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New Voices in Arab Cinema

By: Roy Armes
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New Voices in Arab Cinema focuses on contemporary filmmaking since the 1980s, but also considers the longer history of Arab cinema. Taking into consideration film from the Middle East and North Africa and giving a special nod to films produced since the Arab Spring and the Syrian crisis, Roy Armes explores themes such as modes of production, national cinemas, the role of the state and private industry on film, international developments in film, key filmmakers, and the validity of current notions like globalization, migration and immigration, and exile. This landmark book offers both a coherent, historical overview and an in-depth critical analysis of Arab filmmaking.

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1. Characteristics of the New Cinema

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EGYPT CONTINUES to dominate Arab cinema in the 2000s, as it has always done, with the vast majority of its filmmakers based at home, and many of its most talented directors trained at the Cairo Higher Cinema Institute and expected to spend a year or two working in an assistant role before beginning a first feature. Cinema in Egypt has an impressive history, with well over 3,000 feature films made since the mid-1920s by around 400 directors.1 Its films get by far the widest release throughout the Arab world, on both cinema and television screens. In the 2000s, some 330 feature films have been made by over 120 directors. But production elsewhere in the Arab world can match this in terms of output, if not in terms of audience figures. During the same period of the 2000s, over 200 feature films were made in the Maghreb and the Middle East by new filmmakers alone. There are, overall, just as many Arab feature filmmakers outside Egypt who have directed at least one feature film. These are divided fairly equally between the Maghreb and the Middle East, but they have made far fewer films, with only a tiny handful of filmmakers having had to opportunity to direct, say, three films in a decade. Yet the figures in the 2000s are impressive. For example, Egyptian filmmakers released just 35 fictional features in 2007, whereas some 22 were produced in the Maghreb and a further 10 in the Middle East.

 

2. The Filmmakers

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NOURI BOUZID has pointed out the significance of the June 1967 Arab defeat for his own generation of filmmakers, who were born in the 1940s and made their breakthrough in the 1980s.1 The generation born since 1960 and making its breakthrough in the 2000s is very differently placed. These filmmakers were either small children or not yet born in 1967. The shared political experiences shaping their lives have been the Yom Kippur War in 1973; the outbreak of the fifteen-year civil war in Lebanon in 1975; the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980; the successive assaults by Israeli forces on both Palestine and Lebanon; and the two Palestinian intifadas. As a result of the upheavals caused by these wars, many of the filmmakers have shared the experience of voluntary or enforced exile, often beginning in childhood or adolescence.

Their individual national experiences differ greatly, however. In the Maghreb, the new filmmakers constitute the first generation born after independence, but they have also experienced the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and life under often brutal dictatorships. In Lebanon, they grew up in the midst of seemingly interminable civil conflict and constant repetitions of foreign invasion and occupation, extending up to the 33-Day War of 2007. In Palestine, they experienced the continual tightening of Israeli rule, the Palestinian response to this (the two intifadas), and more recently, the blockade of Gaza and its bombardment in 2008. In Syria and Iraq, those whose parents had not been driven into exile grew up under Baath party rule and experienced at first hand the constraints imposed by the tyrannies of Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein.

 

3. Documentary

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MANY IMPORTANT DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKERS of the 1990s, such as the Palestinians Mohamed Bakri, Samir Abdallah, and Maï Masri (usually working with her husband Jean Chamoun), as well as the exiled Iraqis Mysoon Pachachi, Samir, and Saad Salman, continued their exclusively documentary careers into the new decade, but they are not “new voices” and their output falls outside the scope of this study. They are responsible for many of the most striking documentaries of the past decade. While there has been a widening of interest in documentary in both Palestine and Lebanon, with many of the newcomers being female directors, there has been far less development of documentary filmmaking in the Maghreb, with just a couple of substantial debuts by filmmakers focused exclusively on documentary. A number of directors have, however, interspersed their fictional and documentary productions. Among these are the Moroccan Nabil Ayouch and the Tunisians Moktar Ladjimi, Nadia El Fani, and Raja Amari. Their documentaries are discussed alongside their feature films in the relevant section of this book. Iraqi documentary production still lags behind feature filmmaking in its international identity; and in Syria there is just one major figure of note, Hala al-Abdallah Yakoub, who lives and works as a filmmaker and producer in Paris.

 

Algeria

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ARAB FILMMAKING in the 2000s consists of many strands, one of which is the work of those filmmakers who are based in Paris. These might seem to constitute a typical exile group of the kind so ably chronicled by Hamid Naficy.1 Certainly many of their films carry the marks of exile and diaspora, and some chronicle a return—real or imagined—to the filmmaker’s roots. But the filmmakers’ concern to make films set in their countries of origin meshes perfectly with the French government’s policy of creating a network of worldwide cultural filmmaking with Paris at its center. Indeed, French policies toward cinema mean that the major problem of these filmmakers, like that of their predecessors, is less exile than potential integration and loss of Arab identity. The beur filmmakers who began in the mid-1980s with striking films focused on the immigrant community in France have now largely been absorbed into mainstream French cinema.

The previously useful distinction between the beurs working within the structures of French film production and the Algerians employed by the state film organization in Algiers is no longer valid, since many of those who previously worked in Algeria are now long-term residents in France. In the 1980s, those who had grown up within the immigrant community tended to be treated as belonging to a specific beur cinema, but in a 2002 survey of young French filmmakers by René Prédal, Mehdi Charef merits just a footnote, while Rachid Bouchareb, Karim Dridi, Malek Chibane, Abdellatif Kechiche, and Yamina Benguigui are fused effortlessly into a narrative dominated by their purely French contemporaries who choose to deal with similar subject matter. As Prédal points out, “The beur current is now twenty years old and no longer constitutes a separate entity apart from the rest of cinema.”2

 

Morocco

ePub

ARAB FILMMAKING in the 2000s consists of many strands, one of which is the work of those filmmakers who are based in Paris. These might seem to constitute a typical exile group of the kind so ably chronicled by Hamid Naficy.1 Certainly many of their films carry the marks of exile and diaspora, and some chronicle a return—real or imagined—to the filmmaker’s roots. But the filmmakers’ concern to make films set in their countries of origin meshes perfectly with the French government’s policy of creating a network of worldwide cultural filmmaking with Paris at its center. Indeed, French policies toward cinema mean that the major problem of these filmmakers, like that of their predecessors, is less exile than potential integration and loss of Arab identity. The beur filmmakers who began in the mid-1980s with striking films focused on the immigrant community in France have now largely been absorbed into mainstream French cinema.

The previously useful distinction between the beurs working within the structures of French film production and the Algerians employed by the state film organization in Algiers is no longer valid, since many of those who previously worked in Algeria are now long-term residents in France. In the 1980s, those who had grown up within the immigrant community tended to be treated as belonging to a specific beur cinema, but in a 2002 survey of young French filmmakers by René Prédal, Mehdi Charef merits just a footnote, while Rachid Bouchareb, Karim Dridi, Malek Chibane, Abdellatif Kechiche, and Yamina Benguigui are fused effortlessly into a narrative dominated by their purely French contemporaries who choose to deal with similar subject matter. As Prédal points out, “The beur current is now twenty years old and no longer constitutes a separate entity apart from the rest of cinema.”2

 

Tunisia

ePub

There are a number of directors with very different backgrounds, born in the 1950s, who made a first feature film in the 2000s, among them Khalid Ghorbal, Nawfel Saheb-Ettaba, Nidhal Chatta, Khaled W. Barsaoui, and Ibrahim Letaief. Ghorbal came from the theatre, Saheb-Ettaba and Chatta are marked by lengthy periods spent abroad, and Barsaoui and Letaief are products of the Tunisian enthusiasm for ciné clubs and amateur filmmaking.

Khalid Ghorbal, who was born in 1950 in Tunisia, is based in France; his earlier work, except for the short, The Chosen One / L’élu (1996), was in theatre, which he had studied first in Tunis (at the Centre d’Art Dramatique) and then in Paris (the Université Internationale du Théâtre de Paris and the École Jacques Lecoq). He directed the most widely distributed film by any of this group of older directors, Fatma, in Tunisia in 2001. The film sets out to confront the practice of repairing a woman’s vagina—just three stitches required—after she has been raped. It is Ghorbal says, “a strange compromise which seems to sort out things for everyone: the future husband, whose honor will be safe and his virility intact, as well as the young woman, who will have a husband and in that way become a wife and mother.” But underlying this is a basic hypocrisy, “which weighs only on the woman.”66

 

Egypt

ePub

There are a number of directors with very different backgrounds, born in the 1950s, who made a first feature film in the 2000s, among them Khalid Ghorbal, Nawfel Saheb-Ettaba, Nidhal Chatta, Khaled W. Barsaoui, and Ibrahim Letaief. Ghorbal came from the theatre, Saheb-Ettaba and Chatta are marked by lengthy periods spent abroad, and Barsaoui and Letaief are products of the Tunisian enthusiasm for ciné clubs and amateur filmmaking.

Khalid Ghorbal, who was born in 1950 in Tunisia, is based in France; his earlier work, except for the short, The Chosen One / L’élu (1996), was in theatre, which he had studied first in Tunis (at the Centre d’Art Dramatique) and then in Paris (the Université Internationale du Théâtre de Paris and the École Jacques Lecoq). He directed the most widely distributed film by any of this group of older directors, Fatma, in Tunisia in 2001. The film sets out to confront the practice of repairing a woman’s vagina—just three stitches required—after she has been raped. It is Ghorbal says, “a strange compromise which seems to sort out things for everyone: the future husband, whose honor will be safe and his virility intact, as well as the young woman, who will have a husband and in that way become a wife and mother.” But underlying this is a basic hypocrisy, “which weighs only on the woman.”66

 

Lebanon

ePub

There are a number of directors with very different backgrounds, born in the 1950s, who made a first feature film in the 2000s, among them Khalid Ghorbal, Nawfel Saheb-Ettaba, Nidhal Chatta, Khaled W. Barsaoui, and Ibrahim Letaief. Ghorbal came from the theatre, Saheb-Ettaba and Chatta are marked by lengthy periods spent abroad, and Barsaoui and Letaief are products of the Tunisian enthusiasm for ciné clubs and amateur filmmaking.

Khalid Ghorbal, who was born in 1950 in Tunisia, is based in France; his earlier work, except for the short, The Chosen One / L’élu (1996), was in theatre, which he had studied first in Tunis (at the Centre d’Art Dramatique) and then in Paris (the Université Internationale du Théâtre de Paris and the École Jacques Lecoq). He directed the most widely distributed film by any of this group of older directors, Fatma, in Tunisia in 2001. The film sets out to confront the practice of repairing a woman’s vagina—just three stitches required—after she has been raped. It is Ghorbal says, “a strange compromise which seems to sort out things for everyone: the future husband, whose honor will be safe and his virility intact, as well as the young woman, who will have a husband and in that way become a wife and mother.” But underlying this is a basic hypocrisy, “which weighs only on the woman.”66

 

Palestine

ePub

Contemporary Lebanese cinema in the 2000s, like Algerian filmmaking, is largely a cinema of exiles. Many of the new generation, born since 1960, have close links with Paris, among them Philippe Aractingi, Michel Kammoun, Chadi Zeneddine, and more recently, Georges Hachem.

Philippe Aractingi, who was born in 1964 in Beirut, studied at the CLCF in Paris. He began his television career in Lebanon, before moving back to Paris, where he worked for twenty years in French television, many of his documentaries dealing with Arab issues. He has subsequently made two feature films in Lebanon.

The Bus / L’autobus / Bosta (2005), described by its author as a musical road movie and a huge popular success in Lebanon, was a very conscious effort on Aractingi’s part to get beyond the constant chronicling of deaths and disasters which characterized his documentary output for French television. On the death of his father, Kamal, a composer and choreographer, returns from fifteen years of exile in France to reunite some of his dance-school classmates to present his new “techno” version of the traditional Lebanese dance, the dabke. When this is rejected out-of-hand by the authorities overseeing the national festival at Anjar, the group decide to renovate the old school bus and take their dance production on a tour around Lebanon. They are supported by a national television company which broadcasts daily accounts of their progress (but only, as Kamal finally discovers, for sordid commercial reasons).

 

Iraq

ePub

Contemporary Lebanese cinema in the 2000s, like Algerian filmmaking, is largely a cinema of exiles. Many of the new generation, born since 1960, have close links with Paris, among them Philippe Aractingi, Michel Kammoun, Chadi Zeneddine, and more recently, Georges Hachem.

Philippe Aractingi, who was born in 1964 in Beirut, studied at the CLCF in Paris. He began his television career in Lebanon, before moving back to Paris, where he worked for twenty years in French television, many of his documentaries dealing with Arab issues. He has subsequently made two feature films in Lebanon.

The Bus / L’autobus / Bosta (2005), described by its author as a musical road movie and a huge popular success in Lebanon, was a very conscious effort on Aractingi’s part to get beyond the constant chronicling of deaths and disasters which characterized his documentary output for French television. On the death of his father, Kamal, a composer and choreographer, returns from fifteen years of exile in France to reunite some of his dance-school classmates to present his new “techno” version of the traditional Lebanese dance, the dabke. When this is rejected out-of-hand by the authorities overseeing the national festival at Anjar, the group decide to renovate the old school bus and take their dance production on a tour around Lebanon. They are supported by a national television company which broadcasts daily accounts of their progress (but only, as Kamal finally discovers, for sordid commercial reasons).

 

Syria

ePub

Contemporary Lebanese cinema in the 2000s, like Algerian filmmaking, is largely a cinema of exiles. Many of the new generation, born since 1960, have close links with Paris, among them Philippe Aractingi, Michel Kammoun, Chadi Zeneddine, and more recently, Georges Hachem.

Philippe Aractingi, who was born in 1964 in Beirut, studied at the CLCF in Paris. He began his television career in Lebanon, before moving back to Paris, where he worked for twenty years in French television, many of his documentaries dealing with Arab issues. He has subsequently made two feature films in Lebanon.

The Bus / L’autobus / Bosta (2005), described by its author as a musical road movie and a huge popular success in Lebanon, was a very conscious effort on Aractingi’s part to get beyond the constant chronicling of deaths and disasters which characterized his documentary output for French television. On the death of his father, Kamal, a composer and choreographer, returns from fifteen years of exile in France to reunite some of his dance-school classmates to present his new “techno” version of the traditional Lebanese dance, the dabke. When this is rejected out-of-hand by the authorities overseeing the national festival at Anjar, the group decide to renovate the old school bus and take their dance production on a tour around Lebanon. They are supported by a national television company which broadcasts daily accounts of their progress (but only, as Kamal finally discovers, for sordid commercial reasons).

 

The Gulf

ePub

Contemporary Lebanese cinema in the 2000s, like Algerian filmmaking, is largely a cinema of exiles. Many of the new generation, born since 1960, have close links with Paris, among them Philippe Aractingi, Michel Kammoun, Chadi Zeneddine, and more recently, Georges Hachem.

Philippe Aractingi, who was born in 1964 in Beirut, studied at the CLCF in Paris. He began his television career in Lebanon, before moving back to Paris, where he worked for twenty years in French television, many of his documentaries dealing with Arab issues. He has subsequently made two feature films in Lebanon.

The Bus / L’autobus / Bosta (2005), described by its author as a musical road movie and a huge popular success in Lebanon, was a very conscious effort on Aractingi’s part to get beyond the constant chronicling of deaths and disasters which characterized his documentary output for French television. On the death of his father, Kamal, a composer and choreographer, returns from fifteen years of exile in France to reunite some of his dance-school classmates to present his new “techno” version of the traditional Lebanese dance, the dabke. When this is rejected out-of-hand by the authorities overseeing the national festival at Anjar, the group decide to renovate the old school bus and take their dance production on a tour around Lebanon. They are supported by a national television company which broadcasts daily accounts of their progress (but only, as Kamal finally discovers, for sordid commercial reasons).

 

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