London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Walking through the dimmed hallways of the British Film Institute (BFI), one passes glamorous portraits of 1950s starlet Vivien Leigh, posters for remakes of the classic Nosferatu the Vampyre, and images depicting street life in London. This is the place where the magic of cinema comes alive. Starting earlier this month, mixed in with the recent blockbusters and timeless talkies, Arab cinema gets a platform with a year-long program entitled “Discover Arab Cinema”. The BFI, the UK’s leading cinema body, will be connecting British audiences to films from across the region.
With all the attention Arab films have been garnering lately, “Discover Arab Cinema,” which runs until November 2014 at the BFI Southbank theater in London, does not come as a surprise. Audiences’ curiosity about human stories and artistic endeavors from this vast and complex region is only growing.
“Despite the explosion, Arab cinema suffers from a lack of distribution. So for the most part, the only way to see these films is when they are screened,” explains Mona Deeley, founding director of Zenith Foundation and curator of the program. “This is the best way to get them out to people,” she adds.
The one-year program of 52 films started in November with Ibrahim El-Batout’s Winter of Discontent. “Discover Arab Cinema” combines contemporary films with classics from the past, in addition to short films. Each month brings four feature films based on either a country focus or a theme. The first three months (November 2013–January 2014) will focus on contemporary Egyptian Cinema, Family in Middle Eastern Societies and Algerian Cinema.
Given the mix in emerging cinematic style and the new politics they depict, November’s films from Egypt resonated differently to different people. For Helen Dewitt, Head of Cinemas at the BFI, the films might present more of an educational angle for audiences. “The region has had a prominent public profile mainly due to the horrific and violent events in several countries, but if it helps for us to screen films from the region that will help in showing some of the complexities of the issues there then that can only be a good thing,” she tells Asharq Al-Awsat.
“Filmmakers tell personal stories through which you get a better understanding of the people and the problems they face. News agendas can make people feel powerless, but films give a bit of a personal identification through characters,” Dewitt says.
However, that is not to say that the artistic merit of these films is forgotten. For her part, Deeley described this crop of films as “new realist cinema”. She said: “Egyptian cinema has seen films about every stage of realism, but what feels distinct about this current stage is the aesthetic.”
“Previously they were realist in their focus on societal issues like repression and peasantry, but they were still highly cinematic in style. Today’s films are moving away from that where they look like documentaries rather than movies,” she added.
In the last few years, first demonstrated by Ahmad Abdalla’s 2010 film Microphone, there has been a propensity towards the docudrama genre. These films almost exclusively talk of social and political themes, mixing realities of everyday issues, improvised scenes, and amateur actors with a scripted narrative and a film crew.
The “Family in Middle Eastern Societies” program may see a recurrence of some issues and subjects, particularly given that family acts as a microcosm of society, both inside and outside of film. The films, showcased in December, straddle the entire region. The BFI looks at the Arab emigrant experience in Europe through Rachid Djaidani’s 2012 film Hold Back, broken families in the Middle East through Jordanian Yahya Al Abdallah’s The Last Friday, and generational differences in Ismael Ferroukhi’s 2004 France-to-Mecca road movie Le Grand Voyage.
“Throughout the process, we have had to go back to the question of what is ‘Arab’ cinema? It is a huge chunk of land, from North Africa to Iraq, that cannot all be categorized in the same way,” Dewitt points out. The films in the “Family in Middle Eastern Societies” program are all completely different from one another.
“Djaidani is first and foremost an author, but his film is amazingly made for one that got very little production support and won the International Federation of Film Critics prize in Cannes,” Deeley says.
Hold Back tells the story of an emigrant Algerian family in France and explores a kind of hypocrisy about racism in the country. The film points out that beyond the racism against the Arabs in France, there is also racism within the emigrant community itself, between the Arab and black African communities, for example. Other themes explored are religion and the role patriarchy.
January will see an increased focus on Algeria, bringing more classic titles such as Mohamad Lakhdar Hamina’s epic 1975 film, Chronicle of the Years of Fire, to the attention of London cinema-goers.
“This film was quite hard to locate because it is from the 1970s. We had to get the help of the Algerian embassy,” explains Dewitt. The lack of preservation of Arab cinema also has a historical cost. The fact that old films are so hard to locate means that there is still a lack of knowledge and access to this modern art in the region. “I had to do a lot of research to find things, it was hard to just come across it,” Deeley explains.
Deeley ascertains that the recent explosion of interest in Arab cinema is not necessarily due to the shifting political scene, but also to a general lack of access.
Deeley said: “London is a cosmopolitan city so it is crazy that ten years ago there was such a gap in Arab arts. Now there is much more available to see, and it has sustained in the last ten years. As long as there is interest from venues and audiences, it is here to stay. This is not a fad.”
The producers of “Discover Arab Cinema” have dedicated the program to the late Sheila Whittaker who headed the BFI before moving on to help found the Dubai International Film Festival in 2004. Whitaker, who passed away this summer, was a big supporter of bringing Arab cinema to London and was one of the first people to push the idea of hosting such a program at the BFI.
Discover Arab Cinema will run at the BFI until late 2014.