Arab cinema: universal pictures

Middle Eastern cinema has a rich history, but many films of the recent past have dwelt on the region’s political problems. Now a new generation of filmmakers are producing movies that offer crowd-pleasing entertainment alongside sharp social comment, as Vision finds out

When a Lebanese movie took centre stage at a high-profile Arab film festival in London earlier this year, it felt like a watershed moment. After all, Bosta wasn’t a new film: Philippe Aractingi’s directorial debut broke box-office records in Beirut back in 2005. It wasn’t even a gritty drama reflecting the political realities of the Middle East, the all-too familiar subject matter for most recent Arab films enjoying international exposure. Instead, Bosta is a musical in which a group of young artists tour Lebanon in a old bus performing a new take on the dabke, a folk dance, set to techno and hip-hop. Audiences at London’s Safar, an ambitious season of popular Arab film, absolutely loved it.

Six days and seven classic Arab films later, Safar closed with arguably the most successful Arab film of all time, The Yacoubian Building. Marwan Hamed’s adaptation of Alaa Al Aswany’s bestselling novel is, like Bosta, a fascinating insight into how the more cosmopolitan aspects of Arab society rub up against the traditions of the past.

The screening sold out, as did most of the movies at Safar, from 1971’s Watch Out for Zouzou, starring Soad Hosni, and Stray Bullet, a family melodrama set in Beirut, which won best film at the 2010 Dubai International Film Festival’s Muhr Awards. Safar, then, was a roll-call of the biggest hits in Arab cinema rather than a showcase of new films, but for its curator, Omar Kholeif, that was the whole point.

“What we found,” he says, “is that a lot of these films hadn’t been properly shown in the UK before. Some of that was because of poor distribution or poor archiving of the prints. But it’s also because there’s this odd attitude internationally towards ‘world’ cinema, that it should be from experimental auteurs who challenge their audiences.”

Entertaining combination

It is something of a bizarre state of affairs. Authentic, enjoyable Arab films that enthral and entertain audiences in the region are often overlooked internationally in favour of highly politicised movies with a connection to news headlines. Yousry Nasrallah’s recent film about events in Tahrir Square, After the Battle, was actually a rather average movie and yet somehow it competed for one of the international film industry’s highest honours, the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, up against films from the likes of Wes Anderson, David Cronenberg, Michael Haneke and Ken Loach.

Still, there are some interesting new filmmakers who have the ability to straddle both worlds, particularly Nadine Labaki, who starred in Stray Bullet, and whose feel-good Where Do We Go Now? won plaudits in Lebanon and abroad.

Kholeif is keen to recognise the importance of the Gulf’s many film festivals in encouraging Arab cinema. “Dubai International Film Festival’s focus has always been on popular, audience-friendly films and giving them their first platform in the region, which is why it was great to work with them as a programming partner on Safar. There’s a nice culture in these festivals of prize-giving and creating moments of pride. That’s really important.”

One filmmaker who should know about the effect Arab film festivals can have is Nawaf Al-Janahi. The Abu Dhabi director helmed Image Nation Abu Dhabi’s first Emirati film production, Sea Shadow. After an impressive premiere at last year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the film has been shown everywhere from Cairo to Chicago. But its popularity in the UAE would also have pleased Kholeif. In a week where Sea Shadow was up against a number of Hollywood movies, it took second place at the box office.

“It’s still a challenging time,” warns Al-Janahi. “In the Emirates, we produce more short films than any other country in the Middle East. But it’s hard to get features made – only one or two a year if we’re lucky. With Sea Shadow, the aim was to tell a universal tale that wasn’t restricted to country or language. It’s a simple coming-of-age story. Although the movie takes place in the UAE and the characters are Emirati, the themes transcend boundaries.”

International reception

But what really surprised him was the reception that Sea Shadow received at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in America earlier this year. “The attendance was genuinely remarkable: a full house in both screenings. That was something I didn’t expect, especially because there were other films at the festival from Arab countries that are far more recognised for their filmmaking than the UAE.”

So, slowly but surely, attitudes are changing. The temptation is to rush into celebrating a new dawn of interest in Arab filmmaking, particularly when there are so many initiatives in the Gulf states that encourage the sense of a vibrant film industry. The reality is that any real change will take time.

Only a few months ago, Ali Jaafar, who programmes Arab and Middle Eastern films for the BFI London Film Festival, wrote in British newspaper The Guardian that although there is a new generation of talented filmmakers from the Middle East helping to sow the seeds for a potential Arab cinema renaissance, the funding is often “too readily available for filmmakers whose scripts are not properly developed, whose stories are not interesting enough, whose characters are not engaging and who have no idea of the concept of dramatic resolution”.

The ball, then, is firmly in the court of the producers, to allocate the money that is undeniably available to interesting and worthwhile projects..