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Penn Libraries News

Diversity in the Stacks: Black Cinema, Middle Eastern and North African Film, and Media-critical Documentary

The Penn Libraries has been expanding its selections of streaming films by working with distributors of international cinema like ArtMattan, Typecast Films, and the Media Education Foundation.

Shelves filled with boxes of DVDs.

The Penn Libraries is finding new ways to work with educational media suppliers to acquire collections of educational, documentary, and nontheatrical film in bulk and for digital streaming. Recent acquisitions include poignant documentary and social issues films, world cinema rarely seen by U.S. audiences, a diverse range of cinemas of the Black diaspora, and films in less commonly taught languages.

Just how diverse are the film collections at the Penn Libraries?

The catalog of film and video at the Penn Libraries spans various streaming platforms, which provide access to more content that you could access in several lifetimes. Between Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center and LIBRA - Penn Libraries Research Annex, we have access to an unrivaled DVD collection that has grown to nearly 40,000 films. This is a gold mine for representations of people, cultures, languages, past and present, and for the Penn community, and it does not require a membership or a subscription. There it is possible to find amazing films that have gone missing, dropped from streaming services, or which may have once had proponents or representation in the U.S. but no longer do. In this sense, cinema thrives at Penn. The Penn Libraries collections are diverse, even beyond the access to films that instructors assign in courses, and that cinema enthusiasts on campus screen at film series and student film festivals.

What are some of the ways that the library system is looking to expand access to diverse films?

To maximize the number of interesting films available to researchers and self-motivated cinifiles across campus, the Libraries has been looking for opportunities. Libraries staff across several subject areas and departments recently have been looking to acquire entire catalogs of films from distributors in bulk, resulting in film collections that can inspire and open dialogues between people across cultures and geographies. The diversity of our digitally- and locally-held collections will benefit researchers for years and decades to come, even as we move into the era in which streaming, for better or worse, is now the dominant video format.  

At the same time, the Penn Libraries recognizes the enduring value of physical media and still makes an effort to invest in the DVDs which represent rare films and accompanying content. Often these works help to contextualize historical events, trends, and aesthetics, and likewise offer researchers a deeper look into film production. Bonus content on physical media like short films, interviews, director and actor commentary, and essays will have a home in the Penn Libraries for the foreseeable future. For researchers, this means that selective access to additional material not widely transferred into digital formats will be available, as will selected films with the image quality of Blu-ray, to ensure that the Libraries’ video collections and playback options will provide options for scholars and film aficionados for years and decades to come.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the recent bulk purchases by the Penn Libraries and some of the suppliers that have helped make films available in our collections, in particular our streaming collections.

ArtMattan Films

Last year, the Libraries purchased nearly 60 films from the distributor ArtMattan Films, which is focused on the lived experience of people of color all over the world. ArtMattan Films is a production and distribution firm located in Harlem which has been in business since 1993 and was born out of the African Diaspora International Film Festival (ADIFF) at Teachers College in New York. The film festival has, over three decades, expanded to as many as seven venues in New York City and brought new audiences into contact with cinema that promotes an understanding of the Black experience. It is now one of the most important Black film festivals in the United States.  

In the process of launching the festival, ADIFF co-founders and owners of ArtMattan Films, Diarah N’Daw-Spech and Reinaldo Barroso-Spech launched a distribution business to champion independent Black films from around the world. The Penn Libraries is pleased that we now are able to provide access to selected international films from the ArtMattan catalog, including work by filmmakers from Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa. Some of the films include: Ghanaian filmmaker King Ampaw’s 2007 film No Time to Die about an Accra hearse driver who wants to get married; Almodou (2002), about a pupil at an exploitative daara (Senegalese religious school) who runs away to start a new life in Dakar; and Papa’s Song (1999), Sander Francken’s film about a Dutch judge and his Curaçaoan wife whose family hardships follow her into married life in the Netherlands.

Arab films from AFD & Typecast Films

In the spring of 2022 the Penn Libraries purchased over 40 films from Arab Film Distribution (AFD) and Typecast Films, based in Seattle. AFD has for several decades been the largest dedicated distributor of Arab films in the United States, and began a production arm called Typecast Pictures in 2005. Just like ArtMattan, AFD was founded in 1993 on the heels of the Arab & Iranian Film Festival held as part of the 1990 Goodwill Games, an international sports competition founded by media mogul Ted Turner. The company slowly grew to become a major independent distributor of films from the Middle East, with a catalog of films from the Arabic-speaking world, but also Iran and Turkey.  

While some Iranian auteur filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami and Jahar Panahi are known by Western cinephiles, there remain a limited number of Arab filmmakers whose work receives a theatrical release or is seen by U.S. audiences. The Penn Libraries has been able to make available streaming access to all films through the Franklin online catalog. Arabic films in this collection including work such as: The Color of Olives (El color de los olivos) (Carolina Rivas, 2006), a documentary of a Palestinian family living in the West Bank that is a meditation on borders and segregation; Abortion of the Soul (Bahraa Hijazi, 2013), which explores reproductive rights and abortion in Syria at the time of the Syrian Revolution; Return to the Land of Wonders (Maysoon Pachachi, 2004), a searing documentary about the Iraq War in the time following the 2003 U.S. invasion; and Looking for Muhyiddin (Nacer Khemir, 2012), about a Tunisian man who returns home after the death of his mother and goes in search of a venerated Sufi sheik.

Media Education Foundation (MEF)

MEF has long been a supplier of thoughtful, socio-critical documentary and educational films about the state of contemporary media. The Penn Libraries has been a longtime customer because of the quality of the media critiques in the films, but also for their popularity among faculty members for use in courses which explore media trends. MEF began its business as a media vendor in the early 1990s, just like the previous distributors discussed here. Its founder, Sut Jhally, had made a documentary film in 1991, Dreamlands, which criticized music videos of the ’80s and ’90s for their rampant misogyny and sexist depictions of women. After Jhally started to distribute his film among academic colleagues, MTV responded with a cease-and-desist letter questioning the educational nature of his use of images. Instead of backing down, Jhally was inspired. He went on to found a distribution business to champion educational critiques of media, advertising, and consumerism.  

When given the opportunity to purchase streaming films from MEF, many of which the Penn Libraries has owned since their initial release on VHS and DVD, we immediately saw value in being able to improve access to their informative films. The Libraries purchased additional rights to important documentaries such as Tough Guise 2 (2014), a criticism of men’s violence and outdated notions of masculinity; Killing Us Softly 4 (2010), about advertising’s depictions of women; and Race, the Floating Signifier: A Conversation with Stuart Hall (2002), a lecture film featuring the Jamaican-born, British cultural theorist and activist about conceptions of race and racial difference.

These kinds of large bulk purchases from diverse sources of video are important to the university’s ongoing access to narrative, educational, documentary, and experimental and art films, and other educational video and programming, because they ensure scholarly access for the longer term. As we progress further toward increased licensed access for film, it becomes more challenging for libraries and institutions to negotiate lasting access to films. The Penn Libraries continues to grow a film collection that represents canonical films from the beginnings of the history of films into the modern media age, as programming, TV, cinema, and media of all kinds undergo periods of change and adaptation. We encourage both scholarly and leisure use of our ever-growing collections of film.

If you have comments, questions, or requests for purchase of and access to films not yet in the Penn Libraries collections, please share with us or email Charles Cobine, Cinema & Media Studies Librarian, at



October 11, 2023