Arab cinema finds its voice
The story goes that when the first film theatre was going to be inaugurated in Egypt (around the late 1910s), there was a question as to how it should be referred to in Arabic, whether “cinema” should simply be appropriated into Arabic or whether there should be a proper composite Arabic phrase, as was the case for train, locomotive, station, car, electricity, etc.
The Arabic phrase that earned the most support was dar al-khayal, which means “house of the imaginary”. Cinema was in fact appropriated to Arabic and dar al-khayal, despite its charm and relevance, was totally forgotten. This is an anecdote I was told several times by older generation film critics in Cairo, who probably wanted to start our conversation with an entertaining note. It comes to my mind often when I want to foreground the political power of film-making in the Arab world of the past two decades.
The dissemination of manufactured consent becomes truly dangerous when it conquers people’s imaginaries and is internalised to generate self-censorship. Dictatorships sit comfortably when all other political alternatives appear untenable and when imagining new ones is inhibited rather than prohibited outright. When the political imaginary is bankrupt, art can become surrogate territory for imagining the unimaginable, representing the invisible or censored, saying the unsayable.
The advent of affordable film and video digital technologies in the 1990s led to the unprecedented democratisation in film-making in the Arab world. So much so that an independent community sprang up organically within a few years. In countries where higher education and training in cinema was a privilege only the rare few could afford, digital technology and film-making workshops enabled the many.
The constraints of securing permission to film and the tedious bureaucratic and heavily policed processes were often ignored. Film-makers took these risks knowing that their work might be banned. On occasion, it was a fight and confrontation they wanted because they knew that pushing boundaries was worthwhile in itself. As a result, from the mid-1990s, there has been a proliferation of short, medium- and feature-length works that range from experimental video to mainstream cinema.
Digital technologies have not only enabled democratisation in film-making. They have empowered a very subjective and personal cinema. Film-makers have been able to tell the intimate stories of their lives, insinuating cameras in narratives spaces where cinema had not gone before. In contrast with the film-makers in the 1960s and 1970s, this new generation of film-makers was not concerned about a national cinema — what it should be like — but representing that which had not been represented, portraying traumas challenging official narratives, breaking taboos.
Five years on, the legacy of the “Arab spring” seems morbid. The regimes elected to power in some Arab countries and the conflicts raging in others overshadow the profound transformation that has taken place in Arab society. Electoral and protest politics are not the only yardsticks by which to measure these changes. But, after the “Arab spring”, auteur film-makers across the Arab world directed films that defied social and political taboos. They herald the profound transformation that is under way.
In the past 15 years, Arab film-makers have experimented in different registers, finding their own voice uncompromisingly, with low-budget (or no-budget) independent productions. The social or political melodrama genre, which had long prevailed, was challenged. The most radical experimentation was in non-fiction and non-narrative film. There is no thematic thread stitching the Safar Film Festival programme, rather the desire to showcase and celebrates this diversity of approach and voice.