Aflamuna: Free streaming service for Arab independent films goes live

Stephano Mendelek of Beirut DC tells us how the new platform will keep Arab cinema alive

A still from 'Off Frame Aka Revolution Until Victory' (2016) by Mohanad Yaqubi. The film will be streamed on Aflamuna. Courtesy Idioms Film 
A still from 'Off Frame Aka Revolution Until Victory' (2016) by Mohanad Yaqubi. The film will be streamed on Aflamuna. Courtesy Idioms Film 

The pandemic may have damaged the cinema industry worldwide, but for streaming services it has brought an unexpected bonanza. Across the Middle East, where independent Arab films usually supplement festival tours with a limited release in a small number of independent cinemas, a year of restrictions has led to a new approach.

Beirut DC, a non-profit collective dedicated to empowering filmmakers and audiences across the Arab world, launched Aflamuna during the early weeks of the pandemic as a temporary website to combine free streaming programmes being offered by several independent production companies.

This month, the group are relaunching the site as a permanent free streaming service dedicated to independent Arab film.

“It was a way for all of these institutions to keep their connections with their audiences and to keep Arab cinema alive during that difficult period,” says Stephano Mendelek, director of development at Beirut DC.

“It’s really because of the amazing reaction of audiences during this first experiment that we decided decide to launch Aflamuna once again.”

Stephano Mendelek, director of development at Beirut DC. Courtesy Stephano Mendelek
Stephano Mendelek, director of development at Beirut DC. Courtesy Stephano Mendelek

The platform hugely diversified their audience, Mendelek says, as it pulled in hundreds of thousands of viewers from around the world and also drew in a more diverse local crowd. “People around us, who we could never have convinced to go to our festivals, were talking about the films they watched,” he says.

In its new incarnation, Aflamuna will aim to engage more deeply with Arab cinema. Each month, a guest curator will craft a selection of classic and contemporary features, documentaries and shorts that explore a political, social or cultural theme.

They will also write an essay that delves into the context and importance of their chosen theme and its representation in Arab cinema.

We felt there was a missing space for social, cultural and political thought around independent Arab cinema, so we wanted to provide that

Stephano Mendelek, director of development at Beirut DC

“With the pandemic, it’s very easy to ignore really urgent issues that are taking place before our eyes,” says Mendelek. “We felt there was a missing space for social, cultural and political thought around independent Arab cinema, so we wanted to provide that.”

He says the new platform furthers all of Beirut DC’s main goals, which he lists as increasing access to content by Arab directors, offering new opportunities to regional filmmakers and harnessing the power of cinema to tackle pressing issues.

The first month’s programme, curated by Lebanese documentary maker and film historian Hady Zaccak, delves into the representation of Palestinian resistance in Arab films.

“It’s all about the context today, with all of the peace deals and the sense of abandonment of the Palestinian cause,” says Mendelek. Titled Are We All Fidayeen? the programme includes four feature films and three shorts.

The films span almost 50 years, from Lebanese director Christian Ghazi’s 1969 feature A Hundred Faces for a Single Day to Palestinian filmmaker Mohanad Yaqubi’s 2016 documentary Off Frame Aka Revolution Until Victory.

Aflamuna is tailor-made for Middle Eastern audiences. Slow internet connections mean many viewers in the region struggle to stream the films hosted on Vimeo, the American video-hosting website. To combat this issue, Beirut DC has created a custom streaming platform.

While some of the films selected by curators are only available for streaming in the Middle East, Mendelek says Beirut DC will always try to find an alternative that can be streamed worldwide “so that we can keep this connection with a global audience interested in Arab cinema”.

Beirut DC also plans to launch a paid video-on-­demand service later this year, allowing cinephiles worldwide to buy and stream selected films, with the profit for each paid directly to the independent filmmakers, producers and distributors who hold the rights to the titles.

“Being non-profit, we have a unique advantage of being able to really lower the prices, but at the same time pay filmmakers more than they would get from more expensive distribution solutions because we’re only taking the running costs in order to try to make the platform sustainable.”

“We’re offering filmmakers a new distribution avenue that doesn’t compete with any other distribution option that they have. It’s really just here to complement the lives of their films after they’ve done the whole festival circuit

A still from 'A Hundred Faces for a Single Day' (1969) by Christian Ghazi. Courtesy Nadi Lekol Nass
A still from 'A Hundred Faces for a Single Day' (1969) by Christian Ghazi. Courtesy Nadi Lekol Nass

While commercial streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have boomed during the pandemic, offering huge quantities of content that varies widely in quality, Mendelek predicts that niche streaming services such as Aflamuna, which take a more selective approach and encourage reflection and interaction, will proliferate in years to come.

However, despite Beirut DC’s foray into streaming, Mendelek says cinemas still have an important role to play, though, he believes the mass collapse of commercial cinema chains might prove beneficial for independent film.

“We’re trying to make sure that Arab independent filmmakers have a space within this new digital world, but we’re not giving up on physical gatherings around a film screen and the discussions that ensue afterwards,” he says.

“With regard to the mainstream commercial cinema sector, a lot of that is going to move online. But I think in the independent community, as we also take our place online, we’re going to experience something of a renaissance of independent cinema, because it’s going to become such a rarity, I think it will be really influential in film culture in the years to come,” Mendelek says.

More information is available at www.aflamuna.online

Published: March 7, 2021 07:32 AM

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