Already captivated by the movies he selected for this year’s Safar Film Festival in London, curator Rabih El-Khoury is most excited to set his gaze on the audience.
“What I know about audiences in London is that they are very passionate people. They're very curious,” he tells The National.
The UK’s only Arab film festival begins on Thursday and viewers can certainly count on the 17-day programme to pique their curiosity. A decade on from the Arab uprisings, the festival’s theme, Generational Encounters in Arab Cinema, reflects on the legacy of those protests through the lens of a new generation.
“I want the audiences to see the diversity in filmmaking and in the films themselves,” says El-Khoury, a Lebanese film buff. He works as a diversity manager at the German Film Institute in Frankfurt, where he lives, and is also a programmer for ALFILM, a festival similar to Safar, held in Berlin.
In partnership with Shubbak, Europe’s largest festival on Arab culture, Safar is featuring 20 films and a host of talks and events in its first hybrid version, though El-Khoury is keen to coax viewers out of their homes.
“We haven't been in the cinemas for so long. We've seen films on our monitors and small screens, big screens at homes and TVs, and I just want the audience to enjoy being in a closed space, completely silent, to hear films the way they were made to be heard,” he says.
He describes curating this year’s festival as a "very moving" experience, given that he used to lament the dearth of Arab films in the UK as a student in London in 2010. Safar was founded in 2012 and, a decade on, El-Khoury proudly reels off the films he has selected for its sixth and largest event.
He says the "fearless filmmakers" he has chosen form part of his mission to convey a contemporary and often unseen version of the Arab world.
Unseen may not be the obvious description for a region that is copiously reported on. For Beirut-born El-Khoury, however, the stories he wants to show are the daily struggles of the people who remain after the international reporters leave.
“Everyone knows about the Arab uprisings, everyone knows about the trauma, the hardships, the torture, the mass exodus. But also there are stories that are very intimate that could also be your life here in London,” says El-Khoury.
From coming-of-age tales in the Sudanese film You Will Die at Twenty and the post-war state of mind in Algeria with Blessed, to social media-obsessed Egyptian teenagers in the festival’s opening film Souad, the selection is, he says, a reflection of societal changes emerging in the region.
“How do filmmakers convey these interactions? How do they speak about change in society? How do they convey the harshness of life through their films, but more importantly, how do they speak about dreams?”
Every film talks about intergenerational issues in one way or another, says El-Khoury, but he wants the audience to reflect on what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. That is why this year’s programme includes five debut works from filmmakers who are "telling films the way they want to tell films".
From the recreation of identity in a new country in Wissam Tanios’s We Are From There, to the demise of a 62-year marriage between immigrants in Lina Soualem’s Their Algeria, the themes explored by emerging filmmakers should, El-Khoury hopes, spark meaningful engagement.
“I want people to bring their questions and ask things and be curious. No question is bad or lazy or stupid,” he says.
“I would like people to simply relax, enjoy the show and let themselves be moved, be affected [and], best of all, be furious about things. And if really something moves you, I think I would be very happy.”
Unsurprisingly, El-Khoury doesn’t offer his favourite "ones to watch", gushing with equal enthusiasm about all the films being screened.
He says The Swing, a heartbreaking documentary by Cyril Aris about the Lebanese filmmaker’s grandparents, should be watched "with tissues near you" and commends Zeina Alqahwaji’s film Sugar Cage, about her parents’ metamorphosis in their home in Damascus over eight years of war in Syria, for its "authentic vision".
My English Cousin, a "beautiful" documentary by Karim Sayad about a man battling his dual and conflicting Algerian and British identities was chosen to close the event because of its fitting marriage between the festival’s subject matter and its physical home.
Safar's programme is littered with these intimate and singular narratives, but El-Khoury sees a lot of universality, too.
He draws parallels, for example, between the theme of Ameen Nayfeh’s 200 Metres, about the wall dividing families in Palestine and Israel, and the "virtual wall" created between loved ones during the pandemic.
Palestine emerges a few times in the festival’s programme, with a screening of Mohamed Malas's The Dream, a 40-year-old classic about refugees in early 1980s Lebanon, a masterclass with Palestinian actor Ali Suliman and a short film called Maradona’s Legs, directed by Firas Khoury, about two Palestinian boys trying to fill their sticker book during the 1990 World Cup.
These selections were made before the recent eruption of violence between Israel and Palestine, but El-Khoury says the timing has allowed him to offer audiences the often unreported realities of daily life for Palestinians.
“You cannot be passive with what's happening. And we're talking about occupation as a cultural institution,” he says. “We didn't want to be indifferent. We wanted to stand and show support, and to reflect on what's happening.”
Introspection and thoughtfulness are the main feelings El-Khoury wants the audience to walk away with, but after a year of hardship and distance, he hopes people can "simply relax and enjoy the show".
Safar Film Festival runs in London from Thursday to Saturday, July 1 to 17. More information is at safarfilmfestival.co.uk