New Internationalist

Independent Arab cinemas: against all odds

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There’s a wealth of diverse Arabic films out there, if you know where to find them. Giedre Steikunaite unearths some gems.

Cliff Williams under a CC Licence
The Rialto cinema, Casablanca. Cliff Williams under a CC Licence

Planting the flag of Palestine on the moon in her 2009 short film A Space Exodus, artist and filmmaker Larissa Sansour says: ‘That’s one small step for Palestinians, one giant leap for mankind.’ In Nation Estate, shown at the Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFF) in early 2013, she projects a single skyscraper that houses the entire Palestinian population – Jerusalem on the 13th floor, Ramallah on the 14th – ‘living the high life’.

Sansour’s aesthetically polished and politically challenging futuristic visions contain two elements under-represented in Arab cinema – science fiction and comedy. ‘These genres are big budget studio productions – by definition, independent films don’t have that capacity,’ says Mona Deeley (pictured right), director of Zenith Foundation and producer of Cinema Badila (Alternative Cinema) on BBC Arabic. ‘Yet that doesn’t mean that Arab films are without humour.’ Sansour’s shorts are a case in point. ‘If she makes a feature sci-fi film, that will really be news.’

Many other independent Arab films have been making the news recently on the international stage. Production and distribution capacity in the region varies greatly: there is not a single cinema theatre in Saudi Arabia, but many in UAE shopping malls; Egypt, the regional hub of commercial cinema, has had to catch up with others in independent filmmaking; the Sudan Film Factory project is encouraging this non-existent industry; in Lebanon, infrastructure exists, but blockbusters score much higher than independent films. Jordan and the Gulf states are increasingly entering the stage. Subject trends are also highly diversified. ‘Otherwise it wouldn’t be independent cinema, we’d be talking about a factory,’ Deeley says.

A pluralist image

For these reasons, as filmmaker, curator and author of Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity Viola Shafik pointed out at the panel of Safar: A Journey Through Popular Arab Cinema in London, ‘labelling it “Arab cinema” is problematic’; the French version – les cinémas arabes (Arab cinemas – in the plural) – is much more adequate as it describes ‘a pluralist image of what has been created in the Arab world’.

‘Saudi Arabia is a society covered in other people’s projections of it because it never represents itself. Wadjda gives an insight into things we never see, from streets to schools to life behind closed doors’

Judging from the selection of last year’s IFFs, certain topics might be passé in the media, but not in the wider imagination. One such is suicide bombing: Ziad Doueiri’s The Attack about a female suicide bomber in Israel won the first prize at the Marrakech IFF; Nabil Ayouch’s Horses of God (Les Chevaux de Dieu) is based on true story of two brothers who detonated themselves in Casablanca in 2003 (‘It’s interesting to see a native take of people doing horrific things to their own country, see where they come from, and try to understand them,’ Deeley says); Merzak Allouache’s The Repentant (Le Repenti) is also about extreme violence. Yet Deeley is cautious in calling it a trend: ‘These films are in that range, but others, of course, aren’t.’

Those others deal with matters as diverse as Egypt’s uprising (e.g. Ibrahim El Batout’s no-budget, no-script thoroughly researched improvised documentary); the slavery of solitude (Coming Forth by Day by Hala Lotfy); marriage traditions and relationship taboos in modern-day Paris (Hold Back / Rengaine by Rachid Djaïdani); a police officer’s cowardice, fear, and inferiority in Casablanca (Zero by Nour-Eddine Lakhmari); or a girl who wants to buy a bicycle. The latter is Wadjda, a film by Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa al Mansour that’s been shown at various IFFs, including Dubai, and will be on general release in Europe. Although such huge interest partly stems from the fact that Wadjda is probably Saudi Arabia’s first feature-length film, and directed by a woman, to Deeley there’s something more profound: ‘Saudi Arabia is a society covered in other people’s projections of it because it never represents itself. The film gives an insight into things we never see, from streets to schools to life behind closed doors.’

More than just politics

Yet such international interactions might be limited. As Shafik wrote in her book, ‘It is hard to distribute anything from the Arab and Muslim world in Europe that offers alternative or simply unspectacular stories that go beyond dominant, often negatively coded images and discourses on the region.’ Deeley has also heard complaints from Arab filmmakers over favoured subjects and Western funders and distributors being interested in the region merely as a political entity. But films don’t necessarily have to be political to be seen as such: in Wadjda, a girl wants a bicycle, but her being a Saudi girl adds political dimensions; a film from Palestine will be de facto political: the occupation cannot be escaped. Can such interest be rationalized? ‘Cinema is international. Thousands of films are being produced every year. For a festival or a cinema screen, it either has to stand out from everything else in terms of amazing filmmaking, or the subject itself has to draw audiences,’ Deeley says.

‘Independent films anywhere are niche films watched by people who are looking for culture beyond formulaic filmmaking. They’re about aesthetic, soul, and mental satisfaction’

Have the uprisings played a role? ‘One can argue that cinematic representations are part of a wider phenomenon of self-reflection that was growing in the Arab world and reached its peak with the revolutions of the Arab Spring,’ says Lina Khatib, head of programme on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University. ‘You can count on the Middle East to have one crisis or the other, so there’s always interest in the region for that reason,’ Deeley says, half-jokingly. ‘In the mainstream media, there’s still a top-down narrative of what goes on there; not enough is being shown about culture.’ That’s why BBC Arabic’s commissioning of Cinema Badila was a positive step forward: ‘When you give so much air time for a region, there should be some allocated to things that are not to do with war and destruction and give more depth to what you’re reporting on.’

Accessibility is another concern. In the absence of general releases in cinemas, IFFs have become the main platform for independent filmmakers. Even if their films are not seen by mass audiences, they become part of the cultural heritage and conversation. Yet IFFs are only part of the solution. With this in mind, Deeley co-founded Zenith Foundation, a non-profit platform for independent cultural production focused on the Arab region. Its online shop sells DVDs of carefully selected Arab films. However, Deeley admits that the project hasn’t taken off very well: ‘When you have films that people don’t know how to google and directors they never heard about, even an online platform is an obscure platform.’

Art and industry

So cinema is not only art – it’s also an industry. The twin financial challenges of production and distribution are giant struggles for filmmakers at both public and private level. That’s why Deeley believes that, not being a big ticket-seller, the art sector, including independent cinema, must be subsidized: ‘As societies we recognize that in life, industry and buildings are not enough. We need culture. Independent films anywhere are niche films watched by people who are looking for culture beyond formulaic filmmaking. They’re about aesthetic, soul, and mental satisfaction.’

Is the future bright for independent Arab cinemas? ‘It has triumphed against every single odd,’ Deeley says. ‘If it’s done that so far, I’m very optimistic.’ And, as Sophie Chamas, co-editor of Mashallah News, wrote: ‘The independent Arab film industry is a veritable orchestra of diverse voices and perspectives that have the potential to crack or even pry open many a closed, angry and rigid regional mind, initiating curiosity or, at the very least, introducing confusion and doubt into what was once a disciplined house of unwavering conviction.’

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