New Internationalist

The silver screen behind the Spring

Issue 446

Feature films can tell us much about the cultural background to recent events in North Africa and the Middle East. Malcolm Lewis has been watching some of them.

Like-minded souls in Salt of This Sea.

We’ve witnessed the ‘Arab Spring’ erupting on our small screens. Eruption, sadly, is what we generally see – television is superficially drawn to dramatic and violent footage. It’s the big screen and films made by the region’s own directors that give us a deeper, more reflective understanding of social and political movements.

We see how societies of the region see themselves – and how alike they are to those of us living on other continents.

Take the 2010 Egyptian feature Microphone, which predates the ousting of Mubarak. This could be Paris, Madrid or Lisbon. Banksy-style stencils decorate walls, skateboarders whizz by pavement cafes, guerrilla rappers perform in public spaces and, shock of shocks, women play in rock bands. This is Alexandria, and what sets it apart is not a somehow alien culture but the efforts of petty bureaucracy and law enforcers to repress a vital and growing musical culture.

Annemarie Jacir’s Salt of This Sea, brings the West to Palestine, but you wouldn’t know from their values and behaviour who is Middle-Eastern and who is Western. Soraya, a New Yorker from a Palestinian family, discovers a country of everyday, secular discontents, very different from her expectations, but not alien people. She finds herself in an alien world of restrictions and repressions, but she finds like-minded souls. She works – illegally – as a waiter in Ramallah, alongside a local who hasn’t been able to leave the town for 17 years, and who, without an exit visa, cannot take up his place in an American university.

From Iran, The Green Wave.

The Green Wave, the most recent film in a season put together by London’s ICA, shifts the focus from the social to the political; from desperate, individual resistance to massive communal mobilization. The documentary recounts, with interviews, mobile phone footage and animation, Iran’s 2010 Green Revolution. The role of mobiles and social media in building protest against an unrepresentative government’s electoral fraud and violent repression, killing and torture is clear. The movement, initially reformist, names itself after the green of Islam, but it’s a very different take from that of President Ahmadinejad, or Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who, by siding with Ahmadinejad, radicalizes protestors who realize there can be no meaningful change within the system.

A patriarchy of a different sort, and the destructiveness of droit du seigneur, is the subject of Moufida Tlatli’s 1994 feminist classic Les Silences du Palais, set in Tunisia at the end of French rule. Ousmane Sembène’s mythic Ceddo, made in 1977 and one of the first films to come out of Africa, is also about the subordination of women. It attacks, too, the subordination of people to markets and unaccountable rulers, and reflects Sembène’s support for Senegalese democracy protests over 30 years ago.

Contrary to some Western stereotypes of Muslim societies, these films suggest long-standing concerns with women’s rights, democracy, civil rights and freedoms. You couldn’t get a better picture of what’s moving people in North Africa and the Middle East than by getting to see some of them.

The Green Wave is in British cinemas from 30 September.

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