Tuesday, February 9, 2010

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

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

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 in the next posts, Part IIa The Era of Decolonization, Part IIb Palestinian/Israel Still Decolonizing, Part IIc The Post-Colonial Era, and in Part III Saudi Cinema.

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 IIa Arab Cinema(s) Era of Decolonization


RCHOUDH said...

Hi again Chiara

Another excellent writeup! Speaking of the Message have you heard that they're planning on remaking this? I also heard two directors expressing interest in the remake so there's a possibility of there being two cinematic biographies about the prophet (SAWS) in the future.

As for your question regarding other films I've seen that I'd recommend, one could be The Battle of Algiers directed by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo. It's a visceral retelling of the Algerian War for Independence from French colonial rule. It does focus more on the violent tactics of the Algerian resistance movement (the most memorable being how three women were used to plant bombs in French domains) but it didn't shy away from showing the French and their ruthless tactics of suppression (although it did shy away from showing how the French totured and raped Algerian prisoners men and women ala Abu Ghraib).
Still the movie did well to highlight Algerian grievances instead of glossing over them. Now I'm interested in watching Lion of the Desert for comparison to Battle of Algiers. Thanks for embedding it!

Chiara said...

RCHOUDH--Hi again, and thank you for your informative and enlightening comment. It will be interesting if one or 2 remakes of The Message are done. It would be most welcome to have responsible biographies of the Prophet--ones which have cinematographic artistry and appeal as well.

I am aware of the film you mentioned, The Battle of Algiers, but haven't seen it--yet! A comparison with the Lion of the Desert would be very apropos, especially as a reflection of French vs Italian colonization and decolonization of North Africa.

Please keep commenting on other posts of interest, and the III part of the Reel Arabs one should be up in not too long.

I will definitely get over your way to read and comment on your review!

Thanks again.

Chiara said...

PS in case is wasn't clear this is only the first segment of a 4 segment of Part II pf the Reel Arabs and Saudis cinema post. I look forward to your comments on the others.

RCHOUDH said...

Hi Chiara,

You can actually view The Battle of Algiers online like on Youtube:


I'm sure there are other sites with better full length quality versions of the movie. I'll be sure to check out the rest of your post soon!

Chiara said...

RCHOUDH--thanks for the link and the inspiration to search further. The full movie is available in 3 parts of ~40 minutes each on Daily Motion, with the first here:


I find that searching Google Videos brings up a number of sites as well as Youtube and especially for foreign films, videos, or songs other sites are often better.

Thanks again for sharing a film you would recommend and the link for it.


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