"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.