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Culture alert: Gaza conflict spills over to cinema festivals

Iran’s Fajr International Film Festival has invited Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi as its guest of honor, while, farther west, Palestinian artists are boycotting the Istanbul Film Festival for refusing to drop an Israeli-government-backed sponsor, Art Israel.

April, a month marked by film festivals around the Middle East, will this year also be notable for Saudi Arabia opening its first cinema in 35 years. The American blockbuster “Black Panther” will be the first film screened, premiering in Riyadh on April 18.

Iran for Palestine: For Iranian cinephiles and the film industry, April means the Fajr International Film Festival, whose 36th edition is slated for Tehran, April 19-27. In a gesture of solidarity with the Palestinians, the festival's Broken Olive Branches section will screen films highlighting the Palestinian resistance. In addition, Gazan director Rashid Masharawi, whose films focus on the behind-the-scenes world of the resistance movement, has been invited as the festival's guest of honor, and his 2017 film, “Writing on Snow,” will be screened. The regional lineup also includes documentaries and dramas from Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Turkey and, of course, Iran.

Q&A sessions following screenings will allow viewers to engage with international guests and filmmakers in attendance to discuss their films, with some offering reflections based on firsthand encounters with the violence and heartbreak taking place in war-torn Syria. Movie fans will also have the opportunity to escape contemporary regional politics and take in the classic “Ran,” by Akira Kurosawa, films by the renowned German director Werner Herzog and Britain's Ken Loach and other productions from around the world, including from Korean and Baltic cinema.

Boycott in Istanbul: The Istanbul Film Festival, which opened April 6 and runs through April 17, is taking place amid a boycott by Palestinian artists to protest the presence of Art Israel, an Israeli Foreign Ministry-backed entity, as a sponsor. Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Turkey released a statement on its website in which it said that repeated calls had been made to the festival to drop the Israeli sponsor, but to no avail. The group chastised the Istanbul Culture and Arts Foundation, which organizes the Istanbul Biennial and other major cultural events in Turkey, for accepting Israel's sponsorship despite recent incidents in which Israeli forces have used live ammunition against Palestinians protesting on the Gaza side of the border fence, killing 31 people.

In terms of cinematic offerings, the 37th edition of the film festival brings together a strong selection of films from the Middle East, including “The Home,” by Iranian director Ashgar Yousefinejad, which won the Fajr International Film Festival's Best Film Award in 2017.

Israeli documentaries: Earlier this month, Israel announced the selections for the 20th Docaviv – The Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival, which takes place May 17-26. Israel's only festival dedicated exclusively to documentary films, this year's event features some 120 new local and international productions. The selection includes “The Jewish Underground,” directed by Shai Gal, a political detective thriller that begins with an investigation that leads to the arrest of the members of the Jewish Underground, which had planned to blow up the Dome of the Rock.

Contemporary films in Cairo: The second Cairo Cinema Days, dedicated to showcasing contemporary award-winning films from the Arab world, gets underway April 23, running through April 30, in three venues: the Karim Cinema, Zamalek Cinema and Cimatheque. More than 25 films from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Morocco and Palestine are slated for screening. The genres span the latest in drama to documentaries and shorts. A parallel program of master classes and talks will also be featured.

More turbulence: The Beirut Art Center presents works by the Belgian artist and architect Francis Alys, who explores various zones of turbulence, ranging from meteorological phenomena to geopolitical manifestations, and from a simple knot in hair to an ascending spiral. The exhibition, “Knots’n Dust,” highlights the turbulent nature of Lebanon, a country consumed with its own troubled dynamics while surrounded by endless conflicts and repression and forced to play host to millions of refugees. The exhibition's press release describes Lebanon as a country stuck between memories of a faraway golden age and never ending (re)construction. The exhibition runs until April 22.

Spring means love: The Palestinian Museum, which opened in June 2016 in Bir Zeit, in the West Bank, hosts a new exhibition, “Labor of Love: New Approaches to Palestinian Embroidery,” curated by Rachel Dedman, a Lebanese artist. The exhibition unfolds the history of Palestine by telling little-heard stories through the intimate medium of clothing. Examples include “intifada dresses,” which combine traditional motifs with rifles, maps and political slogans, and the European-style shift dress, delicately embroidered blue silk with traditional detail created as early as 1921. The exhibition runs through Aug. 25.

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