Zero MotivationSt. Ambrose University's educational initiative the Middle East Institute (MEI), which just began its first school-calendar year of programming, was designed to foster discussion and study of this frequently misunderstood and geopolitically critical region. And as institute director Ryan Dye says, when it came time to create an event schedule for the MEI's fall semester, "I consulted with our fine-arts department, and they were really excited about the idea of doing a film festival."

Through the art department's Clea Felien, Dye was put in contact with Ghen Zando-Dennis, a cinema-studies professor at Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey. An Alaska native and occasional filmmaker herself, Zando-Dennis teaches a course in Middle Eastern films at Ramapo and was eager to curate the MEI's event. Zando-Dennis admits, however, that the curator position did come with a challenge for her.

"I didn't want to show work just because it's from this place we regard as 'the Middle East,'" she says. "I didn't want anyone to come away from it thinking it was a kind of survey, in any sense of the imagination, of Middle Eastern media art. And yet I'm programming a film festival that's called 'the Middle Eastern Film Festival.' So that's tricky."

But with her chosen collection of features, shorts, and experimental works for the MEI festival - films that will be screened on six nights, at three different Quad Cities venues, between October 15 and 24 - Zando-Dennis says, "Hopefully the audience will be provided some insight into the different kinds of art and cinema that are coming out of this region, or that speak about this region in some way or another, and how art and film intersect with the culture."

And while works about war and oppression in the Middle East are almost inevitably on the schedule, Dye says that the festival's lineup "should also be a lot of fun," with its inclusion Zero Motivation - the Best Narrative Feature and Nora Ephron Award winner at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival - actually a comedy about the Israeli military. (Reviewing the movie in the Jerusalem Post, Hannah Brown wrote, "A few firearms are brandished, but the most lethal weapon turns out to be a staple gun.")

"It gives us a chance to see what Middle Eastern filmmakers are thinking about and working on," says Dye, "and to get a different kind of feel and flavor for the Middle East. We tend to forget that these are real people with families and daily lives, and a variety of interests that go beyond war and politics and religion."

Return to HomsDescribing the process of finding films for inclusion, Zando-Dennis says: "With the Internet now, it really changes the curatorial landscape. Historically, one would have to go to a film festival in Toronto or Berlin or L.A. or New York to see work. You'd have to go to galleries, meet artists, and call them on the phone or write them a letter. But now, artists are putting their trailers and their artist statements and the descriptions of the work online.

"So for me," she continues, "it was a combination of looking at other Middle Eastern film festivals and the work shown there, researching those artists, looking at that work online, and then following a kind of trail to other artists through electronic-based sites for art."

One especially beneficial Web site, says Zando-Dennis, was the online collective Ibraaz.com. "It's a critical forum on visual culture in North Africa and the Middle East, and they support artists who are more conceptual - whose work is dealing with the politics and culture of the Arab world, but who are also interacting in what we call 'the global art world.' So I would look at those artists and contact those whose work I thought would fit into the program at St. Ambrose, and have conversations with them about my intentions for their work.

"Artists also have Vimeo accounts that have password-protected works," she adds, "and they would give the passwords, which eliminates the need for screeners. It's so much more efficient."

As for the types of films she was particularly seeking for the MEI's Middle Eastern Film Festival, Zando-Dennis says, "There's a cinematic practice that originated in Latin America and the Middle East and North Africa that has this kind of specific resistance to Hollywood - to film as a commodity. Rather, it uses film as a tool to communicate ideas, and to tell stories that don't fall into the model of Western or Hollywood cinema, and that's always been interesting to me."

She adds that recently, she's been fascinated with the art that has resulted from the protests and demonstrations in the wake of the 2010 Arab Spring. "Artwork came out of that through social media," says Zando-Dennis, "but also through filmmakers and painters and graffiti artists and musicians that responded to those uprisings, either aesthetically or conceptually. Or sometimes literally, documenting events on the street."

Zando-Dennis' curatorial efforts eventually resulted in the Middle Eastern Film Festival spanning six evenings, with Rock Island's Rozz-Tox, Davenport's Figge Art Museum, and St. Ambrose University's Galvin Fine Arts Center each hosting two nights of screenings. Regarding the decision to have multiple venues host the works, Dye says, "We really view the Middle East Institute as a public initiative, and we wanted to make sure that we engaged the community on both sides of the river."

What follows are some of the festival curator's thoughts on the lineups.

 

The Noise of CairoWednesday, October 15: "Experimental Shorts: The Body Is a Location" (Rozz-Tox, 7 p.m.)

Wednesday, October 22: "Experimental Shorts: The Archive" (Rozz-Tox, 7 p.m.)

"The first screening of experimental works is dealing with the notion of space in the body as it's located in a political or geographic space. Or, in the case of Beard Burn, using the body. Edward Salem, the artist, actually burns his beard in the film. It's a kind of performative video piece, as is Shannon Plumb's The Window Series, which also uses the body in a frame. She's a North American artist, and I've been following her work for a long time. And then Jasmina Metwaly's film From Behind the Monument, which I found though the Ibraaz platform. These are works that don't speak directly to any particular politic of the region, but all of them speak indirectly to the culture of conflicts in the Middle East, and also to daily social life.

"And the second week at Rozz-Tox has experimental shorts that are dealing with questions of representation - an archive of different ways the Middle East has been represented in other spaces like Hollywood or European film, and in news coverage. Elia Suleiman's and Jayce Salloum's Introduction to the End of an Argument puts that together in a sort of collage, this mimicry showing how dominant media represents the Middle East. Walid Raad's The Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs is this collection of performative archives he did in response to the Lebanese Civil War.

"And Peggy Ahwesh's Beirut Outtakes is composed entirely of footage that was found in an old cinema in Beirut. That's a beautiful work because film is a tactile medium, unlike digital video, and so as it sat in this abandoned cinema over the years, the celluloid started to decay in certain patterned ways. So the film itself has this beautiful analog texture that speaks to the material of film as much as to what it's representing. The actual film becomes part of the film's subject."

 

Thursday, October 16: The Noise of Cairo (Figge, 7 p.m.)

Friday, October 24: Return to Homs (Galvin, 7 p.m.)

"I wanted to include at least one film that talked about the uprisings. There are a lot of them out there - a lot of good, strong ones. And I chose The Noise of Cairo because it's representing artists, talking about how different artists in Egypt responded to the political scene there, and creating a kind of program of films that deals with art-making. That'll be shown with the short film Eid, which is also about an artist, and made by the Saahab Collective, and Nurit Sharett's H2, which is about using video art as a social and political tool of storytelling - creating personal documentaries to empower people.

"Those speak to the revolution from the vantage point of artists. Whereas Return to Homs, which is also a contemporary representation of the situation in Syria, deals with a journalist - a media person filming in the streets. It's the story of this filmmaker and his friend who's a nationally known soccer player in Syria, and how they go through different iterations of the revolution and become militarized after being peaceful demonstrators and activists.

"Both of those features speak very specifically to the contemporary situation in the Middle East, and show media being used as a political tool of storytelling, documentary, and biography. I'm drawn to work that talks about media art within the work itself."

 

ZibaFriday, October 17: Ziba (Galvin, 7 p.m.)

Thursday, October 23: Zero Motivation (Figge, 7 p.m.)

"I was interested in showing a work by Bani Khoshnoudi - whether some of her experimental work or her documentary work - but Ziba, aesthetically, is so different from any of her other films. It creates a kind of observational space where we travel through a city with this character Ziba, who represents a kind of upper-class housewife, and as Knoshnoudi describes it, it's about the experience of asphyxiation and oppression and suffocation of women in Iran. You see her relationship with her husband, her female subjectivity - it's a very quiet film where things kind of roll out in real time.

"The Speak@Tweet shorts showing with Ziba are from Heba Amin, and they're experimental Super 8 films that illustrate literal tweets that were being sent out from Egypt during the revolution, and that were being censored by the government. So the films are a way of, again, archiving history, and then creating a visual element to accompany it.

"And Zero Motivation, which just won at Tribeca, is an Israeli film by a young, young filmmaker [26-year-old Tayla Lavie]. There have been a lot of films made about Israeli soldiers and what that's like for them, but this one just seems to turn that theme on its head. It's about these young women's experiences in serving the bureaucrats of the Israeli army, and so it's kind of an unpredictable way into that military-film world. But like with Ziba, it deals with gender roles and expectations, and there's a connection with the characters' stasis and paralysis in the system they're in.

"But I actually haven't seen Zero Motivation yet. So I'm taking a risk there, but I wanted something in the festival that was just, like, banging right now, and so this gives audiences a chance to see something current from the film world - that marketplace, if you will. I'll be seeing it in Davenport for the first time. And I really had to persuade the distributors at Zeitgeist [Films] to let us show it. They were like, 'What? It's not even in theaters yet!' And I said, 'No, we gotta show it! We gotta show it, we gotta show it ... !' And it worked."

 

For more information on St. Ambrose University's Middle East Institute, its upcoming programs, and the full schedule for the Middle Eastern Film Festival, visit SAU.edu/MEI.

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