In the Middle East, Films Tell Stories That Bridge Divides

An international film exchange program fosters diplomacy through storytelling.

Film Independent President Josh Welsh and Global Media Makers fellows Amin Dora, Asma Beseiso, and Hüseyin Karabey (from left) speak at the Global Media Makers panel during the Los Angeles Film Festival at ArcLight Cinemas Culver City in Culver City, California, on June 2. (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Jun 4, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

When he was screening his first feature in theaters, Hüseyin Karabey recalls, audience members would laugh or become emotional as the movie played. Many came up to him afterward to say, “You just told my story.”

That’s the reaction filmmakers hope for, but it was all the more surprising to Karabey because audiences were experiencing the story through subtitles.

“At the end, we are all human beings,” Karabey said Thursday night at a panel, “Storytelling From the Inside Out,” held at ArcLight Cinemas Culver City in Culver City, California, as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival. It’s easy to miss comic timing or decipher an obscure political reference in comedy translated from another language. But despite challenges in converting colloquialisms, the Turkish filmmaker found his stories struck a chord with audiences outside his home country.

Karabey is one of 14 filmmakers who have spent the past five weeks in Los Angeles as part of the Global Media Makers program, which connects filmmakers from around the world with leading industry professionals, including Ava DuVernay (Selma), Alan Poul (True Blood), and Effie Brown (Dear White People), who serve as mentors.

The program is a collaboration between the U.S. Department of State and Film Independent, the nonprofit arts organization that produces the Los Angeles Film Festival. In its inaugural year, the program selected filmmakers primarily from the Middle East and Turkey. Its goal is to promote diplomacy through art by creating films that break down stereotypes and foster empathy.

“[Film] is an international language that transcends politics,” Mary Sweeney, chair of the board of directors of Film Independent and a professor at the University of Southern California, told TakePart. Sweeney, who spearheaded the project, is known for her work as an editor and writer on films such as Mulholland Dr. and The Straight Story.

“When I sit down with these guys, it’s the same as sitting down with my students at USC,” Sweeney said of her time workshopping scripts from two fellows from Lebanon. “We’re focusing on art…. We’re focusing on making the story and the characters. We leave everything else out, like genuine artists do.”

That sentiment of creating art first rang clear at Thursday night’s panel. When moderator and Film Independent President Josh Welsh asked whether the fellows intended to make political or controversial films, the answer was a resounding no.

“I don’t do political movies,” said Karabey, whose work has featured depictions of human rights violations against the Kurds, an ethnic minority, in Turkey. “I do what I see.” He has spent the past month in L.A. working on a film about the 1971 Turkish coup d’état in which authorities arrested progressive students. Other fellows are working on buddy comedies, documentaries about prominent Arab activists, and a love story set in the Gaza Strip.

As the Global Media Maker fellows expressed gratitude for what they learned in the program, some also said Hollywood bigwigs could benefit from working in their part of the world.

“[You can learn] how to be a one-man show,” said Amin Dora, a fellow from Lebanon, ticking off his list of tasks, from editing to directing to acting. Dora added that while Angelenos may tire of seeing yet another film crew blocking traffic in their neighborhood, people in Lebanon get excited about moviemaking and often offer their help, turning filmmaking into a communal project.

“The program gave us an insider look on American culture,” Dora said. “Now it’s your turn to come and have the insider look.”