For the first time, the National Film Theatre is devoting a season to contemporary Arab cinema. Anna Shepherd reveals the highlights
It is difficult to divorce Arab cinema from the yapping about the politics of the region. Surely it's all Palestinian flag-waving and Arab nationalist propaganda. That is, if the genre means anything at all. Or perhaps what comes to mind are visions of 1960s Cairo in black and white: a young, dashing Omar Sharif, plus the obligatory belly dancing. Neither image has anything in common with the 16 pictures in the National Film Theatre's Arab cinema season.
With scarcely a belly dancer in sight - except for a cheeky scene in a Beirut brothel (in Ziad Doueiri's cinematic gem West Beirut) - the festival showcases fresh, diverse talent emerging from the Arab world. Most of the films were made since the turn of the millennium. "Our focus is on the modern because we want to give people the opportunity to experience living, breathing Arab culture, not a retrospective of it," says the season's curator, Mona Tayara-Deeley. She has pushed seductive storytelling, entertainment and comedy to the forefront. "What will sustain an interest in the culture is if people enjoy watching a film," she says.
Doueiri, a former assistant to Quentin Tarantino, depicts two teenage boys battling through the awkward thrills of adolescence, bullied by their elders, yelled at by their mothers, emulating their fathers and fixated by girls. Sounds familiar? They could be from anywhere in the world, if it weren't for the regularity of Arabic proverbs and curses. The swearing is irresistible. "You are even more unpleasant than a clot in my blood," blazes one feisty lady in an Arab equivalent of a Football-ers' Wives moment. To which the other replies: "Well, I hope you clot in hell!" It's one of the more polite insults and a symbol of the growing boldness of Arab cinema.
Hani Khalifa's Sleepless Nights opens the season. Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars, it was a surprise hit in Cairo, dealing frankly with the marital problems of four couples. Even a UK audience priding itself on an unblushing attitude to sex might find it strong meat. Equally, A Citizen, an Inspector and a Thief, an all-singing family melodrama starring the pop star Shaaban Abdel-Rehim, is a dazzling, if exhausting, portrayal of Cairo life. Both films provide a magnificent picture of Egyptian popular culture.
Politics cannot be completely severed. The Lebanese and Palestinian offerings carry a strong political current - but only after a human story. In Terra Incognita, news updates on a radio provide the only reference to the political climate. Likewise, in Rana's Wedding, bulldozers destroy Palestinian homes while Rana discusses marriage plans. The final scene is so tight with human warmth that the circumstances shaping the wedding seem negligible. Elia Suleiman's satirical Chronicle of a Disappearance offers glimpses of real life in Palestine that contrast with the picture postcards. His dark, daring humour has thrilled non-Arab audiences. The baffling, silent star of all his films, Suleiman demands much from the viewer.
Seven countries are represented in the season, reminding us that there is no more a single Arab voice than there is a unified Arab world. Only themes are shared: tradition versus modernity; rural versus ur-ban; intergenerational conflict; love across social barriers. None of them demands an intimate knowledge of the Middle East. Curiosity is the only prerequisite.
The Arab cinema season is at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020 7928 3232) from 3-31 August