I was asked to put together a retrospective of 15 feature and short films, from the 154 works that the AFAC fund supported between 2008 and 2019. I acceded to their request, seeing it as an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the Arab film scene and discover what I had missed. The production of Arab films has evolved from what it was during the final quarter of last century, in terms of market, audience, and critique, the latter having a notable presence in the press and a momentum that covered production, distribution, and films and guided public opinion. This discussion of films in newspapers, directing attention to what was different, resisting the mainstream and constantly engaging, contributed to founding alternative movements. Critical writing was characterized by a vitality that even amounted to partisanship for a particular movement, a group of filmmakers, or even a single director. In general, the critique of Arab cinema accompanied its development and transformations, and became a reference for it as well as a witness to it.
With the advent of the third millennium, things took a different turn and the landscape gradually changed. In my opinion, this is due, on the one hand, to Arab cinema’s relationship to the critique that addressed it and incorporated it in the political, social and economic frameworks of the cloudy Arab world of the twentieth century. On the other hand, this is due to cinema’s own inability to maintain its uniqueness in the face of its traditional opponent, television, and with emerging trends in video media and digital technology. The change occurred with the transformation of the computer, whose use expanded in filmmaking. It also became a resourceful tool to package the film into a digital file ready for screening, copying or being transmitted everywhere through various media outlets. The transformation affected the computer itself. No longer confined to the studio or indoors, the computer was freed from the burden of hard drives, cables and wires. In English, it was called “laptop,” and the Arabs were quick to emulate the French by translating this as “portable computer.” “Portable” is not exactly faithful to the original English definition: The computer lies on the lap of its user, on the top of his lap in fact, an intimate partner of the body, brushing against the user’s viscera, feeling his pulse. Describing the computer as portable is correct insofar as it is the work companion of its user as he comes and goes. New descriptions of the computer will likely increase and become more complex as we develop more ways to use it remotely, in a world that is increasingly connected to virtual reality. The computer is the Internet’s ally and its optimal application. Together, they are both enormously tempting, and they cause incalculable harm to the work environment and its human resources. They established individual modes of production, outside collective systems, allowing people to perform multiple roles that were previously not available to them. When the paper press was completely computerized, newspaper editors were given computers and the use of stationery was consequently reduced. The screen replaced the paper, the mouse and the keyboard replaced the pen and the editing style. A transition occurred to another style of writing, where nothing remained of the illegible handwritten manuscript whose reading required deciphering crossed-out words and corrections. The transition was not “peaceful,” so to speak. It swept away several professions. Written manuscripts were no longer sent, the page layout was no longer cut and pasted together by hand. There was no more need to draw the lettering of headlines and advertisements. Calligraphers went out of work after they lost the last rare haven that the press represented for Arabic calligraphy. Tempted to cut down on expenditures and under the pretext of modernization, newspaper publishers ignored the legacy of craftsmanship and considered the dismissal of selected categories of employees as a necessary evil that they could not avoid, from what they thought– deliberately or not– were secure positions. But things turned out worse than they expected and they were not spared. This was demonstrated by the collapse of print newspapers and magazines in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, which were either discontinued or moved online, while their journalists, reporters and editors migrated to television channels and Internet sites. This disaster had many causes. The impacted newspapers were unable to turn into profitable institutions, as their share of advertising revenue dwindled with the boom of satellite stations, and commercial traffic moved online where it could reach millions of users. The disaster primarily impacted private sector newspapers in many parts of the Arab world. Their reliance on political money and their contentment with its rentier course came at the cost of their independence and their future. If the money dried up, they switched allegiances. But they ended up disappearing all the same. Many publishing houses and publications met the same fate. Cinema also had its share of suffering when it lost its financial backing. On the other hand, some media and cultural institutions were able to subsist thanks to public sector support. They produced newspapers, magazines, periodicals, and books. However, the public sector’s failure to rationalize its financial resources and set its priorities, and the volatility of successive administrations’ policies negatively affected the publications that benefited from public sector backing. Their numbers declined, until they eventually went extinct. The same was true of public institutions of cinema, which reduced their support for films and for the production of alternative content.
Both in the private and public sectors, the printed press collapsed quickly and film critics dispersed. Some went on to write for websites of varying popularity, or on private blogs or personal pages on social media platforms. The legacy was lost of texts that documented prominent stages of film production in Arab countries. Tracking these stages required significant effort, whether it was the search for pirated copies of films, or locating living critics and directors who had witnessed a stage and could help verify information that might be useful to reconstitute the features of Arab cinema(s) from its pieces scattered in the last century. As an aside, the Arab critical movement lost much of its momentum and its role as an authority that studied film production and identified its trends over the past century. References are now scattered all over the Internet, in the custody and care of “the cloud.”
I was lucky, perhaps, to have been a film critic during the last twenty years of the previous century and in the first decade of this one. I was even more fortunate to have practiced a cinema that sought to preserve its particularity in the face of television and arts that were alien to it, from video to software applications that overthrew traditional methods of film-making, of integrating sounds, of correcting colors. With my practice, I moved into the digital age, where technologies converged and became more familiar. The video camera grew to replicate the sensitivity of the film reel, and a film’s character no longer depended on the tools used but was more closely tied to how a film’s language was spun and how it was narrated.
I lived across two periods full of transformations. The first age, which lasted from the 1930s to the end of the twentieth century, was characterized by the supremacy of Egyptian cinema, which swept viewers’ hearts and broke box office records with its stars and spoken language. Many hoped that Egypt would become the Hollywood of the Arab world, and it almost did. Arab films that did not use the Egyptian dialect saw limited spread and distribution in Egypt. The Hollywood style predominated and Egyptian cinema followed its example, classifying productions according to genre, and linking the film’s genre and title to its star and its character’s title. Genres ranged from comedy to drama, romances, thrillers, adventures, and historical novels. It was a forest of reels with winding paths. It was difficult to find a way to films that didn’t satisfy the intended purpose, namely offering entertainment to the world-weary viewer who sought cinema to escape reality.
Be that as it may, reality made its way to the screen, pulling the spectator to contemplate his problems and lost dreams. Realism is the most fitting early description of an alternative cinema that differed from mainstream genres, that often diluted reality. It took a romantic direction in European cinema (most notably the French) prior to the Second World War. It emerged from the fires of WWII and social/political conflicts raising the banner of neorealism, with the work of Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini.
A contemporary of Western realism, Arab cinema was also influenced by it. It created its local version of it. Instead of focusing on the war and post-war society, it depicted life in popular neighborhoods, poverty, and the inequality of classes and values. It is said that the Egyptian director Kamal Selim directed the first realist film, “The Will” (1939). Following in his footsteps, his assistant, Salah Abu Seif, took a deeper look at the conditions of unjustly marginalized groups, whose fates were controlled by the powerful, their lives overturned by the changing political scene and its nationalist slogans. Although Arab realism was not preoccupied with war in its beginnings, the successive wars (starting with the Palestinian Nakba in 1948, through the defeat of June 5, 1967, and then the October 1973 war) bestowed on realism a hybrid mix of social and political dimensions that made it a sort of patriotic, if sometimes unpleasant, duty in cinematic practice. Nevertheless, the wars gave impetus to the crystallization of voices who opposed mainstream production. The June 5 defeat was the catalyst for the emergence of the New Cinema Group in Egypt in 1968. Before the 1973 war and its ambiguous results, the Alternative Cinema manifesto was presented on the sidelines of the first Damascus International Youth Film Festival in April 1972. The graph charting the movement of Arab film criticism shows a gradual bias toward the current of realism, and then toward the new and alternative cinema groups, as well as the films of directors who refused to affiliate themselves. The bias lasted well into the last quarter of the twentieth century. In the 1980s, directors gathered around more than one new cinema, which picked up where its predecessors had left off, and continued as much as it broke the bond linking them, with a humility that did not burden their work with overblown promises. This was reflected in the name the group chose for itself, when directors Mohammad Khan, Atef Al-Tayeb, Khairy Beshara and Daoud Abdel-Sayed, cinematographer Saeed Shimi, editor Nadia Shukri, scriptwriter Bashir Al-Deek and others got together to found “Al-Sohba Films” (Friends’ films). The group’s attempt to differentiate themselves from this or that current or group through their name, however, did not bring about any decisive change or turning point. Filmmakers and critics were apparently more preoccupied with reality than with finding an alternative language to take Arab filmmaking to new horizons. It was as if “alternative” meant transferring reality to the language and not the other way around. The late Egyptian director Shadi Abdel Salam offered perhaps a rare exception, when he sought a pure cinema that did not interest his generation of filmmakers. Except for his one and only feature film, The Mummy (1969), it was impossible to separate the desire to make a film from complete immersion in issues of public concern. The questions of Palestine, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and human justice under oppressive, tyrannical regimes drained considerable energy from filmmakers, viewers, and critics alike. Egyptian cinema and theorizing about alternative films consumed various critical reviews to the point that they ignored much of the possible alternatives that were taking shape outside Egypt, including commercial and even alternative cinema, and much of the creative infiltration of auteur cinema into the founding structure of the documentary film. Most of the directors of the “first age” were prisoners of a “realism” that stopped them from exploring the territory of another cinema. And when they did manage to observe it or to enter it, they opened the doors to a change that was late in coming. In “Alexandria…why?” (produced in 1978 and distributed in February 1979), Youssef Chahine crossed a threshold and introduced speaking in the first person, “I.” He was soon followed in this by Syrian filmmaker Mohammad Malas in “Dreams of the City” (1983), after which autobiographical works succeeded each other. Another window was opened with the start of co-productions and cooperation with crews of multiple nationalities. This increased opportunities for making films, and freed them from the narrow horizons that had previously limited them. It made film-making a possibility but also a challenge that reflected the director’s attachment to his film’s character or not. It was one of the signs of the second age, the passage to which was fraught with difficulties. It brought on a new realism, which liberated the individual from an obsolete approach to realism that had been practiced for tedious decades. A new realism, which stemmed from reality itself, that advanced the mass over the individual, prioritizing the (hypothetical) nation over the tangible group one belonged to, and excluding issues that remained secondary, such as avoiding the recognition of sexual identity, women’s issues, minorities, and human rights, notwithstanding the engagement and submissive compliance with the ruling political discourse above all else. Today, Arab cinema is more truthful about its components and more willing to reveal hidden aspects of its societal crises. If the Arab-Israeli conflict and tyrannical regimes were responsible for restricting Arab cinema(s) to a realism governed by a “comprehensive” vision and a symbolism borne of tackling the prohibitions of censorship, one must inevitably turn one’s attention to the recurrent civil wars and the disintegration of regimes, which began with the war in Lebanon and extended from Algeria to Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and to the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Sudan. We must credit these conflicts, albeit sadly, for their role in crystallizing a new cinema that has multiple movements and directions, even in afflicted countries. The disintegration caused by the explosion of mass violence brought about a self-awareness and a yearning for a cinema that observes with a sharp discerning eye and speaks in eloquent images. The examples followed one and another, and their motivating driver was the “I” which represented more than a beginning. As mentioned earlier, the digital age reinforced the pattern of individual production, either within a group or in isolation from it. Soon, inherited concepts of film production and reception changed, as well as the rituals of watching films. It is true that censoring, cutting and banning films remains as a residual relic of past times, but it has become a localized custom, or to use a different expression, a “terrestrial” practice, while the space for desiring a film and the possibility of producing and presenting it have crossed borders. Cinema is within reach. Anyone can shoot, broadcast, and provoke controversy. Language and geography no longer prevent a film from confidently asserting its identity. The characteristic of the second age is the wider space it offers, and the greater capacity to erase borders. Even within cinema and its genres, the line between fiction and documentary has been blurred. Consideration, nay respect, was restored to the documentary film. The documentary now shares features of the narrative film, and vice versa, and both have the same opportunities to combine and incorporate elements of the animation film or the experimental film.
I was asked to draw up a list of works produced by AFAC and design a retrospective to be presented on the Aflamuna platform. I chose a symbolic total of fifteen films for AFAC’s 15th anniversary. I did not want to justify my choices, because the same justification applies to most of what was produced by the fund dedicated to supporting culture and arts in the Arab world. I also did not want to write again about my choices and detail their content in order to rationalize the selection. I avoided consecrated names and works that have won their share of fame, awards and festival exposure, aiming instead to promote the re-discovery of what was less noticed and what deserves to be seen again. I didn’t want to be objective either. I chose my list of films with my heart. There is no reason for them other than my bias toward the cinema of the second age and my hope for a new spirit that would correct my relationship with a past that I took part in producing, and perhaps in its downfall, it would help me to continue on. That the director practices his subjectivity and affirms his individuality does not mean an overall break, as he remains, more than ever, diligently in search of his self and his own narrative. This doesn’t affect his vision of a reality shared with others. The difference is “that I work for them and not with them,” as Youssef Chahine once said.