Inauguration of Middle East Now Festival

FLORENCE – The first showing of Director  Annemarie Jacir's powerful movie "Wajib" about a Palestinian family in Nazareth spearheaded this year's edition of the Middle East film festival in the Tuscan capital.

 It is the only Italian festival dedicated to cinema, documentaries and culture of the Middle East and North Africa. It featured a number of short films, food tastings and a general appreciation for their international philosophy.

 Organized by the no-profit cultural association Map of Creation the main events were held at both the Odeon Cinehall and the Stensen Auditorium Cinehall.

 The main concept that the festival aimed to achieve was “highlighting the culture and identity of the countries of this part of the world and bringing them to the attention of the Italian public, overcoming stereotypes that often come out from the international mass media.”

 The itinerary was organized so that movies which would not normally be circulated in the Italian distribution were given an opportunity to be showcased, selected amongst the most recent and significant Arab, Iranian, Israeli, Palestinian and Afghan cinematography.

 On the opening night of the festival we saw Meqdad Al-Kout’s Best Life which is a clever representation of a man throughout the day glued to his smartphone as he follows his virtual world guru whilst attempting to juggle his daily routine. It is a humorous representation into the contemporary obsession of being “online.”

 This was followed by award-winning Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir, who presented her latest feature film, Wajib (invite.)  Jacir, who was originially born in Bethlehem in 1974, lived in Saudi Arabia before moving to the US to study and them Amman and Haifa.

 The film which will premiere in Italy on April 19 is based on Abu Shadi (Mohammad Bakri) a 60-year-old teacher and divorced father of Shadi (Saleh Bakhri), an architect who has lived in Rome for many years and returns in keeping with the Palestinian traditions to aid his father in handing out personal invitations for his daughter, Amal’s wedding.

 The protagonists are father and son in real life so the on-screen chemistry provides a rare authenticity and chemistry to the layered film. They spend a lot of time together in their old family Volvo car, stuck in traffic in Nazareth, the so called "Arab capital of Israel" because of the large Palestinian population there.

 Jacir has previously said that the city is “violent” and “tension is very high.” “It is a real ghetto, where 60 percent of the population is Muslim and 40 percent Christian and where Palestinians live as third-class citizens.”

 There is an obvious and strong division between the generations. Shadi, who has become to regard Italy as home battles against his father who longs for him to come back to his birthplace and live according to tradition.

 Throughout the week a selection of the most famous works by Annemarie Jacir were also screened: "Like Twenty Impossibles" (2003), the first Palestinian short film selected at Cannes; "Salt of this Sea" (2008), the first feature film directed by a Palestinian director, chosen for the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival; "When I Saw You" (2012), winner of the NETPAC prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and nominated for the 2013 Oscars.

 We also infer the divided Palestinian community and the gaping holes between social groups and their perception of Israeli society- a reflection of exile and return.

 A food tasting with a number of stalls adorned the building offering tasty treats for all ticket buyers through a colourful display of Middle Eastern fare. Before the evening dedicated to the film SOUFRA which featured the story of Mariam, a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon who becomes a high-flying social entrepreneur through food, we were involved in a gastronomic journey. An aperitif populated by the most loved Middle Eastern dishes, most photographed and most followed on the internet, carried out by the La Valle dei Cedri restaurant.

 In addition, the women protagonists of the culinary bestseller “Our Syria. Recipes from home” were featured as special guests at the festival in the event “Syrian dishes at home.” They were long-standing, family recipes from homes that had not survived but with the aim of starting somewhere new to cook dishes, the foundation on which to rebuild a life. A truly incredible experience.

 The festival expanded over the whole week with hundreds of activities and films to explore.

The programme included 20 short films, 31 Italian premieres, 6 European and 1 worldwide.

"The directors, artists, musicians, chefs and protagonists of contemporary culture that come from the Middle East always have a lot to say and they do it through films and works of great innovation, which allow the Italian and European public to discover with different eyes and reflect on a part of the world that is still little known. At its ninth edition, Middle East Now is increasingly a multidisciplinary festival, including this year also the contemporary theater between the artistic forms represented.”

 From Afghanistan "Rockabul" closed the festival on April 15, in which Trevis Beard told the story of the District Unknown, the first heavy metal band of Afghanistan, and their ambition to make create music in a country where it is seen as demonic is forbidden. The singer, Yusoof Ahmad Shah called "Yo Khalifa " appeared in the room with the director to introduce the film with an impressive performance.

 With too many events to cover individually, I would highly recommend coming down next year to enjoy all this forward thinking and cosmopolitan festival has to offer.