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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser