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THE BIG MIX : Video : So Many Video Stores, So Many Languages. . . : Middle Eastern Shop Gives Up

The articles on these pages, plus those to follow in daily Calendar, explore the multicultural spheres of Homeland Video.

February 05, 1989|TERRY ATKINSON and TAMMY SIMS

Kamel Sufian is almost synonymous with Middle Eastern video. Even competitors who have just knocked him out of the business say so.

When he started Sufian Co. 10 years ago, Sufian quickly became the dominant distributor of Arabic, Armenian and other Middle Eastern films and video in the United States and Canada.

But now, undermined by international copyright infringement that American authorities seem unable or unwilling to do anything about, he has finally given up.

"I don't know yet what I'll do," he said dejectedly on the phone. "They say there may be a new copyright law soon. Perhaps we can do something after that."

Until the recent closing, the tall, distinguished-looking Sufian ran the shop with his wife, Diana, and other members of the family. Basically one large room with a large storage area in back, the company shared a small shopping plaza on Santa Monica Boulevard in East Hollywood with two bakeries (one Armenian, the other Mexican) and a hair salon.

Even Sufian's chief competitor, Arsen Kalaydjian, whose Arka Video and Records is in an adjacent shopping plaza, commiserated when interviewed a few weeks before Sufian closed shop.

When it comes to international video in Los Angeles, whether it is Middle Eastern, Japanese or Korean--no one is immune to problem of video copying without paying for rights.

As the first and largest distributor of Arabic videos in the United States, Sufian used to purchase the copyrights of more than 1,100 Middle Eastern movies at ane average cost of $5,000 each. He began selling the tapes for about $75 to $80, but then other shops began buying from sources who'd offer the same movies for as little as $7.

Sufian said he tried everything to combat the piracy but that law-enforcement agencies on several levels have been uncooperative, showing little interest in protecting international copyrights. "They will only help the big video companies with piracy. We are too small for them," he said.

"Why," he asked rhetorically, "should (U.S. authorities) protect American films and not me?"

Asked what emotion he felt about the situation, he shrugged and finally said: "I'm angry, but what's the use of my anger?"

He said he has walked into the other shops and accused the owners of being unethical. "But they just say, 'Sue us,' " he said. He has talked to a lawyer about doing just that, but "it would have to be in a civil court, he told me, and it would cost too much money."

Sufian Co. was probably unique in Los Angeles, maybe even in the United States. The store carried a large selection of daily newspapers, magazines, audiocassettes, records, a few compact discs, flags, decals and other material from several Middle Eastern countries, and it was an important center for local Arabic-American residents.

The Sufians had been able to make ends meet with their extensive collection of Arabic music, the most popular being belly dance records. As wholesalers, they continued to supply some other Arabic stores with videos. The shop's own videocassettes, though, had become relegated to the north wall of the large room and to a storage area by late 1988.

In terms of content, Middle Eastern videos range from comedies to drama--love stories and action thrillers. The one thing Sufian never carried was sexual materials. "We never have any pornography in the Arabic countries," Sufian says. "It's not permitted."

Customers were required to show identification and leave a credit card deposit slip in order to rent a video for $2 a day. Aymen Sufian, Kamel's 23-year-old son, said they had to be "picky" in selecting customers because of pirating, and were down to "only about 20 regular customers because we (dealt) with original movies, not copies."

One of those customers was Massat Sabha, 30.

"I want movies because there is nothing to do at night," Sabha said one day before the shop stopped business, as he returned videos to Aymen Sufian.

An immigrant from Jordan, Sabha said his favorite movies are Egyptian action films and dramas. He also enjoys the belly-dance music. "My wife is Mexican and she likes Arabic movies more than American," Sabha said. "I really miss Jordan a lot, but I would never go back to stay."

This special issue was edited by David Fox, Sunday Calendar assistant editor.

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