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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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

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