Arabic Cinema comes to London

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

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.

Philippe Aractingi directing his box office smash-hit, Bosta. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.