Probably the two most common shorthand reminders of Arabic contributions to human civilization are algebra and the annual Arab Film Festival. Handily, these are related.
That is, some algebra surely will be required to figure out how to negotiate a festival packing 16 fiction features, 16 documentary features, 25 fiction shorts and 15 documentary shorts (plus some panel discussions, receptions and an awards ceremony) into 13 days and four cities (San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose and Los Angeles), all while umpteen other don't-miss Bay Area film festivals seem to also be going on. But do the math, because the Arab Film Festival, which turns 12 this year, is a no-seriously-don't-miss festival.
It is a fair point that being reminded all the time of Arabs' contributions to human civilization might seem a little patronizing. Then again, so might the 900 much more familiar movies full of offensive, idiotic, cringe-inducing stereotypes that Jack Shaheen examined a few years ago in his bestseller Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.
Those movies aren't playing at the Arab Film Festival -- the general idea being that your faint recollection of Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin taking on Lebanese terrorists in 1986's The Delta Force may be less important to the larger cause of cultural literacy and world citizenship than your awareness of, say, Lebanese director (and San Francisco State University alumna) Mai Masri's 33 Days, a documentary about Israel's attack on Lebanon in the summer of 2006.
And no, not every film being shown here is intended as a course of instruction. That's nearly impossible anyway, given the steadily increasing breadth of material this ambitious festival has to work with. Even the titles alone -- such as Bahraini Tale, Arafat & I, Paloma Delight, Refugees for Life, Slingshot Hip Hop, to take a random sample -- can attest to the Arab Film Festival's wide diversity of tone and technique.
It opens on Thursday, October 16, with the Bay Area premiere of director Daoud Aoulad-Syad's sly new comedy Waiting for Pasolini, in which a Moroccan village, once frequented by various American and European film shoots, prepares itself for an impending Italian production. This is a movie about the many universal mysteries of what movies do to us, and a fitting introduction to an indispensably illuminating festival.
The 12th annual Arab Film Festival runs October 16 through 28, 2008 at venues in San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose and Los Angeles.For tickets andinformation, visit aff.org.