Tuesday, February 9, 2010

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

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


Qusay said...

These articles were great... just great

Chiara said...

Qusay--thanks, and stay tuned for Part III on Saudi cinema.

RCHOUDH said...

Another great post! City of Life sounds interesting in particular as does Omar Gatlato. As for Marock I find it interesting that most movies involving interfaith relationships (with a Muslim and someone else)almost always have the Muslim be a woman. I hardly hear about Muslim men in such relationships being depicted. I wonder what's the deal with that?

Chiara said...

RCHOUDH--thanks for your comment and your ongoing interest in these posts. I have seen Omar Gatlato which was a good one, and especially appreciated by my North African cinema companions. City of Life sounds vibrant and new!

Since Muslim men have the right to marry Jewish and Christian women there would be less dramatic conflict than with a Muslim woman involved with a non-Muslim man, although families and communities may disapprove of both types of interfaith relationships. The special place of Muslim women as those who bear and educate the Muslim children adds to the issue for interfaith marriages for women. Also as in most cultures there is the idea of men coming and carrying off "our women" who need to be defended and protected, and the greater consequences for women in defying cultural norms.

If you haven't already you may wish to read the post on whether Muslim women should have the right to marry non-Muslim men or not:

Muslim Women and Interfaith Marriage: The Doha Debates Chez Chiara

Thanks again for your comment and interest in these cinema posts. 2 more are in the works!

RCHOUDH said...

Hi again Chiara,

I understand what you're saying; I guess my reservation with these types of films is that they come off indirectly promoting the "Western savior" narrative; that's the vibe I got from the majority (and there are some) of mostly independent films made in the West depicting a relationship involving a Muslim woman and non Muslim man. While I certainly can't say how Arab films depict such relationships I'm wary of them indirectly promoting the same message (of the poor oppressed Muslim woman getting "saved" from her family/culture/religion by a handsome non Muslim man).
I also wonder if there are any films made in the Arab world depicting other types of relationships that run into conflict. For example there's still an unfortunate stigma attached to Muslims marrying interracially/interethnically/internationally. Like you'll have a couple, both of whom are Muslims, but because they are of different races/ethnicities/nationalities, their families are just as disapproving of the relationship as they would be if it involved one with a non Muslim. I haven't seen any type of film based on that yet and so would like to know if there are any Arab films tackling this issue. Thank you!

Chiara said...

RCHOUDH--thank you for your comment. That is an interesting perspective, and question about Arab films. I will keep an eye out as I prepare the next cinema post, and I hope others who are Arab cinema aficionados will contribute as well. You may want to re-pose the question when the next cinema post goes up and people are reading it for the first time. However, I will keep an eye out for that topic in particular as well. Thanks again for your interest and your comment.


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