The Invisible Cinema: Why Arabic Cinema is yet to get noticed in the West
Last month’s Safar film festival was undoubtedly an eye-opener for the people who attended. Focusing on some of the most popular films to come out of Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan in the past half a century, the festival showed that the region has plenty of talent both in front of and behind the camera, but is lacking the resources to get wider recognition in the West.
Speaking with the festival crowd, if indeed it amounted to one, it was mostly made up of the niche crowd of Arabic film buffs, and cinephiles (like myself) who aren’t put off by linguistic boundaries in their endless quest for quality cinema. While enthusiasm for the films on show was high, the voice of the cinephile is sadly drowned out amidst the more authoritative shouting of distributors and the mass market.
It’s not that Arabic cinema is culturally alienating. Terrorism and the Kebab, for instance, is a satire of Egyptian bureaucracy that can more or less be applied to any country, and enjoyed on its own merits irrespective of its overriding theme. It’s the story of a man who goes to a government building in the hope of moving his son to a school closer to home. Hopelessly sent from one department to the next, an embodiment of the same situations we have with our broadband providers over the phone, he manages to get his hands on a hapless soldier’s gun and takes a group of hostages so that his demands may be met.
The film is utterly hilarious and astutely shot, with its use of absurdity to make biting political commentary. It is reminiscent of Chris Morris’ brilliant Four Lions which is seen as a distinctly contemporary, one-of-a-kind film. One of Egypt’s most-loved films, why was this the first time the film was ever shown in the UK?
Jason Wood, director of programming at the Curzon, summed up one of the problems well when he said that much of popular Middle Eastern cinema doesn’t gel well with our expectations of it. Where’s the flag-burning, the stoning and the terrorist activity? The point-of-view Arab cinema presents us with isn’t in sync with ours. Their cinema is constantly redefining its image, while the mass market in the West still reductively sees the region’s population as, in Wood’s words, ‘angry burners of things.’
As such, films like the Bosta and Watch Out for Zouzou, with their surprisingly conventional depictions of man-woman relations, simply don’t capture the mass western imagination. The Lebanese road-movie-musical Bosta finds itself in a particular rut because its genre is one that has always demanded big budgets in the west.
Comparing Bosta’s $800,000 budget to a film like the hit Bollywood musical Lagaan (a relatively inexpensive big-budget film at $5m) puts things into perspective. Why so much love for Bollywood and not Arabwood (aside from the fact that it clearly doesn’t have same ring to it)? We should remember that Bollywood didn’t get all that much attention in the West until India’s economic growth reached light-speed in the 2000s, and involvement with the region became a profitable enterprise.
Egypt has always been the standard-bearer for Arab cinema in the region, six of the nine films at the festival were Egyptian, with Arabs from various countries proudly associating themselves with it. But with the social and economic uncertainties currently plaguing the country, it’s safe to say that it will remain invisible to Western distributors for quite some time, and subsequently lack the funding it needs. Can’t they just seek money from the infinite pockets of the Arab Sheikhs? ‘That,’ laughed LFF Programmer Ali Jafaar, ‘is a complete myth’.
We are certainly not closed off to foreign cinema. In the last decade, with the help of the internet, the film industry has become largely globalised. The Japanese, Korean and Chinese cinemas have benefited from this, and Western audiences will flock to see the latest ultra-violent thriller by Takeshi Miike or the latest Chinese ancient epic without giving it a second thought.
Yet all these national cinemas have had their breakthrough hits; Oldboy from Korea, Ringu from Japan, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from China have all carved out a corner of western markets for their respective countries’ cinemas to flourish in. It’s not that Arabic cinema needs such a film as such, because it already has candidates. One of them is the recent Egyptian urban epic, The Yacoubian Building. With its series of meditations on drugs, prostitution, homosexuality and fundamentalism, as well as an all-star cast of powerful performances to pick from, the film itself has all the ingredients to catch on in the west?
What’s missing is the desire from distributors to give the Arabic cinema its breakthrough film. With a specific, media-induced image of the Middle East becoming further engrained in our collective unconscious, and with us already being spoilt for choice when it comes to high-quality world cinema, circumstances way beyond the control of regional talent will dictate when Arabic cinema finally gets noticed.Tagged in: arab cinema, Bollywood, chris morris, Curzon, egypt, four lions, Jason Wood, jordan, Lagaan, lebanon, Safar film festival, Watch Out for Zouzou
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