Sunday, February 5, 2017

3rd Toledo International Film Festival: Celebrating Diversity in a Time of Uncertainty

Photo collage: 3rd Annual Toledo International Film Festival program booklet and friends Teddy, Rosemary and Rey at the Ohio Theatre. Small photos at top: Lucas County Commissioner Peter Ujvagi, a founder and major fan of the Film Festival and a photo of a proposed renovation of the historic Ohio Theatre on LaGrange, a neighborhood noted for its immigrant past and its present diversity.

During this time of chaos and intolerance, emanating shockingly from the top of our federal government, a ray of hope shone brightly at the historic Ohio Theatre with the opening of the 3rd International Film Festival last night, 4 February 2017.  

Mariam, played by Oulaya Amamra, and her best friend Fatimata, 
played by Soumaye Bocoum, fabulous actresses new to most of us. 
The father, le pere, was also excellent, played by French actor Ahmed Haiene.

The opening film, Mariam (2016), by Saudi director Faiza Ambah, centers around a teen's search for her own identity and her decision to wear the hijab, the traditional head scarf, to school after a summer pilgrimage to Mecca with her grandmother. "I loved how it made me if God really existed," she tells her best friend. 

Mariam was born in France to Arab parents, her father a secular Muslim and hardworking man serious about his daughter's education. Mariam is equally serious about wearing the veil. Thus the film explores intergenerational themes and issues of social pressures faced by Muslims after France passed a law in 2004 banning the wearing of 'religious symbols' in public schools. Mariam's choice is between wearing the hijab or being expelled from school. The film was awarded a Special Jury Prize at the 2015 Dubai Film Festival.  The subject is thoughtful and timely.

America's present politics under a new regime of right-wing extremists inevitably intruded. After all, the current residents of the White House had recently issued an Executive Order banning people from coming to America from seven Muslim-majority countries, including refugees who are among the most vetted immigrants of all. It also prevented people who had legal VISAs, and it gave priority to Christians. The indiscriminate executive order was promulgated without appropriate consultations, without real knowledge of the nature and diversity of the Muslim world or the sources and causes of terrorism, without regard for context and shifting realities and alliances, without regard for Rule of Law. This order, its Constitutionality questioned, had just been overturned by the Courts, and it was on everyone's minds. 

     Toledoans rally against the Trump/Bannon Executive Order on Feb. 4, 2017, 
the day the International Film Festival opened. 

Toledo is known for its immigrant past, which it honors to this day.  It is a compassionate city, welcoming newcomers from all over the world; the Film Festival is a testament to that. The Toledo area and neighboring Detroit have contemporary immigrant communities rooted in earlier historic migration stories from Europe and also the Middle East.  

I remember the Lebanese community in the late 1960s and 1970s, which gave Toledo great restaurants like the Beirut, featuring Lebanese and Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as talented teachers, doctors, judges and city officials. I worked on a family violence prevention project with Judge Charles Abood, whose contributions to our city knew no bounds. Our family doctors have been from Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, among other Muslim countries.  

The Muslim community and diaspora has since become larger and more diverse. Now we have lots of restaurants, shops, and events.  The established residents are well integrated into Toledo's socio-economic life, and the newcomers, including Afghan and Syrian refugees, are working together and with the City and County to make a new place home. Through volunteering with Water for Ishmael's "conversation partners" program I've met many new refugees whose stories are truly painful and astonishing. I wish everyone heard them, especially those in power now.  A literature teacher told my daughter Elissa and me of the incredible hardships in Syria, death and destruction everywhere, and how hard but how urgent it was to get his family to America and begin a new life free from war.

With this historic and contemporary backdrop, Mariam lit up the big screen and helped illuminate critical contemporary issues. The lively and thoughtful teenager Mariam sticks with her values and principles to the end, through joy and angst, her best friend at her side. In the end, Miriam creates a clever compromise that keeps her in school and maintains her developing identity as a French Muslim woman.  The message for today is heartwarming and hopeful. 

Upcoming Schedule: 
Sat. Feb. 11 
5;00pm Dhanak (India)
8:00pm Hunt for the Wilderpeople (New Zealand)

Sat. Feb. 18
5:00pm Who is Dayani Cristal (Mexico/USA) 
8:00pm Ixcanul/Volcano (Guatemala)  

Thanks to the Lucas County Commissioners and the Welcome TLC initiative, a collaboration of community partners working to build a welcoming and inclusive community for immigrants, refugees, and people of diverse cultures. Thanks to the historic Ohio Theatre, 3114 Lagrange Street, and Sarah Allan, Brittany Ford, Kim Sanchez and lots of dedicated workers and volunteers who plan and organize the annual film festival program.  Kudos to the designer/creators of the great program brochure for this 3rd festival! 

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