Always ready to swim against the current and present thought-provoking programming, Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center founder and director Rene Broussard thinks it's time to ask what New Orleans has in common with Beirut or Baghdad.
In the Middle East, many great cities that have ancient roots, rich cultures and have embraced multi-cultural differences have been degraded by violence and destruction, some of it dragging on for decades. While the causes of the destruction are very different, people struggle to rebuild and carry on their lives, regardless of how they are perceived elsewhere, and whether they have any voice in far away capitols that make decisions affecting their survival.
"There's a close parallel between the refugee status, the displacement and the right to return," Broussard says of the plight of many present-day Arabs and Palestinians and the struggles that face New Orleanians following Katrina. "Just look how the media was referring to us as refugees ... it's not a far stretch."
At at time when the United States is getting more entwined in the politics of the Middle East, Broussard is interested in the plights of all the peoples of the region. He's created the Middle Eastern Film Festival (Jan. 19-28) to give New Orleanians a chance to explore the many cultures and points of view that get bound together in brief news dispatches from the region.
"We keep hearing of the 'Axis of Evil' and how countries like Iran are so evil," Broussard explains, "but these films were nothing at all like that ... they were all about humanity and they were beautiful simple stories about how we were all the same."
Showcasing more than 40 films originating from countries in the Middle East, including Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Palestinian territories, Broussard says that the festival will be the first of its kind in New Orleans.
While attending the Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival in New York in 2005, Broussard recalls that he got the idea to bring a collection of Middle East films to Zeitgeist when he encountered a program that offered a 30-year retrospective of Syrian cinema. Not only did the films strike a chord in him for their relevance to New Orleans, but they revealed a side of Middle Eastern culture that Broussard felt was seldom seen in mainstream America.
Broussard was so moved by what he saw at the festival that he contacted ArteEast, a non-profit organization that exhibits the works of artists and filmmakers from the Middle East. ArteEast had compiled the Syrian retrospective in New York, and once contacted by Broussard, agreed to release the films for exhibition in New Orleans. However, organization representatives did require some cajoling before making the deal.
"I really had to create a context in order to get the films," Broussard smirks. "No one cares if you are a small non-profit theater that wants to show a movie, but if you have a festival, people are more than willing to be a part of it."
Broussard adds that he attains no financial assistance from grants or federal funds, so such creative maneuverings have become a necessity when soliciting films to be shown at Zeitgeist.
Rasha Salti, who directed the original film festival organized by ArteEast in New York, says the decision to collaborate with Broussard was an easy one. A native of Beirut who has strong ties to New Orleans, Salti says that New Orleans and Beirut share a kinship in that they both have a "history of embracing cultures and influences" and a "desire to stage celebrations all the time."
"These films tell stories of everyday folks," Salti continues, "small people trying to make a life of dignity, battling a police state, brutality, social inequities, poverty and political disenchantment. These issues should resonate well with New Orleanians ... more significantly in New Orleans than anywhere else in the U.S."
As he organized the festival, Broussard began seeking films from other Middle Eastern countries to compliment the Syrian retrospective. Keeping to criteria that emphasized rarity over the mainstream; unconventionality over the commonplace, Broussard gathered both documentaries and narrative films that covered a wide-range of cinematic themes. The films address issues of violence, urbanization, freedom, domestic abuse, poverty, tyranny, femininity, war, transsexuality, homosexuality, and of course, romantic love.
One film that Broussard is particularly pleased to screen for New Orleans audiences is Hothouse, directed by Shimon Dotan. Showing on the festival's closing night and a mere day after its U.S. premiere at Sundance, Hothouse chronicles the life of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons. Sometimes poignant and at other times downright chilling -- such as the interviews with men who smile as they recount how they orchestrated bombings that killed children -- the picture aims to reveal how Israeli prisons have become breeding grounds for future Palestinian leaders as well as hatcheries for future terrorist attacks.
While Hothouse is not indicative of the entire gamut of styles and subject matters to be presented at the festival, it is representative of an over-arching theme that Broussard hopes is not lost on audiences after the final reel ends. Although the horrendous acts that are executed in the name of religious and political superiority are, indeed, horrendous, the men and women who carry out these deeds are decidedly human -- with their own fears, misguided beliefs and idealistic hopes for the future.
"You think of how we are taught to fear Arabs and Muslims and then you see these films and you see the humanity of these people," Broussard remarks. "They are not monsters."
Although Broussard says that he has definite opinions when it comes to the Middle Eastern political landscape and the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, he is adamant that all viewpoints will be represented at the festival. He says that it was important to curate a collection that clearly expresses the point that all sides -- the United States, the European Union, Israel, and the entire Arab world -- have something to gain or lose in the struggle in the Middle East.
"Although my political persuasion is decidedly in favor of the Palestinian cause," Broussard says, "I felt it was important to have in the fest films that are from a decidedly Israeli point of view ... and have a film that strongly laments the loss of the settlements."
Careful not to become mired in the complexities of the cultural and religious wars being waged in the Middle East, Broussard quickly returns to his original purpose in presenting these rare films to the public. And in doing so, perhaps he finally gets at the real meaning of cinema, and why it's so important that we continue watching it.
"I believe the cinemas in these countries show a truer depiction of the attitudes and cultures of the people than media can ever portray," Broussard concludes. "I see that there is a total disconnect between what we see in the news and what these people really are." New Orleans Middle Eastern Film Festival
Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center, 1724 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 525-2767; www.zeitgeistinc.net