Nice to meet: Shariff Nasr

Shariff Nasr has been board member of the Arab Film Festival since two years. He became board member when the festival still bore the name ‘Arab Camera Festival’, an important change for him. Why? “Because the name ‘Arab Film Festival’ covers the things we do better. Above this, this new name has a more international sound. And that’s what we want of course.” Are there any other things he stands for being a board member? Definitely, many things. An interview about these things and more with filmmaker Shariff Nasr.

Why have you accepted the position of board member of the Arab Film Festival?

“I have always felt involved with the festival, and I wanted to contribute to making the festival bigger and more famous. In my opinion, it is important that the festival lives, that people talk about it and that it is not only visible in Cinerama, but also elsewhere in the city. That not only Arab films are screened, but that there is an Arab atmosphere, so that the audience can experience the Arab world, not only observe it. That is why I find it important to undertake playful and surprising activities. Last year, for example, we exhibited an art project in an art container on the Churchillplein in Rotterdam. Such things are fun, they seduce people to attend the festival!”

What is, in your opinion, the most important goal of the festival?

“That people are surprised and that they are confronted with a different image of the Arab world than they are used to. Of course we have visitors that enjoy the Arab feel they are so familiar with, and that is great. But I especially want to attract those people who are not that familiar with the Arab world. Many people get a rather negative picture of the Arab world through the media. Even I had some prejudices before I came there, even though I am half an Arab! I find film a suitable medium to show the other side of the Arab world, because it enables you to focus on daily life, which most people don’t know anything about. Another goal of the festival is, in my opinion, to offer a stage to films that are usually not screened in Dutch cinemas. If the festival would not exist, people would not see most Arab films. Our films don’t necessarily have to be bombastic or difficult. If they succeed in entertaining the audience, if people can laugh about them or if people at least learn something new, I consider them a success.

What should people know about the Arab world, in your opinion – something they might not know yet?

“Openness and directness do exist in the Arab world, for example about love and sex, be it in a different way than in the Netherlands. When I first visited the Middle-East, I was surprised by the sex-related jokes that both men and women made. You don’t see such things on television, whereas they would contribute to a better image of the Arab world among people who are not familiar with this part of the world. There is so much beauty over there, which is unfortunately not being focused on. It would be nice if people would realize that the Arab world is quite diverse. Saudi Arabia is totally different from Morocco or Turkey for example. And the Arab world does not equal ‘Islam’. It’s much more than that! Moreover, not everybody living there is a Muslim.”

You have been raised in Rotterdam and your father is from the Middle-East. To which extent do your roots influence your identity?

“To be honest, I have always mainly felt that I am Dutch and, more specifically, a Rotterdam citizen. But I have always considered my Arab roots an added value. This feeling started to change when I grew older, unfortunately, because I noticed that other people didn’t see this self-evidence and tended to stress the differences. Obviously, other people saw me as a foreigner, and so did the dictionary. The idea that I would never totally be part of one country or society, was quite confusing, a rejection I could not control. When people talk about ‘discrimination’, they usually mean calling names to people whose skin color is different and such kind of things. But because of my (foreign) roots I realize how ‘hidden’ discrimination can be in small daily situations. When you confront people with this, they say that ‘they don’t mean it like this’. Or they find you too sensitive and that ‘they should be able to say this’. Indeed, one has to be able to express himself, but I wonder: “is this the way you want to be perceived by others?” In my opinion, the freedom of expression is often being abused in order to insult others or to be able to speak without any nuance. I notice that this doesn’t happen that often in Rotterdam, in comparison with other Dutch cities. Rotterdam is diverse in its very nature, more than 50% of the inhabitants originally belongs to another ethnicity. Diversity is not an issue here, we all are Rotterdam citizens. We celebrate diversity, because that’s what’s made our city big.”

You are a filmmaker yourself. What are your current projects?

“I am working on the project ‘Rotterdam I love you’. This is the official sequel in the international film series of ‘Cities of Love’ of which ‘Paris je t’aime’ and ‘New York, I Love You’ are the predecessors. Rotterdam I love you is an omnibus film of 11 fictive love stories by 11 different, international directors. I make one of these portraits, and my story also marks a transition within the film. It’s a typical ‘Rotterdam story’, in which we celebrate the diversity of the city. This project is both a film and a movement: it is a stage for people who do something special in Rotterdam. There are more project that are keeping me busy, but this project will be launched in Rotterdam at the beginning of next year.

Picture Shariff: Arjen Stada