The Middle Eastern Film Festival runs from Thu 07 – Thu 21 Feb at the Edinburgh Filmhouse. Callum Madge catches up with the festival programmer James McKenzie.

I interview James McKenzie in the offices of his actual job, running Screen Education Edinburgh. He is immediately welcoming and even gives me a tour of the premises once the interview has concluded. McKenzie has been programming the Middle Eastern Film Festival (MEFF) for nearly twenty years and hopes to continue doing so for many years to come. This year’s MEFF is playing nineteen films from a variety of locations.

Each year the MEFF concentrates on films from particular areas of the Middle East, previous years seasons including Kurdish (2012), Turkish (2011) and Egyptian (2010), while some films not from the main body are selected from other areas. The selection process for the season happens about two or three years in advance and this year’s MEFF focuses on Israel and Palestine, “Originally we thought about looking at Palestine through Israeli cinema but when you look into it in more detail that’s not really a goer.” says McKenzie, “Palestinian cinema doesn’t really exist in the same way that Israeli cinema does, it’s not balanced. So we thought lets look at the conflict through the eyes of Palestinian and Israeli filmmakers and I think that’s a much better way of looking at it.” Despite having already done a focus on Iran there’s also selection of Iranian cinema on offer, coinciding with the Edinburgh Iranian Festival. “Iranian cinema’s still pretty lively and a lot of the filmmakers we’ve highlighted in the previous season are still making films so we thought why don’t we just do a purely contemporary selection of films.” There is a conscious decision not to show films that have already had a public run so as to maximise the likelihood of showing audiences something they won’t have seen before.

For both the Iranian and Palestinian/Israeli sets McKenzie tries to give a balance in the films he selects. “You kind of do it intuitively.” says McKenzie, “You wouldn’t show a bad film but you always get a balance. Sometimes if the balance isn’t right, if you’ve got too many dramatic films in one strand, you balance it up somewhere else in the programme, so don’t look for so many dramas in the other strands but in general you want to keep it nice and balanced and I think we’ve achieved that.” This year’s MEFF sees a range of comedy, drama and documentary so that it has appeal with all audiences. “For the Palestinian/Israeli one, we we’re very careful to have a balance of some quite nice gentle films, like Lemon Tree, and the sort of more experimental, harder films like Divine Intervention.” Although McKenzie has previously had to find the balance in genre and accessibility for the audiences in the films he chooses, a focus of Israeli and Palestinian films however holds an altogether more controversial balancing act. “What we’ve tried to do is take what we think are the best films, in terms of history and then look at how other people frame these sorts of programmes.” says McKenzie, “My general view for programming is that the films themselves should stand up either historically or aesthetically. I think it’s okay to put a film on if it’s of historical significance that’s perhaps not as good as the other films because it’s important to get the context. Obviously if it was propaganda that would have to be something that you think about very carefully.”

Glancing through Western portrayals of the Middle East (Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty, Four Lions) it’s easy to see how the stereotype of all Arabs being terrorists still survives. Festivals like this really help to dissolve this belief and play an integral role in improving Caucasian preconceptions of Arabs. “I think they’re very important actually because one thing that I’ve found over the years of watching films is that actually we are all the same, we’re all human beings. The emotions that drive someone in Iran are the same as the emotions that drive someone anywhere else.” says McKenzie “Although that’s obvious, it’s important to reiterate that because I think if you look at the news you would think everybody in Iran is a fanatic and that’s just not the case.” Western media outlets often show a very polarised view of the Middle East with agencies like Al Jazeera helping to dispel some of the more outlandish stories from Fox News. “I think these films give you a better feel of the Middle East [than the media], they give you a balanced view of it. They let you understand how it’s come about, the thinking processes that have lead them on that journey. The press might demonise something, the film will show you the context.”

Having concentrated on nearly all of the countries and peoples found in the Middle East, McKenzie faces the problem of where to go next. “I think what we might do is regions, we might look at North Africa. I think it would be valid to look at some of the ex-Soviet bloc, places like Kurdistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan because they’re kind of seen as part of the Middle East.” The MEFF relies heavily on funding to buy the rights to the films, of which a large proportion comes from Creative Scotland. “Without that money you wouldn’t have an Iranian section because you have to clear all the rights, half the Palestinian films wouldn’t be there and you wouldn’t be able to show God’s Horses or The Repentant”. Happily though Creative Scotland are still donating generously however because of the MEFF’s closeness to the Glasgow Film Festival, there isn’t really any scope to expand it over to Glasgow. Despite this there have been times when the MEFF has been shown outside of Edinburgh. “We’ve had some Egyptian films playing in Fife and we’ve played some films in the Bo’ness hippodrome and we would do that again. We’re talking about [branching out] but at the end of the day it’s up to the cinemas whether they want those films. It would be a good thing to do.”

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