As acclaimed Iraq-based drama Bekas is released in the UAE, Rob Garratt asks why there’s not more Arabic cinema on our screens in Dubai.
This week sees the release of Bekas, a brave and bold piece of filmmaking that marks the feature debut of Kurdish-Iraqi filmmaker Karzan Kader. Translated as ‘parentless’, it is the autobiographical tale of two orphaned brothers growing up – and attempting to flee – Saddam Hussein-ruled Kurdistan in the early 1990s. Something the now 28-year-old filmmaker did himself when his family illegally escaped to Europe when he was aged just eight. Using a careful balance of tragedy, humour and historical commentary, the film is a touching tale of brotherhood, and hope in the face of adversary. Following a gala screening at last year’s Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), it picked up the People’s Choice award based on a public vote after every screening. It’s to Kader’s credit that this week Bekas gains a full cinematic release. But sitting among scores of other fantastic films screened at DIFF every year, it begs the question why there are not more Arabic features on our cinema screens.
If there’s one person to ask, it’s Ziad Abdullah. A longstanding former film critic for Emarat Al Youm newspaper, as well as the author of two novels, the 38-year-old Syrian is currently attempting to produce the most comprehensive history of Arab cinema ever compiled. ‘Horror, action, animation... this is what cinemas look for,’ says Abdullah slowly. ‘This is the real problem – a world cinema problem. The cinemas are looking at something [to do well at] the box office. This is the same problem all over the world – in France people go and watch American films more than French films. And the French films they watch are in the Hollywood style.’
To combat this global malaise locally, Abdullah approached DIFF with an idea – to create a definitive list of the most prominent Arab movies ever committed to celluloid. Chairman Abdulhamid Juma backed the idea, and for some months now Abdullah has been approaching more than 1,000 cultural figures from across the world – critics, directors and writers – asking each contribute their personal top ten. From these votes cast, a top 100 list will be announced during the tenth anniversary of the festival in December.
‘No one knows about Arabic cinema,’ says Abdullah, explaining his motivations for pitching the project. ‘There are very, very important productions happening in the region, and every country has its own heritage. But nobody knows about this, even the Arab people.’
The critic mentions Chronicle of the Years of Fire, a film which depicts the 1954-1962 Algerian War of Independence through the eyes of a peasant. In 1975 it won the highest honour at the Cannes Film Festival, the Palm d’Or. But while director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina is sandwiched between American greats Francis Ford Coppola (who took the award in 1974 for The Conversation) and Martin Scorsese (who scored in 1976 with Taxi Driver) on the roll call, his name is immeasurably less well known. But in many ways Lakhdar-Hamina is the lucky one, with countless other Arabic films equally heavy with meaning, but not afforded the same audience. ‘If you want to understand what happened in this region, the cinema can give you this,’ adds Abdullah. ‘What art can do is offer a real dream to talk about freedom, or women’s issues, or cultural ideas – it stands against any backwards thinking.’
Calculated through a strict voting process, the finished chart of 100 films will be compiled into a hardback book The Cinematic Encyclopedia, written by fellow critics with an introduction by Abdullah. He hopes these efforts will create fresh attention for ‘forgotten masterpieces’, sparking film screenings and offering an education to modern Arabic filmmakers he feels is often lacking.
Amongst these is Bekas director Kader. Despite filming his movie in Arabic, having lived in Sweden since fleeing his home country he admits ‘I do not know much about Arab cinema, I’ve grown up more with American films and European films.’
‘We’re bridging the gap between the past and the present,’ adds Abdullah. ‘The new generation [of filmmakers], if they’re looking for their own Arab style in cinema, you need to have a connection between the past, to create a distinguished future.’
That past is deeper than many readers might realise. The region’s cinema dates back to the early 20th century, with early masterpieces including Syria’s Under the Damascus Sky in 1932. Egypt is traditionally considered the centre of the region’s cinema, with the Cairo film industry reported to be behind more than three-quarters of the 4,000 Arabic language films released. But since Egypt’s ‘golden age’ in the 1940s and 1950s, various other countries have also enjoyed a prolific output at different times, often depending on the political situation. Following independence in 1962, Algerian cinema blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s, while Syria’s filmmaking prospered throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Today Morocco is producing scores of films annually thanks to robust state support.
With an ironic laugh Abdullah notes that many similar political problems exist today. ‘We’re celebrating the tenth anniversary of DIFF [with this project], so it would be good to do this every ten years,’ he adds, ‘but we don’t know if the region will stay as it is. Everything is going forward while going backwards – with the Arab Spring everything is getting darker and the only resistance is with art. I call some directors and they say “no, I’m not free because I’m demonstrating against a government minister” We’re in this middle of this situation, feeling our existence as a culture will vanish, fearing very dark people,’ Abdullah looks down at his coffee and lets out a laugh, ‘and here we are talking about cinema.’
Bekas is expected be released on Thursday July 18.
Arabic films to investigate
Released in 40 countries, actress Nadine Labaki’s first film as director is the most internationally known Lebanese film to be produced, focusing on five women dealing with love in the modern world. Also check her 2011 follow-up Where Do We Go Now?
Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975)
The winner of the Palme d’Or prize at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, this movie depicts the outbreak of the Algerian War of Independence in the 1950s.
The Cruel Sea (1972)
One of the most important films to emerge from the Gulf is this Kuwati drama, directed by Khalid Al Siddiq.
Divine Intervention (2002)
A surreal black comedy from Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, made up of brief interconnected sketches. Despite winning two awards at Cannes, controversy was caused when it was not nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces (1990)
A Tunisian coming-of-age comedy/drama about a 12-year-old boy dealing with the tension between boyhood and manhood, from writer-director Férid Boughedir.
The Iron Gate (1958)
A vintage Egyptian drama, also known as Cairo Station, directed by Youssef Chahine.
Messages from the Sea (2010)
An Egyptian drama about a man returning to the Alexandria of his youth, directed by Daoud Abdel Sayed.
Paradise Now (2005)
Hany Abu-Assad movie’s about two Palestinian men preparing for a suicide attack won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, and sparked headlines across the world for its tackling of controversial subject matter.
The Silences of Palace (1994)
This highly acclaimed Tunisian drama is about a woman who returns to her birthplace, the palace where her mother worked as a kitchen hand, sparking fresh memories. Written and directed by Moufida Tlatli.
West Beirut (1998)
A light-hearted drama about a boy growing up in 1975 in the midst of a divided Beirut in a state of civil war. From writer and directer by Ziad Doueiri.