The 11th annual Arab First Festival continues this weekend at the California Theater in downtown Berkeley.
This year the festival has turned its focus to issues of youth and urban life, with a range of films on these topics showing at venues in San Francisco, San Jose and Berkeley.
The festival’s mission is to explore the depth and diversity of filmmaking in the Arab world with an array of documentaries and feature-length and short narrative films.
Hisham Zaman’s Winterland makes its American debut at 7 p.m. Sunday.
The film examines the relationship between Renas, a middle-aged Kurdish immigrant from Iraq who has made his home in the snow-covered hills of rural Norway. Renas has been looking forward to the arrival of his bride-to-be from Iraq. It is an arranged marriage with a woman he has never met, except by way of a few letters and phone calls. He has pictures of Fermesk, however, that depict a young woman, perhaps still a teenager, gently smiling and wearing a flowing dress.
Upon her arrival, however, Renas is perturbed to find a larger and older woman. She is still young, but it is clear that the photos are quite outdated. And Fermesk too faces disillusionment, for Renas too sent photos of his younger self, dashing and svelte in military garb, and also managed to greatly inflate his status and income from his humble job in Norway. And each has still more surprises for the other along the way.
What follows is a tense drama of disillusionment and reconciliation, of hopes dashed on the snowy banks of cold reality. Renas and Fermesk must deal simultaneously with their estrangement from one another and from their home country, from family, friends and culture. The stunning photography of the wide-open fields and snow-blanketed hillsides of rural Norway presents a beautiful but alienating environment, pristine and harrowing at the same time. Zaman’s camera transforms the landscape into a vast white desert, where the two protagonists have no reference points other than each other.
Nasser Bakhti’s Night Shadows examines similar themes of Arab displacement but in a dark, urban environment. His film follows the interlocking lives of five characters, each adrift in the darkness and decadence of Geneva nightlife.
A jaded cop, nearing retirement, faces another night on the beat with his obnoxious brute of a partner. Hans’ dedication to his job has cost him his health and his marriage, and those losses have in turn cost him his passion for his job. His partner, a brash, insensitive thug, cares nothing for the immigrants he is tasked with tracking down, and his cruelty and ignorance are only brought to his attention when his wife threatens to pack up the kid and leave him. Claire is a down-and-out junkie with no friends or family, forced to consider prostitution to sustain her habit. Adé is an illegal Malian immigrant who dreams of a professional soccer career while working as a waiter. And Mohammed, a Moroccan immigrant, has been forced to abandon his medical studies just to get by while supporting his family back home.
Each, whether a native or an immigrant, faces the same hostile environment, one that undermines their common humanity and puts them at each other’s throats much of the time in a thoughtful parable of ignorance and xenophobia.
ARAB FILM FESTIVAL
Through Sunday, Oct. 28 at the California Theater in Berkeley and at the Castro Theater and Roxie Film Center in San Francisco.
Image: Two Kurdish immigrants from Iraq struggle with displacement and romance in rural Norway.