Reimagining Arab cinema

Omar Kholeif interviewed.

Omar Kholeif is an Egyptian-born, UK-based writer, curator and producer. His current project, "Safar: A Journey Through Popular Arab Cinema” is running from 21 – 27 September at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London.

How did the idea for Safar come about and how did you get involved in it?

I was approached by the Arab British Centre a year and a half ago. We sat down and talked about what it was that we wanted to bring to London and British audiences in order to make a real statement about contemporary Arab cinema. Through lots of discussion and research it transpired that a lot of the Arab cinema that we were receiving in the UK was anchored around very particular social and political concerns and wasn’t necessarily representative of Arab cultural production or the films that were popular locally. What you get with Safar is an experience that we believe is much more representative, but also much more enjoyable. It actually contradicts the confines of what you expect world cinema to be. Traditionally, it’s something that aspires to a high arts concern, but these films are much more dialogue-based, comedic and melodramatic. They’re also epic and enthralling in different ways and actually reveal quite political and dissident things about local culture, by doing it through a form that’s accessible to a broader audience.

Do you think that even though historically Arab cinema hasn’t been shown much in the UK, that is something that’s set to change? Is Arab film coming more to the forefront of cinema in the UK today?

I think so. We’re building audiences slowly, but I think that it can be a red herring and we have to be cautious. What you find is that a lot of events are one-offs, when what you really need is someone to develop an infrastructure in their regular programme so audiences know that this isn’t just some fleeting fad, but actually a cultural form that’s important.

Safar focuses on Egypt as the cultural epicentre of Arab cinema. Do you think that after everything that’s happened in Egypt, Cairo’s film industry is under threat? Will anything change?

I don’t think so, really. I think what we’ll see is a lot more independently produced film in the sense that filmmakers will want to make films regardless of institutional backing or support.

Do you think it’s tricky for filmmakers in the region to navigate complicated blasphemy laws? Is that an issue in production?

In Egypt, there are five statutes that are not supposed to be touched upon in cinema. One of them is about deriding religion or threatening the state. That’s something that’s always been inherent in Arab cinema production since the 1970s and it’s actually lead to a different kind of filmmaking that is more allegorical. It’s encouraged the transgressive elements to lie more in the fabric of the film as well, which I think, actually, is a really interesting thing. With the political and social situation I think that filmmakers are going to continue to operate within those confines, but I don’t think it’s really an issue. Right now there’s an international hunger for those filmmakers who are dissident or expressive or that don’t fit within the system so, if anything, we’re in a more liberal position because there’s more profile and interest and that allows those alternative voices a space - although there obviously are concerns from filmmakers about some of their intellectual and cultural rights. As the regime there is so new it will have to transpire how those things will be dealt with.

While we’re on the subject of political change, the timing of these screenings feels quite apt. Some of the locations that are featured in the films will be familiar, having been on British TV screens recently. Do you hope that these films will affect how British viewers think about Egypt, Syria etc?

Absolutely. What I’m hoping is that these films can emphasise the human qualities of the people there, and that it will shift that perception of these places as "other". 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. 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. All of those issues are represented in the films in different ways, so hopefully they will suggest an ulterior entry-point for understanding these places.

How did you go about selecting which films to include in the programme?

It was a very difficult process. What we’ve tried to do is create a journey that has many different layers and entry-points but is also historical. I really wanted it to be historical, because too often the cinema that we see is very tied to particular moments in time. Right now it’s very much about a post-revolutionary moment, an "Arab Uprising" moment. We also decided that the films had to have been popular locally in the region, so they might have broken box-office records, or perhaps they were a cult classic or were critically acclaimed. After that we’d decide on their merit as artistic works and how they would translate to audiences. Our next big thing is what we could get the rights to, because the rights issue in the Arab world is very problematic and very contentious. It’s a complex process, but I’m really happy with the programme we have now. Ultimately, it’s all about people coming to watch. The press interest has been absolutely wonderful and I’m hoping for more and more critical dialogue around these issues, but at the end of the day for things to be sustainable you need bums on seats, you need people to come out and say that this was a really wonderful thing. You need philanthropists and studios and independent distribution labels to come by and say, we want to invest in these films and support these films.

So that’s really what you’d like to see come about as a result of the festival: wider distribution of the films?

Yes. I’d love to see the films that I grew up with on the big screen at the local cinema or getting talked about in academic journals or newspapers. Being talked about not merely because they are representative of the so-called "Arab world", but because they are an art form.

If someone had time to see just one of the films this week, which film would you recommend and why?

One of my personal favourites is Alexandria, Why?. For me growing up, it played a very important role in my formation as an adult. It’s like War and Peace, but it’s also got elements of soap opera and melodrama and Hollywood musicals. It’s just totally sumptuous and epic and really aspirational. That’s the kind of film I love, that captures the spirit of a moment or time through a panoply of very different characters.

"Safar" focuses on Cairo as the epicentre of Arab cinema. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era