Cultural Awakening 

The VCU Arabic Film Festival promises to open viewers' eyes.

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"We hope to open minds about the Middle East and expose our community to a people and culture in a way that they may have not been exposed to before," festival co-director Hanan Abed says. "Film can be very compelling, and we hope to use the festival to change misconceptions and stereotypes."

Representative of issues of Arab life not often (if ever) addressed by media coverage, the festival's films hail from a variety of areas: Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, West Bank and Chad.

"Filmmakers are artists after all, and art imitates life," Abed says. "The subjects of many films produced in the Middle East are small, personal stories set in a context of major national conflict."

From the 2006 Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary, "Iraq in Fragments," to "All About Darfur," it will prove difficult to leave the festival without gaining new insight.

"We are keeping with the tradition and spirit of previous years," Abed says, "but this year we have more critically acclaimed films, films that have won awards at international film festivals."

Dramas and comedies include the international film festival favorite "The Syrian Bride," a digital remaster of the 1959 Egyptian film "Struggle on the Nile," starring Omar Sharif, and the Oscar-nominated drama "Paradise Now."

Festival organizers have added a question-and-answer session with VCU and Randolph-Macon College professors following several of the films. With a bent toward offering a different perspective on the Arabic culture, this year's film, like in years past, will no doubt open some eyes. S

The VCU Arabic Film Festival starts Sept. 22 at 6 p.m. and continues Sept. 23 starting at 11 a.m. Call 828-2020 or visit www.arabicfilmfestival.com. Admission is free; tickets will be handed out at the door. All films have English subtitles.

A Taste of What's Showing

"The Syrian Bride"

Wedding-day worries usually include rain showers or the prospect of a drunken wedding toast. The premise of "The Syrian Bride" is more like "Wedding Survivor." Mona (Clara Khoury) is marrying a man she's seen only on television (a Syrian sitcom star). She must cross the border from her home in the Golan Heights to Syria to marry him and will, thus, never see her family again because of travel restrictions between Syria and Israel. Director Eran Riklis finds humor and warmth even in the most emotionally harrowing of situations, from pro-Syrian street protests to internal family struggles and political tumult along the Syrian-Israeli border. "Syrian Bride" is not only an engaging and enjoyable film but also an education in geopolitics to boot. The film's colorful cast of solid actors — including a stubborn father, a headstrong daughter, a burned-out Israeli general and a stressed-out UN worker — paint a complex and human portrait of the struggles of identity in the Golan Heights. (Not Rated) 97 min. *** — S.O.

"Iraq in Fragments"It's no wonder this film walked away with the Best Documentary Cinematography award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. If Steven Soderbergh were to make a documentary, it might very well look like this. Broken into three acts to capture the perspective on the current state of Iraq from Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish viewpoints, the film's images speak for the lack of editorial comment and pack an emotional punch. From the images of Iraq we have come to expect (the rubble of Baghdad, helicopters and U.S. troops) to that which we rarely see (militia raids and a snapshot of the life of Kurdish farmers), it's as if director James Longley's camera is racing to capture history quickly unfolding. After spending three years in Iraq, Longley had the rare opportunity to gain understanding of the images he put on film. "Iraq in Fragments" captures this understanding with a bird's-eye perspective that is both breathtaking and terrifying. (Not Rated) 94 min. **** — S.O.

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