A year in Arab film: a Spring in the region's cinematic step
Glancing at the film scene this year, a casual onlooker might imagine that the Middle East, Lebanon included, has become acclimatized to the ferment of the Arab Spring.
That’s far from true, of course, but cinema is all about appearances.It is obvious that, two years after the revolutions that overthrew authoritarian regimes in Tunis and Cairo, the Arab Spring remains on the minds of the region’s documentary and feature filmmakers. It’s equally evident that well-crafted movies that take their inspiration from this subject remain rare.
Many Arab filmmakers released work this year that has nothing to do with the Arab Spring, of course.
Some artists have taken up themes that, if less trendy, remain narrative fixtures of Arab cinema – militant Islam, Muslim women, the Palestine conflict. Other, younger, artists turned their backs on these narrative tropes, and turned their hands to something more experimental.
Best Arab Spring-inspired feature
The best thing to emerge from the competition of this year’s resuscitated Cairo International Film Festival was its opening film – Ibrahim El Batout’s “Winter of Discontent,” to date the most accomplished fiction to be set during Egypt’s 2011 revolution.
Batout’s fourth feature also represents a startling departure. Unlike his previous fictions about people living on Egypt’s margins, “Winter” takes up the tales of an activist blogger, a journalist immobilized within Egypt’s state media, and the state security thug responsible for punishing dissidents. Batout’s film employs a cast of photogenic professional actors – Amr Waked, Farah Youssef and Salah Hanafy – and abandons the muddy, perambulating camerawork of his previous work in favor of glistening theater-friendly cinematography.
A close second to “Winter” as Arab Spring Film of the Year is “Nesma,” the feature film debut of Franco-Tunisian writer-director Homeida Behi. Rather than recounting lightly fictionalized stories of the revolution, Behi uses Tunis’ post-revolutionary interregnum as a hook from which to hang a genre picture – something of an obsession among North African independents.
“Nesma” is a thriller, complete with atmospheric music, crooked cops and murder, named after an opulent villa with an unspoken (probably unspeakably seedy) history. Youssef and Claire Slimane (Farid Elouardi and Aure Atika) are husband-and-wife real estate brokers trying to sell the property. Youssef, meanwhile, discovers that a fraudster has been using his identity to steal his assets. This is just the tip of an unsavory ensemble of stories that seems very much of a piece with the corrupt police state that inspired it.
On how to make, and unmake, a Salafi mujahid
Two accomplished films about Islamist militancy emerged this year and, interestingly, both come from countries overlooked by the Arab Spring.
Based on “The Stars of Sidi Moumen,” the novel of countryman Mahi Binebine, Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch’s “God’s Horses” weaves a gripping narrative of how a handful of young men come to be converted from the wanton violence of poverty to the discipline of violent militancy.
Ayouch’s imagining of how the Casablanca slum of Sidi Moumen transformed into a Salafi-leaning community between 1994 and 2003 is the most technically accomplished, commercially inflected feature film yet to surface on how to make a suicide bomber.
The film has provoked some controversy among Arab critics and filmmakers of neorealist inclinations, who wonder whether it’s appropriate to deploy such commercial cinema techniques in representing the stories of places like Sidi Moumen, which they equate to voyeurism.
Such complaints cannot be made of “The Repentant.” The new film of Algerian auteur Merzak Allouache tells the story of Rachid (Nabil Asli), a young man who, after years of fighting with Islamist insurgents in the Algerian mountains, decides to accept the state’s amnesty offer and return to his family village. Once there, he’s confronted by those who’d have retribution for his comrades’ past actions, and his own.
“The Repentant” is a taciturn fiction. It releases little information about what’s going on and little more actually happens within the frame, leaving the audience to surmise the story’s causal axis.
This sparsely assembled narrative language seems utterly appropriate. The ghosted details of plot replicate the paranoia felt by citizens of a police state, while underlining the impossibility of “knowing” the details of the conflict upon which the plot is based.
Muslim women yearning to breathe free
The year’s most watchable incarnation of this narrative standby of Arab cinema is “Wadjda,” the feature-film debut of Saudi writer-director Haifaa alMansour. This coming-of-age movie tells the story of 10-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), a Converse-wearing, alternative music devotee who wants a bike. Arrayed about, and against, her with socio-cinematographic precision are the pervasive demands of her highly patriarchal family and teachers to shun contact with boys and various symptoms of popular culture – from football to pop music.
Elevating the film beyond sociology, and its individual performance shortcomings, is Mansour’s rendering of the industrious Wadjda’s plan to get what she wants – demonstrating that people can have ulterior motives for cultivating and representing the appearance of piety.
“The Palestine story” – most heart-warming, most contentious
Film about Palestine is dominated by an aesthetic of absence, uprootedness and loss. The human tragedy places the cinema in dangerous proximity to cliches of orange and olive groves, dabke and melancholy oud, and tempts filmmakers to subordinate aesthetics to politics. Efforts to tell a different Palestine story threw up two utterly distinct works this year, both quite accomplished.
“When I Saw You,” the second feature of Palestinian writer-director Annemarie Jacir, tells a story of displacement and hope set in Jordan in the wake of the 1967 war. It’s told from the perspective of Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa), a numerically gifted 11-year-old from Bayt Nuba, and his long-suffering mother Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal), who follows Tarek on his cross-country ramble from a refugee center to a fedayeen training camp.
Jacir’s story is carefully calibrated to eschew the violence and parochial chauvinism that characterize Palestine’s contemporary realities of displacement and occupation. Rather she harkens back to another era, when the optimism of revolutionary cosmopolitanism could still erase the despair of military defeat.
Then there is “The Attack,” the highly contentious third feature of Lebanese writer-director Ziad Doueiri. Based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Yasmina Khadra (aka Mohammed Moulessehoul), the film charts a journey of discovery on the part of Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), a ’48 Palestinian who has shed the baggage of his heritage and embraced assimilation within bourgeois Tel Aviv. This all comes to pieces when the corpse of his wife Siham (Reymond Amsalem) is found at the scene of a suicide bombing.
Though set amidst the Israel-Palestine conflict, “The Attack” is a story of love estranged by ambition, in which politics provides a lens to magnify character. With politics flensed away to serve as decor – recasting the story’s core political gesture a symptom of the protagonist’s failures as a husband – “The Attack” is more offensive to some, and more marketable.
Telling different stories
Given Arab cinema’s fondness for a narrow range of narrative tropes, and cinematographic approaches to them, it’s interesting to encounter works that defy the norm, regardless how successful. Syrian director Meyar al-Roumi’s “Round Trip,” for example, is a road movie that is distinctly short on narrative “event” and landscape – the two elements that define the genre.
Among the more distinct works to emerge this year come in the feature-film debuts of two young Egyptian directors, both women as it happens, whose works are vastly different.
Marked by a wisp of plot whose pacing is more tectonic than laconic and lovely yet subdued camera work, Hala Lotfy’s “Coming Forth by Day” is a 94-minute-long expression of defiance to Egyptian cinema convention. The film will test the patience of even the most seasoned Theodoros Angelopoulos fan, but it’s impossible to deny the film’s dogged rigor.
From the other edge of the film spectrum is Nadine Khan’s “Chaos, Disorder” (Harag w’Marag), one of the more intriguing experiments to emerge this year. A social satire-cum-love story set in a Cairo neighborhood, the film resonates with the language of Egypt’s commercial cinema – whether in the obtrusively upbeat piano soundtrack, the characterizations or the elaborate plotting, revolving around a love triangle involving a jock, a thug and a pretty shop-owner’s daughter.
Interestingly, both Lotfy and Khan ignore the Egyptian revolution. As Khan has remarked in her 2011 short, “I Will Speak of the Revolution,” the “power of Tahrir is that it cannot be ... framed. So why should I frame it?”