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.

Photo: Getty
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Winning tears: Chad Le Clos is a great swimmer, but his display of emotion shows real strength

The South African Olympian and his parents offer something we rarely see.

Headlines from the swimming world championships might well have been stolen by Adam Peaty’s world records and golds, but Chad Le Clos’s reaction to winning the 200m freestyle last night had a victory all of its own.

South African Le Clos was visibly moved to tears during the awards ceremony, unafraid to appear emotional after having left the world’s best in his wake. His parents Bert and Geraldine were also filmed wiping away tears in the stands.

Bert had already gone viral at the 2012 Olympics in a BBC interview with Claire Balding, during which he described his son as “the most down-to-earth, beautiful boy you’ll ever meet in your life”. If “beautiful” doesn’t quite chime with expectations of a chiselled, Adonis-like athlete like Le Clos, perhaps even more refreshing was Bert blowing his son a kiss from the commentary perch, saying through the TV: “I love you”.

Last night’s tears were all the more emotional given both Bert and Geraldine are receiving treatment for cancer. It was something weighing on Le Clos, who said that it was “an emotional race, before, during and after it".

Men being so openly affectionate in public is still rare. But it comes during a week in which ITV aired Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, with Princes William and Harry talking about their love of their mother.

When interviewed before the programme, William said: “I think it's been quite cathartic for us doing it. It's been at first quite daunting – opening up so much to camera... but going through this process has been quite a healing process as well."

The Le Clos family might be leagues away from the upper reaches of fame occupied by the Princes, but they both speak to something wider – that it is perfectly fine for men to be emotional, either in times of triumph or of difficulty.

Jack Urwin made the point for Vice and, later, in his book Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity, that “the stubborn lost-husband-refusing-to-ask-for-directions might be a handy caricature – one that's helped people like Martin Clunes sustain a career in television for over 30 years – but it's also rooted in a very real, very destructive notion of masculinity. We're conditioned from an early age to believe that acknowledging weakness is somehow a weakness in itself.”

It is relevant when considering that suicide is the leading cause of death in 20 to 34-year-old men in the UK. The epidemic of young male suicide in the UK cannot be simplified as having one defining cause, or one defining solution. But preventing male suicide and being more willing to accept very natural male tears, are two concepts which stem from the same roots: expression, communication, and destigmatising emotion.

The emotion shown by the Le Clos men is not, however, born out of difficulty – it is born out of happiness and, at the risk of being trite, love. “The Le Clos only cry when we win,” Bert told Sport24 after the Olympics. “We don't cry when we lose and that's the bottom line.”

The reality is that everyone loses as often, if not more often, than they win. Yet in being so willing to display their love for each other, the Le Clos men continue to set a bold precedent. Any criticisms of a snowflake generation, or even predictably crass tweets citing Dunkirk as evidence of 21st century men’s weakness, are spectacularly missing the point.

Yes, Chad Le Clos’s performance in the Budapest pool was muscular, powerful and dominant – but in his tears and his admission that his “family's health is more important than gold medals," he showed another form of strength.