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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge