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
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit