“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.”