Rise of the Arab Genre - Program Presented by Maskoon - Curation and Essay by Antoine Waked, Artistic Director of Maskoon FFF
Genre (Horror, Fantasy, Science Fiction) has been a rarity in the landscape of Arab cinema, despite the fact that the region is filled with folkloric fantasy stories of Jinns, Ifrits, Shaitans, and Ghouls…
Between the sci-fi futurism of the Gulf and the dystopic atmosphere of the Levant and North African countries, one would expect that Arab filmmakers would embrace making genre films. Only a few Arab filmmakers have understood the power and boundless scope that the cinematic language of genre can offer, as a disguised instrument to tackle important social and political subjects by using the veil of horror, fantasy and science fiction. For this reason, most Arab films are stuck between two main categories: the major one is comprised of multiple dramas that focus on exotic social issues, are easy to access and please an international market or a festival. These films always rely on European funds, markets, co producers and script consultants which, in the process of developing and making the film, impose a Western point of view on the project, that is indirectly akin to artistic neo-colonialism. The second category is mostly a forgettable but successful array of local comedies that are impossible to export even to nearby countries. The reliance on funds from abroad has restricted the spectrum of Arab cinema and forced many filmmakers to fit a specific mold to be able to get their films made.
If we go back to the beginnings, the major and most prominent cinema industry in the Middle East came from Egypt which, during its golden era, produced many successful and diverse films that of course included the first Arabic horror films and thrillers. Many of these Egyptian films were heavily inspired and, in some cases, unofficial remakes of the U.S films that were trending at the time. Egypt’s venture into fantasy was at first very much based on local folklore and literature, with highlights being the adaptations of A Thousand and One Nights (1941), and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1942) by Togu Mizrahi, a pioneer of Egyptian cinema. The Ambassador of Hell (Safeer gohannam 1945) is another classic from that era, a Faustian story starring and directed by Yusuf Wahbi, using innovative visuals for its time which kickstarted many other genre fares for Wahbi. Another iconic example is Have Mercy (Haram Alek, 1953), a remake of Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein starring acclaimed comedian Ismail Yassin. Because of the success of that film, Yassin will continue in the same vein with more films based on horror classics, including a visit to a wax museum, a confrontation with a genie and even an Invisible Man remake. Egypt continued throughout its golden era to make commercial films, mimicking the U.S horror model by using the common figures of djinns, demons, devils and ghosts for entertaining purposes, which resulted in fascinating knockoffs of American films with an added Egyptian flavor.
One filmmaker that did not follow the norm was Kamal El Sheikh who was hailed as the Egyptian Hitchcock. El Sheikh managed to skillfully put a spin on the Egyptian drama, by adding a genre twist to it and marrying social dramas with thriller, fantasy and science fiction. His films like Life or Death (Hayat aw mawt 1954) and Last Night (El-Lailah el-Akhirah 1963) were selected to compete at the Cannes International Film Festival.
Another unique filmmaker was Mohammed Shebl. A big horror fan since childhood, Shebl directed, over a period of 10 years, four insane horror films that featured unforgettable images such as disco dancing vampires, laser shooting goats and superstar Youssra bathing in blood. His debut film Fangs (Anyab 1981) is a fascinating unofficial remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show featuring the most insane musical numbers. It gained a cult following over the years, and was rediscovered in 2017 when it was screened at Fantastic Fest. Shebl’s other works are as diverse, including the supernatural horror films The Talisman (Al Ta’awitha 1987) and Nightmare (Kaboos 1989), both starring superstar Youssra. The twisted black comedy Love and Revenge… With a Meat Cleaver (Gharam Wa-Intiqam… Bis-Satur 1992) was his final film before his early death due to disease. Shebl’s love for horror is undeniable in every frame. While he was heavily inspired by the 80s boom of horror cinema, he managed to also sneak in social messages about the corruption within the Egyptian society.
Many other supernatural horror films were made during the 80s. Worth a mention are The Cursed House (Al-Bayt Ul-Malun 1987) by Ahmad El-Khatib, inspired by Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror, He Returned For Vengeance (Aad Liyantaqim 1988) by Yassin Ismail Yassin, a shot by shot remake of Peter Medak’s The Changeling, and the box office riff on The Exorcist, The Humans and The Jinns (Al Ens Wa Al Jinn 1985) by Mohamed Radi featuring three of Egyptian cinema’s biggest stars Adel Emam, Youssra and Ezzat El Alaili.
Aside from Egypt, the rest of the Arab world barely touched genre cinema. There were however a few attempts, such as the intriguing Kandisha (2008) by French-Moroccan filmmaker Jérôme Cohen-Olivar starring Hiam Abbas, Amira Casar and with a guest appearance by David Carradine. The French coproduction attempts an ambitious mixture of the courtroom drama mystery with the Aicha Kandisha myth.
In Lebanon, The Last Man (2006) by author filmmaker Ghassan Salhab is an engrossing and hypnotic take on vampirism, starring Carlos Chahine as a Nosferatu-like figure roaming the nocturnal streets of Beirut. Salhab also explored the existential fear of his country’s collapse, with his apocalypse trilogy The Mountain (2010), The Valley (2014) and The River (2021).
Emirati cinema, in an endeavor to boost the local industry, attempted a few ventures into genre territories that are worth mentioning. The first one Djinn (2013) is the last film directed by horror legend Tobe Hooper (Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist). It is infamous for its disastrous production, with rumors that the original cut was deemed controversial for its portrayal of the Emirates, which prompted many reshoots by an Emirati director instead of Hooper. Whether the rumors were true or not, Djinn was quickly forgotten. Rattle the Cage (Zinzana 2015) by Majid Al Ansari and The Worthy (2016) by Ali F. Mostafa fared much better with screenings at international festivals like BFI London Film Festival, Fantastic Fest and Beyond Fest. Rattle the Cage stars Palestinian actors Saleh Bakri and Ali Suliman in a face to face set in a prison cell, where a locked prisoner is tormented by a police officer’s twisted games. The Worthy, also starring Suliman, is a survival dystopian action thriller taking place in a world where water supplies have been contaminated. Both films have strong aesthetics and atmosphere, but are lacking when it comes to representing an Emirati identity on screen.
It is only in recent years that a younger generation of filmmakers started to approach their work differently, by using the wide spectrum offered by genre cinema as a means to reflect on their society and identity.
This new wave of filmmakers dared to crack the mold by opening up to the limitless narrative opportunities that genre cinema can offer. They appropriated and reshaped the tropes to present a series of films that are very unique in the Arabic cinema landscape.
Not unlike the new wave that emerged in South Korea, Spain, Mexico, Chile and Argentina, these films have started to reinvigorate Arab cinema.
The majority of these new films are born in a recent climax that has embraced change in the way genre cinema is perceived. Internationally, the generation that was raised on 70s and 80s horror and science fiction films is now in charge of film festivals and markets. It thus opened up to the inclusion of more genre films in big festivals like Berlin, Cannes and Venice. This created a trend that allowed the democratization of genre cinema as an art form, culminating in two years in a row genre films Palme d’or with the success of Parasite (2019) and Titane (2021).
In parallel, in the Arab world, the generation currently making films was also raised on 80s cinema which was an era heavily dominated by genre. This generation does not have the burden and duty that the older generation had of addressing their history and legacy, or the responsibility of presenting an Arab point of view in their films. The new generation can now explore different topics that have a wider universality. Genre cinema is born from a reaction to how the world is evolving. Juggling between cutting the ties with their elder’s way of doing, the neo-colonialism of funds and markets, and an Arab identity crisis affected by the post-9⁄11 world and the Arab Spring, these filmmakers are using the broadened imagination allowed by genre, to ensure a much-needed distance that would enable them to better understand and assess their reality.
Moroccan filmmaker Talal Selhami grew up watching horror and fantasy films on TV. They were for him a portal to new universes that expanded his imagination. Selhami compared the VHS store to a candy store where he would go as a kid and stare in awe at the artwork on the covers. Following the festival success of his short horror film Sinistra (2006), Selhami started an internship with acclaimed filmmaker Nabil Ayoush who was impressed by his skills. Ayoush proposed to him to direct a film as part of a series of movies that he was producing in collaboration with Moroccan TV. The conditions were very tight, with a 100,000 euro budget and only 15 days of shooting. Jumping on the occasion with total enthusiasm, Selhami cleverly used these restrictions to his advantage and set his feature debut Mirages (2010) in the Ouarzazate desert (home to many Hollywood productions such as Gladiator and Game of Thrones), where he could save on the budget by using natural lighting. Mirages follows a group of five characters (each representing a sample of the Moroccan society) competing for the same job position at a multinational corporation. They are forced to undertake a test that will determine who will hold the position. They find themselves trapped in the desert, trying to survive by all means necessary while also being haunted by their darkest mirages. Selhami’s slick direction keeps the tension running throughout the entire duration of the film, while also reflecting on how Moroccan society was affected by the arrival of capitalism. Morocco, which is deeply rooted in traditions, was suddenly shaken by the arrival of globalization and capitalism. This shift happened without any transition, creating a big gap between classes and making the country completely schizophrenic. It is this schizophrenia, which gradually leads to madness, that Selhami wanted to capture in his film. Despite being more than 10 years old, it still feels as relevant today as it was at the time. The film premiered at the Marrakesh Film Festival followed by a successful run on the fantastic festival circuit. Selhami followed up Mirages with the very ambitious Achoura (2016), a monster movie that deals with the concept of childhood and was inspired by his love for Stephen King, Guillermo Del Toro and the Amblin productions. Set during the Achoura holiday in Morocco, which is a celebration of childhood, the film follows four childhood friends who are reunited after twenty years to confront the creature that haunted their childhood. Using the allegory of a child eating monster, Selhami ponders on what it feels like to grow up and be burdened with adult responsibilities that gradually make you lose your childhood innocence and dreams. The film was very complicated to make and its release was delayed, because of the complex and ambitious VFX work which was not common in the region.
Another Moroccan filmmaker that also carries that same ambition as Selhami is Sofia Alaoui. Her first short film So What If the Goats Die (2020) was a huge success winning the best short film award in Sundance and at the César. In So What If the Goats Die, the arrival of aliens in Morocco shakes the religious beliefs of a small village. Alaoui is also interested in the cultural gap in her society. She uses the excuse of an Alien invasion to invite the Moroccan society to question itself, and confronts it with taboo subjects related to the clash between religion and science and how both can naturally coexist. Alaoui is currently shooting her first feature film Among Us which is an expansion of her short film, but from a female perspective and with a much bigger scale.
In Algeria, the ghosts of the past are very much at the chore of Amin Sidi-Boumédiène’s work. His short film The Island (Al Djazira, 2012) begins with the arrival of a man in a mysterious space suit. He wakes up on a creek, then starts wandering through a deserted city in an unflinchingly hypnotic extended sequence that dwells on the empty post-apocalyptic streets of a city which will slowly reveal itself to be Algiers. Sidi-Boumédiène aims to capture the sensation of exile and shoots Algiers as an abandoned city that reeks of French colonialism even though it is entirely inhabited; a city with an identity crisis. The mysterious man comes from a bleak future searching for freedom and a new life in Algiers. Sidi-Boumédiène reverses expectations by imagining that in the future, developed countries will self-destruct and that their people will start emigrating to Algiers, the same way Arabs escape to these countries nowadays; a sort of new world order. In his first feature film Abou Leila (2019), Sidi-Boumédiène also explores Algeria’s darkest past by focusing on the lingering impact of the terrorism years. Abou Leila is a visceral psychological mind-trip about two cops crossing the desert in search of a dangerous terrorist. With its eerie images and slow-burn pace, Abou Leila is a mind trip filled with hallucinatory scenes; an unlikely but successful mixture of Michelangelo Antonioni and David Lynch with a strong Algerian identity. The film plunges the viewer into the psyche of its traumatized protagonist, by blurring the line between reality and fantasy to reflect on how the violence of the past contaminates the present. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival - Critics’ Week.
Kindil (Kindil el Bahr, 2017) by Damien Ounouri is another striking effort from Algeria, a mid-length film that premiered in Cannes – Directors’ Fortnight. It is co-written by Adila Bendimerad who also stars as a woman assaulted and lynched to death by a group of young men. She resurrects and mutates into a sea creature that undergoes a revenge spree against her murderers. Kindil is an impressive genre mashup that mixes the creature feature and rape & revenge subgenres with social drama, to reflect on the toxicity of the patriarchal Algerian society.
Toxic masculinity is also an issue prevalent in Tunisia. Following in the steps of Kaouther Ben Hania’s Beauty and the Dogs (Aala Kaf Ifrit, 2017), which dealt with a woman going against a Kafkaesque bureaucracy to report her own rape, Black Medusa (Ma tasmaa kan elrih, 2021) by Ismaël and Youssef Chebbi takes it up a notch with a low key black and white nocturnal tale that follows a vigilante femme fatale slashing her way through male chauvinism. Black Medusa plays like the Arabic missing link between A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Under the Skin and Promising Young Woman; a feminist film noir that blends daring unforgettable bursts of violence with a tender melancholic portrait of abuse.
A close collaborator and friend of Ismaël and Youssef Chebbi, Alaeddine Slim, with his second feature Tlamess, made one of the most distinctive and unique Arab films of the last few years. A visually stunning and almost impenetrable work of surrealism, Tlamess is an enthralling transgressive film that plunges and loses the audience in a sensorial meditation on class and gender.
Inspired by true stories of traditional witchcraft practices in Tunisia, Dachra (2018) by Abdelhamid Bouchnak follows a group of journalists who set out to solve the case of a woman suspected of witchcraft. They end up trapped in an isolated countryside, home to an evil cult. Featuring gruesome scenes unseen before in Arab cinema, Dachra is born from Bouchnak’s reaction to the disturbing ISIS execution videos that circulated online, and from his urge to appropriate them as they were responsible for tarnishing his culture and religion. The film is a pure horror film that uses all the genre tropes to reflect on a generational divide between an older generation tied to its traditions, and a younger one who wants to evolve; a prevalent theme to this new generation of filmmakers. Driven by a vital urge to make his film, Bouchnak bet everything on it: he sold his car, leased his house, took a loan, and threw himself with his devoted crew into an uncertain shoot. The gamble paid off as Dachra premiered at the Critics Week at the Venice Film Festival, and became the highest-grossing film in Tunisia while also getting a worldwide release.
Another film discovered in the Venice Critics Week is Scales (Sayyedat al-Bahr, 2019) by Shahad Ameen. A Saudi female coming-of-age fable, Scales is set in a dystopian fishing village governed by a dark tradition in which every family must give one daughter to the sea creatures who inhabit the waters nearby. Saved from this fate by her father, a young girl is considered a curse on the village and grows up as an outcast that has to fight for her place within the village. With gorgeous black and white photography filled with magical realism moments, this female emancipation tale is an allegory of a country where feminism is repressed; it is yet another film with a protagonist who wants to break the chains of traditions and patriarchy. Scales was selected to represent Saudi Arabia at the Oscars in 2020. Shahad Ameen is part of a new Saudi Arabian filmmaking community that is carrying the birth of cinema in the Kingdom. Meshal Al Jaser is also an active part of this new tendency, thanks to his impressive absurd sci-fi short film Arabian Alien (2020) which had a successful premiere at Sundance.
In the Levant, genre ventures are scarcer. The most noteworthy recurrent work comes from Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour who continuously explores the future of Palestine in multiple fascinating science fiction short films. In Lebanon, filmmaker Fadi Baki took years to finalize his complex and brilliant Last Days of the Man of Tomorrow (Akher Ayam Rajol el Ghad, 2017), a mid-length mockumentary that follows Manivelle, an automaton (created using an impressive mix of practical effects, puppetry and animatronics) who was once the wonder of his age and gifted to the Lebanese by the French government. Manivelle lived through the glory days of Lebanon’s golden age, and witnessed how the country was permanently changed with the devastating civil war and its bleak aftermath, only to find himself in present days all rusty and forgotten. By incorporating Manivelle in real footage and archives of Lebanon’s history and pop culture, Baki rewrites history and ponders on how his country is steeped in nostalgia and addicted to a past that has vanished. Manivelle represents a Lebanese society blinded by its past glory days that are crippling any efforts to heal its present wounds and reshape its future.
Lebanese Greek filmmaker Joyce A. Nashawati realized that her addiction to horror as a teenager came from the fact that she experienced war as a child. The fear on screen became a comfort blanket to her. Her feature debut Blind Sun (2015) is a Greek film that oozes with a strong Arab identity and atmosphere. It comes from Nashawati’s experience as a migrant living in Europe where the stability of life was a shock to her in contrast with the rollercoaster reality of Lebanon. Blind Sun is the story of a solitary refugee (Ziad Bakri) who is guarding a French family’s villa in Greece while they are away. Outside, a heavy heatwave and a shortage of water are making everyone on edge while a police officer starts stalking him. Nashawati shoots this fever dream pre-apocalyptic Greece with unforgettable images that have a strong resonance to her home country Lebanon: dry Mediterranean warm colors, characters crushed by the sun, a dizzying identity crisis, images of purifying fire and water that symbolizes the end of a world… Blind Sun is a haunting and intense accomplishment that garnered international awards.
Going back to Egypt, the production of commercial genre films has remained frequent. One recent example is the possession found footage film Warda (2014) by Hadi El Bagoury, a competently made horror film that unfortunately still relies heavily on the U.S. model and misses the opportunity to include a specific Egyptian subtext. After the enormous success of his first film The Yacoubian Building (2006, Amaret Yakobean), Marwan Hamed specialized in effective mystery thrillers featuring innovative visual effects, like the psychological thriller The Blue Elephant and its sequel (Al Feel Al Azrak, 2014, Al Feel Al Azrak 2, 2019), as well as the Egyptian modern society satire The Originals (El-Asliyyin 2017).
These filmmakers refused to comply with the set of rules imposed on them by the older generation and international funds, and have dared to forge their own alternative path. Their experience in their different home countries have fed their work, which shared the common notion of cutting the ties with a traditional outdated system that did not represent them. Their films question the Arab identity, observe our dystopian reality and dare to stare without flinching at the ghosts of our past. Using the prism of fantasy, science fiction and horror, they explored themes of an Arab society that can only evolve by rejecting toxic patriarchy and religious extremism. What looks now like individual scattered efforts is progressively adding up to become a gigantic new wave that producers and financiers will have no choice but to pay attention to. This new wave carries the seeds of a revolution that will redefine Arab cinema.