For the first time in 13 years, Arab Film Festival filmmakers and actors denied entrance to the U.S.

Gaya Jiji, whose film 'My Favourite Fabric' will be screening at the festival, has been denied entrance into the U.S.

Gaya Jiji, whose film 'My Favourite Fabric' will be screening at the festival, has been denied entrance into the U.S. 'My Favourite Fabric'

Visa woes have put a damper on this year’s Arab Film Festival, an annual celebration of Arab and Arab American made films.

14th Twin Cities Arab Film Festival

St. Anthony Main Theatre
$12 per screening; $25 3-pack tickets; $45 6-pack tickets; $60 festival pass

The four-day celebration, put on by the local Arab American arts organization Mizna at St. Anthony Main, features film screenings as well as Q&As with filmmakers and artists. This year, two artists scheduled to travel to Minneapolis for the festival were denied visas by the U.S. A third faced a delay that essentially meant she was unable to get her visa in time, and according to festival organizers a fourth is still waiting to get his passport back after obtaining his visa.

This is the first time the festival faced outright visa denials. “We haven’t seen this happen in previous years,” says Lana Barkawi, Mizna’s executive and artistic director, “even with visitors from Palestine and Syria.”

In June, the Supreme Court upheld the third version of Trump’s Muslim ban, which essentially placed restrictions on refugees, immigrants, and visa holders from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. 

Some of the artists who were denied visas come from countries that fall under the travel ban, but others don’t. That includes Syrian director Gaya Jiji, whose film, My Favourite Fabric, will be screened at the festival. Jiji is based in Paris, but has a Syrian passport.

“She was anticipating issues with the process,” Barkawi says, who reached out to the Syrian community prior to the festival to find out the likelihood of a visa being approved. “They were not hopeful,” she says.

Jiji’s visa was denied immediately. “She didn’t even have an interview,” Barkawi says.

Another guest Mizna had hoped to bring to the festival was Naila Ayesh, who is the subject of the documentary Naila and the Uprising, which takes place in Gaza in 1987. The American-based producer of the film has been trying to get Ayesh to come on tour with the film since last spring.

“It’s not surprising she was denied, but we thought we’d try,” Barkawi says, adding that Ayesh has been able to travel to Toronto for a film festival there.

Meanwhile, Yasmin Raeis is a famous Egyptian actress who appears in three of the films that will be screened in the festival. Egypt isn’t one of the banned countries, and Mizna was able to bring two Egyptian artists in for the festival last year. Still, Raeis faces lengthy delays in her visa process.

“They scheduled an interview for a date after our festival takes place,” Barkawi says.

Hakar Abdulqader, who like Raeis doesn’t come from a banned country (he is an Iraqi Kurdish director), hasn't received word on his visa approval, and is still waiting to get his passport back from the embassy.

“They must have kept his passport while his visa was being processed,” Barkawi says. “He can’t travel without it.”

Barkawi believes that the restrictive climate against people hoping to travel to the U.S. from Muslim countries hurts the artists, but also the audiences. They’ve tried live streaming in the past when there has been a scheduling conflict, but that’s not a perfect solution.

“They are a little bit complicated technically,” she says. “And it’s not always the greatest experience for the audience.”

While the visa issue has been an unfortunate problem to deal with, the festival is going full steam ahead, and there’s plenty to be excited about in this year’s lineup.

Festival director Michelle Baroody notes that this year’s event features more women filmmakers than men.

“[There are] a lot of films coming from the perspective of women,” she says. “They are taking up issues such as women’s sexuality, women’s bodies… it’s really exciting.”

Many of the films in the festival address the 70th anniversary of “Nakba,” or “disaster,” when 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled their homes in the wake of the Palestinian war. Baroody says that the festival will highlight Palestinian filmmakers. There will also be discussions covering how Palestinians are responding to the displacement of Syrian refugees.

Baroody believes the current political climate will be prevalent in talks scheduled throughout the weekend. “Usually people are talking about their films, and the conditions of their work,” she says. “Now conversations will be about how the current political climate is even affecting a film festival.”

The Arab American Film Festival takes place Thursday through Sunday at St. Anthony Main. Opening night features Capernaum by Nadine Labaki, followed by a performance by local multidisciplinary artist Dua, music by DJ Yasmeenah, and food from Zakia Deli. Details can be found here.