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Ahmed T. Ragheb (left) and Lily Ekimian Ragheb (right) of Studio Ragheb. Photo provided by Studio Ragheb.

Studio Ragheb explores Arab-American identity at AIFVF

Correction appended: A previous version of this article falsely stated Lily Ekimian Ragheb is Arab-American rather than Russian-American. Additionally, the couple’s birthplaces have been clarified.

For some in Athens, Fest Season means partying, drinking and having fun with friends. But happening around the same time is a different kind of fest, the Athens International Film & Video Festival. For its 51st year, occurring April 8-14, AIFVF will be hosting filmmakers from throughout the world, from Serbia to Denmark to Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh-based Studio Ragheb, consisting of filmmaking couple, Ahmed Ragheb and Lily Ekimian Ragheb, will be debuting its latest short film “She Sings” at AIFVF. The short film will premiere Friday, April 12 before the feature film “First Hermanubis: Initiation” at 1 p.m.

“She Sings” is an experimental, 15-minute film that follows the main character, Aziza, as she goes through a recurring dream about singing a song that she does not know. Ahmed Ragheb discussed how having the point of view of Aziza in her dream lent itself to the story.

“We basically inhabit her dream space for almost the entire film,” he said. “And through that, we use that as a springboard to talk about a lot of things that we're very passionate about, including the idea of cultural identity, especially as it relates to Arab-Americans, Muslim-Americans.”

Throughout the film, the hue shifts to a deep red, indicating when the perspective has shifted to within Aziza’s dream. Lily Ragheb said the red indicates Aziza coming closer to her homeland of Egypt.

“I think the red also draws her closer to this final performance, where you see the hints of it sort of in the beginning, but it's getting closer to Egypt," she said.”It’s this Arab-American character who is grappling with her identity and so there's this part of her that seems a little bit, not unattainable, but it's something that she's trying to grasp and that's the thing that's most distant.”

The film takes place in Pittsburgh and Cairo, Egypt, where it was also shot. Ahmed Ragheb was born in Cairo, and Lily Ragheb grew up in Washington D.C. and Cairo, where Ahmed Ragheb met in high school. The couple moved to Pittsburgh together in 2019.

Because of Ahmed Ragheb’s identity as an Arab-American in the Rust Belt, they wanted to make it a focus of the film’s main character. Ahmed Ragheb said that the goal of the film is to help shift the narrative around people of Arab descent in film and media.

“A lot of what we do comes back to not only being Arab-American but also trying to influence how Arab-Americans are portrayed on screen,” he said. “It's not in the context of trauma or immigration or something that we're usually used to. I think that was something that was front of mind, for sure.”

Near the end of the film is an original song written and performed on screen by musician Daniel Knox, whom Studio Ragheb has worked with on multiple projects. While Knox is present in the film, Ahmed Ragheb said his character represents Aziza.

“They (Arab-Americans) have these two ideas of themselves that are always living inside,” Ahmed Ragheb said. “Am I Egyptian, am I American am I both? So to have this denim-clad, country-singing inner American was something that we loved the idea of, and we want to draw that out a little bit.”

In most cases in film, the viewer does not see someone singing a song. Lily Ragheb said having Knox on screen added greatly to the film.

“We would have been happy with just the song but we were much happier to have him actually sing it in the film,” she said.

The trailer for She Sings can be found on Studio Ragheb’s website and YouTube channel. The couple can be found on Instagram at @studioragheb. The film itself will premiere at the AIFVF at the Athena Cinema, 20 S. Court Street, and is free for students.


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