Opening night for the Arab Film Festival was marred by the news that Lotfi Abdelli, the actor in the opening night feature Making Of, had been detained upon arrival at the San Francisco International Airport and questioned for nearly five hours by airport authorities regarding his possible terrorist leanings. They asked him, "What are you doing here?" He answered that he had been invited by the Arab Film Festival to accompany the opening night feature. He provided all his proper documentation. They waited a few minutes and began again, "What are you really doing here?" This went on for four and a half hours without the assistance of a translator or without word to his traveling companion and Kathy Kenny, chair of the festival's Board of Directors, who had arrived to pick him up.
This so outraged me that I negotiated a one-on-one interview with Lotfi to discuss the incident and that will be up on The Evening Class within the next few days. I further encouraged Kathy Kenny to contact the local media to report the incident. Michael Hawley, contributing writer here at The Evening Class took it upon himself to contact Leah Garchik at the San Francisco Chronicle to inform her as well. Garchik's column for today's Chronicle revealed the official explanation as being: "Artist or not, you are Arabic, you are young, you have potential."
I cannot express how sad and ashamed this makes me to be both a San Franciscan and an American citizen when the very tenor of a festival intended to promote communication and tolerance is met with thuggish law enforcement that prides itself on a misguided notion of how it is "protecting" its citizens. I do not believe that such harassment protects American citizens. I believe it breeds ill will and broadens the fissure between the people of the United States and the Mideast. It is not enough to say, "We are just doing our job." That rationalization has been used by henchmen throughout the ages, proving regretfully that the banality of evil continues to lie at our very doorstep.
The Evening Class profoundly regrets and condemns Abdelli's detainment at the airport and the official disregard of the festival's mission statement for further understanding and tolerance through the art of cinema. Michael Hawley and I both hope that the people of San Francisco themselves, the audiences at the festival, have helped to counter Abdelli's negative experience so that he can return to Tunisia with a clear perception that he was welcomed by San Francisco.