“I took this video so that people know what really happened,” whispers the protagonist of “Rags and Tatters,” Ahmad Abdallah’s urgent yet understated Egyptian drama set amidst—but apart from—the 2011 revolution. That’s a sentiment that’s pervaded the new Arab cinema showcased at this year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival: the need, above all, to document the seismic changes underway within the “Greater Middle East,” as George W. Bush’s administration once termed it.
Such a broad label as that is apt indeed for a region that’s rarely been seen by the West for its cultural breadth and diversity. Second only to Africa, perhaps, in its alienation from Western audiences, the cinema of the Arab World had its rich history showcased this year in an ADFF sidebar celebrating the region’s great debuts. But it’s less a programme about the past as it is about the present, and the curatorial bent here is clear: there’s an uncanny likeness between the new Arab films appearing across the various competition strands and these cinematic benchmarks of yesteryear.
They, spanning some three decades and seven countries, attest above all the scarcity of awareness and appreciation of the history of Arab cinema, the worryingly poor print quality of many—Egypt’s “The Vagabonds” was screened via VHS—suggesting their preservation is every bit as at-risk as was their production. It’s miraculous that most of these movies were made, as much for technical reasons as their often subversive socio-political content; to lose them, for lack of concern, is to lose sight of cinema’s power to preserve our history.
That’s the key concern of the section’s most recent movie, Oday Rasheed’s “Underexposure,” touted at the time of its 2005 release as the first Iraqi film made free from the censorship of Saddam’s regime. Shot with old, expired celluloid looted from the shelled studios, the eerie aesthetic effect is a literal embodiment of a cinema for decades deprived of depicting reality. The anger that defines the movie feels almost incarnate in the film strip itself, an effective accompaniment to the meta-narrative plot of wondering how best to capture the new Iraq with this limited celluloid supply.
Underexposure becomes, through its panicked scramble to desperately document all around it, as much a commentary on young cinema artists’ efforts to chronicle change as an example of that itself. It’s fatuous, of course, to claim any single factor as symptomatic of an entire region’s cinematic heritage, yet the shared characteristics of so many of these debuts make impossible to ignore the reality that the best Arab films have been born of conflict and its fallout.
Albeit set and shot some fifteen years after Algerian independence, Merzak Allouache’s “Omar Gatlato” is dominated by the shadow of the war that led to that freedom. Standing in marked contrast to the retrospectively celebratory national cinema of the time, the “Saturday Night Fever”-esque story sees the restless new youth wander through their liberated streets aimless and aloof. “The Syrian Whispers of the Cities,” likewise, sets itself against the backdrop of the military coups of the ‘50s and ‘60s, using the figure of an authoritarian father to investigate the state’s shady foundations.
Given the central role of political strife in stimulating cinematic talent in the past as this sidebar attests, then, there’s little surprise that the Arab Spring, with its simultaneous uprisings and governmental overthrows across the “Greater Middle East,” has seen the similarly synchronised emergence of major new talent in the region. Combining the proliferation of stories these international revolutions accommodate and—crucially, as with “Underexposure”—the means to tell them, the Arab Spring has given us a new Arab screen, a cinematic revolution as vibrant and essential as its political equivalent.
But far from being a jubilant celebration of liberation, the new Arab films to be found through ADFF’s various slates comprise a view that’s sceptical and cynical above all. Like Allouache and Rasheed and others before them, these young filmmakers are exposing the on-the-ground reality of their respective situations. In fact “Rags and Tatters”—a mostly silent drama that finds ironic juxtaposition between the celebratory radio and television news reports that fill the film’s soundscape and the more grounded, even grim reality its characters actually encounter—maintains a sombre sense of uncertainty about the shift it chronicles. Given that Abdallah’s last film, an exploration of the anger and frustrations inherent in the country’s youth, opened the same day the Tahrir Square demonstrations broke out, his similar prescience here having since been proven justified should come as no surprise.
That Tunisian director Néjib Belkadhi, in introducing his “Bastardo,” used ironic air quotes when mentioning the “Arab Spring” is telling: these filmmakers, like their forebears, have made it their business to interrogate the changes around them. His movie, a magic realist masterpiece that plays like a macabre modern retelling of “Miracle in Milan,” sees the despicable leader of an obviously allegorical settlement displaced, only for the genial new head installed in his place to turn things even more totalitarian. Even “Cairo Drive,” a film that fails to fully exploit the extraordinary opportunity of its Sacro GRA-esque life-via-lanes documentary getting caught up, mid-production, in the Egyptian uprising, has its piece to say, exposing—by way of its interviewees—the lingering issues left unaddressed by the new regime.
If the parallels of ADFF’s Arab films of the past and present have reminded us that history delights in repeating itself, these new directors are showing themselves to have learned from that. But it isn’t so much their sceptical takes that stand out as the fact they’ve been allowed to express them. With the hand-in-hand democratisation of the media and the political system, these filmmakers find themselves with both the fuel and the freedom to examine unrestrained the issues most pressing to them and their audience.
And that audience is only going to grow with time. Physically and politically restricted in the past, Arab cinema now finds itself at a point of possibility that’s broadened almost beyond comprehension. With institutions like ADFF’s own Sanad Fund adding financial opportunities and the now-removed regimes allowing for exploration of issues long censored—as with In the Sands of Babylon’s investigation of Iraqi genocide—the kind of great movies that formerly emerged almost accidentally are becoming all the more common, and all the more difficult to ignore.
The powerful central image of Vachan Sharma’s “My Pink Room,” one of the standouts of the Emirates Film Competition for filmmakers in the Gulf Cooperation Council member states, is a white flag freely flowing in the wind obscured behind a haze of barbed wire. The Kuwaiti-produced, Syrian-set short is as much a testament to the spirit of shared experience that’s defining this new Arab cinema as to the issues it addresses. The ultimate fallout of the Arab Spring remains to be resolved. What’s clear, at least, is that the Arab screen’s role will be essential.