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.
Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder