6 November 2022
Arab Cinema in One Week
Arab cinema means different things to different audiences.
Here, it means Arab art films. Before you dismiss this distinction as elitist, the curator of Arab Cinema Week, Rabih El-Khoury is far from dictatorial. He emphasises collaboration above all. ‘You don't curate a programme alone,’ he says. 'The audience comes first.'
El-Khoury’s idea of a good selection is that ‘it has to be as eclectic as possible' while also responsive to wider contexts such as the city and its population, the venue as a space and its history of screenings, among other things.
Ultimately, El-Khoury and Cinema Akil wanted the most contemporary Arab films ー new stuff; brand new. To wit, the oldest films in the line-up are two shorts from 2020. The only classic included is a restored black–and-white gem from the dawn of Third Cinema, Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers).
This year marks 60 years of Algerian independence, and the Archives Numériques du Cinéma Algérien reminds us, 60 years of Algerian cinema (not counting colonial Algerian cinema of course.) Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina's landmark The Winds of the Aures (1967) is one early example and later, Lakhdar-Hamina's Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975) would win the as-yet only Palme d'Or for an Arabic film. An amusingly cunning and shrewd inclusion, carefully placed as the closing film and the only one shown in the open air, The Battle of Algiers, that helped establish the aesthetics of militant cinema, was famously screened in guerrilla hideouts in Latin America and beyond, across the global south.
'We wanted to have a focus,' El-Khoury explains, 'and to reflect on an Algeria of the past, the present and the future. We did not want to offer only a panorama of new Arab films.'
Strikingly, in The Battle of Algiers, Yacef Saadi plays himself; and in Soula the eponymous character plays herself, both having co-written their respective films. As national hero in the film, Saadi was also in power at the time, off-screen. The latter also plays herself, based on her real-life experience as an unwed and ostracised teenage mother. This juxtaposition speaks volumes about our postcolonial history and thinking, strongly informed by intersectional feminism, the long journey between Algerian and post-independence Arab cinema, and arguably a post-2011 new wave. Indeed, an element of re-enactment is present in Héliopolis (2021), with Algerian and French actors playing their historical and fictitious ancestors, and by extension, themselves, under neocolonialism.
And here come the political follies of history, or as Chris Marker says, ‘the heartbreaks of history.’ In Héliopolis, the Sétif and Guelma massacres take place soon after colonised Algerians parade to celebrate victory over Nazi Germany. Algiers was the de facto capital of free France. Flash forward to present-day Algeria where, in Karim Aïnouz's Mariner of the Mountains (2021), the Algerian-Brazilian writer, director and narrator of this essayistic and autobiographical film, is shocked when he meets a young Algerian man who wishes that the French had never left. The young man speaks of unemployment and hangs out with similarly suffering fellows while looking out at the sea and to further shores.
For all the heartbreak of human history in these and other films in Cinema Akil’s Arab Cinema Week, it also had its share of happy days. Despite the gloom, dark comedy, agony, anger, violence, and real-life horror showcased in this line-up, there were glimmers of hope. At any rate, the closing riot scenes in The Battle of Algiers are my own self-prescribed happy pills in film form, if not already one of the most cheerful moments in cinema history.
Arab Cinema Week also evoked several cinephilic and literary associations. The pied-noir militias and summary executions in Héliopolis are reminiscent of the Israeli undercover Mista'arvim death squads in Elia Suleiman's The Time That Remains (2009, starring Saleh Bakri, also the 2022 Beirut Hold'em’s antihero.) In Suleiman’s epic, the elementary school functions in parallel with the missionary schools contemplated in Mariner of the Mountains. The latter also speaks in so many ways to Jonas Mekas’ Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972). Héliopolis also recalls Indigènes (2006). While the spectre of philosopher and post-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon haunts and looms, other (literary) authors are lurking: Consider that Will My Parents Come To See Me? (2022) ー where young Farah is slated for execution by Somalia’s military firing squad over acts of terrorism ー could share the title of Victor Hugo’s 1829 novel Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamné, and how, for a moment, Aïnouz’s father brings to mind the Juan Rulfo character of the ghostly father from his 1955 novel Pedro Páramo.
El-Khoury reminds me that he is anything but didactic. 'It's up to each of you to decide what to take from the films. I'm not here to teach anyone, anything.' I believe that if El-Khoury is not here as a teacher, he is a mediator and facilitator in the decolonised schoolroom of the cinema: consider the history lessons alone and how one would quickly look up acronyms like PPA, AML and FLN.
Palestine not in sight, yet visible
But hey, where is Palestine? No, this was not actually my question. El-Khoury highlighted some of the programming difficulties saying that ‘budgets for culture were really shrinking.’ Financial support for Arab cinema is still severely limited (and limiting). But here, El-Khoury cited another curious reason behind the total lack of Palestinian films. 'Cinema Akil has been championing Arab cinema, and especially Palestinian cinema. I couldn't screen a Palestinian film because everything has already played at Cinema Akil.' After all, this year saw the 8th Edition of their Reel Palestine Film Festival.
Enter Saleh Bakri. He’s the programme’s Palestinian representation; twice so. First, on-screen, and then in flesh and blood. To make up for the omission, and honour Palestine too, the prominent pan-Arab actor, whose vast filmography features emerging and established Palestinian, Lebanese, Moroccan and Emirati directors, conducted a 'highly emotional and extremely generous' masterclass that sold out at Arab Cinema Week. In turn, the screening of Beirut Hold'em also sold out.
What is Arab cinema?
'Qu'est-ce que le cinéma?' (What Is Cinema?) André Bazin’s 1958 book title famously asks. Chacun son cinéma (To Each His Own Cinema) the 2007 multilingual film anthology answered. In 2022, the unflinchingly and subversively inclusive Arab Cinema Week invited us to ask, 'What is (Arab) cinema?' To reclaim, reappropriate and reinvent identities, traditions and film form.
Cinema and Arab cinema are also represented by ‘emerging voices,’ debuts and comebacks. Beirut Hold'em is Michel Kammoun’s first film since Falafel (2006)! It is also represented by the Somali language, in Will My Parents Come to See Me? (2022) and The Gravedigger's Wife (2021). It is represented by Swahili spoken by a multiracial Yemeni woman in diaspora in another short (Don’t Get Too Comfortable, 2021); by an Italian brother or comrade (Pontecorvo); and a Brazilian son (Aïnouz) whose Mariner of the Mountains, as El-Khoury unwaveringly puts it, 'feels as Arab as any other Arab film. So why not include this very important story about the Arab world at large and Algeria in particular, told from such a unique perspective?' We might as well recognise Aïnouz as Arab as any of us, Fanon as no less Arab, and Arab cinema as the cinema of exiles and diasporas.
Arab cinema is also Arab feminisms: Al-Sit (2020) is a Sudanese matriarch, and Becoming (2021) is a Saudi anthology of stories of menarche, miscarriage, female infertility, mother-daughter conflict, mother-son bonding, single mothers with husbands away for business, stay-at-home mothers, car-driving Saudi women and runaway brides. In the Tunisian short The Bath (2020) the female director observes, à la Kramer vs Kramer (1979), a father-son bonding complete with a heartwarming finale that, in my opinion, is one of the most intimate Arab father-son moments ever filmed.
Arab cinema is the real, the imagined, the go-betweens and in-betweeners. It’s our memories, amnesias, personal archives, and complex narratives. It is pan-Arab, transnational, international, humane, humanistic and sometimes even anthropomorphic. Contemporary Arab film features animals prominently and more often than not in such a way that humanism is extended to non-humans. In Feathers (2021), a controlling husband turns into a chicken but mariticide occurs only when the chicken turns back into a man. In Beirut Hold'em, a sexually exhausted horse is lovingly caressed and taken to a seaside promenade.
Arab cinema is, triumphantly, for all. 'My ultimate personal success is when I’ve given everyone a taste of Arab cinema. Many people here in Dubai do not come from the Arab world, but still find something that links these films to their own histories. What better victory do you want?'