Arab film enjoying growing international interest as UK festival opens online

One of the challenges this year has been moving at short notice from an in-person event to a virtual festival

Zaineb Hates the Snow. Courtesy Safar
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An Arab film festival forced online because of coronavirus now says the virtual event will bring more people together just as international interest in Middle Eastern cinema is growing.

The pandemic-necessitated move by SAFAR, the only UK film festival dedicated to Arab World cinema, enables national audiences to view all the offerings and allows global fans to join Zoom events associated with the festival.

SAFAR co-founder and filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky said the regional film industry had altered drastically in the past few years.

"It's difficult to generalise, but it's undeniable that Arab cinema has changed immeasurably since Noreen Abu Oun and I founded SAFAR in 2012,” Farouky said.

“That reality is now being reflected in a cinema that is more introspective, bolder, and more willing to tackle difficult subjects,” he said.

The Great Journey. Courtesy Safar
The Great Journey. Courtesy Safar
  • The Great Journey
  • In the Last Days of the City
  • Tramontane
  • Zaineb Hates the Snow

And three shorts:

  • Bonbone
  • Mondial 2010
  • A Space Exodus
In the Last Days of the City. Courtesy Safar
In the Last Days of the City. Courtesy Safar

Farouky went on to say that Arab governments were slowly starting to understand the value of cinema as part of their culture. Their support, he said, particularly in countries such as Tunisia and Jordan, was creating film industries and national cinema movements that never existed before.

“These are still emerging, and filmmakers are still finding out what the limits of expression are in their respective countries, but I think the change and developments will be difficult to roll back," he said.

“There's more international interest in Middle Eastern cinema, which means a higher profile and more success in international festivals, which in turn piques the interest of Arab filmmakers and culture ministries.

"The challenge now is: how do we expand the sector while maintaining our artistic freedom, our political freedom, and our willingness to provoke."

The SAFAR From Home programme has five screenings for audiences to view online from September 13-20, and five live events with filmmaking talent from across the Arab world and the UK.

One of the hurdles this year has been moving at short notice from an in-person event to a virtual festival.

But a festival spokeswoman explained that there were many positive results from going online, not least that SAFAR was now able to vastly extend its reach. “In person brings a lot of people together but with a virtual event people from across the UK can see the films,” she said.

Tramontane. Courtesy Safar
Tramontane. Courtesy Safar

“It’s also great to bring people together from all over the world with these virtual audiences and celebrate Arab culture.

“We were planning an in-person festival for a long time and had to change really quickly when lockdowns were brought in.

“It is good for bringing people to the festival who cannot normally travel, perhaps because of visas or costs.”