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.
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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