Filmmaker focuses on other side of racism

Liz Buckley

Filmmaker Joan Mandell showed her award-winning documentary, Tales from Arab Detroit, at the Kent Stark campus last night.

Credit: Andrew popik

After Sept. 11, many focused on how those outside the Arab-American community treated Arabs in the United States. Joan Mandell, on the other hand, made a film focusing on how Arab-Americans view themselves. But the documentary was filmed before Sept. 11.

Last night, Mandell showed her award-winning documentary Tales from Arab Detroit to an audience of about 20 students in the Main Hall Auditorium of the Kent State Stark County campus. The film won the Award for Excellence at the Society for Visual Anthropology Festival and focuses on the ways American-born children view their Arab immigrant parents, Mandell said.

“Kids are trying to find out how to be both American and Arab,” she said.

Mandell was initially approached by the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, or ACCESS, in Dearborn, Mich., to film a documentary about an Egyptian storyteller visiting the area.

The storyteller became a catalyst for questions about balancing the American and Arab cultures, she said.

Mandell went back to the community she had filmed after Sept. 11 to ask questions about the fallout.

A young woman in the film, Sumer, got married after Sept. 11, and half the family couldn’t come to the wedding because airport security prevented them from arriving on time, Mandell said.

Mandy Altimus, senior history major, attended the event because she said she wants to be a filmmaker.

“I wanted to see the process of how other people do it,” Altimus said.

Steve Boutrose, sophomore zoology major, said he wanted to see Mandell’s film because he has a lot of relatives in the Detroit area, which has the largest population of people of Arab descent in North America. Plus, his parents are from Syria.

Besides Tales from Arab Detroit Mandell showed her short film I, Too, Sing America, which shows a 17-year-old Arab Muslim woman singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The film is a Rorschach Test for people’s feelings on nationalism and stereotypes, Mandell said.

Mandell lived in the West Bank for seven years where she learned Arabic. She taught English as a second language at Birzeit University in Palestine and worked as a journalist. She co-founded Al Fajr, the first Palestinian newspaper written in English.

“I began my filmmaking career in a refugee camp in Gaza,” Mandell said.

Mandell said she became interested in explaining the commonalities between a vilified group of people and Americans.

“My goal is to popularize an understanding of people who’ve been marginalized in the mass media,” Mandell said.

Mandell also directed the documentary Voices in Exile: Immigrants and the First Amendment and co-directed Gaza Ghetto: Portrait of a Palestinian Family. She has a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of California-Los Angeles School of Theater, Film and Television and taught film-making at University of California-Irvine. She started her own production company, Olive Branch Productions.

Contact enterprise reporter Liz Buckley at [email protected].