A film festival takes a stand against Islamophobia

The Seventh Art Stand film festival explore the many strands of Muslim and Muslim-American experience

The Seventh Art Stand, a nationwide screening and discussion series that focuses on the many facets of the contemporary Muslim and Muslim-American experience, comes to Portland’s Open Signal at 7 pm on June 21. The series has been part of a multi-platform effort that is intended “as an act of cinematic solidarity against Islamophobia,” according to organizers. Through Q&A sessions at the screenings and social media campaigns such as #sharemuslimfacts, the series seeks to challenge and humanize the discussion around the lives and beliefs of members of the nationalities and ethnicities under attack by the current administration and Islamophobic currents in the media.

By the time it’s over, Seventh Art Stand will have shown in more than fifty theaters, museums, and community centers in more than half the states, with prominent shows in Honolulu, Detroit, Milwaukee, Houston, Harlem, and Minneapolis. As part of the collaborative nature of the project, each venue curates its own selection of films and runs its own public discussions, often tailored to the surrounding Islamic community. Previous screenings have featured Queens of Syria by Yasmin Fedda, A Stray by Musa Syeed, American Arab by Usama Alshaibi, and The Salesman by Asghar Farhadi, which won the Oscar for 2017 Best Foreign Language Film.

The seeds of the series began with a conversation at the Sundance Film Festival between NW Film Forum’s Executive Director Courtney Sheehan and Richard Abramowitz of the indie film distributor, Abramorama, shortly after the Trump administration ordered the initial travel ban from Muslim countries. Originally, the series was going to feature films from the seven countries listed in the ban, but Sheehan and Abramowitz expanded the vision to include films from all parts of the Muslim world as the ban list changed. Incidentally, the name comes from Ricciotto Canudo’s definition of film as the “seventh art,” rather than the initial seven countries in the ban order.

A scene from Vivian Hua’s “Searching Skies,” part of the Seventh Art Stand film festival.

Former Portlander Vivian Hua joined as an organizer, referred to Sheehan because she was finishing her first short film, Searching Skies. Set in America and focusing on Syrian refugees, her film was part of expanding the theme to include the experience of Muslim-Americans and resettled Muslim refugees. This decision came in part from discussions with the filmmakers, refugees, and other community members that reminded the organizers of how different the experience of a first-generation Muslim-American immigrant could be from, say, a fisherman in Yemen. The vast differences they saw were being continuously glossed over by the media in its use of “Islam” or “Muslims” as terms to cover the cultural and religious experiences and practices of the nearly 2 billion people in the world who identify as Muslim.

The screening at Open Signal on Wednesday is a small homecoming for Hua, who moved to Los Angeles from Portland two years ago to begin a film career after being an active member in the Portland and Seattle music scenes. She founded the music and art magazine, REDEFINE, which ran from 2004 to 2016, covering the rise of many influential Northwest acts, highlighting emerging and unusual artists, and hosting events and discussion panels at Portland venues including Holocene and the Hollywood Theatre. As she transitioned to the film world, Hua extended the social justice aspects of REDEFINE to filmmaking. Her involvement in organizing The Seventh Art Stand fit naturally with her motivations for creating her debut feature, Searching Skies, which will premiere in Portland this Wednesday.

The short film takes place at a Midwestern Christmas dinner to which a Syrian refugee family is invited. “Derek, a self-righteous college student,” is the only family member to take issue with their presence. He can’t hide his disdain, but an unexpected moment causes him to reconsider the Syrian family more as people in front of him than examples of the vague and scary ideas about Muslims planted by the media.

Hua’s inspiration for the film came from hearing the story of similar events at a friend’s Christmas dinner, and it’s a perfect fit for a film and discussion series that hopes to create humanizing moments around the issues surrounding Islamophobia and the refugee crisis.

Hua says that community partners for The Seventh Art Stand have occasionally encountered racism and Islamophobia from audience members. At the Q&A after a screening in New Jersey, a man in the audience said to one of the hosts that since the host was from Afghanistan, he was responsible for his son’s fatal heroin overdose—because some heroin comes from Afghanistan. At the Arab American Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, which has one of the largest Arab populations in the country, a debate started because a white audience member didn’t feel that the panelists and organizers were old enough to comment on racial history. Her cousin stood up to give comment on how many “brown and yellow friends” they had. The experience was eye-opening for Hua, and showed the value of these events as an opportunity to engage with the public. “It was such a window into how to talk to that population, because here was a man who willingly came to the event, and was very proud of embracing diversity throughout his life,” she says. “It shows just how much work there still is to do.”

A scene from Vivian Hua’s “Searching Skies,” part of the Seventh Art Stand film festival

Searching Skies was Hua’s thesis film at UCLA Extension’s Directing program, and she brought aspects of the production to her class discussions. During casting, when one of her professors saw the headshots of the actors who were going to play the Syrian refugees, he asked, “How are you going to get them to look like refugees? They look like Lebanese pop-stars.”

At the Searching Skies screening in Los Angeles, objections from Nour Bitar—the Syrian actress who plays the refugee mother Amira—became a fascinating counterpoint to the professor’s reaction. While she and the rest of the Syrian family in Hua’s film are presented as cosmopolitan, modern, and friendly people, Searching Skies was screened with Faisal Attrache’s documentary Growing Home, which depicted life at a refugee camp primarily filled with Syrians in poor conditions. She objected, as much as anyone would, to being lumped in with a picture of “Syrian refugees” that looked nothing like her.

Searching Skies and The Seventh Art Stand provide engaging opportunities to remember that the Muslim population in the US and elsewhere can’t be summarized with one particular phrase, image, or idea. The program on Wednesday also includes several short films, including “Baghdad, Iowa” by Colorado filmmaker Usama Alshaibi; “Um Aballah” by New York filmmaker Sahar al-Sawaf; and “Thyme” by Florida filmmaker Jude Cherab. Following the screening, Hua will discuss the works shown with Alshaibi over Skype.

Note

Seventh Art Stand runs 7-9 pm Wednesday, June 21, at Open Signal, Portland Community Media Center, 2766 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

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