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ArteEast’s Urgent Mission to Save Arab Film

“Facing a world with heightened xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-immigrant rhetoric, ArteEast’s mission is more important now than ever,” says Ellen Brooks Shehata, board president of ArteEast. Founded in 2003, ArteEast is a New York-based cultural institution specializing in Middle Eastern film programming. It is operated by a diverse board with backgrounds in academia, finance, and non-for-profit management, as well as extensive curatorial expertise seeking to strengthen cross-cultural dialogue between the United States and the Middle East. It supports Middle Eastern artists and arts organizations’ engagement with US-based arts communities through exhibitions, educational programming, and artist residencies. “ArteEast’s mission is to support positive narratives about the Middle East as a whole, by promoting and supporting artists and arts practitioners in the region,” continues Brooks Shehata.

At a time when funding for cross-cultural activities is increasingly limited, with organizations scaling back support of arts initiatives, ArtEast is currently the only organization in the New York area promoting the arts and artists of the MENA region. “It motivates us,” says the president, adding, “The movement to showcase the art and artists of the Middle East on a global stage has taken off in the past two decades.”

The ArteArchive project is seeking to undertake the necessary preservation, digitalization, and generation of metadata for the ArteEast’s existing archive of film and video by artists from the Middle East, North Africa, and their diasporas.


Guests at ArteEast’s spring benefit, from left Alexandre Shehata, Walid Nagi, ArteEast Board President Ellen Brooks Shehata, and Syrian artist Rashwan Abdelbaki. Courtesy BFA/ArteEast

For how long has this archive been in the making?
ArteArchive has been developed in parallel to the programming and initiatives of ArteEast since its founding in 2003. In some instances, we now hold the only known remaining copies of films produced in Syria or Iraq. It is, put simply, a tremendous resource that must be preserved.

How many films are in the archive, what are the various mediums, and where are they being stored?
The majority of the over 2,500 works are in DVD format and are currently being housed in ArteEast’s storage space in Long Island City. The films and videos in the ArteArchive include DVD (PAL/NTSC), 35mm, 16mm, Mini DV (PAL), and Digi Beta (PAL) formats. Many of these films are rarely seen outside of the Arab world, including some that were especially restored, re-mastered, and digitized by ArteEast. We have undertaken an initial assessment of a portion of the collection this past year in association with NYU’s Moving Image, Archiving and Preservation Program. Part of why it is so important that we undertake this preservation project is that due to the nature of the materials, they risk being lost or destroyed.

How do you maneuver the intellectual property rights of such an archive?
We were lucky to engage pro bono counsel, who developed an intellectual property guide to the archive, as well as a film license form.

How will the tapes be made available? Will everything be transferred digitally? What system to you anticipate to put into place?
While the format and structure will depend on the scope of the funding we receive, as well as what institutions come forward to partner with us, we envision an archive that is accessible to all global audiences, therefore preserving the important contributions to the art world and artistic discourse of the filmmakers and artists represented in the archive.

We are particularly dedicated to realizing the scholarly potential of this collection, including partnering with educational institutions to make the ArteArchive accessible to faculty, students, and scholars. ArteEast also plans to make selections from the ArteArchive available through a series of public programs, including screenings and talks. The realization of ArteArchive is central to ArteEast’s mission as an organization and its continued impact on the communities it serves.

What timeline are you aiming for to complete the ArteArchive and make it accessible to the public?
We are currently undertaking a fundraising campaign, hoping to have the necessary funds in place by the end of the year, in order to begin the process of digitizing the archive. For us, the sooner the better, but it all depends on fundraising and success of our grant proposals.


Syrian Filmmaker Ossama Mohammed, whose work is featured in ArteArchive and his wife Syrian opera singer Noma Omran at the ArteEast spring benefit. Courtesy BFA/ArteEast

Will subtitles be included? Various languages options?
The ArteArchive includes works in a range of languages including Arabic, English, and French. Some, but not all of the titles are subtitled, mainly into English.

What is the perceived budget for this project?
We have applied for grants in the USD 15,000-100,000 range and have also undertaken a fundraising campaign to engage individual supporters, both in the United States and the Middle East.

In May of this year, we hosted a major benefit in New York City to launch our fundraising goal for ArteArchive, as well as introduce new patrons to ArteEast. The event featured performances by Syrian opera singer Noma Omran and Egyptian musician Nadah Al Shazly, as well as a silent auction hosted on Paddle8 featuring works donated by artists from the region. Given the resounding response to this event, we are hopeful that this campaign will raise the necessary awareness for both ArteArchive, as well as the all of the important work ArteEast does.

Do you have educational programs in place for the future?
In addition to its work on ArteArchive, ArteEast has a long history of facilitating artist talks, screenings, lectures, and events over the course of its existence. We have continued this programming over the past few years focusing on audiences in five boroughs of New York City, hosting programs at Queens Museum, NYU, Columbia University, and MoMA, in many cases screening films from the archive.

In this spirit, it is imperative that ArteArchive be made widely accessible to public audiences, for both academic and entertainment purposes. It will provide a much-needed augmentation of cross-cultural conversations, primary source material for researchers, and allow students to better understand the Middle East and its diasporas.

What are some of the films and actors we can expect to enjoy via this archive?
ArteEast’s film archive consists of materials collected over the course of the organization’s film programming, including the programs The Calm After the Storm: Classic and Contemporary Lebanese Cinema (originally co-presented with the Film Society of Lincoln Center), Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema (ArteEast’s multi-year collaboration with MoMA), and the groundbreaking series Lens on Syria: Thirty Years of Contemporary Cinema (which debuted at Lincoln Center and was presented in over 40 venues worldwide).

In addition to films and videos in the collection, ArteArchive also includes limited-edition publications produced by ArteEast in association with past film programs. These include New Prospects on Ambiguous Grounds: Turkish Cinema Now, produced in conjunction with ArteEast’s screening program Beur is Beautiful published in cooperation with Cineaste and In the Clement Society of Cinema. Beur is Beautiful: Maghrebi-French Filmmaking, featured nine films exploring the theme of beur cinema—a burgeoning trend in French filmmaking reflecting on the legacy of colonialism and the integration of France’s populations of North African descent. Curated by Carrie Tarr, a leading scholar on the subject of beur cinema, the program included Rachid Bouchareb’s Cheb, Kamal El Mahouti’s My Lost Home (Ma maison perdue) and Mehdi Charef’s Tea in the Harem (Le Thé au harem d’Archimède).

In conjunction with the Lens on Syria film series, ArteEast and Rattapallax Press published a book, Insights into Syrian Cinema: Essays and Conversations with Contemporary Filmmakers. The first English-language volume of its kind, this important collection offers critical essays, an historical overview of film production in Syria, and brings together words and texts from Syria’s most critically acclaimed masters of cinema. Insights provides a rare glimpse into how these filmmakers managed to create an intransigently independent cinema in spite of near impossible conditions.

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