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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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge