An Arab Film Festival in the U.K., SAFAR, Adapts to the Online Environment
The SAFAR Film Festival, the United Kingdom’s only festival of Arab cinema, had originally planned a four-day, in-person event with more than a dozen screenings at venues around London. But the coronavirus shutdowns forced it to pivot to a digital format and a slimmed-down program with a thematic focus on journeys.
But despite the loss of the cinematic experience, organizers hope the digital format means the festival’s screenings and live talks will be available to a wider number of people this year—a plus at a time when international interest in Arab film is growing.
The biannual SAFAR festival, which started in 2012, is sponsored by the Arab British Centre, and each edition is led by an independent curator.
This year’s curator, Rabih El-Khoury, had already begun work when the coronavirus shutdowns began. Shifting to an online format meant more than a change in theme, El-Khoury said over email. He also had to rethink how the audience would relate to the films.
“One has to take the position of a spectator watching from home. How would their setting be? How would their viewing experience be? How can we as programmers ensure that they are immersing themselves in the story on their home chair the same way they would be feeling every emotion in a cinema theatre?”
The new SAFAR program, to be held September 13 to 20, features five live screenings of four full-length films plus a program of three short films. Most of the screenings, with the exception of two short films, will be geo-locked to viewers in the United Kingdom. However, the festival’s five live events will be open to audiences around the world.
“One has to take the position of a spectator watching from home. How would their setting be? How would their viewing experience be? How can we as programmers ensure that they are immersing themselves in the story on their home chair the same way they would be feeling every emotion in a cinema theatre?”Rabih El-Khoury
Curator of this year’s festival
Journeys Large and Small
In SAFAR’s featured films, characters trek over long distances: to Mecca, to Canada, and into outer space. But the journeys are personal and metaphorical, too.
The festival launches with Ismaël Ferroukhi’s 2004 film The Great Journey (Le Grande Voyage), a road-trip movie with a twist: Its characters start in the south of France and head to Saudi Arabia in an old Peugeot. As they drive from country to country, young Reda and his father must reach across the generational gap to come to terms with one another. According to the producers, The Great Journey was the first feature film shot on location in Mecca, and it has won several prizes, including the Luigi De Laurentiis Award at the Venice Film Festival.
This is followed by Tamer El Said’s directorial debut, In the Last Days of the City (2016), which follows a fictional Egyptian filmmaker as he tries to record the story of his life. Shot in 2009 and 2010, the story hovers on the cusp of wider changes. El Said will also give a talk on September 16 about the making of the film.
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In the third film, Vatche Boulghourjian’s Tramontane (2016), a blind man discovers that the Lebanese ID card he’s carried his whole life is a forgery. In order to turn up a record of his birth, he must travel around the country. This film won a Grand Rail d’Or Audience Award at Cannes, and Boulghourjian will give a film talk on September 17, along with sound designer Rana Eid and composer Cynthia Zaven, about the film’s sonic journeys.
The final full-length film is Kaouther Ben Hania’s coming-of-age documentary, Zaineb Hates the Snow (2016). This story opens as nine-year-old Zaineb loses her father to a car accident. In the wake of her husband’s death, Zaineb’s mother rediscovers an old love and, eighteen months later, Zaineb is headed to Canada to join her new stepfather and his children. This film offers no easy happily-ever-after.
The short films include Roy Dib’s Mondial 2010 (2014), Rakan Mayasi’s Bonboné (2017), and one of Larissa Sansour’s iconic Palestinian sci-fi shorts: A Space Exodus (2009).
Talking About the Future of Film
In addition to the three film talks, SAFAR will also host an all-woman panel on making documentaries, and a special celebration of the festival’s fifth edition hosted by SAFAR co-founder Saeed Taji Farouky.
In “SAFAR Social: Making Documentaries,” directors Naziha Arebi, Yasmin Fedda and Basma Khalifa will have an informal discussion of what brought them to documentary filmmaking and how they see the future of the form.
Then, on the final day of the festival, Farouky will host a discussion about how Arab cinema has changed since he and Noreen Abu Oun co-launched the festival in 2012.
“It’s difficult to generalize,” he said over email, “but it’s undeniable that Arab cinema has changed immeasurably. The revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring,’ although they’re still ongoing, blew the doors off the old model of cinema and gave us a glimpse of another reality. That reality is now being reflected in a cinema that is more introspective, bolder, and more willing to tackle difficult subjects.”
National film industries and cinema movements are also growing, he said, particularly in Tunisia and Jordan. “These are still emerging, and filmmakers are still finding out what the limits of expression are in their respective countries, but I think the change and developments will be difficult to roll back.”
“It’s difficult to generalize, but it’s undeniable that Arab cinema has changed immeasurably. The revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring,’ although they’re still ongoing, blew the doors off the old model of cinema and gave us a glimpse of another reality. That reality is now being reflected in a cinema that is more introspective, bolder, and more willing to tackle difficult subjects.”Taji Farouky
Also, he said, “There’s more international interest in Middle Eastern cinema, which means a higher profile and more success in international festivals, which in turn piques the interest of Arab filmmakers and culture ministries. The challenge now is: how do we expand the sector while maintaining our artistic freedom, our political freedom, and our willingness to provoke.”
All the talks are set to start at 6:30 p.m. British Summer Time (UTC+1), making them accessible to film fans in earlier time zones in the Americas, as well as those in later time zones in Europe and the Middle East.
New Audiences, More Festivals
Because of the digital format, SAFAR has a chance to reach wider audiences throughout the United Kingdom this year. In the past, many potential viewers hadn’t been able to attend an event in London.
Becky Harrison, the Arab British Centre’s communications director, said organizers hope “as many people as possible across the U.K. watch the program.” She added, “It would be great to see the far-reaching popularity of Arab cinema with event audiences tuning in from all over the world.”
Notably, there are also two other Arab film festivals happening in September 2020.
The Arabisches Filmfestival Berlin runs through September 29. This is not a digital festival, but rather is hosted at three theaters in Berlin with special social-distancing rules in place.
And three days after SAFAR closes, the online Toronto Palestine Film Festival will open. Set to run online from September 23 to 29, the festival features a number of new short and feature-length films by Palestinian artists and will close with a musical session featuring Toronto-based singers Hala Ayyad and Murshed Khalid. Most screenings are geo-locked to Canada, but a few are open globally.