The Fifth Seattle Arab and Iranian Film Festival
Fri-Thurs March 15-21 at Broadway Performance Hall.
See Film Shorts and Movie Times for schedule.

A little-known fact: The world's largest, in fact the world's only, exclusive distributor of Arab films is located right here on Capitol Hill.

Arab Film Distribution has been supplying colleges, film festivals, and public-television stations with a wide array of cinematic offerings by, for, and about the Arab world for more than a decade (the company got started after the Goodwill Games in 1990). Later this year, the company will present its first theatrical release, Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets (which played at last year's SIFF). For the last five years, AFD has sponsored the Arab and Iranian Film Festival--formerly the Arab Film Festival-- which kicks off a week of programming, lectures, and special events on March 15. It hardly needs to be said that a film festival with a name like that is likely to attract more attention this year than any other.

Sitting in his small office, soft-spoken AFD president and festival director John Sinno (who was born in Lebanon but has lived in Seattle since 1994) discusses the shift in awareness toward his company in recent months.

"The first couple of days after [9/11], the phone fell silent," Sinno explains. "I didn't go to work, I was so upset. And then I came back and the first call we got was from a university; they wanted to put together a forum, and from then on it was unbelievable. I mean, the whole idea of people looking for an answer to the question, 'Why do they hate us that much?'--the famous question--indicates to me a lack of involvement of people in politics. But there was an amazing period of time, a month or two, where people were asking their own questions. They were genuinely trying to find out.... And then the administration at some point framed the question as 'good vs. evil.' And once the thing was phrased in that way, it was pretty much over. And of course, bin Laden made it so easy. What made things even worse was the 'axis of evil' description after the success of the campaign in Afghanistan--which I think was remarkably naive and shortsighted, to say the least."

Sinno pauses, checks his schedule, and chuckles to note that there are films in the festival dealing (albeit obliquely at times) with Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.

"I represent all the countries from the axis of evil," he laughs. "We should really call it the 'Axis of Evil Film Festival.'"

It's a good line, but it brings to mind that running this festival, not to mention a company like AFD, must be a heady enterprise in these days of redoubled anti-Arab sentiments in the ignorant mainstream. I ask if film seems like the best tool to educate people about Arab culture, about which so many of us plainly know so little.

"The problem with Arab Americans and with Arabs in general is that we never got to a point where we were able to kind of present ourselves. All the representations came from Europe, and now they come from Hollywood. I don't know if you've noticed, but the image of Muslims you see on TV is people shouting, stuff like that. Most of the footage from Iran or Iraq is anger, people shouting. It's all terrorists."

As Sinno sees it, the oversimplification that results from this under- representation lies at the heart of the problem.

"What really kind of motivated me to do this," he explains, "was recently, [U.S. Attorney General] Ashcroft was asked about the difference between Islam and Christianity, and he said Islam is a religion by which God asks you to sacrifice your sons for heaven. Whereas Christianity is a faith by which God sacrifices his son. I mean, can it be more simplified than that? I'm basically showing all the advances in science and music and architecture in Muslim culture... there's so much heritage to be held up. And all this is somehow reduced to people committing suicide."

It's refreshing to think of a film festival as a political event.

"It is political," Sinno affirms. "I mean, it has to be. In this country, we run away from politics in cinema; nobody wants to see it. People shy away. It's a general reaction in the culture, and film festivals are part of that culture. But to us, the whole idea of having a film festival from the very beginning, the way the whole company started, was to kind of provide a counter-force, even though it's a tiny force. The more we live, the more we experience, and the more things happen, the more important it becomes. I mean 9/11 made it very important, but I've been saying the same thing for like 10 years, in terms of how important it is to appeal through film or other avenues to other cultures. For Arab Americans, it's a matter of survival now."