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  • ALFILM Festival director Pascale Fakhry: “We’ve always found each other in our cinemas”


ALFILM Festival director Pascale Fakhry: “We’ve always found each other in our cinemas”

We spoke to Pascale Fakhry, director of ALFILM Festival (which opens April 24) about this year's programme and how cinematic discussion can foster peaceful change.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Pascale Fakhry has been at the forefront of showcasing Arab cinema in Berlin for a long time. She’s been involved in the city’s ALFILM Festival, an annual week-long celebration of Arab-centric films and filmmaking, since its founding in 2009. Now in its 15th year, the festival delivers a diverse and exciting lineup of film screenings – many of which are premieres – plus talks and panel discussions. Fakhry took the reins as the festival’s artistic director in 2020, then became the director in 2022, leading the curation of thematic programming that tackles important topics in the Arab world, cinema and beyond.

Tell me about the festival. What’s its origin story?

It was founded in 2009 by Fadi Abdelnour, Issam Haddad and Claudia Jubeh, two Palestinians and a Lebanese man based in Berlin. The idea behind the festival came from there being very few Arab films showing in Germany. ALFILM came about to bring Arab cinema to Berlin through Arab perspectives, to give a platform for Arab voices and open a dialogue with our audience in Germany. It offers a place where people can discuss these films and these themes and get a different perspective than one that’s offered by mainstream media and public discourse on the Arab world.

I have a perspective which, like Germans’, is linked to my history

How has the festival grown since you started?

The concept behind it has stayed the same. For a very, very long time we had zero funding. Most of us were operating without being paid, so we invested a lot of our own time simply because it was something that was important for us. For the last five years, the festival has been funded, which has allowed us to expand. For instance, in 2015 we moved the biggest part of our programme to Arsenal, which is maybe one of the most important cinemas in Germany. Also, Arabic cinema changed. All these Arab organisations started offering funding opportunities for filmmakers, so the whole Arabic film landscape became more professional. Also the quality – I’m not saying before it was not good, but there were more and more films that were produced that are touring the world. Parallel to all this, the Arab cinematic landscape evolved, so these things brought us somehow to a different level.

And what’s your own origin story?

I moved to Berlin in 2008, I was writing a dissertation at the time at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris. That had nothing to do with the Arab world, but with cinema; I was writing a thesis on the female heroines in horror films. When I finished my thesis, I found myself in a very weird situation where I was living in Germany. I had a residency permit and a work permit for Germany but not for France, where I was doing my PhD. I was getting job offers to begin working in the academic field in France but I couldn’t because I wasn’t granted a work permit! Here in Berlin, I had no network whatsoever in the academic world, so I had to reinvent myself, and I started working on a voluntary basis with ALFILM.

Bye Bye Tiberias (d. Lina Soualem, 2023), screening 24-25 April (more info here).

How is the festival structured?

We have several threads. There’s the ‘Selection’ section, these are contemporary films that are a maximum of two years old. Behind ‘Selection’ are no thematic thoughts per se; the films chosen must meet a criteria of artistic relevance, whether this is political, cultural and or social. The work has to hold up in a solely cinematic sense. And there’s the ‘Spotlight’ section, which is a thematic section that we decide on each year to address the most important topics of the moment. For example, last year, we had a spotlight on Arab cities. This was actually a ‘Spotlight’ intended for the year before, but because the situation in Lebanon in 2022 was so dire, we needed to address the question of Lebanon in that edition, so we moved Arab cities to the year after. This year, the ‘Spotlight’ focus comes out of a need to focus on Palestine in cinema.

Given the tumult in Berlin’s cultural sector right now, do you see this affecting festivals like ALFILM?

It’s not an easy year to have an Arab perspective on events that are taking place right now. It’s not an easy year to do a spotlight on Palestine from a pro-Palestinian perspective and have films that offer a pro-Palestinian discourse in Germany. It’s also not easy to be an Arab right now in Germany, because our perspective is not accepted, it is immediately refused. I mean, I’m Lebanese, I’m not talking to you from a Palestinian perspective. I lived in Lebanon until I was 30 and have witnessed many wars that affected my country, and these wars were often against Israel. I currently don’t have the right to tell my stories and how I feel from my own perspective, because it isn’t accepted because it’s critical of Israel.

Less so than a Palestinian person, but I, too, have lived this war – it’s not something theoretical happening far away from me. I have a perspective which, like Germans’, is linked to my history. But my perspective, linked to my history, is not acceptable because it is asked of me to adopt the perspective of a German person, which is linked to their own history. I’m not here to question the German perspective, or deem it unacceptable, but I’d like my perspective to be listened to as well. I don’t want anyone to absolutely agree with me, but I wish we were in a society in which we were able to discuss our different points of views. And I really hope with the ‘Spotlight’ this edition, people will come and listen to a perspective other than theirs and be able to discuss this perspective in a peaceful and constructive manner.

One could say that it’s the best possible timing for this edition…

Exactly. Our first edition’s focus was Palestinian cinema. We always considered it our role as an Arab film festival to give a platform to Arabs, to Palestinian filmmakers, to tell their stories through their own perspective. We’ve always had a place for this dialogue with our German audience as well as our international and Arab audiences – we’ve always found each other in our cinemas and have been historically able to peacefully and constructively discuss our films with the filmmakers and experts. And we really hope that we will be able to do that at this moment, because this is what is needed right now.

The Burdened (d. Amr Gamal, 2023), screening 26, 30 April (more info here).

Do you see a new generation of Arab filmmakers coming up in Berlin?

From the filmmakers I know around me, there’s a lot studying in the German system, a lot starting their career here in Berlin. The migration situation of Arabs in Germany has changed dramatically in recent years since the Syrian crisis and the Arab Spring, and because of the openness Germany historically has towards refugees. A lot of people came over and changed the face of German migration. So there is a large number of young Arab artists living in Berlin and among them, a large group of filmmakers.

What can we expect at this year’s festival, any highlights?

We have a very rich programme this year. We’re opening the festival with a documentary film called Bye Bye Tiberias [2023] by Lina Soualem, a Palestinian-Algerian-French director. The film tells the story of four generations of women, from her great grandmother to herself, from the Nakba until now. I urge everyone to come and watch this beautiful film. Then there’s The Burdened [2023], a film from Yemen by Amr Gamal, which also screened at the 2023 Berlinale. It explores a former middle-class family that, due to the economical crisis in Yemen, are really struggling financially when the wife gets unexpectedly pregnant, and they can’t afford a fourth child, so even though they are absolute believers, they are forced to go through the decision of having an abortion in an extremely religious and conservative country. It’s a very powerful, real film about these people’s struggles. Also it’s a film from Yemen, which is rare.

We’ve also got a documentary from Iraq, My Lost Country [2022], about a second generation Chilean and her relationship to her country, or rather countries. And the Palestinian ‘Spotlight’ is also a focus on Arab and international filmmakers who are dealing with the question of Palestine’s role within cinema, on how it influenced the history of cinema, for example its incredible influence on the career of someone like Jean-Luc Godard, who saw so much Palestinian cinema. Or the career of someone like Costa-Gavras, whose film Hanna K. [1983] we’ll be showing under this specific lens of investigation to look at Palestine not only as a political issue but for an academic discussion and an exploration on Palestinian cinema that is universal. 

  • ALFILM Festival runs from Apr 24 – 30. Get more info at alfilm.berlin.