The Toronto International Film Festival programmer Rasha Salti discusses with Kaleem Aftab how she chooses films from the Arab world and some of the trends that we can expect at the festival this year
There are more films being made in the Middle East and Arab world than ever before. How is that reflected at the Toronto International Film Festival?
This year, there are 10 features from the Arab world and three shorts and this is unprecedented. I don't think that there is any festival that has the standing of TIFF that would ever screen that many films, unless it's like a sidebar programme or a special event.
There are four Palestinian films: Omar, Palestine Stereo, Giraffada and My Love Awaits the Sea. Why such a strong showing?
To have four Palestinian films is unprecedented from a country with no industry. Sometimes I have the feeling that cinema is not very different from agriculture; you sow the seeds and then it takes time for films to come out. I think it's also a matter of grants; production grants are finally being made available in a country that doesn't have an industry. They do, however, rely on overseas grants
Is there a film that stands out as being different from previous years?
Bastardo, directed by Nejib Belkadhi; it's an auteur film and what is amazing about it is how much the filmmaker is able to create a unique world totally coherent from beginning to end. An uncanny mix of magical realism and noir, set in a poor neighbourhood in Tunis, it's a beautiful fable about how power corrupts.
What makes you choose a film for the festival?
I'm going to sound like I come from the 1950s when I answer this and maybe I do. It's really just falling in love and being charmed by a film. It's bizarre to say that. I remember when I watched Bastardo, it was eight in the morning in a terrible cinema in Paris on a Saturday and there was no one in the street. I was completely smitten. There are other considerations that come into play eventually as to why a film is selected to show at TIFF. These considerations often have to do with the audience, the kind of festival that Toronto is, what will communicate here, what might have a career with the industry, what this festival audience is used to seeing and what it isn't used to seeing.
Can you tell me how filmmakers and the festivals are dealing with the unrest in the Arab world?
We have a few films about the Arab Spring - Ladder to Damascus, by Mohamad Malas, a veteran filmmaker making a comeback and shot almost entirely in one house; Rags and Tatters, by the Egyptian director Ahmad Abdalla, who previously made Microphone and he got the idea for the new film while he was working in the media tent at Tahrir Square during the 18 days; and The Square - Jehane Noujaim, who made Control Room, has been filming for two years in Egypt and she has basically followed the progress of a few revolutionaries.
With the increased number of productions from the Middle East and the growth in profile of films from the region, does that make your job more difficult?
Yes, 100 times more difficult. If you ever need recommendations on how to write an elegant rejection letter, feel free to call me.