‘Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf’ headlines Austin Film Society’s focus on Middle East

Elyes Benantar

Known for highlighting diverse and unique films from around the world, the Austin Film Society is currently showcasing works from the Middle East through one of its longest-running annual film series.

The Children of Abraham/Ibrahim is an annual series which began in the spring of 2007 at the Austin Film Society. Former director of programming and current guest curator Chale Nafus — who started the series back in 2007 — said his goal was to showcase films from the Middle East and from a Middle
Eastern perspective.

“News reports from the Middle East continually focused on warfare, bloodshed and differences,” Nafus said. ”I wanted to present films
depicting the lives of individuals and their hopes, concerns, loves and beliefs.”

The series this fall has played recent acclaimed films ranging from Jafar Panahi’s “Three Faces” to Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum.”

Since 2014, the UT Center for Middle Eastern Studies has been a co-sponsor of the series. This year, the department of Radio-Television-Film became a co-sponsor, Nafus said.   

Karen Grumberg, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, said the series is valuable and that one of the the center’s top priorities is to expose its students to the languages of the Middle East.

“The cultural aspect is significant, too — they get to experience various perspectives of the region, particularly since the series aims to bring films in all four of the major Middle Eastern languages,” Grumberg said.

In the last few years, the center has been heavily involved in the organization of the series, from curating which films get shown to having graduate students conduct introductions prior to screenings, Grumberg said.

“It’s a great opportunity for students and allows UT’s (Center for Middle Eastern Studies) to showcase its language and … strengths to the Austin community,” Grumberg said.

The series concludes with Susan Youssef’s “Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf,” which is an expansion of an earlier short film of hers bearing the same title.

“I was at UT during 9/11,” director Youssef said. “The Marjoun short film (that I made) was written during that period.”

The feature film is set in Little Rock, Arkansas, and follows a teenager attending the city’s eponymous high school, which played a key historical role in American desegregation in 1957.

Youssef said she sought to present the grappling conflicts at the core of Muslim-American/Arab-American identity within the feature.

“This feature expands on the ‘Marjoun’ short, specifically elaborating on establishing the civil rights struggle of the Arab/Muslim-American community during the surge of the hunt for domestic terrorists,” Youssef said.

Youssef is a recipient of several grants from the Austin Film Society, and spoke high praise for the organization’s work.

“Austin Film Society is an incredibly generous, professional and thoughtful organization that has supported my career every single step of the way,” Youssef said. “This is the second time AFS has programmed my work with the ‘Children of Abraham’ series, and I am beyond honored to have my work curated with a selection of some of the most critically acclaimed world cinema.”

“Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf” will be playing at the Austin Film Society on Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. with Youssef in attendance.