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MENA Film Festival presents authentic representations of Southwest Asia, North Africa, and diasporic communities

Sara Jade Alfaro-Dehghan at MENA
The MENA Film Festival will screen Sara Jade Alfaro-Dehghan's drama "Hair!" at the opening ceremony.

Vancouver’s fifth MENA Film Festival will screen 42 different features and shorts, either in theatres or online. Directors from Southwest Asia or North Africa (SWANA) or those trace their roots to these regions created every film at the festival. MENA is an acronym for Middle East and North Africa.

The festival will present in-person screenings at the VIFF Centre’s Vancity and Studio theatres from Saturday (January 27) until February 1. Meanwhile, organizers will offer selected virtual screenings across Canada from January 27 until February 11.

The opening ceremony begins with the MENA 5 reception at 3 p.m. on Saturday. The official caterer, Tayybeh, will prepare regional dishes for this gathering. In addition, the festival will offer complimentary Persian tea and nabat.

The organizers plan to conclude the opening ceremony with a screening of Sara Jade Alfaro-Dehghani’s short drama “Hair!”. Winner of the 2023 MENA SWANA filmmaking grant, the Toronto-based director’s film revolves around three Persian immigrant sisters. According to the synopsis, they gather for regular tea and hair-removal rituals.

Later on Saturday evening, the festival will screen two documentary features in the Vancity Theatre.

Yusef Srouji’s Three Promises will be shown at 6:45 p.m. As the Israeli army retaliates against the second intifada in the West Bank in the early 2000s, a Palestinian mother, Suha, records her daily family life with a camera. She promises her God that she will leave if her family survives.  Srouji, her son, discovered the images in 2017.

Three Promises won Best Documentary Feature at the 2023 Camden International Film Festival.

Middle East MENA film Festivla Three Promises
Three Promises tells the story of a camera-carrying Palestinian mother, Suha.

Escape focuses on Syrian women artists in exile

Following Three Promises, the festival will present Escape at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday. Lebanese-Canadian director Katia Jarjoura‘s Arabic-language film is described as “a poetic and intimate journey on the path of exile”.  Jarjoura focuses on five Syrian women artists now living in different countries.

Also on Saturday evening, the MENA Film Festival will offer short films in the VIFF Centre’s Studio Theatre. One bundle, Rewind, is comprised of seven films depicting queerness. The second bundle, Play, addresses creativity and movement through six films about artists and dancers.

MENA
Lebanese-Canadian filmmaker Katia Jarjoura’s Escape features artistic Syrian women in exile.

On Sunday (January 28), the festival will screen two feature-length films in the Vancity Theatre. The first, Animalia, is a science-fiction fantasy. A young, pregnant woman, Itto, seeks emancipation as aliens land in Morocco. The French-Moroccan director, Sofia Alaoui, won the New Voices/New Visions Grand Jury Prize at the 2024 Palm Springs Festival. Animalia will screen at 3:15 p.m.

Moreover, at 5:30 p.m. in the same location, the festival will present U.K.-based Sudanese filmmaker Sara Suliman’s Heroic Bodies. She shows  how Sudanese women employ different tactics to resist oppression and reclaim body autonomy.

As on the previous day, the festival will present two bundles of short films in the Studio Theatre. Stop, at 3 p.m., includes seven films themed around how systems of power seek to control the body. The next collection of short films at 6 p.m., Pause, “depicts the SWANA region’s relationship with death outside the context of imperialism and war”.

Watch the trailer for Sara Suliman’s Heroic Bodies.

MENA fest addresses representation

The festival will also host a panel discussion and workshops. At 1 p.m. on Sunday (January 28) in the VIFF Centre, actor and writer Shayan Bayat will moderate a discussion on representation. Actor Vanessa Issa, two-time Jessie Award-nominated actor Baraka Rahmani, and screenwriter and librettist Jonathan Akkawi will speak at the event. Admission is by donation.

At 3 p.m. on Monday (January 29), the festival will  offer a 150-minute event to help prospective filmmakers. Industry Rendezvous: Project Funding and Pitch Workshop builds on last year’s How to Finance Your Film workshop, promising “an expanded roster of the top regional and national funding organizations”. The Canada Media Fund, Creative BC, Storyhive, Telefilm Canada, and TELUS Originals will participate. Ticket prices range from $15 to $25 and includes food and refreshments.

“All filmmakers are welcome, but in case of high demand for particular representatives, preference will be given to MENA/SWANA, Indigenous and BIPOC filmmakers,” the festival states on its website.

The festival will present a second workshop at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday (January 30) at the Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema in the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. Vancouver’s Kathleen Hepburn (Never Steady, Never Still and The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open) will offer a 120-minute screenwriting masterclass. Students can gain admission for $15, with general admission set at $20. (This doesn’t count processing fees.)

Watch the trailer for Armenian-born director Hasnik Movsisyan’s short film “250km”.

Celebrating Armenian filmmaking

In another significant event, UBC Middle East Studies and the Armenian Cultural Association of British Columbia will co-present An Armenian Evening with MENA. It includes free screenings of Hasmik Movsisyan’s short drama “250km” and the animated “An Armenian Triptych: Retracing Our Steps“.

The latter is a collaboration between poet Alan Semerdjian, visual artist Kevork Mourad, and musician Aram Bajakian. It’s offered “as a meaning-making tool in response to intergenerational trauma and the refusal of a people to be erased from history”.

The filmmakers will be in attendance at the screenings in the Place of Many Trees at UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues (6497 NW Marine Drive, Vancouver). The event begins at 7 p.m. on January 31.

The in-person component of the festival will wind up with an Awards Ceremony at 4 p.m. at the Vancity Theatre on February 1. That will be followed by a Queer>>Forward Afterparty at 9 p.m. at the Cobalt, which will include gogo dancers and performances.

Watch the trailer for the 2024 MENA Film Festival.

The MENA Film Festival will present in-person screenings at the VIFF Centre’s Vancity and Studio theatres from January 27 to February 1. In addition, the festival will offer select virtual screenings across Canada from January 27 to February 11. For tickets and more information, visit the MENA fest website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.