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Mizna’s 2023 Twin Cities Arab Film Festival Spotlights Palestine and Morocco

One of the largest and longest running Arab film festivals in the Midwest remains a vital platform for regional and diasporic filmmakers.

A scene from ‘A Gaza Weekend,’ the 2023 Twin Cities Arab Film Festival’s closing night film.

The Twin Cities Arab Film Festival has never ignored the real world events occurring outside movie theaters. Locally based arts organization Mizna began the fest at Intermedia Arts in 2003, the same year the U.S. invaded Iraq. Twenty years later, the festival’s programming acknowledges both the 75th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, which caused the mass displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people, as well as the recent 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Marrakech, Morocco, that killed more than 2,000 people.

As it prepares for its 17th festival (though it has been around for two decades, the fest wasn’t always annual), Mizna, perhaps best known for the eponymous literary journal it has published since 1999, sees its role as a platform for showcasing talents that are otherwise overlooked, says the organization’s executive and artistic director, Lana Barkawi.

“Mizna’s approach to the film festival is to showcase indie film productions, and serve as an outlet for the exciting, fresh, complex creative work that is happening from filmmakers in the SWANA [Southwest Asian and North African] region, and in diaspora.”

The opening and closing films both examine the lives of Palestinians. The festival opens tonight at the Walker with Maha Haj’s Mediterranean Fever, a Cannes favorite set in Haifa. And the closing film, directed by Basil Khalil, is A Gaza Weekend, which Barkawi calls “a funny, absurdist take on the occupation of Palestine.” (That pay-what-you-can screening will occur under the Third Avenue bridge, across from the Main Cinema.) The festival will also present restored archival Palestinian films that explore Arab solidarity movements of the ’60s and ’70s. 

Although the film selections were made before the earthquake, another focus of this year’s festival—Morocco—has become sadly appropriate. Queens follows three women on the run from police, a sort of SWANA take on Thelma & Louise, with stunning shots of the Atlas Mountains and Atlantic Ocean. Another film, Fragments from Heaven, screening at the Bell Museum, will be accompanied with a view of the night sky above Morocco and the U.S.

The narrative and documentary feature films are the main draw for festivals like this, and some of Mizna’s picks are premiering for the first time stateside. But Mizna has also put in special work to showcase plenty of short films as well.

“Knowing that short films can often come second in film festival programming, these segments include some of the most compelling themes in this year’s festival,” says Mizna’s film programming curator Michelle Baroody. “These short film segments tackle real issues––like climate change, displacement, and ongoing military violence––in playful and inventive ways.” 

Among the highlights, according to Baroody, are Meriam Bennani’s Life on the CAPS trilogy, which focuses on the topic of teleportation and illegal immigration. Additionally, a short film segment on Sunday called Love and Diaspora looks at the complexity of living in dispersed locales and emphasizes the importance of relationships with friends and family.

As it has in recent years, the festival will continue to offer online screenings. And as a special treat, the opening and closing nights will be catered by none other than Baba’s.

Though the films presented will certainly provide attendees with insight into the lives of Arabs worldwide, for Barkawi, the mission of the festival is less to educate than to celebrate. 

“Our communities are too often burdened by having to perform a role of bridge-builders or cultural liaisons,” Barkawi says. “Through Mizna, our approach is to showcase critical, vibrant work and let the art speak for itself."

Mizna 2023 Arab Film Festival
When: September 27-October 1
Where: The Main Cinema (with off-site screenings at Walker Art Center, Bell Museum, and the Third Avenue Bridge across from The Main)
Tickets: More info here.

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