How Sitting in the Odeon Reminded Me Not to Take Things for Granted

By Sydney Maynard, NYU Florence student

Last night was the opening ceremony of the seventh annual Middle East Now Festival at the Odeon Cinema. I attended, as part of the NYU Florence student jury (our job is to attend the screenings of 13 short films and evaluate them, pick a winner and then present an award for best short film during the closing ceremony) and it was a night I am unlikely to forget. I have only attended two and a half hours of the festival so far, but it will easily be one of the most memorable experiences from my study abroad semester. This festival is so interesting because I came to Florence to be immersed in Italian culture, and now I am an American immersed in Italian culture that is immersed in Middle Eastern culture. It is almost like taking a crash course on a different part of the world.

The night opened with an introduction – mostly in Italian with a few English phrases tossed around, which is the only part that I understood – and a performance by Iranian musician Makan Ashgvari. This was followed by the screening of “Hotel,” a short film by Turkish director Yeşim Ustaoğlu.

The night got very emotional with “Degradè,” a feature film by Palestinian brothers Tarzan and Arab Abunasser, something I was not entirely prepared for. The film is set in a beauty salon in Gaza and follows the events of a single day. The main subjects are two beauticians and their clients, described in the festival program as “a bride-to-be, a pregnant woman, a bitter divorcée, a devout woman and a pill-popping addict.” The film will also be screened tomorrow so I want to limit the amount of spoilers I reveal, but the day escalates when fighting breaks out in the street. One of the moments that had the greatest impact on me came when the power shut off – even though the neighborhood was scheduled to have electricity on this day – and one of the women mentioned that in her area she only gets three hours of electricity a day. The other powerful moment was when the fighting escalated and the women tried to carry on with their day in a building that was shaking from the force of bombs and the air was riddled with gunfire.

As I was walking from the Odeon to my apartment, I began thinking about my own upbringing. Compared to the stories of the women in “Degradè,” I have faced no hardships. I grew up in a nice area of California, I got accepted to my first choice college, and now I am spending a semester in Italy, something I have been dreaming about for five years. I have never dealt with something truly terrible, like living in a war zone and losing my friends and family members because of it. This film put everything in a new perspective for me. The problems I’ve always thought of as problems seem insignificant now. Why do I stress about not having enough hours in a day to study when other people are terrified to even step out of their homes? No matter how much I have going on, I still have the freedom to live my life as I please, which is not something that everyone is able to say.

This seems to be the entire point of Middle East Now, at least to me. It is a platform of entertainment and showcases great filmmakers from the Middle East and North Africa, but it also exposes the struggles that are unique to the people of these areas. If one film had this much of an impact on me, I cannot wait to see what the rest of the festival brings.