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Tarek Abouamin's past present 

Gawab, a new documentary by filmmaker Tarek Abouamin, is a moving-picture letter to his family.

If viewers feel there's a particular freshness to Tarek Abouamin's short film Gawab, it'll partly owe to the fact that the documentary is fresh in a literal sense. A couple of weeks before its April 14th screening as part of the Halifax Independent Filmmakers Festival, its creator says he's still "cutting like mad."

But a recent emergence from the editing room isn't the only fresh thing about Abouamin and his work. He also happens to be the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative's inaugural filmmaker-in-residence, earning that distinction---and the all-important $20,000 in cash and production services that comes with it---last November. He'll carry the title through May.

"Frankly, it's an excellent move by the co-op to actually invest in a program that is designed for an advanced filmmaker," says Abouamin, who notes that AFCOOP focuses primarily on helping burgeoning talent.

Still, the money and the residency only go so far in an expensive and time-consuming art form. "It's actually a monumental task to assemble all my material and make this film in such a short period of time, because it's a very personal film, a self-portrait," he says.

Abouamin has, in fact, been unconsciously developing Gawab---a title derived from the phonetic translation of the Arabic word for "letter"---since he began taking photos of his family as a teenager. A birth in the family in 2004 inspired the Egyptian-Canadian to create a film that would serve as the visual representation of a letter to his family.

"Although my experience growing up is not unique and turbulent relationships with family are not unique, what's different about my situation is that my family lives in another country," says Abouamin, whose immediate family emigrated to Canada in 1995. "Whatever identity I have inherited from my family still follows me."

Abouamin has previously explored themes of memory and identity in his documentaries The Motorcycle and Colours of Exile. The latter, about Palestinian-Canadian artist Amin Shammout's 60-year search for a homeland after being driven out of Israel, screened at last year's Atlantic Film Festival and will show at HIFF.

Abouamin is more excited to talk about his subject in Colours of Exile than himself. "He's an incredible story," Abouamin says of Shammout. "Here's a man who lives on Bedford Highway, who lived through a massacre when he was 14 years old, who's seen war crimes. And he's bottled all that up and put out all this emotion in hundreds of paintings and drawings, over 200 of which have survived in his garage. There should be some kind of permanent home for that work."

Abouamin says his own immigrant experience differs from Shammout's in that it involved a much higher degree of choice. Nevertheless, he can relate to his subject's sense of being an outsider.

"The conditions are dramatically different, but what's similar is being out of place. Being out of place really informs everything," Abouamin explains. "When I first arrived here I thought my otherness would be welcomed. But in fact my otherness is not welcomed here."

Abouamin has chosen to investigate and celebrate his otherness, making a place for himself with films that offer a fresh take on his adopted country.

The Coast covers the opening party of the 4th annual Halifax Independent Filmmakers Festival at the North Street Church.

By Sandi Rankaduwa

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