‘Visual Voices”: the 2020 Middle East Now Festival

A scene from “Between Heaven and Earth,” shown at this year’s Middle East Now festival

Florence’s 11th annual Middle East Now Festival, postponed from April, will be held from October 6-11, showcasing cinema, art and culture from the region and North Africa.

Citizens of the Western, predominantly Judeo-Christian world often either know little about the Middle East or have some adverse opinions of the political, cultural situation there.  The organizers of the festival aim to enlighten attendees and open discussion on the diverse culture of the 17 nations collectively called the Middle East.  The region’s more than 400 million people speak at least 60 different languages with Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish and Persian being among them.  Known for its religious diversity, Islam, Christianity and Judaism all originated in the Middle East.  Including Hindus, Druze, Buddhists and Yazidi, non-Muslims make up 23% of the population.

The movie industry, which never slowed down during the COVID pandemic, reveals a distinctive cinema culture from each country.  Brought into the Arabic countries at the beginning of the 20th century, Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, has developed as a center for Hollywood and Bollywood filming as well as Middle Eastern centered cinema.  Women comprise a quarter of independent filmmakers in the region, compared to 8% in the US and Lebanon boasts more women than men in the industry.

The area’s art, traditionally known for geometric designs and calligraphy seen in carpets, ceramics and architecture, changed during the postwar era and independence from imperial rulers.  Today, a vibrant contemporary art scene exists called Arabic Modernism with increasing attention given to these artists.  The cuisine of the region offers a great variety of dishes, from the street food of Turkey with kebabs and rich vegetable stews, to Libyan food influenced by North African, Berber and Mediterranean traditions, to the rich and complex combinations of spices, sweet and savory found in Persian cuisine.

This year’s Florence festival, with the theme Visual Voices, explores how images and voices initiate messages of change.  Thirty-seven films, including 10 international premieres, present different aspects of life and love in the region, all screened in their original language with English and Italian subtitles.  The opener, “Sunless Shadows,” shot in a female juvenile detention facility in Iran, received an award for best director at the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam (Tuesday, October 6, 9 pm, Cinema La Compagnia, Via Cavour, 50/r).  “The Wasteland,” directed by Dashte Khamoush, tells a love story set amid the injustices and abuses experienced by workers in Iran’s most remote corners.  The movie won the Horizons Award for best film at the 2020 Venice Film Festival (Friday, October 9, 9 pm, La Compagnia).

From Jordan the award-winning documentary “Tiny Souls” by Jordanian Dina Naser portrays the daily life of little Marwa, who has lived in a refugee camp in Jordan since she fled Syria with her family.  Her lively and open spirit confronts the challenges involved to survive in an environment where, despite everything, life continues.  Introduced by the director, the showing will be followed by a Q and A session with Naser. (Friday, October 9, 5:30 pm, Cinema La Compagnia). Afghanistan’s entry is an intense and poetic animated film by director Zabou Breitman, “Les Hirondelles de Kaboul” (The Swallows of Kabul), is set in a war-torn Kabul occupied by the Taliban.  The film follows the lives of two young people Mohsen and Zunaira, who are deeply in love and, despite the violence and misery of their daily lives, want to believe in a better future (Sunday, October 11, 3:30 pm, Cinema La Compagnia).

Another offering, “Music for Films,” focuses on soundtracks in film of the Middle East with special guest and industry award-winner Omar Fadel.  Fadel will present three films featuring music he composed (Thursday, October 8, 6 pm, In Search of Oil and Sand. October 8, 9 pm, Youmeddine and Saturday, October 10, 11 am, The United, all at Cinema La Compagnia).  The theatre’s lobby will also host the exhibition “The Middle East in Cartoons and Comic Strips” from October 6-11 with free admission.

Members of the audience can also sign up for “Autumn Recipes” to discover Middle Eastern cuisine in the season that greets the late eggplants and welcomes cabbages, pumpkins, pomegranates and much more.  For a tasting menu and screening of the film, admission is €15, and reservations are required with advance sales at the cashier of the Cinema La Compagnia (Friday, October 9, 8 pm, Cinema La Compagnia.  Limited attendees in compliance with anti-COVID health provisions).

“7 x 7,” a photographic exhibition of transcultural narratives introduces seven photographers from seven cities in seven days, depicting stories and scenes throughout the region through the camera lens.  The show will inaugurate on Thursday, October 8 at 6 pm (October 8-31, Monday through Saturday, 10 am-1 pm and 3-7 pm.  MAD Murate Art Center, Piazza delle Murate; free entrance).  The festival also includes a vibrant program of lectures featuring writers, journalists and experts on the Middle East with conversations, debates and book presentations.  For complete information on the program, including entrance fees for films and special events, see the festival website.  (rita kungel)