Shirin Ghareeb is smiling. After 24 years, the annual Arabian Sights Film Festival (October 18-27, 2019) has just completed another successful year with an engaged and diverse audience warmly receiving all the films introduced.

This year, the festival opened with It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman’s latest feature. Moving effortlessly from one place to another, from a country to another, the Palestinian director explored with skill and humor notions of exile, identity, and belonging. 

Indeed, every film shown called attention to the various facets of Arab society. Arab Blues, a comedy directed by Manele Labidi, received the Arabian Sights Jury Award. The film featured a woman’s culture shock when she returns to her homeland of Tunisia after years away in Paris, and her struggles to open her own psychotherapy practice. Her multiple complications had the audience laughing throughout. 

Other films addressed societal questions, cross cultural conflicts, religion, and the role of women in today’s Arab world. Those themes appeared in movies such as Adam directed by Moroccan film director Maryam Touzani, which tells the beautiful story of two women (one of them unwed, homeless, and pregnant with Adam) who transform each other’s lives. 

For the first time, a virtual reality experience was offered with the multi award-winning documentary Home from War, which takes place in present day Falluja in Iraq. 

The Arabian Sights Film Festival audience has remained loyal through the years, but it has also grown to reflect the changing nature of the capital. Viewers have come to anticipate this event to feature the newest and best films from and about the Arab world. 

There was a thirst and curiosity by the audience for such films and we were filling a void.  It became apparent then that Arabian Sights should become an annual event.

In an interview with Inside Arabia, the current Director of the Arabian Sights Film Festival, Shirin Ghareeb, herself of Iraqi descent and proud of her heritage, recalled the first year of the festival: 

“What I remember clearly is the reaction of the audience. All the films presented were quickly sold out and we had to turn many people away. It was evident that there was a thirst and curiosity by the audience for such films and we were filling a void.  It became apparent then that Arabian Sights should become an annual event.” 

Ghareeb had three main objectives at the debut of the festival in 1996. First, she wanted to create an opportunity for Arab directors to showcase their work in the United States. Second, she wanted to offer the general public a view of the Arab world as seen through the eyes of Arab filmmakers. Third, she was bent on cracking the pervasive stereotypical images of Arabs. 

Ghareeb described changes in trends in Arab film production through the years that have helped her realize her objectives. The most notable is the increase in the number of films produced in the region. Recently, a new and younger generation of filmmakers who understand that they have to make films with a more universal appeal and with a superior production quality has emerged. 

Furthermore, the availability of digital media has had a significant impact on Arab filmmakers. Making movies is now more accessible to a filmmaker passionate about his or her work, since it is cheaper to shoot in a higher definition. 

“Documentary film directors are now able to tackle timely issues on the spot which can ultimately be presented on movie theatre screens in a matter of a few weeks,” Ghareeb told Inside Arabia.

In her role as Deputy Director of the Washington DC International Film Festival as well as Director of the Arabian Sights Film Festival, she watches 300 to 400 movies annually. She attends international festivals in Cannes and Toronto among others. She also screens films submitted to her office by international filmmakers. Her objective for both festivals is to present the newest, most innovative and compelling films to Washington audiences.

“We are very lucky because we live in a most unique city, the capital of the United States,” notes Ghareeb. 

Arabian Sights attracts the spectators curious about Arab cinema and culture and what inspires Arab filmmakers.

“Our audience is composed of a diverse mix of film lovers. It includes people from all nationalities and walks of life. Arabian Sights attracts the spectators curious about Arab cinema and culture and what inspires Arab filmmakers. The Arabian audience skews toward highly educated professionals who are well-read, well-traveled, follow current events, curious, and are not psychologically land-locked.” 

Over the years, notable Arab filmmakers have been featured in the festival. For instance, the Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, who Ghareeb described as “one of the most talented and versatile of directors whose films have mass appeal and have transcended borders.” Labaki’s film Caramel had its Washington DC premiere in 2007 at the Arabian Sights Opening Night event, and her most recent, Capernaum, made her the first Arab woman from the Arab world to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2018.

A number of guests who have attended Arabian Sights include:

Palestinian director Hani Abu-Assad. His film, The Idol, was the recipient of the Audience Award at the 2016 Washington DC International Film Festival. 

Tunisian filmmaker Ferid Boughedir, who in the words of Ghareeb, is “a great friend of our festival and a very accomplished director and critic whose first film, Halfaouine (1990), remains till this day one of the most famous Tunisian films.” 

Syrian-Canadian Ruba Nadda, a Toronto-based film director whose films include Sabah, which premiered at Arabian Sights. 

Iraqi filmmaker Mohamed al-Daradji, “active in teaching and nurturing young emerging Iraqi filmmakers.” 

Moroccan filmmaker Moumen Smihi who is recognized for his influential career and impact on the “New Arab Cinema”; and Algerian filmmaker Rayhana, director of the controversial I Still Hide to Smoke, which touched on themes of extremism, government violence, and the role of religion in society, specifically with respect to women. 

Finally, multiple films from Egyptian author Yousri Nasrallah as well as those of actor/producer Khaled Abol Naga also have been featured. 

With the undeniable talent of those filmmakers and Ghareeb’s motivation and commitment, the festival can look forward to even more success ahead.