Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival

Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival
“Faces Behind the Mask”

Over the past three years, the world has folded in on itself.

We have access to other worlds in a way we never have before. We can watch wars, protests, and politics play out minute by minute on the geopolitical stage from the comfort of our own homes. However, despite this unprecedented connectivity, we are isolated in a way that we never have been before. With the bans on international and even local travel, we can only see the day-to-day lives of those who live in our direct surroundings. While we very comfortably bear witness to the major events occurring abroad, the quotidian details of the individual lives living through these events remain hidden.

"Faces Behind the Mask" is revealing the very human lives behind the “mask” of otherness. The importance of this theme is reflected best in the festival’s own words: “The masks we wear are integral to how we navigate life, and FACES BEHIND THE MASK seeks to explore the realities they conceal, the facades they represent, and ways we bear them. What masks do we wear, and are we aware of their presence? How do these masks change, day by day, hour by hour, person to person? How can we see through the mask, and get at what is in the dark? Through film, and the privileged perspective it gives us, the CMU IFF hopes to answer these questions and ask all of us to reflect on our own masks, and their role in our lives.”

The opening night reception for the festival was absolutely delightful. It featured a screening of Morocco's academy-award submission, "Casablanca Beats." Brimming with music, dance, love, and laughter, the film is a celebration of the lives and self-expression of a group of teenagers growing up in the Sidi Moumen suburb of Casablanca. These teenagers learn how to express themselves through rap, poetry, and dance. It features exuberant scenes of music and dance, in addition to intimate portraits of the teenagers' internal lives. Most fascinating is that all the characters in the film are real-life individuals playing themselves. Anas Basbousi, a Moroccan rapper and musician, plays the charismatic yet demanding teacher at the center of the film. All the teenagers play versions of themselves with their own names, versions of themselves that we can infer are not too far from real life.

Much care was taken to honor the screening, from catering by Ali Baba to the fantastic performance by Carnegie Mellon’s very own Helix Dance team as a prelude to the movie. These touches made the film all the more personal to our Pittsburgh community. The screening was followed by a Q&A session with the director, Nabil Ayouch, moderated by Dr. Nevine Abraham, a Carnegie Mellon professor of Arabic Studies. Ayouch’s film certainly stands on its own, but the conversation with him furthered the audience's understanding of the film's roots and context.

Ayouch’s explanation of his artistic philosophy was particularly illuminating. “Where I am from, young people are encouraged to be part of the masses,” he said. “What I try to do with my films is show the importance of the individual and bring focus to the individual who stands out from the crowd.” This comment struck me in the context of our own country, considering the renewed discussions around individualism versus collectivization. I have heard from peers countless times how the reckless individualism of our society is detrimental to general wellbeing and a renewed focus on the collective might be a solution. Hearing from Ayouch, I realized the fundamental naivete understanding of the world in these binaries.

Moroccan society differs drastically from American social norms. Compared to the lives of the teenagers profiled in this film, the minute problems that young people like me face seem inconsequential. It is a breath of fresh air to see a film about young people who do not possess an ounce of disillusionment, cynicism, or irony. Watching them pursue their dreams of freedom and artistic expression is inspiring. You can’t be ironic if you can’t even express yourself earnestly in the first place!

I agree with Ayouch's assertion that we need a renewed focus on the individual outside of the mass. We do. We need a focus on individuals, but individuals who are not ourselves. We need a focus on individuals who have nothing in common (at least, superficially) with ourselves, and rediscover our shared humanity. If I sound a bit hyperbolic, I apologize, but I am one of those curmudgeonly young folk who fervently believes in the power of public arts programming to transform communities.

Many of us have grand ideas about the role of art in American society — but how many of us know what life is like for a teenage rapper growing up in a suburb of Casablanca? We are glued to our phones and television screens watching politicians pontificate the war in Ukraine — but how many of us have seen up-close what life is like in the trenches of the Donbas*? We experience our own fair share of strange weather here in Pittsburgh — but how is it comparable to a typhoon and its aftermath as explored in the Filipino drama “Whether the Weather is Fine”?

Despite Carnegie Mellon’s incredible art scene and cultural output, there is a divide between the “artistic” scenes and “non-artistic” scenes of our school. The International Film Festival (IFF) bridges this divide by making its programming as accessible as possible. All films have low ticket prices, nearby screening locations, and considerate showtimes. Great pains have been taken to make this event open to the full Carnegie Mellon and Pittsburgh community. I commend all the students and faculty behind the scenes who made this film festival happen, as well as all the organizations that provided their funding and support.

The following quote summarizes my thoughts on this event quite well: “We must confront vague ideas with clear images.”** In my time as an undergraduate, I feel as though I am constantly confronting vague ideas, be they about self, community, or my field of study. I am grateful to the Carnegie Mellon IFF for confronting the vagueness of our world with clear images. For anyone feeling lost, isolated, or confused in this time of great upheaval, I encourage you to find solace in the dark comforts of the movie theater.

* See "Trenches", dir. Loup Bureau
** This quote is from Jean-Luc Godard (embarassing, I know)