Last Chance for Arab Cinema

Tomorrow evening Safar draws to a close at the ICA. Here’s what’s you’ve missed and what’s still to come.

“What we need is a film that can cross over: what Amores Perros was for Mexican cinema, what City of God was for Brazilian cinema, what Old Boy was for Korean cinema. Who had heard of Korean cinema before Old Boy? I hadn’t.” Last week curator and producer Omar Koleif opened Safar: A Journey Through Popular Arab Cinema by reminding those present that “the question of popular Arab cinema,” the question at the heart of his project, had yet to be answered. “By no means are all the films shown here purely and definitively defined in this way,” he told delegates at the festival’s opening forum last Friday. “This is a room for discussion and for the opening up of those ideas.”

All present seemed convinced they were discussing something lasting: a cultural form undervalued both in the West and East, but as for the route to larger audiences? Ali Jaafar, producer and programmer for the imminent London Film Festival, believes a crossover hit would pave the way: “We need that movie and we also need stars,” he argued. “The Arab world has had one star in the last sixty years: Omar Sharif. That’s outrageous. We have beautiful, intelligent people, smart filmmakers, smart actors and actresses – why don’t we have a Marion Cotillard?”

Jaafar locates the low-level exposure of Arab cinema as a matter of quality. “There are two types of films: good films and bad films,” he said. “We have a crisis of surplus, of excess. We have a festival mentality where Abu Dhabi and Dubai are funding Arab filmmakers without these filmmakers having to earn it.” Many others see the problem as stemming from the eighty-year-long schism that has separated realist, nationalist Arab films from transnational popular cinema. Dr Viola Shafik, freelance filmmaker and author of Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class and Nation (2007), pointed out “these films were accepted in the West as speaking for the ‘real’ Arab people, while actually popular cinema is also speaking for the people, only in a completely different way.” She thinks rather than the English “Arab Cinema”, the French designation, “Les Cinemas Arabes,” is altogether more appropriate, as it recognises plurality in the Arab world. “Popular cinema is synchretistic,” Shafik says. “Early Egyptian cinema drew from local traditions, Kara Gyuz (punch and judy shows), comic theatre, local music and the repertoire of the shadow plays.”

Then there is the question of distribution. Mona Deeley founded the Zenith Foundation in 2002 with the aim of supporting independent cultural production related to the Arab region and its diaspora, but after four successful retrospectives and establishing an online DVD shop, she was disappointed to see sales fall and funding dry up. Jason Wood, Director of Programming at Curzon Cinemas and Artificial Eye, opposed Ali Jaafar’s view by warning of the damage films like Amores Perros or Old Boy can do. “The danger of crossover films is imitation,” he said. “The media loves the idea of discovering a new wave, but wasn’t it Claude Chabrol that said ‘There are no waves, there is only the ocean?’ Cinema is an art but it’s also an industry. We have a situation in the UK where audiences don’t know what they’re going to see when they go to an Odeon or a Curzon because independents need to show the crossover films – The Dark Knight Rises, Sex and the City 2 – to stay afloat.”

Which is not to say that sitting in the dark with a room of fellow humans is an experience which has been bettered as yet. Still to come this week at the ICA are Terrorism and the Kebab (tonight, 6.30pm), One-Zero (tonight, 8.30pm) and The Yacoubian Building (tomorrow, 6.30pm), a mix of daring black satire, a complex adaptation of the best-selling novel by Alaa-Al-Aswany and the only Egyptian film in recent memory to be led by an entirely female production team. So why not make up your own mind? The programme can be found here, and each event is followed by an optional discussion with directors, actors and writers involved in these and other modern Arab films aimed at attracting a wide audience, while retaining their integrity as works of cinematic art.

“There’s never been a more crucial time for Arab filmmakers to get their point of view across,” added Jaafar. “We only have to look at the tragic scenes from the past couple of weeks to know how important the perception of the Arab and Muslim world is and how it’s been misconceived and misrepresented. We need our artists and our cultural practitioners to express the complexity, not simply the shouting and screaming and running. There’s far more to the Arab world than that.”

This point lies at the heart of what motivate everyone involved in the festival, from practitioners to producers, distributors and audiences. “There’s this strange misconception that people in these countries don’t have a sense of humour, that they’re very serious and that they’re really militant and all want to fight for freedom,” Kholeif told the New Statesman last week. “But actually, people there are human, people are disillusioned, people are frustrated, people are sexual, people are gay, people are Jewish and Christian and underrepresented.”

Safar will close with Marwan Hamed's The Yacoubian Building tomorrow evening at 6:30pm at the ICA.

Adel Imam at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood