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Program presented by the Culture Resource

Essay by by Aly Hussein Al-Adawy

Notes on Contemporary Arab Cinema during a Decade of Arab Revolutions*


Shortly before the burst of the Arab movements in 2010, the production of diverse and differentiated cinematic images away from what was stereotypical, prevailing, redundant, and dominant, produced by the ruling regimes or private capital, had become possible. It had been in production and the making for more than ten years. At the outset of the second millennium, and thanks to technological development, digital cameras became available, widespread and relatively cheap. Also thanks to the rapid growth and economic expansion of communication technologies, mobile phones equipped with cameras have become widespread, and the Internet has expanded at tremendous and double speeds throughout the world and in the Arab region. Applications have emerged, allowing social networking and expression in writing, visually, then audio-visually to reflect diverse, different, and complex identities eager to communicate with the world.

The start was through blogs, then reached Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other applications. Contemporary cinema and films were recently featured at international festivals. Various fora worldwide became available for online download via platforms and websites through which film lovers translate into Arabic.

In addition, the service of film-making training and education is no longer limited to public or private educational institutes and institutions in Europe and America, where the expertise, knowledge, and equipment needed to teach the film industry have been monopolized for decades until the late 1990s. Instead, it is now offered in the form of curricula and courses, which are widely available on the Internet and through non-governmental artistic and cultural institutions, with the support of foreign cultural centers and various donors working to support freedom of expression and opinion, empowerment of women, capacity building for youth, advocacy of democratic experiences and a culture of human rights and alternative education.

Avant-garde cinematographers started teaching young enthusiasts and cinema lovers how to produce short and feature films. Those mainly reflect the language and experiences of everyday life and biographies, under the influence of international cinema references, far from the television series and films, and the jargon of official and opposition political speeches, in the framework of what is known as “independent cinema”.

To name a few, I shall mention the 2008 Egyptian film “Islands” by Mohamed Salah, who had received a grant from the Culture Resource. So he made a feature film with the help of a volunteer team, including his cinematographic colleagues, friends, and artists. The film presented a cinematic image that captured a time of unprecedented boredom under Mubarak’s mandate. He put forward various characters that look like islands of self-isolation and individuality, within a mold of images that reflect the impossibility of meeting and reuniting, the violence of compound oppression, the boredom of loneliness, and the endless wait.

Cinematic images and the aesthetics of revolution

The Arab revolutions have broken out and continued for ten years, during which filmmakers came out with their cameras to find that people had preceded them, carrying their mobiles to record the event, instigate change and mobilize the masses. This has resulted in massive flows of images and visual materials that have led to the expansion of movements on the one hand, and to their commodification, iconography, and reduction to images and headlines in the global social media and media networks, on the other hand.

That led the filmmakers to ask critical questions: how can the revolution reach the cinema, and both the cinematographic language and shape? How can the cinema show solidarity and adhere to revolutionary movements without falling into the trap of marketing or propaganda? In other words, how can a film industry hold the authorities accountable without becoming, itself, an authority that claims to make films that tell the truth or have the power to give voice and image to the voiceless?

Movies that seek to present differentiated and diverse images are still facing challenges regarding limited camera programming capabilities, producing visual material, framing in various social media applications that can produce non-stereotypical images, which in no case means that they represent a democratic space for diverse expression. They also have to deal with state censorship agencies and the prevailing cinema market. Nowadays, they also have to face the fact that any multifaceted conflict is reduced to superficial binaries that can be found in media networks, major film festivals, donating entities, support agencies, and joint productions in Europe and America, or in the rich Arab Gulf states that are bubbling with social movements, but which systems are still far from the winds of change.

These countries seek to control these movements and produce films bearing the names of these states/companies in major international festivals, such as the latest movie by Elia Suleiman, “It Must Be Heaven”. He contented himself with taunting political correctness and stereotypical European and American co-production. At the same time, the region needs to discuss the history and archives of the Arab cinema, and more specifically the Egyptian cinema, as well as tackle the question of Arab and Western funding and production, including that coming from the Arab Gulf. Thus, we can say that the region and its problems became the focus of the attention of donors with the beginning of the Arab uprisings, to contribute through their stereotypical expectations to the production of films that are technically “clean”, according to different imaginations, colonialist or Orientalist, or according to direct political interest. Therefore, there is no interest, to a large extent, in aesthetics and differentiated artistic forms, but in information and news, highlighting a conflict and its resolution and not shedding light on its complexities.

Therefore, we can say that the differentiated cinematic image of the past decade has gone in two directions, either in the direction of revising the traditionally stable, self-criticism and accountability of the dominant representations that have shaped our fascist and authoritarian upbringing in various official institutions, or in the direction of utopian/dystopian imagination to rethink the actual realism. That is, between the imagination of actual reality and the political horizon. This is what we find in the series of films “Bidoun” by Jilani Saâdi, shot with a Go Pro camera, bringing up the question of the authority and capacity of the cinematographer to produce differentiated cinematographic images and a different aesthetic experience at a small cost and in partnership with the actors, unlike other experiments from Egypt, Tunisia and Syria that sought a participatory experience similar to Jilani’s in film production. However, they did not succeed in presenting a differentiated cinematographic image but, rather, unfortunately, often produced traditional, stereotypical, superficial, or imitative images.

Unlike Jilani, the experience of Ossama Mohammed insists in his film “Silvered Water”, on authorship through an audio text that comments, throughout the film, archival images that reproduce the violence of power against rich and powerful images portrayed by Wiam Simav Bedirxan. In “The Immortal Sergeant”, Ziad Kalthoum goes back and forth between two pictures. One is a picture of the army and the other a picture of Mohammed Malas’ film shooting location, where the small mobile digital camera captures all the details from behind the scenes of Malas’ film, creating this way the main material of “The Immortal Sergeant”, and questioning the authority of Malas as a cinematographic author through a camera that decided to side with the revolution.

This same shooting style, which turns the film into a public domain and a democratic space, is also found in “Still recording” by Saeed Al-Batal and Ghayath Ayoub, as well as in Algeria with Lamine Ammar-Khojda’s film “Without cinema”, where the camera captures the sounds and images of pedestrians and people standing in a square in front of the cinema.

The same goes for the scene on the poll about the public’s favorite film, “Talking about trees” by Suhaib Gasmelbari. Furthermore, the camera changes perspective in Djamel Kerkar’s film “Atlal”, and Mohamed Ouzine’s “Samir in the Dust”. The camera moves in time and place in “Zanj Revolution” by Tariq Teguia, in “Seven Years Around the Delta” by Sharief Zohairy in Egypt, in “The Disqualified” and “El Gort” by Hamza Ouni in Tunisia, and in “Homeland: Iraq Year Zero” by Abbas Fadel.

Talal Derki, unlike the aforementioned, went all the way to al-Nusra Front camp, claiming to be an Islamist journalist, to shoot his film “Of Fathers and Sons”. He reproduced the same traditional images of violence, through a montage loaded with emotions of the Islamists’ children and their lives, as well as the Islamists’ lives and their sexual fantasies promoted by the media. However, unlike his film, there is “Babylon” that was co-directed by Ismaël and Youssef Chebbi, in addition to Ala Eddine Slim, who also directed powerful and beautiful films, such as “The Last of Us” and “Tlamess”. His films represent an important milestone in the differentiated cinema aesthetics that have radically changed in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions. They have not addressed immigration as a topic of suffering and hardship, but have shifted it towards completely different spaces of coexistence and legendary experience. The topic of war, its political consequences, and the traumas it causes, were also treated differently in genre films like “Very Big Shot” in Lebanon, and “Abou Leila” in Algeria.

Festivals, production networks, and criticism

The contemporary production pattern of films with artistic ambition takes the following path: the film starts with an idea, moves to processing, then to a series of Script Development Labs usually supervised by European experts and consultants. Afterwards, the film is co-produced and executed within a fixed period. The film’s editing is completed so that the film duration does not exceed 90 minutes. The sales experts then make it feature in international festivals before it finally gets distributed. This production cycle makes films of high technical quality but they remain very similar in their aesthetics and narration method, regardless of their production contexts. Therefore, this production cycle requires a lot of awareness of the cinematographic images that the filmmaker wants to produce so that they can negotiate and play all kinds of games to make their film. It is also important to initiate a discussion through Arab non-governmental film support institutions to develop this production cycle and involve many experts and consultants from the Global South and the Arab World.

Criticism has become one of the key achievements of the Arab movements to discuss cinematography, such as via the « Premiers gestes. Jeune cinéma de Méditerranée » forum with Taher Sheikhawi, Insaf Machta, and Hajer Boden, the “Kurrasat Al Cinematheque Workshop’’ at the Cinematheque Center, and the ‘’Panorama of the European Film’’ at Zawya cinema, as well as via websites like Tripod and Terrso. Furthermore, criticism is taking the form of film essays, parallel fiction literature writings, or film programming. Various studies on a variety of representations in the prevailing cinema have also been published. In addition, the publications of the “Abounaddara” group discuss the right of image, image ethics, and how images can be tools of violence.

Conclusion: The comeback of the archives…

There is a strong comeback to working on film and audio materials from the archives after the first wave track of Arab movements was hampered. Two trends can be identified here: the first is the attempt to search the archives for a methodology that might benefit us in the future, which we can find in Mary Germanos Saba’s film “A feeling greater than love”; the second draws upon nostalgia, which always refers to a struggle or cosmopolitan glory presented in the film as edited between archival footage full of events and people, and contemporary footage that is quasi-meaningless.

However, the work methodology that focuses on the archival material in producing a differentiated and renewed cinematic image with a broad imagination is the best and most radical for work on the archival material. This is the case in Kamal Aljafari’s film “Recollection”, where he used Israeli and American films shot in his Palestinian city. He removed the characters, so the city backgrounds became the image basis of his film that stimulates the imagination of stories and souvenirs.

In another example, “Fatima”, directed by the French-Algerian director, Nina Khada, uses silent archival images showing an Algerian lady from the French National Archives. It builds upon these images a story about the director’s grandmother through an audio commentary to create a differentiated image and a new film. “I have a picture” film by Mohamed Zeidan, tries, from its side, to tell the history of the Egyptian cinema from the viewpoint of one of the most famous extras who worked in Egyptian cinema, “Mutawa Aweys”. He participated in more than 1,000 films. In the montage, the film is in motion between two pictures: 1) a picture in which the director works on archival images to place Mutawa in the center of the picture rather than its background or margins; and 2) other pictures, where he tries, with the help of Kamel Homsani, one of the most famous assistant directors in the history of Egyptian cinema, to make Mutawa act some roles. It is evident through these scenes how violent the history of the film industry is.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of Aflamuna.