SWANA Film Festival: Images to Move With
Curatorial essay for SWANA Film Festival
School of Art Gallery, University of Manitoba
February 5 to 18, 2021
In the winter of 2018, I participated in an online poetry workshop for MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) and Muslim writers called When the Moon Walks. It was the first time since learning the term QPOC (queer person of colour) that I felt surrounded by community who shared aspects of my cultural identity in such a strong and specific way. During the workshop, someone posted about a SWANA Creators Network Gathering she was co-organizing that was to take place at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit, Michigan that spring. I learned about how the SWANA acronym had been used to replace the popular term MENA, in order to describe the region with more geographic specificity and less colonial, Eurocentric connotations.
When I attended the conference, I stayed in an Airbnb with some people from the SWANA Creators Network Gathering. After a lifetime of yearning for Arab community, these connections were life-affirming and motivating. I have since embraced the SWANA acronym, while being wary of the way identity umbrellas risk oversimplification and the way “SWANA” still ends up being used to create a list of places defined by borders.
Given the opportunity to curate online programming, I wanted to showcase films from the wider region in which I descend from, not in an attempt to conflate the experiences of that region, but to nod to their inherent connectivity, and share the work of artists who create such visceral work to be immersed in, often in the diaspora, and often making visible topics, landscapes, and bodies that have been subjugated.
The SWANA Film Festival includes short films, poetry, and workshops, to gather community and bring overlapping themes and experiences into conversation. Safia Elhillo’s poetry felt like an important way to open both the Week 1 screening and the festival at large. In her poem “Self-Portrait as Map”, Safia asks: “what is a country but the drawing of a line?,” taking a critical stance on borders and governments, and expressing how identities are formed by kinship and resistance.
Week 1’s short film screening, titled Our Longing Extends, represents themes of diaspora, identity, connection, and disconnection. Extracted from Myriam Rey’s Only My Voice, the title poignantly expresses a sense of time (to lengthen), movement (to extend across space, place, or temporality), and collectivity (to invoke shared experience). Often conveyed through a sense of longing, diaspora points to dispossession, displacement, exile, and grief. Diaspora is also characterized by relationality and extending oneself to another, with the whole context of our being.
I arrive at this project as a Lebanese-Canadian settler, who migrated to Treaty 1 Territory, Winnipeg, as a child and has stayed here ever since. I have never been to Lebanon or the SWANA region. I feel a constant sense of displacement, and having grown up with a single parent, I was drawn to films that convey relationships with mothers and relationships with memory and place.
The Week 2 screening, titled We Didn’t Sleep, represents themes of origins, agency, and change. The title comes from a line in Odette Makhlouf’s film The Wall, when one character exclaims, “Bombs or no bombs, we didn’t sleep.” It reminds me of my mom, who explained to me several years ago, the trauma associated with living through war, including being afraid of silence.
Later in Makhlouf’s film, we hear a loud rumble, and the person speaking says that it has started to rain, but it sounds like bombs. When I watched it with my mom, she agreed, and confided in me the fear she has of thunderstorms. Riddled with anxiety, she has spent many sleepless nights trembling in her bed during a thunderstorm. I was shocked and saddened that something that provides me with comfort is a trigger for her PTSD.
In The Wall, many family and neighbourhood members share stories of the concrete wall which they gathered around for protection during Lebanese Civil War—the same war that took my mother’s parents’ lives as a child. As I grapple with understanding my family history and my dreams of an abolitionist queer feminist future (already in the making), I know I must look to the past to understand what has come before. The filmmakers in We Didn’t Sleep contend with histories, borders, and social expectations in order to carve out new futures with agency.
Opening the We Didn’t Sleep screening with poet Hala Alyan’s reading of her work Sleep Study No. 3 exemplifies how, for diasporic people, the course of our lives always comes back to war. The pursuit of rest, pleasure, and fulfillment is always marked by an undercurrent of violence and loss. To intentionally gaze at personal and collective trauma, its origins, and its impacts becomes the necessary pathway to liberation—and often, this too makes us lose sleep.
Through the layered poetics of moving images, Our Longing Extends and We Didn’t Sleep capture the beauty and complications of many SWANA narratives. At a time when it is not safe to gather in person, the online SWANA Film Festival is a gesture of community connection and a reminder of the role artists play in paving way to locate ourselves within joint struggle.