Growing up on Vancouver’s North Shore, Arman Kazemi was often curious to learn more about his Iranian heritage. As Kazemi entered adulthood, he loved seeing how Persian life, history, and culture were depicted on-screen. As a result, he regularly attended festivals and other film events.
“I would go to these showing and there would be full houses,” Kazemi recalls. “A lot of people would come from the community and from outside the community.”
Yet despite the size of crowds, he felt that films focusing on Iran were “sort of like marginalia” at festivals. Moreover, this remained the case as the population of Iranian Canadians sharply increased across Metro Vancouver.
“I kind of said to myself, ‘Why do we have to wait around for other organizations to put on these screenings for us so we can see ourselves on-screen? Why not—with this strong community base that we have—start to tell our own stories in our own voices?’ ” Kazemi says.
That led him and two other film lovers, Anaïs Elboujdaïni and Ghinwa Yassine, to launch the MENA Film Festival in 2019, along with Shaghayegh Haghdoust and Dariush Ghaderi Barrera. It started as a weekend event at Emily Carr University of Art + Design.
The two women agreed to participate if the festival encompassed filmmakers who trace their ancestry across the Middle East and North Africa, hence the name “MENA”.
Elboujdaïni, the festival’s director of programming, is a Montreal-based filmmaker and journalist of Amazigh-Moroccan background. Yassine, MENA’s strategy director, is a Lebanese-born “anti-disciplinary artist” who moved to Vancouver in 2017.
Kazemi was born in the U.K. to parents who had left Iran. His family came to Canada when he was eight years old.
Festival will host industry night
The MENA Film Festival became a weeklong event in 2021 and 2022 at the VIFF Centre, offering awards to filmmakers in several categories.
At 7 p.m. on Friday (February 10), the festival is partnering with the Vancouver Film School to host MENA Industry Night. The event will connect filmmakers, industry professionals and audience members at the VFS Café at 390 West Hastings Street.
“It’s the first time we’re bringing the industry folks together in a common space to interface,” Kazemi says. “It’s open to the public.”
In addition, the MENA Film Festival in Vancouver is inviting submissions from filmmakers for this year’s event, which will take place in November. The early-bird deadline is March 31 and the closing day is April 28. There are four categories: feature films, short films, documentaries, and experimental.
“Our programming strives to represent all communities within the MENA/SWANA region, including those marginalized by ethnicity, language, or religion: be they aboriginal, nomad, stateless linguistic groupings and other identities that don’t fall neatly into any orientalist image of MENA/SWANA,” the website states.
Poking holes in national narratives
Kazemi acknowledges that there are deep rivalries and historical grievances in Southwest Asia and North Africa along religious, ethnic, linguistic, and geographic lines. Persians, for instance, have their own culture apart from the Arab world. Amazigh people are a distinct ethnic group indigenous to Northwest Africa.
Meanwhile, Coptic Christians face persecution in Egypt. And Sunni and Shia Muslims and Christians have fought one another in Lebanon.
Moreover, European powers fomented these divisions through colonialism by pitting groups against one another. This made it easier for the colonial countries to extract wealth and gain geopolitical advantage.
The MENA Film Festival in Vancouver, on the other hand, is trying to transcend that history by bringing diasporic communities together. Kazemi, Elboujdaïni, and Yassine are not interested in creating silos based on nationality.
“Why bring our baggage across the pond, so to speak, with us?” Kazemi asks. “Why not poke holes in the national narratives that we tell ourselves?”
The festival strongly supports the Coast Salish Peoples and is committed to prioritizing work by or about Indigenous peoples in the MENA/SWANA region. In addition, the festival website urges people to donate one day’s pay to support Indigenous projects, movements, organizations, and nations on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
From journalism to MENA
Kazemi has taken a circuitous journey to becoming a festival director. He says that as a student in school, he loved to write. English was his best subject. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature, he enrolled in the UBC School of Journalism. He aspired to become an author and felt that journalism would enable him to make a living.
With his master’s degree, Kazemi worked for several years as a freelancer in Vancouver and abroad, covering the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil. He wrote for several publications, including the Globe and Mail and Georgia Straight.
After returning to Vancouver from South America, he did some work in the film industry because freelancing opportunities were drying up.
The MENA Film Festival in Vancouver emerged when Kazemi met Elboujdaïni and Yassine at a networking event called Booze ‘N’ Schmooze, which was put on by Raindance Vancouver.
“I have been able to pivot a lot of the skills that go into journalism into MENA—writing grants, writing press releases, and that kind of thing,” Kazemi says.
He points out that there’s a growing community of directors, playwrights, screenwriters, and actors of Southwest Asian and North African descent in Metro Vancouver.
For example, one local filmmaker, Alireza Kazemipour, won the festival’s Scarlet Pomegranate award for his short drama, “Split Ends”. It revolves around a bald girl and boy with long hair who have an encounter with Tehran’s morality police.
Police mistook the male for a female, and went after him for not wearing a hijab.
“It’s all about the arbitrary nature of this kind of Machiavellian system,” Kazemi says. “That’s a great film.”
Watch the trailer for Alireza Kazemipour’s award-winning “Split Ends”.
Local filmmakers inspired by protests
The MENA Film Festival director adds that Kazemipour also wrote and directed “Gold Teeth”. It generated a lot of buzz after making the final six in the Crazy8s Festival in 2022. Another high-profile local filmmaker of Persian ancestry is Mostafa Keshvari, who was featured last year by Pancouver.
In the wake of the large anti-government demonstrations taking place in Iran, Kazemi has noticed more members of the diaspora are creating films and writing plays and poetry. He’s thrilled that the MENA Film Festival offers a platform for people to tell their stories.
“It’s kind of a cliché thing to say, but it’s something I would have wanted when I was growing up,” Kazemi says. “When my parents come, I can see that their eyes light up because they’re seeing their community represented in a way that they haven’t seen before.”
Kazemi says that some local filmmakers who trace their roots back to Southwest Asia and North America are eager to tell their stories in English. They attended school in Canada in English, though this may not be the language that they originally learned from their parents.
To add context, Kazemi then quotes the writer William Burroughs, who once described language as being like a virus from outer space.
“It implants itself and it speaks itself though you,” Kazemi says. “You don’t express language. Language expresses you through the way it uses your modality or your cognitive functions.”