SWANA Film Festival is a free two-week online film festival featuring short films, poetry, and workshops. SWANA Film Festival showcases Southwest Asian and North African creativity on screen to speak to themes of diaspora, dis/connection, agency, and change.
Image designs by Cyrah Dardas.
Presented with the support of the Government of Canada through the Young Canada Works program, Building Careers in Heritage.
Facilitated on Zoom. Open to SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African) people everywhere.
Registration required; space is limited.
Contact email@example.com or follow provided links to register.
Images to Move With
by Christina Hajjar
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.
Christina Hajjar, Curator
Christina Hajjar is a queer femme first-generation Lebanese-Canadian artist, writer, and cultural worker. Her artistic and curatorial interests deal with diaspora, defiance, body archives, cultural artifacts, food, translation, labour, and space/place. Hajjar is a 2020-2021 recipient of the Foundation Mentorship Program at Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art as well as a 2020 PLATFORM Photography Award winner. She is co-founder of Carnation Zine—Vol 2 (Pleasure) forthcoming—and recently published a solo zine, Diaspora Daughter, Diaspora Dyke. To learn more and connect, visit https://christinahajjar.com/.
The curation of the SWANA Film Festival took place in Treaty 1 Territory, Winnipeg, Manitoba, so-called “Canada,” where the School of Art, University of Manitoba is located. These are the original lands of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation. It is not lost on me that while this program contends with SWANA narratives of diaspora and displacement, I and many other SWANA people here are also responsible for the displacement of Indigenous peoples on this stolen land we occupy. I am invested in a critical relationship with home, space, and land, acknowledging the ways in which white supremacy is a transnational project that harms SWANA people at varying degrees and makes those of us in the diaspora who are non-Indigenous and non-Black complicit in the settler project, even despite exile or forced and coerced displacement.
I would like to extend my gratitude to my partner, Crystal for her constant critical attention, care, and assistance; her companionship while watching many of these films, and her love to fuel this work. Thank you to my mom and sister who are an undercurrent in everything I do, making me the person I am today and sharing so generously. My friend and mentor through Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA), Nasrin Himada was also integral to this work through our discussions and affinities shared in the topics of this program, as well as introducing me to Mona Hatoum’s work and other essential resources. Thank you to Ananas Mustafa who co-coordinated the SWANA Creators Network Gathering with some much care and intention. Thank you to WNDX Festival of Moving Image (where I first watched Saif Alsaegh’s work) for sharing resources and for being the first film festival I ever attended, inspiring an interest in film—especially co-director and friend Hagere Selam ‘shimby’ Zegeye-Gebrehiwot. I am grateful to WNDX, Gallery 1C03 (with Noor Bhangu), Habibi Collective, aflamuna, Mizna, and Arab Film Fest Collab where I first watched some of the films in this program.
Thank you to artist Cyrah Dardas for the stunning promotional images created, which expand my imagination on the program. A huge thank you to the School of Art staff Donna Jones, Ciel Caudle, Jean Borbridge, C.W. Brooks, Trevor Baziuk, Cailyn Harrison, Carlos Dimawala, and Director/Curator Blair Fornwald for making this film festival possible. Thank you to Blair for her consistent guidance, critical attention, trust, and support. My curatorial internship was made possible by the Government of Canada through the Young Canada Works program, Building Careers in Heritage.
Finally, thank you to the filmmakers Sufian Abulohom, Mona Hatoum, Saif Alsaegh, Myriam Rey, Suha Araj, Odette Makhlouf, Sophie Sabet, and Issraa Elkogali Häggström; poets Safia Elhillo and Hala Alyan; and workshop facilitators Sophie Sabet and Levon Kafafian who have all contributed their creative labour to create a fantastic SWANA Film Festival program to gather around and be moved.
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