Arab Film Festival Berlin 2021: How Palestinian director Larissa Sansour's lockdown sci-fi film saw the pandemic coming

This year’s festival goes online to showcase the best of genre-focused contemporary Arab films

Larissa Sansour has just finished the script for a feature film based on her short, 'In Vitro', about a futuristic city in prolonged lockdown. Courtesy Arab Film Festival Berlin
Larissa Sansour has just finished the script for a feature film based on her short, 'In Vitro', about a futuristic city in prolonged lockdown. Courtesy Arab Film Festival Berlin

For many, art is meant to be an escape from reality. Not so for Palestinian filmmaker Larissa Sansour, whose feature film about people living in a subterranean shelter for decades during worldwide lockdowns became more of a reflection of it.

The sudden surplus of time brought on by the pandemic’s global restrictions may have been welcomed by some writers, but Sansour couldn’t bear to continue with her script.

“It just became like a documentary. When you work with sci-fi, you work with future imaginaries. You work with a speculative genre, not something that documents what we're really going through. It was a bit scary,” she says of the film, set in a post-apocalyptic city emerging from a very long lockdown.

The feature film was meant to pick up where her short, In Vitro, one of those selected at this year’s Arab Film Festival Berlin (Alfilm) left off, continuing the story about a mother and daughter who live in an underground bunker, waiting for Earth to become habitable again after a destructive major disaster.

A scene from Larissa Sansour's short film 'In Vitro'. Courtesy Arab Film Festival Berlin
A scene from Larissa Sansour's short film 'In Vitro'. Courtesy Arab Film Festival Berlin

Art's mirror to reality

“It was meant to expand on lockdown and then I realised I couldn’t work on it any more,” the interdisciplinary artist explains from her home in London. The shock of living her imagined dystopian reality eventually subsided and she has just put the finishing touches on the feature-length script.

In Vitro drew on her experiences of lockdowns as a teenager in Bethlehem, where she was raised, following the first Intifada of 1987, when everything was closed and curfews were imposed.

Featuring internationally acclaimed Palestinian actors Hiam Abbass (Blade Runner 2049) and Maisa Abd Elhadi (The Angel), the film is an otherworldly rumination on memory, history and identity. Set in Bethlehem, the film also explores the rift between generations of Palestinians who grew up during conflict and territorial losses, including those who were raised in the diaspora.

Less social realism, more science-fiction

It is a fitting addition to the thematic focus on genres this year at Alfilm, which started on Wednesday. The festival's artistic director, Pascale Fakhry, said this theme is a purposeful move away from the traditional social realism narratives that have prevailed on screen and serves to give more of the spotlight to less typical genres, such as science-fiction, horror and fantasy.

“We wanted to show this new tendency and the Arab world, but also to show highly aesthetical films,” Fakhry tells The National from Berlin.

The Lebanese PhD graduate in film and gender studies from Paris’s Sorbonne University says that the use of such genres is a more subversive way of discussing political, social and cultural issues that may otherwise fall foul of regional censors. “How can one talk about these topics if they are not presented in a fantasy world?” she posits over Zoom.

Sameh Alaa is the first Egyptian director to win a Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his short film I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face, and is one of the films showing at the Arab Film Festival Berlin festival this year. ALFILM 
Sameh Alaa is the first Egyptian director to win a Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his short film 'I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face', one of the films showing at the Arab Film Festival Berlin 2021. Courtesy Arab Film Festival Berlin

It is, she thinks, also a way of creating a reality that could never otherwise reasonably exist, as in the case of Elia Suleiman’s film, Divine Intervention, one of this year’s spotlight selections, where the Palestinian protagonist transforms into a ninja fighter, overpowers Israeli soldiers and finds freedom.

Similarly, Amin Sidi-Boumediene’s film, Abou Leila, mixes conventions of road movie and horror film to talk about the trauma of the Algerian War.

Finding creative freedom in fiction

Sansour was born in East Jerusalem, but is a Danish national. She studied art in New York and Denmark, and began producing as a documentary artist after the 2002 Israeli siege on Bethlehem. However, she says she quickly decided that fiction, while harder, was more freeing.

You don't usually associate Palestine with sci-fi or humour or fiction

Larissa Sansour, filmmaker

“I was able to choose my own way and not be dictated by the political jargon and create my own world. Because you don't usually associate Palestine with sci-fi or humour or fiction.”

Fakhry has been working with the festival since 2013 and was appointed to her current role this past December. She says the festival’s purpose is to curate films from the Arab world that show the complexity of the region and its beautiful cinema productions.

The hope, she adds, is that this increasing visibility will create more acceptability towards Arab culture.

A scene from Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania's The Man Who Sold His Skin, a contender at this year's Oscars. ALFILM 
A scene from Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania's 'The Man Who Sold His Skin', a contender at this year's Oscars. Courtesy Arab Film Festival Berlin

Arab films have most certainly been brought to the fore this past year. Two films from the Middle East, from Palestinian Farah Nabulsi and Tunisian Kaouther Ben Hania, have been nominated for Oscars. Sameh Alaa made history at this year’s Cannes Film Festival when he became the first Egyptian director to win a Palme D’Or for his short film I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face, and Moroccan Sofia Alaoui’s So What If The Goats Die won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. All films except Nabulsi’s, which recently won a Bafta, are part of this year’s Alfilm line-up.

There is a huge, electrifying cultural Arabic scene in Berlin

Pascale Fakhry

“We think it's amazing that so many opportunities are being opened for Arab cinema and that it is at this point where we are on a really good international level,” says Fakhry, beaming through her screen.

Sansour says there have been plenty of outstanding films before, but that an increasing commitment to diversity ushered in by the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements has forced recognition where there historically hadn’t been.

“All this has brought awareness to the fact that everything is quite white-centric and male-centric and so people are actively trying to select films that are different. And I think that's first and foremost why this is happening. I'm not saying that this is bad. I think it's great. It's just that I think that's what's powering us right now.”

Fakhry says she has observed an improvement in the quality of films shown at the festival over the years, but, more importantly, an increased interest from audiences.

“There is definitely a huge, electrifying cultural Arabic scene in Berlin,” she says. While the city’s Arab population dates back to the 1960s, the city has become a hub for creative Arab talent in recent years, particularly following the massive influx of refugees, a large proportion from Syria, since 2015.

Less restrictions, more productions

Larissa Sansour
Larissa Sansour is set to begin shooting an Arabic opera later this year

As the world cautiously stands on the precipice of opening up, Sansour’s art is once again imitating life. She has returned to her formerly abandoned script, which will be looking at what happens to life after the women leave the underground bunker. Calling it a “Palestinian Truman Show”, she says the extended version of In Vitro will look at what happens after Earth becomes habitable again.

“Instead of having another lockdown film, it's a bunch of clones that are being sucked out into the city of Bethlehem,” she explains. “Now that we are in a Palestinian utopia, what's going to happen?”

With restrictions easing and the wheels of creativity in motion, Sansour will begin filming an entirely different production this September in Bristol.

An Arabic opera, it is a sharply contrasting genre to her usual, but one she is very excited to be writing. It is a rearrangement of a Gustav Mahler opera by a Lebanese composer, and sung by a Palestinian soprano singer, and Sansour will once again explore the theme of losing time and generational trauma.

The festival goes online

Like most cinematic events of the past year, this year’s Alfilm will take place online. Fakhry says the team had been holding out hope for a physical iteration, but admits there are some advantages to going digital. Directors who couldn’t get visas to travel to Europe – as is often the case – could now participate in discussions and talks via the ubiquitous Zoom.

Viewers in Germany who couldn’t make it to physical screenings can now buy a ticket and stream films wherever and whenever they like.

It could mark the beginning of a longer-term shift of the festival online, but, Fakhry insists, only in a hybrid form. After all, she says, “a festival without the film talks and the director and the connections and the networking is not really a festival”.

The Arab Film Festival Berlin runs until Friday, April 30 and is being streamed though Indiekino Club to viewers in Germany. More information is at alfilm.berlin/en

Updated: April 22, 2021 07:07 PM

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