Written by William Dobson
Half-Egyptian, half-English Yasmin El Derby is most passionate about two things – film and bringing together both sides of her heritage. As such, she founded the London MENA Film Festival which, this year, promises to be the biggest thing to happen to Middle Eastern cinema in London. Aiming to foster a dialogue and understanding between two cultures, the Festival launches tomorrow and will run until November 2nd showcasing the very best films to be coming out of the Middle East and North Africa. In between organising the event and striving to make this cross-cultural platform accessible to everything, Yasmin had time to catch up with us and tell us just why it’s a cause so close to her heart.
Sugar Street Review: For those not familiar with cinema from the region, what can one expect to see and learn from the festival?
Yasmin El Derby: Film is a wonderful medium and can cross cultural and religious boundaries and educate people about one another. Middle Eastern film can offer audiences in the UK who may not know much about Arab culture an alternative to the stereotypes we often see in the mainstream media. Many Middle Eastern films offer an insight into the ‘normal’ life of people living in the region – demonstrating how, in essence – whatever our nationality or religion, we are all human – we all laugh, cry and have everyday problems and achievements.
SSR: What is it that about Middle Eastern cinema that you are so passionate about?
YED: I love film in all shapes and sizes! Middle Eastern film particularly interests me because I find it very interesting to see how film-makers come up with ingenious ways to get around issues of censorship and cultural sensitivities. I am also passionate about breaking down certain stereotypes that are often present in Western societies surrounding the MENA region.
SSR: And what first inspired you to start the MENA Film Festival?
YED: The initial idea for the London MENA Film Festival came out of a personal obsession with film and the fact that I am part of the MENA Diaspora myself (half Egyptian and half English) – I noticed that there was an extreme lack of films from the MENA region being shown here in London and I assumed that there must be a film festival for the region in the UK. I searched and searched and found nothing (this idea was born before Shubbak and a few of the other initiatives that have now been created).
The driving force behind the creation of the London MENA Film Festival was the need to get films from the Middle East & North Africa region accessible to the British public and to give film-makers from the MENA region and the Diaspora a platform to showcase their works and talent. A huge focus of LMFF is to bring people together – whether that be, Diaspora and ‘non-Diaspora’ (Arab or British or whatever) but also to connect the different Diaspora communities together and create a positive network of creative, intelligent people.
SSR: What effect have the events of the couple of years across the region had on the films we are seeing being made there?
YED: I think films from the region are now starting to be a lot more hopeful – this is not to say they were always doom and gloom before! But I think a real feeling of hope has inspired many artists and this had impacted on the types of films being produced, and this is only the beginning!
SSR: What do you feel the festival has achieved thus far? And what do you want it to achieve in the future?
YED: Last years festival was a ‘mini-festival’ – to launch the organisation and connect with audiences and filmmakers. We screened 6 films and held Q+A sessions with some of the filmmakers. We had a brilliant turnout and are hoping for even bigger and better numbers this year! The future for the festival is bright – we hope! We envisage the festival to run each year and be a prestigious event in the film industry and the film lovers calendar! We hope to expand the festival to include events that run throughout the whole year, not just during festival time and to include workshops, talks and live music events promoting all that is good about connecting people from all walks of life!
I really feel that the festival has bee successful in promoting film from the region to a European audience – and I hope this continues!
SSR: How do you feel that the festival fosters positive cross-cultural dialogue and understanding?
YED: The London MENA Film Festival is for everybody – to experience and enjoy films from the Middle East and North Africa. It is for the Arab Diaspora in the UK – both first and second generations, it is for the general British public who have an interest in the Arab world and it is for film lovers everywhere! We want to extend a welcome to everybody and anybody who would like to join us! Through film, LMFF aims at not only changing possible misconceptions that some people may have concerning Arab film / culture and people but is also striving to bring films from ‘home’ to Diaspora communities in London. During last years launch we screened Mariam Al Sarkal’s first documentary London in a Headscarf which in my view did something great in attempting to change certain stereotypes. We had feedback after the launch where a few people mentioned that they did not expect to see such a strong-minded female film-maker, who wears a headscarf and was not afraid to say what she thought – even if it meant appearing somewhat controversial in her native UAE. This was a really positive step in creating positive dialogue and understanding.
In the UK, like in many other countries, the films of Hollywood rule and many people do not realize there are films that are just as good, and even sometimes better being made in the Middle East and North Africa region. This is something we really want to change – ‘good’ film does not necessarily have to mean Hollywood production.
SSR: And how important do you think media, such as film, is for breaking down and changing stereotypes?
YED: In my view media is the most important tool for breaking down stereotypes and changing perceptions. Film is such a great medium for this – it allows people to be entertained but at the same time educated! There is not a huge awareness of Middle Eastern / North African film here in the UK. Of course, there are the odd films from the region that make it here and get general cinema release. For example, Nadine Labaki’s 2007 film Caramel and her recent Where Do We Go Now? both had general release, but this is quite rare. I was once telling someone about the film festival and films from the MENA region and he really honestly asked me if all the films from the region were ‘religious’ in topic and focus – that tells you something about the misconceptions many people have about Middle Eastern cinema. It’s all down to a lack of exposure, and at LMFF that is the thing we are trying to change.
What films being shown this year do you think our readers should be particularly excited about seeing and why?
Audiences can expect eight days packed with brilliant film screenings and informative talks with directors. LMFF 2012 will screen five feature films, four feature documentaries and a huge number of shorts – both narrative and documentary. We will even be holding a ‘family film’ event where a feature animation will screen at The Tricycle Cinema on the afternoon of Saturday 27th October. We have a very exciting programme screening and brilliant directors coming over to hold Q+A sessions with audiences. I am very excited about all our upcoming events! We will be opening and closing with two fabulous feature films – Fatma Zohra Zamoum’s How Big Is Your Love? and Nassim Abassi’s Majid. Both screenings will be accompanied by Q+A sessions with the directors. All in all, audiences can come and see around 28 different films comprising of all genres, lengths and topics. We have tried to include a wide variety of films to cater to everyone’s taste! Our whole programme can be seen on our website here