This Wednesday, May 17th, AFF will be hosting a free screening of six exceptional short films at the University of California Santa Barbara. This 90-minute program showcases the emergent voices and diverse approaches in cinematic storytelling by contemporary Arab filmmakers and artists. Following the screening, there will be a Q&A with Executive Director Serge Bakalian and Artistic Director and programmer Deana Nassar. The panel will be moderated by Mona Damluji of the UCSB Department of Film and Media Studies. We sat down with Mona to ask her a few questions about her work and the upcoming event.
Arab Film Festival: Can you tell our readers a little about yourself?
Mona Damluji: I’m an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies and affiliated faculty in the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Santa Barbara. I’m a firm believer that storytellers have the power to change the world. In addition to teaching about Arab film and media, I’m writing a book about how the oil industry has shaped popular imaginations of the modern Middle East through cinematic storytelling.
AFF: You are an educator, cultural activist and scholar with expertise in the Middle East. What made you want to deepen your knowledge and activism?
MD: I have always loved watching TV and going to the movies. Growing up as an Arab American daughter of Iraqi-Lebanese immigrants in Southern California in 90’s and the aftermath of the first invasion of Iraq, I felt constantly humiliated by the way that the mainstream television programs and Hollywood films my generation devoured only showed Arabs as villains. It embarrassed me when my family spoke Arabic in public and I didn’t bother to correct strangers when they asked if my name was Italian. In college, I had a major ah-ha moment in a film class on racism in American cinema when I read the introduction to Edward Said’s Orientalism for the first time and learned that media portrayals of Arabs and Muslims as a common enemy (as the “other”) was linked to deep histories of structural racism in this country (by no means exclusive to Arabs). As Chimamanda Adichie tells us: we live with a dangerous single story of Arabs. And I want to change that. After freelancing for a few years on the East Coast in film and television production, I became drawn to the power of film and art programming as a platform for public engagement and education. As a graduate student in Berkeley and later a postdoc in Providence, I collaborated with local organizations, departments, faculty and schools to amplify public accessibility to powerful and diverse Arab and Arab American storytellers: performers, artists, photographers and filmmakers. Today, as a professor, my scholarship and teaching remain committed to deepening critical knowledge of how film and media shape our worldview and how we, as storytellers, media makers and media consumers, also have the power to make change.
AFF: Can you tell us a little bit about the work you do with AFF?
MD: My work with AFF began years ago while I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. I was inspired by the Festival’s mission and volunteered to organize the Festival for Schools program as AFF’s first Educational Outreach Director. I’ve since moved on to take positions at Stanford University and now UCSB, and have always remained committed to partnering with the directors to bring original programming of Arab films my campus. Going forward, I’m dedicated to working with the directors to fulfill the educational mission of AFMI and expand access to the incredible archive of Arab films to students everywhere.
AFF: You, you are moderating the panel at the AFF Shorts Program at UC Santa Barbara. What do you hope people will learn from this event?
MD:My post screening discussion with Deana and Serge will focus on getting to know more about the behind the scenes work that the festival directors do to pull of the country’s largest festival dedicated to featuring and premiering films from the Arab world. We will discuss their priorities for selecting films and the trends they see emerging in filmmaking in the Middle East and by Arab filmmakers worldwide. I’d also like to address the importance of film based storytelling in today’s political climate, especially in light of increasing cultural normalization of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. Finally, we will also allow time for audience questions for the festival directors about the films we showed or the festival. on the importance of the Arab Film Festival in the current political climate.