Twin Cities Arab Festival is a “home away from home” for Minnesota Arab community

Two people sit on a stage and talk
Mizna curator Michelle Baroody conducts a question and answer panel with film director Khalil Joreige following a screen of his 2021 film Memory Box at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The 16th annual Twin Cities Arab Film Festival is under way in Minneapolis. Filmmakers from Arab, Southwest Asian and North African communities are showcasing years of hard work at the festival, which serves as a space of representation for Minnesota's Arab community.

At opening night of the festival on Wednesday, hundreds of people gathered in the hallway outside Walker Cinema at the Walker Art Center. People mingled and enjoyed authentic, Palestinian hummus before one of the films began. One of those people is Palestinian-American William Nour.

“I do feel a sense of pride being here, to see my culture and language represented,” Nour said.

Nour has been attending the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival for almost as long as it's been around. He's one of many in Minnesota's Arab and Southwest Asian and North African — or SWANA — community who describes the festival as a sort of home away from home. 

“I feel complete, you know, like I belong,” he said.

A reception room full of festival attendees
Hundreds of people attended the opening night of the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival at the Walker Art Center on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. The festival, presented by arts and cultural organization Mizna, runs through Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022.
Sarah Thamer | MPR News

Lana Barkawi is the Executive and Artistic Director of Mizna, a local nonprofit that organizes the festival. She said the festival presents a rare opportunity to see contemporary cinema production from local and regional filmmakers.

MPR News is Reader Funded

Before you keep reading, take a moment to donate to MPR News. Your financial support ensures that factual and trusted news and context remain accessible to all.

“So coming to the Arab Film Festival, you get a chance to see what filmmakers from everywhere from Morocco to Palestine to places in the gulf, what they're making, what the conversations are, what the ideas are,” Barkawi said.

One of the filmmakers participating in the festival this year is Khalil Joreige. His film “Memory Box” premiered during the opening night of the festival and was released in more than 50 countries.

“We are very happy to represent the film here in Mizna. It's my first time in this region,” Joreige said.

The film toggles between the Lebanese Civil War and present-day Canada. Joreige said that, in the film, scrapbooks, letters, and audio recordings from the past spark a young girl's need to learn about her lineage. 

“It's between art and cinema where we are questioning several issues and modes of representation of ourselves especially being part of a region that is in constant trouble, I will say,” he said.

LikeMemory Box,” other films at the festival offer perspective on lived experiences from those in the Arab, Southwest Asian and North African communities.

A sign with a film festival schedule and reception room full of people
Attendees mingle on the opening night of the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival at the Walker Art Center on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. The festival, presented by arts and cultural organization Mizna, runs through Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022.
Sarah Thamer | MPR News

Lebanese-American Maria Kallas said watching the films can be an emotional experience. 

For people in the diaspora, home can be a complicated concept.

“It's a very good event to have in Minnesota because it's connected to my roots and to my culture,” Kallas said.

Barkawi said it's also a chance to see work that is not filtered by gatekeepers. 

“So, for the Arab community in town it's an important opportunity to see those productions, to see ourselves reflected on the screen in productions by our community, artists from our community rather than sort of being spoken about.” 

Barkawi said the films are not necessarily meant to be educational or bridge builders, but they can have that effect. 

Joreige agrees with that sentiment – saying his film explores lived experiences in Lebanon – it's up to the viewer to take away from it what they will.

“It's a film about our love of photography but without nostalgia — we are not nostalgic at all. It's about wondering how we can tell our stories.” 

The Arab Film Festival runs through Oct. 2 at the Trylon Cinema in Minneapolis.  

All films are available online. Visit Mizna.org.