Local? Regional? National? No, Arab cinema is becoming truly global

A recent conference at New York University Abu Dhabi explored changes in the way cinema is being connected to place.

A scene from the Egyptian-made film Villa 69, which exemplifies the way regional cinema has moved beyond the parochial. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Film Festival
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In the 2010 Mexican film We Are What We Are, the viewer watches the children of a watchmaker continue the family's grisly tradition of cannibalism after his death. There was a time when such a film may have been classified as foreign, Latin American or Mexican but these days audiences look beyond borders and the film has taken its place alongside other horror films, be they from the US, Europe or Korea. Indeed the film was remade in the US by Jim Mickle last year.

“We’ve entered into a period, let’s imagine it’s only a phase, in which there has emerged a profound ­uninterest, boarding on disbelief, in the category of the national,” said Richard Peña, the director emeritus for the New York Film Festival, at a New York University Abu Dhabi talk last Sunday, alongside three leading curators of Middle East film. Up for debate? The present state of filmmaking in the region, the influence of transnational themes such as migration and displacement and the future of Arab cinema.

“Among my students and many younger critics and programmers that I encounter, I find that the idea of locating a given work within a national film culture arouses almost open hostility, as if the historical, political or social circumstances surrounding its production, or an approach to its interpretation, seem peripheral at best,” the film studies professor at Columbia University said.

“In the case of Middle Eastern cinema, at least as unwieldy a term as European cinema, the attempt to unite too many different types of film experiences based simply on shared geography, one could argue that the idea of national cinemas at best corresponds to a particular historical period in its overall development.”

Arab film was once synonymous with commercial Egyptian cinema which, until the rise of the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s, was made to entertain and represent the Arab world as a whole. Following anti-colonial struggles, Arab film focused on national experiences and identity in the 1960s and relied on state funding, the speakers said.

By the 1980s, filmmakers sought more independence from regime-sponsored films through European funding. A decade later, Arab cinema shifted to the transnational with the emergence of Palestinian cinema and films made by émigrés in France. In recent years, art foundations and international grants have emerged as significant funding sources; films are funded regionally, produced internationally and film festivals are catalysts for exchange between filmmakers.

“Pan-Arabism is no longer a guiding paradigm, however Arab filmmakers are able to connect, collaborate and co-produce,” said Rasha Salti, a writer and curator at the ­Toronto International Film Festival. “If in the 1960s and the 70s, the cine clubs were the places of encounter, of Arabs discovering each other’s films, today it’s film festivals.” The smaller and more focused apparently, the better.

Digitisation has democratised filmmaking through low-budget production outside elite or regime-sanctioned culture, said Salti.

“The most interesting intangible aspect of the Arab Spring – and you will forgive my indulgence in calling it the Spring even if it seems demented to do so – is, in my humble opinion, the dissipation of self-censorship and more precisely, the dissipation of internalised prohibitions from under previous political regimes,” she said. “This trend has emerged even in countries that did not really witness massive protests and regime change.” At the same time, however, she has witnessed an “increased” religious observance.

New funding sources, such as crowd sourcing, and new distribution methods, such as the internet television channels popular in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, allow further ­independence.

Peña, who headed the New York Film Festival for 25 years, once categorised the films shown there according to nation in the hopes of moving towards more specific cinema. “The other edge of that rhetorical sword was presenting each of the films selected as somehow representing what we were offering as the national [style], making each filmmaker shoulder that burden whether or not they wanted to,” he said.

“In today’s world, you are your own homeland and where you were born, where your parents were born, where the money that will make your next film will come from – all of these things matter less than, finally, where you yourself in a symbolic and literal sense are at. As filmmakers as well as human beings, that should be your principal focus.”

Anna Zacharias is a features writer for The National.