“Rana’s Wedding” Celebration: Can One Bride’s Odyssey Pave the Way for Arab Cinema in the U.S.?
by Anthony Kaufman
In Hany Abu-Assad’s “Rana’s Wedding,” a young Palestinian woman wakes up one morning in Jerusalem only to discover she has until 4 p.m. to find her fiancé, convince her father that her love is a respectable catch, attain the required paperwork, and get married, all the while enduring endless checkpoints, Israeli soldiers with itchy fingers, and a continuing series of nearly insurmountable obstacles.
As Arab Film Distribution sets out to release “Rana’s Wedding” in North American theaters (New York on August 22; Washington, D.C. on September 12), they, too, will face a number of hefty barriers. Most distributors and exhibitors agree that Arab films face several roadblocks in the United States market, from shades of racism to the lack of a unified audience to support the films.
“Arab films are entering the arthouse mainstream,” claims Arab Film Distribution’s John Sinno, a self-described “activist-distributor.” But despite Sinno’s optimistic outlook, even he admits that Arab Americans have a “low self-esteem” towards their own cinema. “But we’re trying to change that,” he says.
After spending 10 years exclusively distributing Arab films to institutions and on video and DVD, the company is betting “Rana’s Wedding” will find audiences in U.S. theaters. (It will be the company’s second theatrical release after Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch’s “Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets,” which continues to travel around the country.) Wesley Hottot, Arab Film Distribution’s director of sales and promotion, says AFD is growing more aggressive in the commercial market to help raise the profile of the company and increase awareness for Arab and North African cinema. “This has always been the modus operandi of the company,” he says, “and it’s all the more relevant in the last couple years.”
While the recent history of distributing Arab films is quaint, but uninspiring — Capitol Entertainment’s 1995 tour of Moufida Tlati’s “The Silences of the Palace” and Cowboy Pictures’ 1999 release of Ziad Doueiri’s “West Beirut” are frequently cited — the last two years have seen a small surge in films from the Arab world. Avatar Films distributed Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s “Divine Intervention,” which fared well with U.S. audiences (grossing about $400,000) and Zeitgeist Films released the Tunisian film “Satin Rouge” last year (though Zeitgeist’s Emily Russo admits they were disappointed with the film’s performance, at just over $230,000).
Since 9/11, U.S. audiences have become more open to Arab arts and culture at the same time as fear and racism has spread, say many familiar with the region. “After 9/11, it was kind of a boom for us,” admits John Sinno. While some fleeting Arab-themed programs popped up quickly, like Duke University’s controversial tongue-in-cheek “Reel Evil: Films from the Axis of Evil” series, there have also been more enduring developments.
Minneapolis held its first Arab Film Festival this year, though unfortunate timing — America’s invasion of Iraq — kept filmmakers from attending the successful event. ArteEast, a New York group aimed at promoting Middle Eastern culture, will host a nine-month-long film series, starting September 13, called Cinema East. In San Francisco, the 7th Cinemayaat will screen more than 20 films starting September 25. Also, Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center will continue to host their annual Arab film showcase this November, in cooperation this year with ArteEast, in the hopes, says Film Center programming director Barbara Scharres, “[that] it will make us a more interesting series. It’s difficult finding the right films year to year,” Scharres continues. “We have to rely on what has been distributed and some years it s really slim pickings.”
Distributors, for their part, are waiting to find the right film with crossover potential. “The groundwork hasn’t really been done,” explains Marie-Therese Guirgis, distribution head of Wellspring Media, which has yet to release an Arab film (but did distribute “Marooned in Iraq,” by Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi, which in name, at least, evokes an Arab nation.) “Part of that may be political. And part of it is also that the rhythm, acting style, and tone of these films are different,” she says. “But if there was a ‘Cinema Paradiso’ of, say, Egypt, that could pave the way.”
Many distributors cite Iranian films as an example of a “foreign” cinema that has found U.S. arthouse success, with its devoted audience of Iranian Americans and cinephiles who recognize names like Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, and Panahi.
Avatar Films’ Co-President Keith Icove says the company’s distribution of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “Kandahar” and Suleiman’s “Divine Intervention” played out in completely different ways. “‘Kandahar’ did great numbers in Iranian communities,” he says, whereas “the Arab community very much did not come out to support ‘Divine Intervention.'” “We did a tremendous amount of grassroots marketing with local political groups sympathetic to the Palestinian cause,” he continues, “and the only people who responded were the white liberals and left-wing activists.” The company even hired a Palestinian-American publicist to reach out to the community, but according to Icove, “she made an effort, but it was a bit like banging her head against a wall.”
“For these films to do well, the [Arab] population has to go out to see them,” adds Guirgis, “And they don’t. You don’t have that built-in audience that you do with Iranian films, or Russians for a Russian film like ‘Russian Ark.’ So it makes it difficult.”
Some of the reasons cited for the Arab American population’s lack of theatrical movie-going range from a strong video and DVD purchasing and piracy market to the fear of being identified in public as an Arab when the community is largely demonized locally. However, Sinno believes the latter “is not a huge factor,” but says it could change, for better or worse, according to shifting American beliefs.
Also because the Arab world is so diverse, made up of 22 countries — with films coming from Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, and Tunisia, to name the most prolific — the Arab audience is extremely fractured. “Syrians are not going to care about an Egyptian musical,” says Arab Film Distribution’s Hottot.
Guirgis also blames xenophobia. “I definitely think the bottom line is racism. I would think twice about acquiring a film from Egypt or North Africa or the Middle East, because, in general, there doesn’t seem to be very much affinity for those countries, even in the arthouse movie culture.”
The films may even face prejudice from the distributors themselves. When the U.S. rights for “Divine Intervention” were up for sale after Cannes 2002, it was rumored that a number of Jewish film executives refused to even see the movie.
Arab Film Distribution’s Sinno is hoping that “Rana’s Wedding,” in contrast, will bridge the cultural divide, between Eastern and Western, Arab and Jew, with its universal story of a girl who just wants to tie the knot. “I have high hopes for ‘Rana’s Wedding,'” he says. “It’s more accessible, it’s more of an art film with conventional storytelling. And I think the American Jewish community will not be offended by it.” Further cultivating these two politically opposed audiences, the company is also hoping to acquire and release “Forget Baghdad: The History of Jews in Iraq.” “We want to open up all these niches,” continues Sinno. “Since 1990, when we first started, nobody had heard of Arab cinema,” he says. “Now it can only get better.”