Monday, February 8, 2010

Reel Arabs and Saudis: How Real Are They? Part II—Arab Cinema(s)

From Un été à la Goulette (A Summer at La Goulette)

*As this is an unusually long post, it was subsequently lightly edited and re-published in 4 parts, programmed to follow immediately on this one, and not to interrupt the order of the subsequent posts. The Parts follow the main sections here; each includes the final suggestions for further reading and viewing: Part II Overview; Part IIa The Era of Decolonization; Part IIb Palestine/Israel Still Decolonizing; Part IIc The Post-Colonial Era. The original comments are still on this post. Please read it in the format you prefer, and comment where you prefer. Don't forget to share your favourites!
--Chiara, February 21, 2010

As was mentioned in Reel Arabs and Saudis: How Real Are They? Part I--Western Cinema, according to anthropologist Lawrence Michalak, hope for a better, more realistic portrayal of Arabs in American cinema resides in future Arab American filmmakers; and, I would add, for the portrayal of Arabs to all in Arab cinema itself.

Arab cinema has produced some excellent films including the impressive film Lion of the Desert (1981), about school teacher and brilliant tactician, Sanusi fighter Omar Al-Mukhtar leading the Libyan resistance to Italian colonization in the late 1920’s, specifically after Mussolini sent his most brutal and effective General, Graziano, to lead the fascist troops. This film is little known in the West and was banned in Italy until 1987 when it was shown in the governmental Chamber of Deputies, and only shown on Italian television in July 2009 during the visit of the man who funded it, Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi. Syrian American producer and director Moustapha Akkad, better known for the Halloween series, and killed with his daughter Rima Akkad Monla in 2005 in Amman, Jordan by an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber, was the director. Needless to say this portrayal of Arabs is quite different than that of the typical Hollywood fare.

Full film Lion of the Desert (1981)

Moustapha Akkad also produced and directed Mohammad, Messenger of God (1976), released as The Message in the US, and simultaneously released an Arabic version with an Arab cast as الرسالة, Ar Risalal. As the title indicates, it deals with the life of the Prophet of at the time of the Message and with the early history of the Muslims, including the Battles of Badr and Uhud. Akkad, despite his immense success with the Halloween series, had major difficulty finding and keeping funding, finally receiving the funding from Gaddafi, and shooting the film in Libya and Morocco. This was a labour of love for Akkad who said at the time, in 1976:

“I did the film because it is a personal thing for me. Besides its production values as a film, it has its story, its intrigue, its drama. Beside all this, I think there was something personal, being a Muslim myself, who lived in the West I felt that it was my obligation, my duty, to tell the truth about Islam. It is a religion that has a 700 million following, yet there's so little known about it, which surprised me. I thought I should tell the story that will bridge this gap to the West.”

Out of respect for Islamic principles of representation neither the Prophet, nor his wives, daughters or sons-in-law, were depicted visually or aurally on screen. The Prophet’s uncle Hamza and his son Zayd (adoptee) were the central figures carrying the narration of the film. The film had the approval of the scholars and historians of Al Azhar University in Cairo and the High Islamic Congress of the Shiat in Lebanon for its accuracy. Akkad’s finesse in telling the story with the Prophet and his immediate family present, but not depicted, is a lesson for those who cannot figure out how to write books of the Prophet’s life without illustrating them with portraits of the Prophet and his family-- like the original Danish illustrator whose dilemma inspired culture editor Flemming Rose to issue the challenge to Danish cartoonists of depicting the Prophet.

Unfortunately the film’s release in the US coincided with the March 1977 Hanafi siege of Washington DC, during which a journalist and a policeman were killed. 3 buildings--including the District Building (city hall), the Islamic Center, and the B’nai B’rith Headquarters in Washington DC--were seized by 12 gunmen who held 100 hostages, demanding that the US government turn over the group of men convicted of killing 7 family members, mostly children of their leader, Hamaas Khaalis. Khaalis was a former national leader of the Nation of Islam who had split with them, and felt that the Jewish judge, who had convicted the 1973 murderers, had failed to pursue the latters’ connections with the NOI. Mistakenly believing that Anthony Quinn was starring as the Prophet Mohammad, and that the film was sacrilegious, one of the hostage takers’ demands was that The Messenger be destroyed. The film received little American box office attention subsequently. Part 1/18 of the full film available on Youtube is embedded below:

The Messenger (Part 1 of 18)

According to Lawrence Michalak, Akkad’s films are hope for the future, even though they aren’t truly American films, in that they were neither funded by nor produced in America.

In my opinion, even more hope internationally lies in the New Arab Cinema; that is, in the contemporary Arab cinema scene, or as the French say, to emphasize the diversity within Arab culture and cinema, “les cinémas arabes”. Films are being written and produced throughout the Arab world, yet as this 2004 BBC article by Lucy Williamson, “New Arab cinema tells intimate stories”,  written on the occasion of the Arab Film Festival in London, points out, Arab cinema lags behind other Middle Eastern cinemas like that of Iran, especially in production and recognition. The causes are multiple, having to do with the diversity of the Arab world, comprised of 22 Arab majority countries, whose dialects are mutually in comprehensible and whose second languages are distinct (because of colonialism); but also with the lack of support for cinema production in many countries because of religious conservatism and its impact on government funding. In countries where cinema is banned, like Saudi or severely restricted, as in others, distribution is difficult and relies on an international audience. Only Egypt has had a tradition of national cinema and its glory days of government subsidies and hard-hitting realism in the 1960’s and ‘70s are past.

For all these reasons, Arab cinema producers are competing for funding with more established national cinemas for foreign funding. I would add that co-productions, which are financially necessary, can be enhancing artistically, or pose more of a problem and distraction for the initial vision of the film. Moreover, geopolitics and censorship play a major role in what is produced and what is seen where. The article quotes a Palestinian film-maker based in London, Omar al-Qattan, who does tackle political issues:

"My films have been banned or censored in various Arab countries," he says.
"But there are different kinds of censorship here. In a way, they're harder to resist because the person imposing them, usually a commissioning editor, has much more power over you than a remote government.
"It may not be a case of someone saying, 'you can't say this', but - which in a way is more pernicious - you may be told that you may say this but you may not say it in this way, or at that particular time of the night, or in this particular form."

Because of financial constraints, and censorship prevalent in many Arab countries, most contemporary Arab film-makers are focusing on intimate personal narratives, like Terra Incognita, about the misadventures of a young Beiruti, Soraya, and lyrical stories, rather than the broad, politicized epics of the past. This, in turn, gives their films a human universality rather than a nation-building specificity. There are exceptions of course, like the films of Omar Al-Qattan, but this is a general trend. Another general trend is for investment to be in television, and video clips, so that filmmakers are redirected to these (more conservative, and better controlled) media to survive financially.

Still, in Spring 2009, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts hosted a Festival of Arab Arts, Arabesque, which included an Arab Film Festival, along with Music, Dance, and Theatre. Perhaps ironically, given cinema restrictions in their own countries, the Film Festival sponsors included the Governments of Bahrain, Dubai, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, and The League of Arab States. Among the films shown were the following, from the program notes:

Adhen (Dernier Maquis)
Set in a run-down repair yard, a group of Muslim workers are not entirely happy when their boss establishes an on-site mosque and appoints an Imam for them while denying them reasonable wages.
Algeria/France, Dir. Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche (2008, 93 min.)
With wonderfully spare and leisured storytelling, Adhen won the Special Jury Prize at the Dubai Film Festival. Set in a run-down repair yard, a group of Muslim workers are not entirely happy when their boss establishes an on-site mosque and appoints an Imam for them while denying them reasonable wages.
In Arabic, with English subtitles.

The One Man Village
This lyrical film is the director's homage to his elderly uncle, the only remaining inhabitant of a village from which everyone fled during Lebanon's 15-year civil war.
Lebanon, Dir. Simon El Habre (2008, 86 min.)
This lyrical film, winner of the Dubai Film Festival Special Jury Documentary Prize, is the director's homage to his elderly uncle, the only remaining inhabitant of a village from which everyone fled during Lebanon's 15-year civil war. In Arabic, with English subtitles.

Pomegranates and Myrrh (Al Mor Wa Al Rumman)
When a dancer's husband is arrested, she finds herself drawn to the new dance choreographer.
Palestine, Dir. Najwa Najjar (2008, 95 min.)
Kamar, a Christian from Jerusalem, is now married and living in Ramallah, where she enjoys dancing with a local troupe. But then her husband is arrested and in the emptiness that follows she finds herself drawn to the new dance choreographer. In Arabic, with English subtitles.

Certain other films which were shown will be addressed below, and in Part III.

Era of Decolonization

As the film poster describes, Nasser 56 captures the drama and decision-making behind the scenes of the Suez Crisis, precipitated by the withdrawal of a Western loan offer to President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, to fund a dam on the Nile. In a bold move Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, controlling what was then the premier trade route from Europe to its south east.  This crisis was averted by American disapproval of an alliance of Britain, France, and Israel, and the USSR's willingness to back Egypt militarily. The diplomatic efforts of then Canadian Ambassador Lester B Pearson (later Prime Minister of Canada) played a major role, and led to the formation of the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces, for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize.

Nasser56 is situated at at time of decolonization not only for Egypt but for all the Arab world, as the years post-WWII saw the progressive breakup of the European empires in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, throughout the late 40's, the 50's and 60's, and into the 70's for Portugal. The process seemed to be coming to a late completion with the 1997 and 1999 handovers of  Hong Kong (British) and Macao (Portuguese) to the Chinese. Still, in the Arab world, Nasser's nationalization of the Suez in 1956, his nationalism, and panArabism had a major impact, as other countries, like Algeria, fought for independence.

Nasser 56 soundtrack with photos of the era

Full Film Nasser 56

Nasser was such a major figure in Egyptian history that during a difficult period in the 90's biographies, films, and documentaries abounded about him.

Nasser56 (1996) was extremely well received, as the article "Egyptians Weep and Cheer Nasser Film" by John Lancaster (International Herald Tribune, 1996) details, yet another film, Gamal Abdel Nasser (1998), has received higher critical acclaim by some, for dealing with all of Nasser's life and blending in real documentary footage, as in the article "Nasser '56 -- plus" by Nur Elmessiri in Al-Ahram, in 1998.

From the film Gamal Abdel Nasser

Gamal Abdel Nasser from the CIA files; the book The Art of Strategic Counterintelligence The Musketeer’s Cloak: Strategic Deception During the Suez Crisis of 1956 by Ricky-Dale Calhoun explores the backroom activities, diplomatic and otherwise, during the Suez Crisis.

Full Film Gamal Abdel Nasser

In the French Maghreb, moving west from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco were also seeking independence in the 1950's. Algeria's extremely bloody and brutal, quasi-civil war of independence, has repercussions to this day, and was definitely the most hard fought. Yet even after independence in these countries, the transition to a more autonomous state continued long after the agreements were signed, as did rebuilding, and building new infrastructures.

Un été à La Goulette/ A Summer in La Goulette (1996 directed by Férid Boughédir), a France/Belgium/Tunisia co-production, is a wonderful comedy set in the sunshine of a beach town, La Goulette or Halq el oued, near Tunis on the Mediterranean coast, in 1966, just before the 6 Day War, and just as Tunisia is re-building post-independence ( granted July 1957, actualized 1963 with French troop withdrawal). As the world is transforming, 3 17-year-old girls are transforming too. The 3 friends are determined to lose their virginity by August 15, each of them, Tunisian Muslim Meriem, French Jewish Gigi, and Sicilian Catholic Tina, choosing to do so with a teenaged boy of a different Abrahamic faith than her own. Their fathers, Youssef, Jojo, and Giuseppe are inseparable friends, and their mothers get along well, all living in the same apartment building owned by Hajj Benji who would like to marry Meriem. To add to the excitement, the town is already in a state of nervous anticipation at the announced visit of Italian actress Claudia Cardinale accompanied by French Jewish Tunisian actor Michel Boujénah. With the fathers’ discovery of the girls’ plans, the 3 families move from firm friends to sworn enemies, just as the world changes with the beginning of the 6 day war. The age of innocence is over, and the age of experience begins.

The following stills give some idea of the family and religious joys and tensions in the film, which remains charmingly funny in French, Arabic, and Italian, while delivering an intriguing lesson in harmony and discord, and transitions within personal lives and on the world stage.

Video of the film’s final images on the beach, and the closing credits with the theme song, sung in Arabic by Lotfi Bouchnak
Video of the film’s opening credits, and theme song in French
Available on Video, and DVD

Palestine/Israel-Still Decolonizing

One understanding of the Palestine/ Israeli situation is to see it as one of the remaining colonies of the empires built in the 19th century. At that time, as the European nations were carving out their empires globally, England claimed Palestine, and at the same time the Zionist movement for a Jewish homeland, and a return to Eretz Israel began.  Although England ultimately lost its empire, on this account the Zionist occupation of Palestinian land, and Palestinians, continues. The historic and contemporary situation of Palestine has been the focus of a whole national cinema and genre within Arab cinema.

Palestinian Director Michel Khleifi, the subject of an excellent profile in Al Ahram, has been particularly prolific, and successful. He first came to major international attention as the director of Wedding in Galilee/‘Urs fi Jalil (1987), winner of the Critics' International Film Prize, Cannes Film Festival.

Wedding in Galilee In Arabic subtitled in English Part 1/12

Though best known for this fictional story of an Arab elder who receives permission to hold a traditional wedding feast for his son--but only if the local Israeli commander attends-- Khleifi has directed other remarkable films including:  the documentary/fictional Fertile Memory, the first full length film to be shot (in 1980) behind "the Green Line", about 2 different Palestinian women whose lives after the 6 Day War, are entwined with the new politial order;  the documentary/fictional Canticle of Stones (1990), a love story of 2 Palestinians over 2 decades, and set against the reality of the 60's resistance to the Israeli occupation, then the Intifada; the fictional Tale of the Three Jewels/Hikayatul Jawahiri Thalath (1995,) the story of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy's quest for the love of a Gypsy girl set during the uprising in Gaza; and, the documentary Mixed Marriages or Forbidden Marriages in the Holy Land (1995) which explores the interethnic and interfaith marriages of 8 couples in Israel and occupied Palestine, their lives and their loves.

Khleifi, in addition to the Al-Ahram profile, has been interviewed by on the topic of Film as a Political Work of Art, and has a number of articles and a resource page in the New York Times: Michel Khleifi. His work has also been the subject of individual chapters in major academic books on Palestinian Cinema: Dabashi, Hamid, and Said, Edward (preface) (2006): Dreams Of A Nation: On Palestinian Cinema, Verso Books, London, United Kingdom, ISBN 1844670880. Chapter 3: "Michel Khleifi: From Reality to Fiction - From Poverty to Expression" (p. 45 -57); Chapter 4: "Bashir Abu-Manneh: Towards Liberation: Michel Khleifi's Ma'loul and Canticle" (p. 58-69); and, Gertz, Nurith; Khleifi, George (2008): Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma, and Memory, Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253220076. Chapter 3: "About place and time: The Cinema of Michel Kheifi", p.74-100.

A remarkable, yet less noted, film is Khleifi's personal and professional collaboration with Israeli film-maker Eyal Sivan in a road-movie documentary of over 4 hours, Route 181 South: Fragments of a Voyage in Palestine, which took them 1 year to make, including a 2-month trip together along Highway 181, named after the UN Resolution 181 setting the borders of Israel/Palestine.

Route 181 Frammenti Di Un Viaggio In Palestina-Israele (Sud)
in Arabic and Hebrew with Italian subtitles (on DVD with English ones) Part 1/8

Route 181 El Sur (2002) In Arabic and Hebrew subtitled in Spanish Part 1/3

Khleifi recently won the Dubai International Film Festival's (DIFF's) 2009 top Arab film prize for Zindeeq. In the words of the Festival:
Acclaimed director Michel Khleifi's story of a Palestinian film-maker 'M' living in Europe, who returns home to Ramallah to film witness accounts of the 1948 Nakba - not only explores the events of that tumultuous era, but places them in context with the uncertainty and tension of present-day Palestine. Over the course of a single day and night, M's solipsistic existence is shaken when his nephew kills a man in Nazareth, placing the entire family at risk of reprisals. This masterful feature - a quietly witty, complex and occasionally surreal depiction of an exile's relationship with Palestine - marks a new direction in Khleifi's work. Written by Dubai International Film Festival.
In Khleifi's own words as part of the Festival's Interview Series, documentaries allow for controversy which promotes dialogue:

Interview Michel Khleifi, DIFF, 2009

However, Michel Khleifi is far from being the only Palestinian film-maker, or the only film-maker to film on the subject of Palestine. Director Youssry Nasrallah's film Bab Al Shams [Door of the Sun] based on Professor Elias Khoury's book of the same name, and for which Khoury served as co-scriptwriter, addresses the displacement of the Palestinians post-1948. Gate of the Sun Translated and released in the USA

From the film Bab Al Shams (2004)

Bab Al Shams was shot over 8 months, in Lebanon and Syria. Along with great acclaim the film has received great criticism, from those who resent that Nasrallah turned to European funding when no Arab funding was available, and from those who disbelieve the displacements he portrays, as described here, and reviewed here.

Yousri Nasrallah's 2004 Door to the Sun/Bab Al Shams (Arabic no subtitles) Part 1/12

In the 1996 film Chronicle of a Disappearance Israeli Arab actor and director, Elia Suleiman, chronicled his own return to the West Bank, using himself and his family, friends, and other relatives to transmit a series of loosely connected yet tonally diverse vignettes showing the life and the political plight of the Palestinians, or as he stated "a journey in search of what it means to be Palestinian." Set in the time period just after the assassination of Yitzak Rabin and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, the film leaves the political tensions as a backdrop, and foregrounds the personal.

Chronicle of a Disappearance (Hebrew: Segell Ikhtifa)- Elia Suleiman- Part 1/9
NB this vignette is comical in itself without need of much Arabic

The Post-Colonial Era

OMAR GATLATO: full film in Arabic (Algerian) with French subtitles

Omar Gatlato (gatlato from the Algerian expression “gato al rujula” or “radjla”, roughly “his machismo kills him”), was a breakthrough film when it premiered in 1976. It was the first successful Algerian film, and one of the first Arab films, to address the post-colonial era, to represent life in Algeria, other than the problems of colonization, decolonization and the Algerian war of independence. The box office success of Omar Gatlato by Merzak Allouaché convinced Algerian filmmakers to invest further in this type of film.

Not only the subject matter, but the style of the film was a first. Instead of a serious documentary style, or a realist style, Omar Gatlato uses the subject and his gang of friends as the straightmen, while the camera humorously undermines their pretensions, as young single, men about town. In truth they are young single men with limited job prospects, a paralyzing fear of women, and a great deal of discomfort about their place in society. Their machismo hides their insecurity and alienation. All this is revealed through wry humour and camera shots that expose the façade of their words.

The film is a life in the day of Omar, a minor bureaucrat who lives in a suburb of the Bab-el-Oued district of Algiers, his overcrowded apartment, his airs of a Don Juan, and his enjoyment with friends of the pop culture of his time: soccer, “Hindoo” films, and Rai--suddenly confronted with the voice of an unknown woman on a trafficked cassette player he bought from a friend. Yet through such a simple premise it shed a clear eye on male Algerian life, and earned Allouaché the Reba Steward and Genevieve McMillan Award for Distinguished Filmmaking by the Harvard Film Archive for 2006.

Merzak Allouaché returned to the theme of life for the working class in Bab el Oued with his 1994 film, Bab El Oued City. However, times have changed. This film opens with a woman in the darkness speaking of zina, and turns on a young man’s, Boualem’s, distress at being awakened, after nightshifts in a bakery, by the call to prayer on the speaker from the local mosque. One morning, when it is particularly loud, he loses his temper, removes it, and throws it in the sea. In the contemporary extremist culture, this is seen as a serious crime,  and the authorities set about hunting for the perpetrator to make an example of him.

Full film Bab el Oued City (1994)

Staying for the time being in the Maghreb, the 2004 film Marock (Maroc + rock) was a phenomenon. Directed by Moroccan Leila Marrakchi, the primary narration is through the eyes of a Moroccan 18-year-old, Ghita, in her graduating year from the famous Lycée Lyautey (the French private school of Casablanca), and the exploits of her friends and classmates, all scions of the Moroccan bourgeoisie.

The soundtrack, the visuals, and the coming of age themes had great appeal for teens, and for the nostalgic, but the content resulted in much controversy, and condemnation by the religious conservatives, the centrists, and other Moroccan women filmmakers as well. Most strikingly, the Moroccan magazine Tel Quel, “telling about Morocco like it is” and often on the unhappy side of the government, devoted a major cover story to the film:

- Ghita : Mao, il est où le jeans que…
Elle s'arrête net. Devant elle, Mao, à genoux sur le sol, est en train de faire la prière du soir.
- Ghita : Mais qu'est ce qui t'arrive, t'es tombé sur la tête, t'es zinzin ? Tu t'es cru en Algérie ou quoi ? Tu vas devenir barbu, c'est ça ?
Mao l'ignore et continue sa prière sans se soucier de la présence de sa sœur.
- Ghita : Papa ! Maman ! Y'a votre fils qu'est devenu fou ! (…) Bon, il est où ce putain de jeans ? (…) C'est bon je l'ai trouvé, merci… (…) En fait, tu t'es trompé de direction, La Mecque c'est de l'autre côté !

Ghita to her brother Mao, as she enters the room: Mao, where are the jeans that...
Ghita stopping dead in her tracks on seeing him praying: What's the matter with you? Did you fall on your head? You're dinggy? You think you went to Algeria, or what? You want to be a bearded guy, that's it?
Ghita as Mao ignores her and continues praying: Dad! Mom! You're son has gone crazy! (...) Well, where are those damn jeans? (...) It's okay I found them, thanks...(...) You know, you are praying in the wrong direction, Makkah is the other way!

Fun on the beach, in the night clubs, and around the city becomes problematic when Ghita and a Jewish friend become more than friends.

Ironically, when the relationship becomes known and problematic, ending badly, it is Ghita`s newly religious brother Mao, the one who should stereotypically most deplore her sexual relationship with a Jew and its consequences, who extends the love and understanding that others have withdrawn. Perhaps his own battle with his guilt after accidentally killing a child when driving drunk, and having Papa "arrange things", has made him more compassionate, or has led him to the religious ideas of compassion and forgiveness that enable him to embrace the sister he was once so angry at.

As the Tel Quel article elaborates so well, the film breaks multiple taboos: sexual relationships between Muslims and Jews, alcohol, drugs, arrogant young rich bourgeois, swearing,  pre-marital sex, eating during Ramadan, mocking both prayer (as in the quote I put beneath the magazine cover above) and conservative Islam, and, finally, putting fraternal love above faith. A summary of the article and some English references to it is found here.

Ultimately, what seems to be a superficial and glossy teen flick is much more profound. Leila Marrakchi, herself a bourgeoise Casablancaise, a Muslim, married to a French pied-noir (pieds-noirs are French returned from Algeria after the war of independence, and sometimes after generations of their family living there)  Sephardic Jew, filmmaker Alexandre Aja (Alexandre Joudan- Arcady), knows what of  she narrates.

Full film--Marock--2 sources:

AFP/Getty Images
"Sheikh Majed, left, presents a lifetime achievement award to the Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan."
Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), 6th Edition, December 2004

On the Gulf side of the Arab world, the 6th Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), held in December 2009, was a marked success, and a showcase for 170 Middle Eastern, Arab (particularly Palestinian), Asian, African and other international film premieres, including introducing Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces and James Cameron's Avatar, to the region. An excellent write-up in the New York Times points out the maturation of the festival, and its competition regionally from Abu Dabhi's  Middle East Film Festival,  and Doha's TriBeCa satellite festival--Partying On | The Dubai International Film Festival:
The festival’s program of 170 films emphasized new work from the Arab world, Asia and Africa, as well as some international heavy-hitters, including regional premieres of Pedro Almodovar’s “Broken Embraces,” Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr Fox,” Rob Marshall’s “Nine” and James Cameron’s “Avatar.” One outstanding (and rare) example of local feature filmmaking at the festival was “City Of Life,” by the 28-year-old Emirati director Ali F. Mostafa, who made his first appearance at the festival three years ago with the short film “The Wheelbarrow.” The new film, proudly billed as the first domestically financed, multilingual Emirati feature, attempted the considerable task of putting the city’s warp-speed evolution into some kind of narrative context. It was generally a crowd-pleaser, but it will take some time for the local establishment to become accustomed to seeing itself, warts and all, depicted on the big screen. “With this film, I hope to change the global perception of Dubai,” Mostafa said before the screening. “I know, of late, there has been a tendency to bash up Dubai. I hope my film changes all that. The film shows us as a set of confident people — some good and some bad.”
The Palestinian programming attracted an overwhelmingly positive response from the film world at large; Michael Winterbottom, Emir Kusturica, Julian Schnabel and Andy Harries (who produced “The Queen”) have all announced projects set in and around Palestine. And over all, despite the problems the festival faced this year — the pressure of Abu Dhabi’s rival Middle East Film Festival and Doha’s TriBeCa satellite event, the rolling narrative of economic misery, three days of torrential rain — the mood at the closing awards ceremony was one of relief. News had come through the previous evening of a bailout from Abu Dhabi. The rain had stopped at around the same time. The closing party could take place after all.
City of Life (2009)

The same article, as quoted above, highlights the work of Ali F Mostapha, a 28-year-old Emirati (with a British Mother) graduate from the London School of Film (MA, 2004) who is rapidly building a career as the writer, director, and producer of short, and now long, films, including his most recent which was shown at the 6th DIFF: City of Life.

Ali F Mostafa shooting on location; DIFF profile here

According to the press release, in English and in Arabic, accompanying the City of Life premiere at the 6th DIFF:
City of Life is set in Dubai and intertwines the stories of three characters: a privileged Emirati man, a disillusioned Indian taxi driver, and a naïve Romanian flight attendant, living in a complex metropolis where ambition, growth and opportunity are a way of life.
True to Dubai's cosmopolitan makeup, the cast includes Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara, Northern Indian actor Sonu Sood, UAE nationals Saoud Al Ka'abi and Habib Ghuloom, British-based Jason Flemyng, Natalie Dormer and Susan George, Canadian-Iraqi rapper The Narcicyst, Egyptian-American comic Ahmed Ahmed, and Mumbai-born Jaaved Jaaferi.
The film's World Premiere is the realization of three years of planning and fundraising for award-winning writer and director Ali F. Mostafa, which culminated in a grueling five week shoot with co-production company Filmworks. Mostafa noted that “Making a film is never an easy journey, but dedicating three years of my life was incredibly fulfilling considering what we have achieved to date. I hope this film helps pave the way for more local and international films to be produced in the region. I would like to share my appreciation towards my fellow producer Tim Smythe and the sponsors for having had the faith in me and the vision to support this emerging industry. I am truly honoured to have been selected for this year’s Arabian Gala. There is no better place for City of Life to have its world premiere than in the city of life itself.”
City of Life is an urban drama set in Dubai that tracks the various intersections of a multi-lingual cast, examining how random interactions and their consequences can irrevocably impact many lives . A privileged young male Arab at odds with his cultural identity and his less fortunate street smart friend; a disillusioned Indian taxi driver who bears an uncanny resemblance to a famous Bollywood star; and a former Romanian ballet dancer now working as a flight attendant and searching for love and companionship … these individuals’ paths are all about to collide for better or for worse. City of Life ultimately explores the complex network that exists in an emerging multicultural society’s race, ethnicity and class divides, and reveals how tragedy and unexpected loss can lead to hope and profound transformation.
City of Life shooting on location in Bahrain

In her very positive review, "Ali F. Mostafa's City of Life The Film and the Emirate it Portrays"--The UAE's first multi-lingual feature film dazzles at DIFF--Rachel Boehm situates the first UAE multi-lingual film as a cinematographic accomplishment both artistically, and as hope for an emerging Emirati cinema. The trailer (sub-titled) can be viewed at the film's official site. A slide show of Ali F Mostafa at the Dubai International Film Festival is here, and the first part of a 3-part interview on INTV follows:

Interview INTV Part 1/3

As I mentioned in Part I, academics have a role to play in promoting understanding and the films themselves. Arab-Canadian cinema professor Malek Khoury has written an excellent article, Origins and the Patterns in the Discourse of New Arab Cinema--one without much cinema studies jargon, for those interested in Arab cinema, Arab culture studies, and situating films by Arab filmmakers in their modernist and post-colonial contexts.

For Further Reading:
Arab cinema (multiple articles within)
Middle East Video Collection
Malek Khoury. Origins and the Patterns in the Discourse of New Arab Cinema, Arab Studies Quarterly. Belmont: Winter 2005. Vol. 27, Iss. 1/2; pg. 1, 20 pgs
Directory of Palestinian cinema, filmmakers, films, festivals, critical writings on Palestinian cinema, Dreams of a Nation

Viola Shafik: Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity, AUC Press, 1998, ISBN 9774244753 (Paperback)
Rebecca Hillauer: Encyclopedia of Arab Women Filmmakers, American University in Cairo Press, 2005, ISBN 9774249437

For Further Viewing:
Arab Film Distribution

What is your impression of Arab Cinema; how well it is known; how important it is in creating more desirable or accurate images of Arabs and Arab life?
What Arab films have you seen that you would recommend, and why? (Feel free to link and embed if you like)
What is your impression of the Cinema Studies research on Arab films presented here?
Do you have other sites, articles, or books to recommend, whether academic, journalistic or popular?
Any other comments, impressions, recommendations, thoughts?

Coming next... Part III Saudi Cinema


oby said...

Since I read this somewhere before...maybe it was you Chiara on another post, I have been more atuned to the "heros" vs. the "villans". I think in some ways what you say is true. It used to be the it is the Arabs.

But it did make me wonder who the "heros" are for the Arabs and who are their "villans" Wouldn't surprise me a bit if it was the reverse there. Turn about is fair play! LOL!

thanks for a well done piece.

ellen557 said...

I really love this Chiara! Your posts are always so well researched. I've seen a few Arab films but my favourite was "Sabah" . I didn't really like the storyline but the acting was great :D Annoyingly though I think only 1 member of the cast was actually Arab.
Actually no maybe my fav was the Lemon Tree ( WOW. So, so amazingly good! It's about the Israeli/Palestine conflict but on a really small scale.

Then if you're up for a laugh go for Omar wa Salma 1 & 2 (1 is better!). Sort of like a musical/comedy thing lol!

Qusay said...

This was one loooooooong post but I've enjoyed reading every word.

I learned a lot about the other side of the Arab world, that of Morocco and Algeria, I have very little knowledge of that area of the world, and I have just added a few titles to my list. I have seen French movies made and featuring Moroccans in France but not anything purely Moroccan.

I remember watching the messenger a long time ago... and like all the x-mas movies that they play over and over each season, they play that movie on TV also.

I really do not know where Arab films are going, the major productions of the Arab world come out of Egypt, and any actor/actress that want to make it big need to be in Cairo for that... unfortunately the producers are... well... producers, they want to make a fast buck... and we all know the simple formula for that, either the sleazy kind of movie, or get a big name that would be guaranteed to sell at the box office.

Media is a strong form of communication, and a movie can reach masses not reached by the written word due to many reasons, but then again, who would watch international movies if they were not into movies? However it is, I know they will at least increase awareness...

I am going to read this post again :) but I would like to end this comment with a couple of lines from blood diamonds:
Solomon Vandy asks the reporter (Maddy) about her article about the war
Solomon Vandy: So when people in your country read it, they will come help, yes?
Maddy Bowen: Probably not.

Chiara said...

Oby--thank you for your comment, and kind words. I hope you read about heroes and villains in Part I of the Reel Arabs and Saudis: How Real Are They? posts.

While turn about is fair play, I was struck that many of the most successful films in the Arab world are more observations (critical often) on the filmmaker's own country. The process is so difficult in terms of funding and distribution that these films do seem more like labours of love, albeit at times tough love, than strict commercial entreprises.

There are more commerical films of course, but the ones I have seen are more comedic or romantic. Perhaps that is an artefact though, and those more familiar with Arab cinema will enlighten us both.

Thanks again for your comment and I am glad you enjoyed this!

Chiara said...

Ellen--thank you for sharing your own cinema favourites, and the links. I had heard of Lemon Tree before, but haven't seen it. I was interested to read that it is based on a true story, and that it had more success outside of Israel than within. However, given the film's defense of Palestinian rights, perhaps that was inevitable. Riklis seems like a talented and sensitive film-maker.

Thank you for introducing me to Sabah: A Love Story a Canadian film, by an Arab(1/2 Syrian, 1/2 Palestinian)-Canadian woman filmmaker Ruba Nadda. I had no knowledge of it before! Arsinee Khanjian, who plays the lead role of the Syrian Muslim woman, is an Armenian Christian Canadian famous for starring in the films of Armenian Canadian Atom Egoyan, her husband. It does seem as if there is one Arab actress (Fouzia Nadda) among the main characters, and on among the secondary ones.

The themes of immigration, family adaptation, tradition and acculturation, and interfaith marriages or relations of Muslim women and non-Muslim men are all very interesting.

I look forward to seeing both the suggestions you have made, thanks!

Chiara said...

Qusay--thank you for your thought provoking comment and your appreciation of this post, which indeed is long, even for one of mine!

It is true that Egypt, which initially provided government funding for cinema, has the longest tradition and the most diverse cinema, both art house and mainstream entertainment.

You are right to question the broader impact of these films, which are mainly addressed to a more sophisticated audience, will have within the country or to the "Other". However, I am less pessimistic or perhaps more measured in my expectations.

I do think that these films have an impact, in part because they are more likely to be seen by the "intelligentsia" of their and other countries, and therefore over time to have a trickle down effect. True that may not do much in the immediate response to crises within MENA but it does have a longterm impact via the teachers, journalists, writers, academics, artists who see them and transmit the messages they receive from them.

Unfortunately some countries, like the US are more resistant to foreign-language films, whether dubbed or subtitled but even there, there is a large demographic who is interested.

Within a MENA country is more complex, as Marock experienced, and others of the interviewees cited in the post stated: censorship and repression are common especially on topic dealing with the same nation's realities. That is where metaphor and allegory come in, even simple ones, in popular films.

Thanks again for your inspiring comment. Do read again and share more of your thoughts, and your favourite films!

Chiara said...

I do hope others will enjoy the post as you 3 have, and not be intimidated by the length, or else use the photos to skip through to the films of greatest interest to them, and to comment on the parts they have read, or to suggest other Arab films, or give their own general impression of Arab films.

I also wonder what others think of the dialogue in the film Marock as translated. In the film itself this represents well the frustration Ghita has with her brother's sudden religiosity after his return from living abroad for a while. It clashes not only with mainstream Moroccan Islam but with their family's practice and his own prior to causing the accident that killed a child--as noted by his not being aware of the proper direction to face towards Makkah while praying in Casablanca.

Susanne said...

Whoa, nice post! You certainly know your stuff.

I read "The Lemon Tree" and enjoyed it greatly. I've recommended it to people as well. An American friend of mine currently living in the West Bank recommended it and I found it a great way to understand the Israel/Palestinian conflict.

Thanks for another good post!

(The word verification is "barea" -- that's Samer's twin brother's name...weird!) :-D

Susanne said...

Of course I was talking about the book which seems different from the film.

I meant this story:

Usually I prefer books to movies.

Chiara said...

Susanne--thank you for your comments and kind words.It sounds as if both the book and the novel are worthwhile though distinct. I shall have to check them both! Thanks for the link to the book review too!

Souma said...

that's a wonderful selection! there's a different flavour to these types of movies that has always fascinated me!

Chiara said...

Souma--I'm glad you liked the selection! I am looking forward to your comments on the upcoming Saudi cinema post! :)


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