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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Poldark is the latest show to throw in a lazy, irresponsible rape scene

It’s particularly dangerous to present a scene like this as consensual, as the writers insist it is.

So Poldark has become the latest show to throw in a lazy, irresponsible rape scene to spice things up. We’ve sat through them in outrage-courting Game of Thrones, in cosy Sunday night drama Downton Abbey, and even at the opera. Now, they’ve come to BBC period adaptations, too.

This is how the scene plays out (a detailed description of the events leading up to the rape follow):

Poldark (Aidan Tuner) turns up at his friend Elizabeth’s bedroom door in the middle of the night, in a rage. She suggests he come back tomorrow morning. He refuses. She suggests they relocate downstairs. He refuses. She suggests he should not be in her bedroom. He refuses to leave, and shuts the door behind him.

They argue about Elizabeth’s plan to marry an enemy of Poldark’s, a decision that disgusts him. She asks him to leave, again. “I’m sorry you feel like this, but I cannot help it,” she tells him. “Oh, you’ve never been able to help anything, have you?” he says, mockingly, adding, “well, perhaps you can’t help this either,” kissing her forcefully before she pushes him off her.

Poldark threatens her, approaching her again as he insists, “I oppose this marriage, Elizabeth. I’d be glad of your assurance that you will not go through with it.” She says again that she will be married. Poldark kisses her again against her will. She tells him she hates him. “You would not dare,” she pleads, looking at the bed. “I would, and so would you,” he says. He pushes her onto the bed. You can guess the rest.

Of course, this is a rape scene. Some say it isn’t – because Elizabeth shows signs of enjoying the sex, and she’s nice to Poldark the next morning, because she has (or has had) feelings for him. None of these things are relevant. Poldark verbally pressured and physically forced a woman who was refusing to have sex with him. That’s rape.

It’s particularly dangerous to present a scene like this as consensual, as the writers and cast insist it is. Andrew Graham, the son of Poldark novelist Winston Graham, who was a consultant on the BBC's current screen adaptation, said:

“There is no ‘shock rape’ storyline. The only way to judge what my father intended is to read the novels as a whole. Doing so it becomes clear, from earlier scenes as well as from Elizabeth's immediate reactions and later mixed emotions, that what finally happened was consensual sex born of long-term love and longing. It was, as Aidan Turner has put it, ‘unfinished business emotionally’.”

His opinion was supported by Poldark screenwriter Debbie Horsfield as well as Turner – who said the scene “seems consensual”.

This is not how consent works. Consent is not something you can assume based on “earlier scenes”. And it’s certainly not something you can retrospectively achieve based on the “immediate reactions” or “later mixed emotions” of someone you forced to have sex with you. That’s just you attempting to justify the fact that you raped someone.

The idea that Poldark knows Elizabeth so well that he knows what she truly wants (sex with me, the man of her dreams, duh!!) might seem romantic. But no love is so great that it imbues the lover with the ability to read minds. Implying that Poldark knew best peddles the dangerous myth that when women say no, they mean yes. Beliefs like this create rapists. The only way to know what someone wants is to ask them, and to listen to what they say. Elizabeth said no.

Adapting period material can be tricky – not least in its presentation of women, gender dynamics, and sex. The Poldark books are from the Fourties, and set in the eighteenth century. It’s a miserable state of affairs when the understanding of consent presented on primetime television, in 2016, is as dated.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.