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Childhood friends S. (Slimane Benouari) and Lotfi (Lyès Salem) travel through the Algerian desert looking for Abou Leila, a dangerous terrorist on the run in Abou Leila.Thala Films

Most film festivals adapted to a virtual environment over the past year. But the Toronto Arab Film Festival was born in it, moulded by it. Its first edition was held last July, after the first lockdown. This year, organizers are better prepared for the second edition, taking place at the end of May.

The festival is put on by Toronto Arab Film (TAF), a non-profit organization started in 2017 to bring films from and about the Arab world to audiences in the city. For the first three years, TAF focused on its Layali El Cinema initiative, programming year-round screenings of Arab films. The next objective was to launch its Mahrajan – an annual film festival – in March, 2020, but the pandemic disrupted that plan.

“We were working on it for three years,” says Rolla Tahir, TAF’s co-founder and artistic director. “So we decided to just go ahead with it. Obviously the shift happened very fast and nobody quite knew what the best way to go about holding a festival online was.”

The main issue TAF faced was that many film distributors had concerns about piracy when it came to showing their movies online. Tahir says ultimately 85 per cent of the films originally selected were shown during the festival.

“Our expectations were honestly low, and we were surprised at how many people tuned in,” she says. “It was helpful that the films were available globally. So we had audiences from outside Canada tuning in as well.”

Although buoyed by the success of the debut edition of the festival, Tahir says the organizers knew this year might prove just as challenging.

“We planned for a virtual festival, with a physical festival being the contingency plan,” she says.

That meant partnering with the Images Festival, an event dedicated to experimental film, to upgrade their equipment and shifting from Vimeo Livestream to Eventive, a streaming platform specifically designed for a virtual cinema experience. However, no amount of technological transformation within a film festival would matter if the filmmakers involved weren’t submitting new works during a pandemic.

“We thought it was going to be challenging [to get submissions], but it wasn’t. People were making movies, and very creatively too,” says Tahir.

The festival lineup has three feature-length films and 17 shorts; it is supplemented by two workshops and a panel discussion on speculative storytelling in Arab cinema.

“We got the same number of submissions as last year,” says Tahir, though she notes many of the themes of the 2021 entries reflect the global upheaval brought about by the pandemic. “Some of the short films, for example, deal with themes like isolation and distancing.”

This year saw an increase in short-film submissions from Canada as well as submissions of feature films in general. Tahir hopes that next year’s festival will showcase Canadian feature films for the first time.

But until then, audiences at this year’s edition can enjoy Amin Sidi-Boumédiène’s debut feature, Abou Leila, a genre-blending thriller set during the Algerian Civil War, which premiered at Cannes Critics’ Week.

The workshops during the festival are part of TAF’s Shabaka initiative, which supports emerging Arab talents through networking and training opportunities.

This year’s festival will see films from Sudan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Qatar, the United States, Belgium, France, Egypt and Canada.

Tahir says that while TAF is keen to expose broader Toronto, and Canadian, audiences to Arab cinema, there is a reason why organizers are working hard to attract the Arab diaspora as well.

“There is a celebratory aspect that is lost when a lot of immigrants come here. Something to relish in your culture, celebrate it ... and exist in a different way than how you normally see yourself represented in the media.”

The Toronto Arab Film Festival runs from May 27 to May 30 (https://taf.eventive.org/films)

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