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Russia: Muslim Film Festival In Tatarstan Aims To Break Stereotypes

The film festival is part of Kazan's celebrations to mark the city's 1000th year anniversary These are difficult times to be a Muslim. In the wake of 9/11, the Madrid explosions, the London bombings, the Beslan school massacre, and other acts of terror, Islam and extremism are mentioned in the same breath all too frequently. Many ordinary Muslims, who reject the linkage, say they are tired of being portrayed in the media as fanatics or assassins. A film festival in Russia's republic of Tatarstan aims to change that.

Prague, 20 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Preparations are under way in Tatarstan's capital Kazan for the Golden Minbar International Muslim Film Festival, which opens in September.

In Islamic terminology, the minbar is the raised pulpit from which imams preach to the faithful. The name Golden Minbar is symbolic of what organizers hope their festival will be: a platform from which the good and true word about Muslims, their culture and achievements will be conveyed.

Zaudi Mamirgov, head of the festival's organizing committee, says something has to be done to change negative stereotypes of Muslims and Islam that abound in film and television. At present, he laments: "Every Chechen you see on TV is a rebel with a Kalashnikov and an ammunition belt. Every Afghan is an uneducated drug trafficker. Every Azeri is a fruit trader at the market."

Svetlana Bokharayeva, another festival organizer, agrees, as she tells RFE/RL from Kazan.

"There is a problem of Muslims being portrayed in a way that is not objective and not appropriate. It`s linked to the many acts of terrorism and extremism [that have taken place recently]. Unfortunately, very often, a connection is drawn between these acts and Muslims and Islam, although the actual link is not direct, let's put it this way. At the same time, there is nothing to balance this false perception," Bokharayeva said.

It was Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, chairman of the Russian Council of Muftis, who first proposed the idea of changing negative perceptions of Muslims through film. He obtained the support of Tatar President Minitimer Shaimiev and the festival received the green light.

"At the Muslim Film Festival, films should throw light upon life, traditions and culture, character and nature of Muslim people. The aim is to show the kind attitude of Muslim people to other nations and cultures, to show their respect,"
Gainutdin says.

So what qualifies as a "Muslim" film? Organizer Bokharayeva says the criteria are deliberately loose, to allow as much variety and points of view as possible.

"Since this is the first time the festival is being held, we have picked broad entry criteria. My criteria are the following: They should be films made by Muslims or filmed about Muslims or films that were shot in Muslim countries. We did not set narrow criteria. The main emphasis is that they should be films that have a peace-making message. They have to be films that strengthen international friendship and inter-confessional dialogue," Bokharayeva said.

That means no violence, no suicide bombers, and no blood. But the films will not be bland. Organizers promise difficult issues that impact the lives of Muslims today will be treated, mixed with comedies, historical dramas, and children's features.
"Every Chechen you see on TV is a rebel with a Kalashnikov and an ammunition belt. Every Afghan is an uneducated drug trafficker. Every Azeri is a fruit trader at the market."

Three categories of films will be screened: fiction, documentaries, and animated works.

So far, festival organizers have received over 70 entries from more than 20 countries -- both near and far, says Bokharayeva.

"At this stage, more than 20 countries have confirmed their participation in the festival. These are countries of our 'near abroad' such as Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan -- from the post Soviet era," Bokharayeva says. "There are also participants from farther away, such as Britain, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Canada, Lithuania, Poland -- there are many countries. Of course, all Muslims are different. Their lifestyles in all of these countries differ widely. But I think our festival is designed for us to find out more about each other and to understand what unites us and what makes us different."

She stresses that the festival is aimed both at Muslims, so they can see how their brethren live in other countries and understand their concerns, as well as at non-Muslims -- so that they too can gain a similar insight.

Heading the jury will be screenwriter and director Rustam Ibragimbekov, who is well known in Russian filmmaking. Awards will be given for the best film in each category and two runner-ups.

The festival is billed as one of the highlights of Kazan's year-long celebrations to mark the city's 1000th year anniversary. It runs from 5 to 11 September.