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Arabic Cinema comes to London

A preview of the most ambitious season of Arab film ever to be shown in the UK.

New Statesman
Philippe Aractingi directing his box office smash-hit, Bosta. Photograph: Getty Images

Later this week, the Institute of Contemporary Arts will play host to ‘Safar: A Journey through Popular Arab Cinema’, a series of screenings which has been described as the most ambitious season of Arab film ever to be shown in the UK.

The week-long event, which is presented by the Arab British Centre in partnership with the Dubai International Film Festival, will take place from the 21 – 27 September and will showcase films from a fifty year period, including both re-mastered classics and exciting new releases. From literary adaptations such as The Yacoubian Building to subversive comedies like Terrorism and the Kebab; from the hit road musical Bosta to brand-new films featuring contemporary stars, the festival aims to make itself accessible to a new British audience whilst still constituting a treat for connoisseurs of world cinema. Some of the films on the programme have never been shown in the UK before and every screening will be introduced by a relevant speaker, such the BBC’s former Middle East correspondent, Tim Llewellyn, or Egyptian screen icon Hussein Fahmy. The festival will kick off on Friday 21 September with the ‘Friday Forum’, in which experts from the academic world will join film industry leaders to debate the past, present and future of Arabic cinema as a cultural form.

The festival endeavours to avoid politics and cultural stereotypes, preferring instead to offer audiences a flavour of the true culture, traditions and heritage of the Middle East and North Africa, whilst inviting them to consider the role of film in conveying social histories. With so many Arab countries in the midst of restructuring themselves politically and socially, it is more important than ever to give these films a platform in the UK right now.

The New Statesman’s Cultural Capital blog will be running interviews with the directors, actors and curators of ‘Safar’ throughout the festival.

The following highlights constitute a preview of what you can expect from the week:

"Bosta”

The first post-Civil war musical made in Lebanon and a box office record-breaker, Bosta was submitted as the official Lebanese entry in the 79th Academy Awards in the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ category.

“Watch Out for Zouzou”

A sensual film made before the demise of cultural liberalism, Watch Out for Zouzou is perhaps the best-known film of tragic Egyptian screen icon Soad Hosni (the “Marilyn Monroe of Arabic cinema”). Zouzou (Hosni) is a student who has paid her way through college by belly-dancing in her mother's troupe. She has kept this fact a secret, but has decided to give up dancing because she has fallen in love with her college professor. The Professor breaks off his own engagement but not before his fiancée discovers Zouzou’s secret.

“The Yacoubian Building”

The most expensive Egyptian film of its time and based on the hugely popular novel of the same name, The Yacoubian Building is a scathing portrayal of modern Egyptian society since the coup d’état of 1952.

“Stray Bullet”

A hotly-anticipated new release starring actress Nadine Labaki.