheer rebellious act of watching a Saudi Arabian film followed immediately after by a Syrian story, or an Israeli short introducing a feature from the West Bank will certainly begin to build a bridge in the audience’s subconscious. And that bridge may soon turn into a road, that may build into a movement for world harmony.

All images used with permission.