"Egyptian Maidens" will be part of the Arab Film Festival in… (Arab Film Festival, Arab…)
Eight months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt continues to grapple with the revolution's aftermath as it prepares for parliamentary elections next month.
But at this year's Arab Film Festival, which opens Friday at the Writers Guild of America theater in Beverly Hills, it will be pre-revolutionary Egypt that appears on the screen.
In "The Birds of the Nile," a man from a small village moves to Cairo in search of a better life but runs up against the disintegrating structures of Egyptian society. Another Egyptian film, "The Ring Road," tells the story of a man trying to save his daughter's life while struggling against the country's endemic corruption.
"Egyptian Maidens," about two unmarried women, sheds light on the daily struggles and mounting frustrations of many Egyptians.
Other festival offerings from Tunisia, Jordan and Iraq reflect similar undercurrents of anger that erupted into mass protests that spread across the Arab world this year.
"Basically, [these are] films that will take you to the eve of the revolution," said Michel Shehadah, executive director of the festival, which opened Oct. 13 in San Francisco and runs through Sunday in Los Angeles. "By the time you watch the films, you will say, 'Oh, now I understand why it happened.'"
Some analysts expressed surprise at the depth of public anger in Egypt and elsewhere after the protests began, but recent films, music and literature coming out of the Middle East had signaled the growing unrest, Shehadah said.
"I keep saying that if people had been coming to the Arab Film Festival, they wouldn't be surprised at all," he said.
Now in its 15th year (and fifth in Los Angeles), the West Coast festival presents films and documentaries from the Arab world or by Arab filmmakers. The goal is to provide perspectives from Arabs as an alternative to what organizers deem stereotypical portrayals of them in mainstream media. That includes giving a more nuanced picture of what life is like in the region, including deepening discontent and demands for change.
The frustrations of Arab societies are also apparent in underground and other music from the region.
Rappers and heavy metal bands for years have, in their songs, questioned and challenged the political status quo, said Mark LeVine, a history professor at UC Irvine and author of the book "Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam."
"They reflected a certain situation, and that's what makes artists unique," he said. "They can distill it into sounds and images that other people can't do, and that helps clarify what is at stake."
Camille Alick, a member of the film festival's board of directors, said policymakers in the region and outside it often ignored the arts. "But that is the experience, that is what's going on and that is what eventually translates to current events," she said.
The revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere have prompted questions about how observers could think they understood a whole society by listening only to the government, said Cynthia Schneider, who leads the arts and culture initiative at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
Those who did so believed Egypt was stable, Schneider said. "But underneath that extreme suppression and repression was discontent and misery at every level of the population," she said.
That was well chronicled in the 2002 bestselling Egyptian novel "The Yacoubian Building" by Alaa Al Aswany. The book, made into a film, tells of the growing alienation among the residents of a single building in Cairo, each of whom encounters the city's corruption.
"These films provide an indispensable window into life in these countries," Schneider said.