Arab cinema finds its voice

Sunday 18/09/2016

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.