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Contemporary Arab Affairs

ISSN: 1755-0912 (Print) 1755-0920 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rcaa20

The current state of Arab cinema: the stories of


individualsand an update on documentary films
Nadim Jarjoura
To cite this article: Nadim Jarjoura (2014) The current state of Arab cinema: the stories of
individualsand an update on documentary films, Contemporary Arab Affairs, 7:2, 209-224,
DOI: 10.1080/17550912.2014.916524
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17550912.2014.916524

Published online: 20 May 2014.

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Date: 26 October 2015, At: 16:00

Contemporary Arab Affairs, 2014


Vol. 7, No. 2, 209224, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17550912.2014.916524

The current state of Arab cinema: the stories of individuals and


an update on documentary lms
Nadim Jarjoura*

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Film critic from Lebanon


Cinematic works in the Arab world, unied only by language, differ in their
artfulness and their format both among countries and within each country.
Equally, even countries with long-established cinema cultures have witnessed
ups and downs. Thus we can observe that Egyptian Neo-Realism emerged at
the end of the last century to counter the decline in Egyptian cinema, once
known for its nobility and rootedness. Contemporary Arab Cinema is not only
about artfulness; it also unveils the sufferings, concerns and interests of people
through technical and cognitive development as well as innovative ideas. The
most prominent actors in this genre in the Middle East are Egypt, Syria,
Lebanon and Palestine. However, young directors in the Gulf region are seeking
to acquire experience and professionalism, notably in Saudi Arabia where
restrictions on daily life have become an incentive for rebellion and creativity. In
addition, the Arab Maghreb countries have made great cinematic contributions,
using their own methods and experiences, along with modern technology, to
shed light on current political and humanitarian situations in the Arab world.
Today, cinematic works are confronting censorship and oppression (due to
political or religious reasons), not only in conservative countries such as Saudi
Arabia but also in Arab states usually considered liberated and democratic
like Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon.
Keywords: cinema; censorship; rootedness; rebellion; technology; artfulness

Introduction
The title The status quo of Arab cinema raises numerous questions, although the
intention was expressed unequivocally by the convenors of the conference for which
this paper was originally prepared: This research addresses, after introducing Arab
cinema and demonstrating its importance, the status of cinema in each Arab country,
with the aim of providing a panoramic view of this art and its presence across the
Arab world. This requires an interest in both the more distant past and recent
history and a desire to explain the Arab landscape to those outside the region in
order for them to understand the realities and status of cinema in each part of that
vast area between the Arabian Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite the difculty of selecting material for inclusion in a text like this, the
reasoning behind this paper reects, or is supposed to reect, an essential aspect of
*Email: nadim.jarjoura@gmail.com

This paper was originally presented at the Symposium on The Arab Cinema and its Role in Renaissance, convened by the Centre for Arab Unity Studies and the Swedish Institute Alexandria in
Hammamet, Tunisia, 1820 December 2013.
2014 The Centre for Arab Unity Studies

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the status quo of Arab cinema beyond the question of Arab cinema or Arab cinemas
as a generic. In other words, the Arab world, unied only by Modern Standard Arabic
which varies markedly from regional Arabic dialects and can be difcult to pronounce
properly, has established multiple Arab cinematic forms which vary in artistic, technical, dramatic and aesthetic terms, just like the variance in their locations of their origin.
There are vast differences between the cinema of one country and that of another, as
well as within the cinemas of each country. This diversity is evident in the mechanisms
by which cinema functions, how deeply rooted it is within society, and the novelty of its
production at the historical/chronological and intellectual/aesthetic levels. However,
this is not to say that countries with long cinematic traditions are the only owners of
a visual modernity derived from broadminded culture, nor that each production from
newcomers suffers from underdevelopment and cinematic illiteracy. Perhaps Egypt
is the best proof of this: the nobility of its cinematic history has not prevented many
of its productions from falling into easiness, shallowness, ignorance and chaos
during several periods, despite the ability of Egyptian lm-makers of more than one
generation to overcome the superciality and deterioration of the moment. The Gulf
Cooperation Council (GCC) offers further evidence: in practical terms, visual works
there are still in their early stages, emerging from the individual experiences that
countries and societies witnessed during earlier periods. However, this has not prevented a small number of Gulf youth from innovating extremely modern cinematic
forms, bolstered by a cognitive culture and consciousness and a heightened awareness
of the events taking place in the world, at the humanitarian, cultural and cinematic level.
Questions about the past and observations about the present
The question of the status quo of Arab cinema goes beyond the denition advanced
above. How, for instance, can we determine the exact moment at which the renewal of
cinema derived from the identity and culture of this geography actually emerge? When
did it happen? Has the so-called Arab Spring had any inuence in planting a new,
modern revolutionist seed in Arab cinema? What is the existing relationship, or
that which is supposed to exist, between what I prefer to call the Arab movement
and the moving image? Does the organization of a festival specializing in so-called
mobile movies represent, for example, a movement towards stabilizing this type of
work in its own right? Or is this kind of movie what some are seeking to transform
into cinema or what may resemble cinema? What about the use of modern techniques
or experimental cinema and video art lms? Do not they all form an integral part of
the renaissance of any Arab cinema that imprints the status quo with novelty which
needs to be critically analysed in order to understand its origin, forms and dimensions
and its relationship with reality, the moment and the local situation? Is it not better to
liberate such analysis from the individual geographic distinctions of Arab cinema productions and search instead for innovative aspects common to current productions?
Alternatively, cannot we say that certain crucial moments witnessed by several
Arab countries constitute fundamental underpinnings for the status quo of Arab
cinema whether positive or negative? Take, for example, what happened in Damascus during the early 1970s (the International Youth Cinema Festival of Damascus in
1972 and the desire to escape the tunnel of tradition and the austerity of the prevailing
culture). Does the Alternative Cinema which began to emerge in Lebanon on the eve
of the outbreak of civil war on 13 April 1975 mark the beginning of an actual status quo
that derives its performance from technical and cognitive development and from the

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artfulness of imagination in the innovation of visual novelty and imaginary matter?


How have the experiences of individual Lebanese during the 1990s inuenced
matters: may we not consider these as grounds for a status quo that is trying to establish,
perhaps for the thousandth time, a new Lebanese cinema? What about the cinema
clubs in the Arab Maghreb countries during the 1970s and 1980s and their cultural,
intellectual and aesthetic inuence on the formation of the cinematic image later on?
What about Egyptian Neo-Realism (so to speak) which emerged during the 1980s
as a strict and confrontational response to the cinema of cultural and artistic contraction
and downfall? Did not this offer a strong foundation for building a real Cinematic
Rebellion, the results of which appeared during the 1990s and on into the new millennium? What has been happening cinematically in Palestine over the last 25 years?
Where was Iraqi cinema before, during and after the American invasion? Can we
say that the achievements of immigrant or exiled Iraqi people constitute a new Iraqi
cinema that both attracts foreign money and enters deep into the maze of humanitarian
misery of todays Iraq? Should we not take the time to observe the Kurdish cinema
that has emerged from Kurdish localities, mainly in Iraq and Syria (without forgetting
Turkey and Iran although this is a different subject), to reach that which is beyond
geography, more beautiful than reality and more mature than the language of cinematic
expression? Does not this cinema also fall, even indirectly, within the scope of the
status quo of Arab cinema? Should we forget Syria and the high quality of its
various productions: what about the generation of Mohammad Malas, Omar Amiralay,
Ossama Mohammad, Abdullatif Abdulhamid, Haitham Hakki, Samir Zikra and Remon
Boutros (who have continued in their cinematographic work for longer than others)?
Did not they establish a cinema which stems from the localism of the individual self,
originating from that which is broader than geography and closer to the humanitarian
dimension? Did not they create an innovative structure that considered the lmmakers who came after them, such as Nidal El-Dibs, Jud Said, Mohamad Abdul
Aziz and others (without presenting any stringent critical analysis of their lms and
without forgetting their attempts to continue their innovative plan) as an extension of
their dreams and progression? May we not take even a quick glance at the cinematic
efforts of Jordan, even if they constitute a combination of Jordanian and Palestinian
cinema much like the situation taking place within the Jordanian community?
I am raising general questions here and do not pretend to be able to provide satisfactory answers to them all. The list goes on. The status quo of Arab cinema is primarily and mainly attributed to the immediate moment. So can we conne the
immediate moment to the rst 13 years of the third millennium? Meaning by this
the rst results of the troublesome process witnessed by Arab cinema even until
today, which has produced a considerable number of lms, diverse in both quality
and quantity? Those 13 years were a mirror which reected a serious inversion in
the direction of Arab cinematographic works, especially in relation to the destruction
of the ideological fetishism and social issues, and the absence of the individual his
relations, emotions and worries under the pretence that no voice is higher than the
voice of the battle. That destruction, which was especially apparent in Egypt in the
1980s, for example, or in some Lebanese lm-making during the 1970s and 1980s,
has been reversed with the elevation of the position of the Arab individual, by virtue
of his dreams, worries, disappointments, pains, questions and behaviours, as well as
his correlation with himself and with the other without forgetting the visual interest
in modern technology and the formal tools, provided by these technologies, of
announcement, speech and expression.

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Serious efforts in countries (hitherto) outside the development of cinema


Revolting against destiny to create a serious visual industry
In this section I shall not address the question of the status quo of Arab cinema by
offering a simplistic history and related assessment of the current status of cinema.
The common factors in the history writ large are a cornerstone to rely on when analysing the status quo, which, it seems to me, is defying destiny to produce a new cinematic
image. Without doubt, the rst seeds of this have been rmly planted and the early
results are promising and optimistic. However, I shall explore examples, beginning
with developments in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and then looking at other
Arab countries (notably Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine) as models of what is considered the current renaissance of Arab cinema.
The countries of the GCC have a cinematic story which we shall be entitled to
narrate historically, socially and culturally at some point. Yet, since this story is chronologically the closest to the status quo of Arab Cinema, and is still in the process of
formation, starting here provides an opportunity to analyse an Arab cinematic scene
of various and contradictory chapters. The events taking place in these Gulf states
demonstrate that a stable constituent base is set and that a genuine desire for development and crystallization is inuential in the general context. They also show that retaining past individual experiences forms part of an integrated cinematic cultural project
with respect to a younger generation which is enthusiastic and endeavouring to
acquire all possible knowledge, experience and professionalism, yet nds itself confronted by an authoritarian tendency within society and politics which seeks to curb
youthful cinematic enthusiasm. Even though attention to the differences across the
region transforms analysis of the status quo of Arab cinema into a trip around the
region, the exclusion of the story of Gulf cinema from the general scene may be attributed to the freshness and liveliness of this experience, combined with the enthusiasm of
the constituent moment. This excitement reminds us of the changes witnessed earlier in
those Arab countries in which cinema is now deeply rooted, during the development
of their respective lm industries.
However, here we should highlight a very sensitive issue: the countries of the GCC
are not all alike in their relationship to cinema. The brand-new cinema halls found in the
United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, for example, do not exist at all in
Saudi Arabia. However, the restrictions at the level of daily life in Saudi Arabia
have become an incentive to innovate in rebellion against such restrictions. Thus the
youth cinema movement in the country is slightly more liberated and bold in approaching the relationship between the cinematic image and the humanitarian situation, and
Saudi youth, in deance of various authorities, have produced their own cinematic
images, overcoming each difculty with the enthusiasm of a person creating something
new in the face of obscurantism. The Saudi experiences contradict the general view of
life inside Saudi Arabia: young people are producing their own lms and watching
foreign cinematic masterpieces on DVD neither time, destiny nor drawbacks can
entirely prevent them attaining that which they desire. Cinema 500 km (2006), a documentary lm by Abdullah Al-Eyaf, reects a real situation that provides a basis for
understanding the Saudi scene: young people enthusiastic for cinema do not hesitate
to drive to Bahrain (a distance of 500 kilometres from their home town) in order to
watch lms in a cinema auditorium. I believe that this lm, with its humble capabilities,
also reveals a different reality: Saudi youth will not hesitate to exercise their right to
visual creativity, both in producing and watching lms. This is what they do:

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whether through cinematic productions, which vary in importance, or through their


insistence on nding places where screenings take place or cinema meetings are
held. Haifaa Al-Mansour is the most famous among them, for reasons that may not
be entirely cinematic since her lm Wadjda (2012), nanced and produced by Al
Waleed bin Talal, gained a kind of legitimacy by bowing before the image of King
Abdullah the Protector of the Country and portraying a positive but inaccurate
image of a country deeply entrenched in obscurantism.
Crises that can be an incentive for creativity
The real crisis that accompanied the rise of new Gulf visual productions, mainly starting
from the early 21st century, was due to the confused relationship between the conservative societies, some of which are inexible in their culture and traditions, and the
requirements of cultural work represented by freedom, and realistic and spiritual departure from isolation and connement. The dissonance lies in the collision between the
requirements of the production of cinematic work that is serious and free of censorship
and the demands of living in societies still subject to strict traditions governing life
styles, behaviour and personal relations, as well as the view of oneself and the image
of the other. The real crisis is that the needs of cinema are completely contradictory
to the ways of living in the Gulf on all levels. How then can we nd a way out of
this crisis? How have the young people in the Gulf managed to produce movies that
conrm the presence of a great imagination, and the possession of a beautiful form
of expression, the capacity for honest confession and a real cinematic eye? How
come Gulf societies, isolated in their adherence to an inexible, and sometimes fundamentalist, religious culture, did not prevent the emergence of this graceful light from
within their connes? This glorious light is a young generation determined to
produce creative work, persistently asserting its right to knowledge and experience,
and ready to face all the challenges for the sake of a camera, a lens, and an image
which allows them to express themselves and many, or at least some, of their emotions
and thoughts? A case in point are the Emirati youth who could be considered models,
without detracting from others, and among whom are: Nawaf Al-Janahi, Waleed Al
Shehhi, Khalid AlMahmood and Saeed Salmeen Al-Murry, who, along with others,
constitute a solid base for an Emirati cinema that is struggling to stabilize its dramatic
and aesthetic structure.
It is true that some other Arab societies are no more socially liberated or free at the
political or cultural level than those of the Gulf. Lebanon, for example, long considered
to be the most open and democratic Arab country, and to have achieved co-existence
among the different and contradictory belief systems, has been unable to nd real
freedom, protected by virtue of a modern law set by the political authority, given the
other authorities who govern the country with violence and whose power exceeds
that of the Lebanese authority if it ever existed. Take also the example of the Arab
Maghreb countries, some of which were established on the basis of real secularism,
democracy and modern civil thoughts (Tunisia, for example) they have confronted,
and are perhaps still confronting, numerous difculties in seeking to fortify their
freedom and liberty, due to the growing inuence of extremists who profess themselves
the representatives of Allah on earth, whether they are religious men, nanciers, businessmen or politicians. The intention is to keep the societies submerged in ignorance
and isolation, i.e. within the scope of Sadats Economic Openness, which contributed,
along with many other factors, both positive and negative to the emergence of the

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Cinema of Business a cinema of emptiness, shallowness and ignorance. Despite all


the aforementioned, many lm-makers in Lebanon, the Arab Maghreb and Egypt have
taken on, ercely sometimes, the dragons of religion, money, business and good
manners to establish a clean cinema based on all the aesthetics and freedoms, an
open, cognitive and cultural conscience and a humanitarian rebellion against obscurantism, ignorance and servility that is a real cinema, unafraid to say what it wants to say
in a sincere and meaningful cinematic form. I use the expression clean cinema deliberately here to liberate it from association with the terminology of those who seek to use
cinema to bolster inexible religious and social views.
The Emirates Film Competition or the long journey towards a national Gulf lm
industry
Should Gulf youth revolt against their destinies to produce a cinema which stems from
their own cognitive originality, history and culture without being subject to the cruelties
of the siege-like circumstances in which they live? Perhaps yes. However, the most
important aspect is that cinema has become accustomed to outwitting the oppression
of political, social, cultural and religious regimes, and has become skilful in visual production under the most severe conditions of oppression, sabotage and siege. This is
what the lm-makers operating under dictatorial regimes in the former the Soviet
Union and Eastern Europe did; this is what the lm-makers in Latin America and
Asia do. Deception is a necessity, yet creativity is the purpose. Rebellion against prescriptive destinies is a necessity, but the production of the best, most fascinating and
splendid lms (to use the language of the Arabian Gulf which has a fondness for comparatives and superlatives) is the purpose. Is the battle tough? Historically, battles to
defend freedoms, social justice, human dignity and free cognitive knowledge have
never been easy. Consider then how much more difcult things might be in conservative countries where social behaviour is linked to a religious text? Yes, the battle is
tough, yet not impossible. The way to develop a Gulf lm industry is also difcult,
yet it too is not impossible.
The new journey of the Gulf lm industry began in the early 21st century. The
establishment of the Emirates Film Competition (EFC), founded by the Emirati
Masoud Amralla Al Ali in 2001, marked the emergence of a progressive movement
in the atmosphere of that particular geographical location which quickly opened up
to the developments taking place across the Arabian Gulf states. The sheer volume
of work submitted to the contest each year has almost obscured some aesthetics and
promises. However, these aesthetics responded to the implicit promises of the birth
of a local cinema capable of achieving (through image, artistic work, the practice of
writing and the use of techniques) a cinematic output that coalesces with the achievements of Arab lm-makers spread far and wide, either in their homelands or in places of
exile. The rst annual session of the competition encouraged such exchanges as it was
not restricted to a single geographic environment and included both Arab and foreign
guests. It also provided a range of cinema programmes, critical meetings and a variety
of notebooks to supply the serious ones among the Gulf youth with an opportunity
for networking and communication.
The EFC has played a signicant role in the spontaneous and unpretentious creation
of the pathway towards a new Gulf cinema. Signicant effort was exerted by Masoud
Amralla Al Ali and his friends who were at least emotionally involved in the competitive cognitive game of cinema and culture. As a result of these endeavours, individuals

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and groups have had access to information that has helped them produce works which
prove that a new Gulf cinema generation is ourishing. The EFC was instrumental in
the development of the international lm festivals in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and in 2010
it was integrated into the newly formed Abu Dhabi Festival where it continues to
nurture local and regional talent.

The common aspects in cinema


The cinemas of the Arab Orient have overcome tradition and become a real
reection of deep individual stories
Yes, there are Arab cinemas. Yet, in the 21st-century political, social, economic and
cultural climate, the talk has turned to their many common features, which, aside from
the dimension of geography, are more honest and powerful, and transform these features into mirrors of environmental situations and details without losing the cinematic
base, i.e. the foundation of the cinematic structure. Despite the specicity of each new
production, they have all interacted on key points that extend beyond geography in their
spatial sense, without being totally free of a locality that contributes to dramatic and
aesthetic specicity, and communicates with the unique social, cultural and educational
aspects of this country or that.
The common facets of many Arab cinema productions do not mean that their directors belong to a single youth generation, even if I have had to adopt this description,
which I nd disagreeable as it species forms and situations whereas cinema is much
wider than such narrow expressions. These lm-makers belong to several generations,
some of which came before the youth generation. However, all of them have noticed
the transformations witnessed by the historic trajectory of these cinemas and the
impacts of these transformations have taken the pulse of the street, of the people,
and have contributed a cinematic approach to the current situations in forms derived
from their own methods and experiences, without neglecting the possibilities afforded
by modern technology. There are numerous examples, especially in the Arab Maghreb
which offers another effective and important model. Surely the Tunisian Nouri Bouzid
and his two recent lms Akher Film [Making Of] (2006) and Manmoutech (2012), for
instance, or the Algerian Merzak Allouache and his two lms Normal (2011) and AlTaaib [The Repentant] (2012) belong to the current Arab cinema by virtue of their new
forms and import, which shed light on the current situation of society, the local environment, the details emerging from the Arab movement, and the outputs of the political
and humanitarian status quo? What about the Algerian Djamila Sahraoui, especially her
two long lms Barakat (2009) and Yema (2012): is not their deep involvement in the
concerns and grievances of people, as well as their suppressed dreams, fatal illusions
and psychological, spiritual and humanitarian disputes, part of a current Arab cinema
production movement?
These lms are classied within the framework of a cinematic renaissance stemming from the depth of the general Arab human transformation. It is a framework
based on liberating the cinematic text from the collective act, and reaching out to the
individualcitizenhuman to grant him/her the opportunity to reveal that which is
hidden within the tormented and injured soul, a soul thirsty for change, dreaming of
salvation and seeking the means to achieve it. In Genenet Al Asmak [The Aquarium]
(2008), by the Egyptian Yousry Nasrallah, for example, the characters go beyond
their identied roles and stand before the directors camera as actors and actresses,

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speaking freely and confessing what lies within their soul and spirit. Lebanons
Ghassan Salhab did something similar in Ashbah Beirut [Phantom Beirut] (1998):
actors and actresses sat in front of the camera and gave voice to some of the unexpressed ideas and emotions inside them. Such is the persistence of two directors who
wanted to allow more space for self-confession, in proportion to the dramatic tracks
of their original plots. This is a cinematic conrmation of the importance of the individual and his story, and the meaning of cinema and its close connection to the marginalized and lateral, as well as those issues that have not previously been narrated.
The individual story
The focus on an individual story is a factor common to many of the lms that have
begun to place Arab cinema on a new track. Such lms address environmental,
social and community situations, yet present them through the eyes of the individual,
who is able to intensify the moment, to express the facts and address the deeply
hidden realities at the core of major issues. These lms fall within the same framework,
since they adopt a cinematic language open to the required combination of the scenarios strength and treatment, the careful management of actors and the convincing performances (by at least some of them), as well as the synthesis, lighting and
photography, and the introduction of documentary techniques into the imaginative
novelistic work (and vice versa), even if the written texts are not all similar in their creativity. Despite the negative criticism that Allouaches lm Al-Taaib has encountered,
for instance, we cannot ignore the fact that this beautiful, skilful work offers a deep
analysis of the case of Jihadism (holy war) through the story of an Islamic militant
who escapes from his group in search of the salvation which he may never achieve.
This is somewhat similar to the essence of Sahraouis Yema, which also analyses a
case of Jihadism. However, here the Islamic militant nds himself involved in crime
(the murder of his brother), shame (the infant son of his late brother), and guilt (the confused relationship with his mother). Even though Genenet Al Asmak did not follow the
admirable dramatic track laid down by Nasrallah in Sarikat Sayfeya [Summer Thefts]
(1988) and Mercedes (1993), for example, this lm has formed a turning point, or at
least contributed to the formation of such a turning point, by introducing direct, spontaneous and sincere speech into the heart of the cinematic story. This is exactly what
Salhab did in his rst feature lm, even if he did not continue the experience in later
works. All these are examples of the changes taking place, not to mention the many
Arab Maghreb models, including the work of Nabil and Hicham Ayouch, Hicham
Elasri, Noureddine El-khmari and Faouzi Bensaidi, the Algerian Lyes Salem or the
Tunisian Mohamed Zran. These constitute but a small sample of the wealth of cinematic development taking place in that region.
Citing such examples is not intended to diminish the achievements of other lmmakers, especially those in Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine. Here both the individual
story and modern technology have become the cornerstones of an integrated production
that is carving out its own difcult path and making signicant efforts to keep pace with
contemporary events in order to become a current Arab cinema as well. For many
critics, the Palestinian Elia Suleiman is the undisputed master of the art of transforming
an individual story (conveyed in a beautiful, pure, captivating and skilful cinematic
language) into a mirror of an environment, a society and a community, beyond heretical
communal dialogue and major issues. However, we should not forget the importance of
the work of the Palestinian Michel Khlei, notably Ursal-Jalil [Wedding in Galilee]

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(1987), rst screened a few months before the outbreak of the peaceful rst Palestinian
Intifada (uprising). This took place during a very signicant period of history and
Khleis lm exposed the unrevealed features of the Palestinians real situations
inside the hostile state of Israel. Here traditional Arab marriage arrangements collide
with the impotence of young men, resulting both from the power of social repression
and being raised in a puritanical culture and the effects of Israeli occupation. Even
though some have criticized this movie for the scenes of Israeli participation in the
wedding, accusing Khlei and his lm of normalization, these same scenes reect
a genuine part of the reality he is seeking to portray. When we also consider the situations which Suleiman explores thoroughly later on, it becomes clear that there is a
humanitarian, ethical, cultural and educational dilemma within Palestinian-Arab
society whose negative aspects have doubled under the Israeli occupation.
Documentary lms producing creativity in their storytelling
From the early 1990s, Elia Suleiman embarked on his quest to liberate Palestinian and
Arab cinematic productions by delving deeply into the aesthetics of the individual
stories of Palestinians residing in the hostile State of Israel, i.e. those who agreed to
accept Israeli passports in order to remain in their homes and villages on the land
of their heritage and rich history. Suleiman revealed and recounted stories from the
daily lives of the Arab and Palestinian individual in his three lms Sijil Ikhtifa [Chronicle of a Disappearance] (1996), YadunIlahiyya [Divine Intervention] (2002) and Al
Zaman Al-Baqi [The Time That Remains] (2009), adding their stories that bitter
irony of which he is master, capturing the vibrations and making it an integral part
of the text, treatment and overall atmosphere. An irony that starts inside the Palestinian
individual and does not end with the Israeli occupier, who is incapable of identifying
places in a country he has occupied, using a blindfolded prisoner to guide him. Suleimans irony is clear in the shot of an Israeli policemen urinating against a wall in one of
Suleimans most sarcastic and bitter images. In another scene redolent with sarcasm, a
Palestinian girl who can speak Hebrew confuses policemen using a wireless device. All
of this is conveyed by means of a harmonious cinematic language that is dramatically
elaborated as multiple techniques are combined to add glory and perfection to the
beauty of the text.
There are numerous other examples of such work. Lebanon has produced many,
especially at the level of the new documentary lm that is considered the distinction
of current Arab cinema, which have quickly turned into the cinematic entre to those
memories that are meant to be banished and eliminated; a way to reveal those facts
that would otherwise be falsied and defaced; into realities that are supposed to
remain ambiguous and unresolved in the fatal atmosphere of a country whose injuries
and illness resulting from the civil war have not yet healed in its years of fragile peace.
Documentary lms are made by young people enthusiastic for a cinema that challenges,
provokes, uncovers, raises questions, exposes and reveals in order to preserve, or at
least to try to preserve, these memories or some of them. These lms have made
the documentary, research and archival subject, as well as the memories of personalities, carefully and accurately selected, similar to a ctional narration which employs
imaginative art in restoring things from the past and placing them in a current
context subject to interpretation, contemplation and debate. Maher Abi Samra, Eliane
Raheb, Simon ElHabre, Rami Nihawi, Nadim Mishlawi, Hadi Zakkak, Zeina Sfeir,
Dalia Fathallah, Lina Saneh, Khalil Zaarour, De Gaulle Eid, Mahmoud Kaabour, and

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many others, have situated documentary lm within the framework of cinematic creation, liberating it from the rhetorical speech of television and transforming it into
living examples which reect the conditions of the people and the situations within a
country. To this end, some have collaborated with family members, using stories
from the past told by fathers, mothers, uncles or grandfathers to shed light on the
present, and redrawing the map of ancient events to express some of the status quo.
Other lm-makers have created narrative lms that have entered into the humanitarian
structure itself in order to uncover the past, e.g. Ghassan Salhabs trilogy Ashbah Beirut
(1998), Al-ArdAl-Majhoula [terra incognito] (2002) and Atlal [The Last Man] (2006).
The trilogy begins with the impact of the civil war and its consequences for individuals,
and ends with an analysis of the dangerous psychological collapse which aficts the
individual in the city of permanent devastation. However, Salhab also directed 1958
(2008), one of the most beautiful recent Lebanese documentary lms employing the
documentary format to return to the so-called beginning of the Lebanese civil war
and the sporadic battles that occurred at the end of the rule of the late President
Camille Chamoun in 1958 the same year Salhab was born. This lm unites both
the personal and the general through the character of the mother, combining archive
footage with contemporary features and raising questions about identity, afliation
and relationships at the beginning of the cinematic scene.
When considering Lebanese feature lms, one cannot overlook the achievements of
Fouad Alaywan, Elie Khalife and Michel Kammoun, who moved into feature lms
from the short lm experience, establishing a creative trend that is worth noting and
discussing due to its expressive cinematography, deep dramatic observation of conditions and stories and aesthetic analysis of facts and details. Their rst feature lms
Asfouri (2012) for Alaywan, Yanoosak (2010) for Khalife and Falafel (2006) for
Kammoun offered innovative approaches to the humanitarian condition by virtue of
their Lebanese locality. Meanwhile, Danielle Arbid went beyond the obvious facts:
her short lms, particularly Dardashat Saloniyya [Conversation de salon] (2004), set
the Lebanese cinematic image a boldness test for breaking taboos, much as she did
in Maarek Hob [In the Battleelds] (2004) and Beirut Bil Layl [Beirut Hotel] (2011).
This is in marked contrast to the two lms of Nadine Labaki, Caramel (2007) and
Halla La Wein? [Where Do We Go From Here?] (2011), which stayed rmly on
the other side of Lebanese cinema: their commercial core concealed by images of
beauty and simplicity based on the use of humble modern cinematic technology.

The innovative in confrontation with the traditional


Cinema, video clip and the fading of the visual scene
It is important to state at this point that any discussion of particular lms without mentioning others does not negate the importance of those lms which are not subject to
discussion here. Equally, talking about those lms that have contributed to the regeneration of the industry of Arab cinematic portrayals does not mean that everything is all
right. There are many aws and awful cinematic mistakes and dreadful visual errors
continue to be made by producers on a consumerist, shallow, nave and unconscionable
basis in Lebanon, Egypt and many other Arab countries.
Some lms emerge from the catastrophes of video clip production, while others
come from religious inuences that transform them into purely consumerist commercial
lms that destroy art and creativity for the purposes of metaphysical meditation

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admired by people who have no interest in cinema or its principles. Consumerism in


its shallowest sense is similar to the word commercial in its nancial meaning. It is
true that cinema is an industry that requires money to be spent on lm production
and returned by public commercial offers. However, what has happened, and is still
happening, is due to the fact that focusing on the shallow and the trivial has produced
such works, some of which have generated signicant revenues. However, such a focus
is also capable of reducing the level of creativity almost to zero.
Perhaps Nadine Labaki is a suitable example here as she has come to cinema from
the video clip industry. The cinematographic work produced by those undertaking
academic study of audiovisual techniques shows mastery of the best and most beautiful
audiovisual works and reveals that Labakis style in video clip differs from use of the
same mechanisms in other works. Her lms Caramel and Halla La Wein? reect a
combination of the cinematic (able to evolve) with some simplicity (sometimes to
the detriment of the few cinematic aesthetics). Many of those who came after her
have totally ignored the cinematic side, presenting the worst output imaginable
within the cinematographic industry.
Returning to Palestinian cinema, Michel Khleife and Elia Suleiman are not the
only Palestinian directors to have played a signicant role in leading it out of its rhetorical monotony, struggle and ideology. Others include Nizar Hassan, Azza ElHassan, Raed Andoni, Bilal Yousef, Kamal Aljafari and Mahdi Fleifel, on the documentary level, and on the ctional level, Tawk Abu Wael who created one of the
most important and beautiful lms, in both form and content, in Atash [Thirst] (2004)
alongside Annemarie Jacir, Najwa Najjar and Cherien Dabis. These directors have
activated and are still engaging the aesthetic meaning of ctional cinema through
works that vary in their level of creativity, yet which all offer cinematic explorations
of the past and the future that are engraved in the imagination as part of the cognitive
awareness.
Perhaps Najwa Najjar is the most controversial of the three female directors mentioned above. Her lm Al-mor wa al-rumman [Pomegranates and Myrrh] (2008)
approached a red line in its portrayal of the emerging love story between the wife of
a prisoner and a dance instructor, provoking widespread negative reactions across
the Arab world which entirely overlooked its cinematic achievement. This cinematic
aesthetics extends to two young Egyptian women, Hala Lot and Nadine Khan, who
have recently produced their rst two feature lms. Both attracted praise for their
use of aesthetic and dramatic methods that are enjoyable both to watch and to
discuss, and, in 2012, they achieved what could be described as the declaration of
an amazing cinematic birth considered by many to be a creative extension of the
Egyptian and Arab cinematic regeneration which will continue to develop the aesthetic
additions required. In Lots rst lm, Al khouroujila an nahar [Coming Forth by Day]
(2012), she worked with three people who rarely leave their house: the patient (a bedridden father), the exhausted mother, and the daughter who spends her life in caring for
her father and helping her mother. Khans Haragw Marag [Chaos, Disorder] (2012)
uses a single location (a poor socio-geographic area) to portray the conditions of a particular category of people, their daily lives burdened by disappointed love, unstable
relationships and lack of opportunity. Lots camera traces a quiet rhythm made up
of a tremendous amount of unexpressed anger, unrevealed oppression and hidden
pain. Khans camera, on the other hand, is a little smoother when addressing those
who live on the margins, at the extreme edge of life and within the bounds of
self-devastation.

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Undoubtedly, these young Egyptian women have emerged from that Egyptian and
Arab cinematic trend which has broken many taboos in order to nd a larger cinematic
scope for the individual story. In the works of the Social Realism Wave in the 1980s;
Nadine Khan found a cornerstone upon which to develop stronger and rmer aesthetic
concepts to frame a story. Meanwhile, as Yousry Nasrallah seems to be the lm-maker
most inclined towards articulating individual stories, so Mohammed Khan stands out as
the one most inclined to experiment with digital technology during the making of his
lm Klephty (2004). Equally, Khairy Beshara was eager to learn these same techniques
and his lm Moondog (2012) is totally different, in both form and content, not only
from the rest of his lms but also with those of other lm-makers of his generation.
Here these two lm-makers combined technical experimentation with an attempt at a
deeper mental and aesthetic crystallization of the individual story. However, the
status quo of Arab Cinema depends on young lm-makers who have inuenced the
entire cinematic scene by virtue of their cognitive awareness, the openness of their
imaginations to all possibilities and their boldness in breaking with the established
norms. The lm-makers of the 21st century, in Egypt as well as in some of the Arab
Maghreb, no longer trust the inuences of those who came before them they want
to make discoveries and express themselves in accordance with the current status
quo. Examples here are manifold: Ahmad Abdalla and Ibrahim El-Batout exemplify
the actual regeneration of the Egyptian cinematic structure, the rst through his three
lms Heliopolis (2009), Microphone (2010) and Farshw Ghata [Rags and Tatters]
(2013), and the latter through Ein Shams [The Eye of the Sun] (2008), Hawi [The
Juggler] (2010) and El-Sheita Elli Fat [Winter of Discontent] (2011).
The cinematic change is clear to see: lower budgets have led to the use of cameras
that transform the written script into visual sub-sequences, exercises in the implementation of an intense and inuential montage, and a deep concentration on analysing
alterations here and there. Other attempts that coincided with the beginning of the cinematographic careers of Abdalla and El-Batout include two lms which I regard as clear
and unforgiving reections not only of a cinema interested solely in what is deep and
effective, and concerned only about what is shocking and real, but also of the sense of
frustration within the Egyptian social environment. The rst is 678 (2010) by Mohamed
Diab and the second Al-Khurouj [Cairo Exit] (2010) by Hesham Issawi, and both, in my
view, expose factors that disturbed and unsettled Egyptian society before the eruption
of the so-called 25 January Revolution. The former addresses the sexual harassment
associated with the suppression of people and society, whilst the latter investigates the
problem of love a marriage stemming from a relationship between a Christian and a
Muslim. Both lms took the pulse of Egyptian society, revealing some of the severe
disruptions that affected it and giving voice to that which should be said publically.
They shed light on a terrible and dangerous lack of equilibrium in the structure of Egyptian society in order to expose it and work towards nding solutions.
These are only examples. Debate is open on many titles and details. However, the
names I have selected here could be considered as an introduction to a larger, deeper reality.
An Arab status quo accompanying the image industry
Festivals, festivals, festivals: changing the given in accordance with the era
Any analysis of the status quo of Arab cinema must also consider certain factors that
accompany the moving image industry and are supposed to be natural extensions of it:
festivals, book publication and cinema auditoria.

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These form an integral part of the narrative of the status quo of Arab cinema and
no account is complete without acknowledging the results achieved by other industries
alongside the lm industry. Festivals are an industry in themselves, publishing is also
an industry and the business of cinema is yet another facet of the whole story. The Gulf
States are pioneers in the creation of a new pattern of lm festivals that has emerged
from a combination of money and an interest in being the best, as well as serious
work and a sound cognitive awareness of the cultural importance of the lm industry.
How have countries with no indigenous integrated lm industry succeeded in creating
a new type of Arab lm festival while Arab countries and societies deeply rooted in the
image industry have completely failed to preserve the tradition of their lm festivals
which were once features of a cultural approach in their cinematographic work?
How did the United Arab Emirates, in particular, outperform its neighbours while
Damascus, Cairo and Carthage, cities with well-established Arab lm festivals, have
witnessed a decline to the point of clinical death, due either to the transformative
Arab event (as I prefer to call it) since the end of 2010 or to the successive
changes that have affected both festivals and countries?
Perhaps, the main reason behind this clinical death lies in the inner corrosion that
has affected the fundamental structures of these three festivals from the practical interpretative mechanisms for their progressive concepts to their organizational and
administrative sides for many years prior to the Arab event. Doha, for instance,
with its huge nancial possibilities and deep desire to increase its international standing
in political, cultural, security and economic terms, has failed to nd its own place at the
level of lm festivals. This proves that money alone is not sufcient. The Abu Dhabi
Film Festival (which held its seventh session in 2013) suffered disruption during its
early years, yet later adopted a calm approach in developing its inner structures and
cinematic culture. By contrast, the team behind the Dubai festival (which convened
its tenth session in 2013) realized right from the beginning that it would need to
travel slowly down the long, tough road towards the international status it now
merits. Neither festival limits itself only to exhibitions, lm competitions, awards
and programmes, as both offer co-production support to selected Arab lm projects
whether in direct nancial terms, or by organizing meetings between the owners of
approved projects and foreign and nancial producers.
Meanwhile, the festivals in Damascus, Cairo and Carthage (the most important
international festivals in Syria, Egypt and Tunisia) have suffered from collapse, disruption, loss of direction and a limited capability to manage, organize, and classify cultural
and artistic views. This has led to the formation of a new pattern for the festival industry
that differs markedly from that which went before. No longer can a progressive and distinguished culture be achieved simply by treating cinema as a vehicle to express confrontation, awareness and education a glamorous tool in an era that actually needs a
radical change to its working mechanisms, even if some people adhere to progressive
slogans. Instead, Arab cinema became more liberated from the dominance of ideology,
the struggle against the Israeli enemy and total surrender to the concept that no voice is
higher than the voice of the battle.
As Arab cinema has transformed in this manner, so lm festivals have had to do the
same, taking note of the new reality emerging from the close connection between image
creativity and individual bitterness in all aspects of life. New realities are emanating
from the statement that cinema is a part of life even if it is supposed to apply a beautiful and integrated visual equality between form and content, in addition to its need for
money, imagination and management of the distribution and display of production.

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Without doubt, the Dubai and Abu Dhabi festivals have noticed the new problems of
Arab cinema and are trying to keep pace with developments by supporting, at the production level, projects considered capable of contributing to the regeneration of Arab
cinematic structure. Moreover, they have set a fundamental objective: the new cinematic generation is interested in image techniques and modern developments, as well
as the problems, concerns, unrevealed dreams, disappointments and bitterness of individual lives. They appreciate that the age of national and collective ideologies, which
isolated and absented the individual preventing him caring for himself as a part of
general care within society is over. The vast majority of new Arab lms no longer
care for societies and their issues and for Palestine as the only subjects for combative
and rhetorical cinematic treatment. Even documentary cinema has freed itself from all
of that and turned, just like ctional cinema, to individual stories, to marginalized
people and secondary details which clearly appear, by virtue of these lms, to be
still on the storyboard, even if they were absented for a long time.
Arab lm festivals were supposed to keep pace with these fundamental transformations in order to strengthen their presence during this era. The Marrakech International Film Festival in the kingdom of Morocco (established in 2000), for
example, seemed to be clear about this before any other festival. Beneting from
the open-mindedness of the Moroccan king, a generous budget and French expertise,
the launch of the festival announced the death of ideology and emphasized that any
lm festivals primary allegiance is to cinema. The festival followed other well-established international festivals, made the submissions included in this ofcial contest
part of the broader cultural scene, and transformed the inclusion of renowned
foreign lm-makers into a direct dialogue between them and people interested in
their work (cinema classes, for example). However, the political ascendance of the
Muslim Brotherhood introduced serious restrictions and challenges with respect to
lms, auditoria, festivals and ofcial cinema organizations, due to the extreme and
unreasonable opinions of the Brotherhood, and similar movements, concerning art,
culture, creativity and liberation.
Books: outside and inside festivals
Even those books customarily issued by the Damascus and Cairo festivals have lost their
meaning, although they have provided the Arab cinematic library with some of its most
important titles. Although many works suffer from weaknesses in the process of translation from English into Arabic, mistakes in language and writing, and rudimentary printing and distribution, Silsilat Al Fan Al Sabe [Series of Seventh Art], for example, issued
by the General Organization for Cinema and the Ministry of Culture in Damascus, provided, for many people, an eye on the world that assisted in self-education and attracted
attention and follow-up. However, things have now changed. The Emirates Film
Competition began a quiet revolution by issuing its Kurrasat Al-Cinema [Cinema Notebooks] which included writings and translation (references) and at least one such volume
is issued at each session of the Abu Dhabi festival.
However, the real interest in modern Arab lm festivals is concentrated on the
production of lms, communication between lm-makers and people interested in
cinema, and the search for new horizons for a new Arab cinema. Therefore one
might ask whether a lm festival should hold responsibility for direct education?
Does it have to be responsible for the issuance of cinematic books along with its
concern with its primary or secondary programmes? The production of books is a

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collective responsibility that publishing houses and institutions, both private and governmental, share, as is the case in Egypt and the countries of the Arab Maghreb, and
Lebanese and Arab publishers have repeatedly said that the scarcity of projects submitted has limited their publication of cinematic books. Arab publishing houses do
not generally have sufcient time to notice the importance of the cinematic book,
and critics, journalists and others with an interest in cinema do not nd enough
time to write books worthy of publication and readership. Shallowness characterizes
the majority of Egyptian and Moroccan books for instance, yet the biggest problem is
the scarcity of motivation for a real competition to produce good work and for more
cognitive awareness.
The death of ideology in most modern Arab cinema productions also represents
the death of interest in books which were supposed to move beyond tired old titles
replete with silly clichs. In the past, such titles along the lines of The Image of
the Arab in Hollywood Cinema, The Role of Zionists in the Denigration of
Arabs, The Israeli-Arab Conict and Cinema and Literature abounded. Books
on specialized techniques, for instance, or those linked to lm-makers memoirs or
biographies of their lives and careers, are rare. This brings me to another crisis
among the many crises of this cinema: how many Arab lm-makers have written
their memoirs? How many have allowed someone to write a biography of their
life or career? Some may ask if this is necessary. Does the absence of such cinematic
books really constitute a kind of crisis? I contend that such books are necessary and
their absence is a cultural and humanitarian crisis. Instead of being restricted to a
stable of xed titles, such as books about Naguib Mahfouz, of which there are
ample offering the same insights, we should start publishing books relating to the
individual stories of lm-makers who lived during particular times, situations and
upheavals; to those who encountered, spoke about and confronted nuisances and
threats; those who exerted effort and possessed thoughts, views and analyses; and
who enabled a new era to emerge. Such books represent cognitive and cultural enrichment and are as important as those specializing in technical, aesthetic and dramatic
aspects of cinema, or those dealing with contemporary topics that preoccupy many
Arab lm-makers. The latter include works on the transformation witnessed in documentary lms that have brought this genre closer towards cinema and its concerns, or
on the various techniques used in photography and the results obtainable in cinema in
terms of image, colours and frames.
We are witnessing a new stage in the Arab lm industry and there is a need for new
books to accompany these developments.
The fate of the cinematic book industry in the status quo of Arab cinema is not
totally commensurate with the status of festivals; the era when this was so has now
faded away. No one knows the fate of the General Organization for Cinema in Damascus, much as no one knows the fate of Syria itself. Cairo, of all Arab cities, produces the
greatest number of cinematic books and readers. Those interested in cinema can nd
many titles on street-side stalls and in libraries. Whilst translations and some other
texts still need to be edited to remove all the errors, they still constitute a real repository
of the facts, realities, details and stories that are out there. In Morocco and Tunisia,
many published books have addressed a variety of issues in both French and Arabic.
However, in other countries, distribution is restricted, communication is curtailed
and access to the production of writers, critics and journalists is aspect of the many
crises affecting Arab cinema and its status quo.

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Cinemas and the troubles of watching


Any discussion of the status quo of Arab cinema needs to consider the condition of
cinemas (auditoria) themselves across the Arab world. Many have closed, the buildings
still standing only because of laws that prevent their transformation into supermarkets,
factories or coffee shops, or are in need of radical restoration often in such poor condition that renewal is impossible. The vast majority of cinema halls in the Arab
Maghreb, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Palestine, for example, are suffering from collapse
at all levels. Meanwhile, in other Arab countries, such as Lebanon and some Arab
Gulf states, which have developed modern, well-equipped cinemas, the issue is not
lack of facilities but overcapacity. This is leading to another crisis situation: the
absence of interest in local cinema production, and Arab productions in general, stemming from the fact that large numbers of cinemas in small cities encounter a scarcity of
new lms for weekly display.
Conclusion
This overview of the broad range of current Arab cinema is, by necessity, highly selective and calls for wider and deeper debate. The examples provided form part of the
current situation that people with an interest in, and a concern for, the subject should
pursue and subject to further critical and argumentative analysis. The selectivity of
names and titles here is justied, but it also acts as a humble invitation for diligence
to be exercised in the process of addition and removal.