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.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Robert Harris: Some of our great political leaders have crossed the floor. But it takes courage

Jeremy Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for – so progressive politicians need to find new ways to take the fight to the Tories.

The big picture in recent years has been the collapse of the left-wing project across the world. But in Britain, in particular, there are institutional reasons. I can’t quite understand how the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party can sit there day after day, month after month, year after year, knowing that they’re simply heading towards a kind of mincing machine at the next election. It’s like waiting in a prison room, waiting to be taken out and shot one by one, when there are enough of you to overpower the guards.

If you look back over British political history, some of the great political leaders have crossed the floor: Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill – and Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers and Williams in 1981. Whether these people turn out to be right or wrong – and mostly they turn out to be right – there’s a certain courage in the action they took. There seems to be no one with the big vision to do anything comparable in the Labour Party.

It’s not fashionable on the left to say this, but individuals are hugely important. I think if there had been a canny and effective leader in place of Jeremy Corbyn we may well not have had Brexit. But as it is, Labour has provided no rallying point for the nearly half the nation that doesn’t want the course the country is set on, and that is such a colossal failure of leadership that I think history will judge the PLP extremely harshly.

The New Labour project was based on a kind of Crossmanite view that through economic growth you would fund ever-improving social services for the entire country. That worked very well until we had the crash, when the engine broke down. Suddenly there was a wilderness in the leadership of the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats had imploded with their alliance with the Tories. There was no opposition.

Our familiar view of the Labour Party is over. That is not coming back. Scotland is not going to be recaptured. So there can never be a Labour government of the sort we’ve seen in the past. One just has to adjust to that. What I would have liked to have seen is some grouping within Labour in parliament, whether around the Co-operative Party or whatever, that would have been able to take the fight to the Tories. But who would lead such a group? We don’t have a Jenkins or an Owen. There doesn’t seem to be anyone of comparable stature.

We all thought that Europe would smash the Tories but actually Europe has smashed Labour. There has obviously been some sort of fracture between the white-collar workers and intellectuals – that Webb, LSE, New Statesman tradition – and a large section of the working class, particularly in the Midlands, the north and Scotland. It’s an alliance that may be very hard to put back together.

Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for. They call for a politician who can master a brief who is also nimble on his feet: but that is the sort of figure the Corbynites revile. You simply can’t have a leader who doesn’t notice when the Tories abandon a manifesto pledge on tax and can’t ask a couple of questions with a quarter of an hour’s notice. The Tories haven’t really gone to town on him but once they get back on to the IRA support and the views expressed in the past, Labour could easily drop to about 150 seats and we could be looking at a 1931-style wipeout.

The fact is that the extra-parliamentary route is a myth. Brexit is being pushed through in parliament; the battle is there and in the courts, not with rallies. You can have a million people at a rally: it’s not going to alter anything at all. It seems as if there has been a coup d’état and a minority view has suddenly taken control, and, in alliance with the right-wing press, is denouncing anyone who opposes it as an enemy of democracy. It requires a really articulate leadership to fight this and that’s what we’ve not got.

The only possibility is a progressive alliance. These are not great days for the progressives, but even still, they make up a good third of the electorate, with the rest to play for. 

If there was an election tomorrow I’d vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I think an awful lot of Labour people would do the same. The Lib Dems offer a simple, unequivocal slogan. You would have thought the one thing John McDonnell and co would have learned from Trotsky and Lenin – with his “Peace, land, bread” – is that you offer a simple slogan. Who knows what Labour’s position is? It’s just a sort of agonised twist in the wind. 

Robert Harris’s latest novel is “Conclave” (Arrow)
As told to Tom Gatti

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition