Through the eyes of a child: London Mena Film Festival



Denise Marray

Published — Wednesday 21 November 2012

Last update 21 November 2012 4:10 am

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Yasmin El-Derby is the enterprising young filmmaker whose energy and passion for film are the driving forces behind the 2012 London MENA (Middle East & North Africa) Film Fest. 29 films representing work from Qatar, Egypt, UAE, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq and Syria, are being shown in a range of venues including the London School of Economics, the School of Oriental and African Studies, think-tank Chatham House, Frontline Club, championing independent journalism, Leighton House Museum with its magnificent Arab Hall, and the Tricycle Theatre. Some showings, which include films from the Nour festival, are followed by discussions between the audience and directors.
Just two years ago El-Derby realized there was no platform in the UK for Arab film and she worked fast to fill the surprising gap. “I thought – ‘how come we don’t see these films in London when there’s such a huge diaspora’, and ‘wouldn’t it be brilliant to find a platform for film-makers from the region’,” she said. So she set about contacting filmmakers and immediately got a very positive response. The first mini-festival was held last year, and this year the event attracted over 90 films for consideration by the festival panel.
The theme of the 2012 festival is ‘children’ and many of the films, for example Al Jazeera’s documentaries ‘My Rag Doll’, directed by Shireen Gheith, set in Egypt, and ‘A History Lesson’, directed by Hady Zaccak, set in Beirut, tell their stories through the eyes of a child.
In ‘My Rag Doll’, Walaa, a young Egyptian doll-maker can take no pleasure in the dolls she makes due to her harsh life conditions. ‘A History Lesson’ focuses on history classes in five schools located in greater Beirut. Although the curriculum is standardized for all fourth year students according to a 1970 edict, interviews with students reveal contradictions among those from different backgrounds and affiliations.
The deeply moving Iraqi documentary ‘In My Mother’s Arms’, directed by Mohamed and Atia Al Daradji, shows the struggle to protect 32 children in an orphanage in one of Baghdad’s most dangerous districts. This film is a painful reminder of the child casualties of war. The Algerian/Moroccan film ‘How Big is Your Love’, directed by Fatma Zahra Zamoum, gives us a glimpse of modern Algiers through the eyes of the young boy, Adel.
The UAE/Syria film ‘Ostoria’, directed by Hani Kichi, is a fantasy about a mermaid who falls victim to her own curiosity and breaks the laws of the sea. Can a young Bedouin who dreams of uniting his people save her from her destiny?
El-Derby’s passion for film began in her childhood. With an Egyptian father and English mother, she traveled to Egypt every summer to catch up with her relatives in Cairo. It just so happened that a close friend of her parents is the famous film director, Mohamed Khan, whose award winning films include ‘Streetplayer’, ‘Downtown Girls’ and ‘In the Heliopolis Flat’. At the age of ten El-Derby found herself transfixed by the film library he had assembled in his Cairo apartment. She recalls watching Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ and being totally captivated.
She went on to study film at the University of the West of England, Bristol and is currently co-directing a personal project examining the question of identity among people of the Arab diaspora in Europe.
What’s impressive about El-Derby is both her love of film across many cultures and her determination to create outlets for filmmakers to share their work with a wide, global audience. She is especially keen to challenge stereotyping. “You don’t have to see the Middle East only in terms of religion, revolution or lack of women’s rights,” she said. “I want to give people snap shots of life showing that at the end of the day we’re all the same.”
She sees too much segmentation and closing of minds, even in London which is one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the planet. She notes how people tend to flock together according to their ethnicity or culture, often preferring not to live amongst or mix at all with people outside of their group.
“It can sometimes be quite fractured in London. In the area where I live pretty much all the Arabs you will find are Egyptian – but drive ten minutes down the road and you will find all Moroccans living in that area,” she said.
The festival has been funded almost totally out of El-Derby’s own pocket; she has poured her savings into the event, operating on what she described as ‘a less than shoe-string budget.’
“It’s really been a struggle but I’m in a fortunate position because I’m still living at home and I don’t have the immediate expenses of bills and rent,” she said.
One much appreciated donation came from The International Arab Charity which considers film a good medium to develop understanding of Arab cultures, especially given the sizeable Arab populations in Europe.
El-Derby is impressed with the fresh ideas and energy coming out of the Gulf region as it develops its film industry. There are many creative collaborations between countries with a relatively young film industry and those with long established reputations such as Egypt and France.
She was impressed with what she saw on a visit to Dubai.
“The UAE is showing real growth in filmmaking. They have a desire for creative development and good facilities,” she noted.
El-Derby hopes the festival will become an annual fixture attracting the best of Arab film from across the MENA region. She hopes film distributors will create a wider audience for the innovative films on show. There are also plans to add a production arm to develop film projects.

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