LONDON—The Arab uprisings may be an exhausted topic for some commentators politically, but the effects continue to ripple through the Arab film industry.
The events of almost three years ago are still inspiring cinematographic creativity despite limited funding, state censorship, and distribution difficulties.
That was one of the many themes discussed at a forum held at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts on September 20 as part of Safar, a two-year old film festival that showcases award-winning and critically acclaimed films from around the Arab world.
Safar provides a retrospective on quality productions from a variety of countries including Morocco, Yemen, Egypt and Lebanon and spanning four decades between the 1970s and 2013, screening classics such as Youssef Chahine’s The Sparrow (1972), a murder mystery set against the backdrop of Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war, and Around the Pink House (1999), a story about a peculiar old house and its colorful inhabitants in post-War Beirut, as well as Factory Girl (2013), which focuses on a young factory worker juggling love and societal stigmas in working-class Cairo.
Speaking at the forum’s first session, Malek Khouri of the American University in Cairo said that the Egyptian revolution had brought about a renewed international interest in Egyptian cinema, providing an opportunity to counter Western orientalist stereotypes.
Film festivals like Safar were absolutely essential, he said, because they present “a totally alternative outlook on what needs to be seen from the repertoire of Arab cinema.”
“Emphasizing popular Arab cinema is the first step towards the West becoming more oriented with the dynamics of Arab filmmaking,” he explained. “As well as the dynamics of cinema watching in the Arab world.”
A filmmaker and curator, Viola Shafik said that periods of social and political turmoil across history have brought about change in cinema.
“At the very least, there were attempts to create a different kind of cinema that is close to the people and expresses [the voices of] the underprivileged,” she added.
Shafik spoke alongside filmmaker Sarah Ishaq on the meaning of revolutionary cinema, a theme that Ishaq identified with closely as the director of Karama has no Walls and The Mulberry House, two award-winning films on the Yemeni uprising of 2011.
Ishaq believes that her experience of making the films in Yemen is revolutionary in its own way, particularly as a woman who was given access to private family experiences in a gender-segregated and deeply conservative Arab country.
“Allowing a camera into this very private space and experiencing the acceptance of the family of it over the course of a year and half was revolutionary for me,” she explained. (Watch the trailer here.)
A veteran Egyptian filmmaker, Mohamed Khan, echoed Shafik’s theory that chaos breeds creative spurts in the film industry.
‘Unfortunately, wars result in a lot of good art,” he said. He spoke on a panel alongside his daughter, director Nadine Khan, and Lebanese filmmaker, Khalil Joreige. “Out of misery comes good art. When you corner people, they create more.”
Khan discussed the making of Factory Girl, which featured little known actors alongside real factory workers to create an authentic representation of working class Cairo. (Watch the trailer here.)
While the theme of social unrest and representing the underprivileged was common in all three directors’ films, Khan said his production was not a form of social commentary.
“I’m not trying to be a social reformer,” he said. “I’m trying to tell a story. And I hope what I’m trying to tell will make people feel and think.”
For her award-winning 2012 debut Harag, Marag (Chaos, Disorder), Nadine Khan created a surrealist parallel universe that she says could be anywhere in the Middle East, not just Egypt.
“I wanted to create a different world with its own morals and rules and make it familiar but somehow very different,” she said.
The result is a bleak depiction of a brutal society and a film that initially didn’t make it past the censors in 2010, but Khan took advantage of a brief period of creative freedom in post-revolution Cairo and her film script was approved in mid-2011. (Watch the trailer here.)
“I’m lucky, because if I’d waited any longer, I wouldn’t have made the film,” she says. “I believe censorship today is worse than it was before the revolution.”
Despite its release 14 years ago, Around the Pink House remains a relevant topic today, its director Khalil Joreige insisted.
“Some of the topics in the film are still very present today,” he said. “And there is still no solution [to the problems in the film].”
Joreige tackles two very timely issues in Around the Pink House: refugees—around one third of Lebanon’s population was displaced during its civil wars, he says—and the destruction of cultural heritage by urbanisation projects.
Despite the film’s success, Joreige says he could not have made the same film today due to the lack of financial support available.
“I managed to get one million Euros for the film, today I can get 400,000 Euros from all the grants,” he said. He added that Arab film festivals should compensate for the drying up of European Union film grants and lack of Arab state support.
“Lebanon is a poor country,” he said. “And there’s no institutional money. Even if there was money from institutions, we would get it in five years.”
Furthermore, Joreige complained that distribution barriers across the Arab world meant that Arab films were more likely to get screened in European festivals than in Arab ones.
“It is easier for me to get a visa to Europe than to another Arab country,” he said. “And that’s a metaphor for Arab cinema.”
Nadine Khan agreed that distribution was a major problem affecting the industry, noting that the monopoly of cinema screens in Egypt by major production companies inhibited independent, low-budget films.
“In Egypt, the film distributor is also the owner of the cinema and the producer of films,” she said. “At the end of the day, I need my film to be seen, so if I find a distributor who will allow me to do it, I don’t care if it’s in Egypt, the Middle East or anywhere else.”
Mohamed Khan remains optimistic about the future of Arab independent cinema.
“We are in a difficult time, but there a lot of young people coming out with ideas and making serious films, which makes me optimistic,” he said. “Our names will be gone soon and there will still be young people making films, affecting what is happening in the world and telling a story.”