I am sitting at a table in a quaint French café tucked away in a back street of chic West London, where I am joined by Mohsin Lahkim, Director of Development and co-founder of the first London MENA film festival.
Confidently spoken and altogether amiable, it would be easy to forget that Mohsin is just 27 years old. But despite his age, Mohsin already has an admirable host of strings to his bow. With a career in publishing, Mohsin is also a budding entrepreneur, a keen humanitarian, comedy writer, and of course one of the driving forces behind the London MENA film festival. It’s about the film festival that I am here to talk about with Mohsin today.
The London MENA film festival was launched in 2011 by Mohsin alongside co-founder Yasmin El Derby, an academic and producer who is responsible for the festival’s programming and artistic development. The pair decided to start the festival in response to the lack of Arabic cinema available in London. “One day, we decided to Google search Arabic film in London and surprisingly nothing came up,” says Mohsin. “That was basically the inspiration if you want to look at it simply. Of course, we both had a strong cultural and artistic inclination towards setting up such a festival, but the lack of Arab cinema here was the starting point.”
Critically acclaimed, the inaugural festival was held in October 2011 over four days at two London venues and showcased films by known and emerging Arab talent from across the region. Aiming to build on last year’s success, the festival’s organisers are planning something even bigger and better for 2012. “This year, we’re looking to showcase up to sixteen films. Even though the festival has grown in size, already, the preparations for this year’s festival feel very different,” says Mohsin. “Last year we did not have a location until two weeks prior. By this June we already had four venues lined up. We are also planning a lot supporting events that are going to broaden the MENA film festival concept such as a talk hosted by think tank, Chatham House where we explore how media has played a role in the region, as well as a networking session which is going to be sponsored by the Middle East Association”.
Born in London to Moroccan immigrants from Meknes, Mohsin grew up in the West London neighbourhood of Ladbroke Grove, a stone’s throw away from the world famous Portobello Road. “The Moroccan ghetto”, he jokes. For most second and third generation minority ethnic young people growing up in the multicultural patchwork that is London today, issues of contested and fragmented identity, belonging, and grappling with where is ‘home’ are an inevitable part of the process of coming of age. Mohsin was no exception and these themes have helped to inform his current projects, providing one of the inspirations behind his involvement with the London MENA film festival.
Taking this as my cue, I ask Mohsin about the role of the London MENA film festival in bringing together the diaspora of the MENA region. “One of the aims of the festival was to connect the MENA diaspora in the UK with each other and the region. In the UK, many second generation Arabs are exclusively socialised with the country of their parents, but for our launch in 2011, it was great to see a real mix of people with connections all over the region…people from places like Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Yemen, Tunisia, UAE, Iraq and even Sudan. Having a neutral, artistic vehicle can be more important than any other kind of political or commercial vehicle in bringing us together. There is an element of freedom of expression and a lack of judgement in film. Film is also one of the uniting factors, basically showcasing our habits, mannerisms and culture, which connect the region. I see our film festival as one element of the cultural map.”
Cultural transfer has always been a fact but south to north immigration and other persistent effects of the relationship between the colony and the metropole have led to specific types of linkages that have opened up fresh and exciting new ground in the arts. One manifestation of this is the unique perspective and influences dual culture artists and performers (musicians such as MIA and Asian Dub Foundation, and comedians such as Omid Djalili and Ahmed Ahmed) can bring into their work through either their own or their parents’ experiences of immigration. For Mohsin these contemporary forms of cultural hybridity have a strong personal salience, and represent an interesting direction for Arab cinema. “This cross-cultural borrowing and connection is something that has informed a lot of contemporary Arab cinema. A lot of films still lean towards traditional subjects, which are explored well. For example political themes, particularly the Occupation, dominate Palestinian cinema, while a lot of Egyptian films centre on love – I mean, there’s got to be a reason why there’s over 80 million of them…” Mohsin stops mid-sentence, as we both descend into laughter for several minutes and I wonder how to get the interview back. Fortunately, Mohsin resumes his train of thought. “However, something different that I find particularly fascinating right now is the cross connection between Morocco and France in film, where things are being expressed not necessarily through Moroccan eyes but French-Moroccan eyes; where Moroccans are no longer playing ‘Moroccans’ but rather playing characters.”
“These kind of cross-connections were explored in many of the films that we showcased in last year’s festival and I think it was especially apt for the audience and the setting of the festival. For example, we showed the documentary Just Like Us by Egyptian-American comedy actor Ahmed Ahmed, which takes us on a journey through four cities to look for cultural commonalities through comedy, while Miriam Al Serkal’s London in a Headscarf was a portrayal of her own story as a young Emirati woman in London, who faced with the choice of submerging herself into her newfound cultural surroundings or reasserting her own cultural identity, goes on a journey of self-discovery that ultimately leads to a strengthening of her attachment to her native United Arab Emirates.”
With the continuous emergence of promising of new talent such as Al Serkal, the Arab film scene has blossomed in recent years, supported by investments from bodies such as the Doha Film Institute, the Dubai Film Festival and the Royal Film Commission in Jordan. However, Arab film is still plagued by some of the issues that affect the region more broadly, among which is censorship, both at the level of what can be filmed and what can be shown, as certain films have been banned for what would seem to be ostensibly political and religious reasons.
As I broach the topic with Mohsin, he smiles wryly. “Yes, censorship is one of those sensitive issues that divides even those of us working in film. Fortunately this is not something we have had to deal with in the context of the London festival but I think that a degree of self-censorship must come into play if we want our work to be accessible to a wide public in the region. Whether this is right or wrong; that’s the reality, and film-makers are often faced with the difficult choice of being artistically ‘free’ and risking their work being censored or even banned, or to take the decision to self-censor. There can however, be clever ways to self-censor which allow filmmakers to find implicit ways of exploring sensitive topics.”
“Having said this, there is definitely a role for film to explore taboo subjects and the onus is on the directors to push the boundaries. During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s we saw this happening in the UK for instance, primarily through independent cinema.”
It’s clear that the London MENA Film Festival is aiming to be much more than just a forum to show films and Mohsin’s boundless enthusiasm is impossible to miss. The organisers hope that the film festival will not only be the go-to place in Europe to watch Arab cinema, but Mohsin also eventually hopes to branch out into distribution and production. “And while we’re on the subject of festivals,” adds Mohsin, “I might even create an art festival, a music festival and a food festival. Why stop at film?” Indeed, why stop at film. If the success of the first MENA film festival is anything to go by, those in London aching for a bigger slice of Arab culture will have a lot to look forward to.
The 2012 London MENA film festival will take place at venues across London between Thursday 25 October and Friday 2 November. You can read more about this year’s festival at http://menafilmfest.com/#/the-festival-2012/.