Outside the frame: Arab diaspora filmmakers show the pain of exile at Abu Dhabi Film Festival

Émigré Arab filmmakers have long chosen to explore the often traumatic process of settling in another country – turning a uniquely critical eye on traditions and ways of life left far behind.

A still from the short film Bawke by Hisham Zaman. Courtesy ADFF
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In The Immigrant, Charlie Chaplin plays a penniless tramp for laughs as he crosses the Atlantic to find his fortune in the US.

We chuckle as he lurches on board a ship where seasick passengers are packed like sardines and lands on his luck by stumbling on a few dollars, which he uses to woo and marry a fellow passenger.

But unlike the 1917 silent classic, the reality of migration rarely, if ever, means stepping from poverty to a happy ending just 20 minutes later.

The reality for the millions who pack their few possessions to migrate to an unknown land for an uncertain future is, of course, far more precarious.

Across the Middle East and in such war zones as Syria, Iraq and Libya, enforced displacements, penurious states and punitive regimes mean mass migration is a daily occurrence. But the history of migration from the Arab world, whether for survival or for riches, stretches back centuries.

The Arab diaspora is now scattered across the globe, from the Americas to Asia and Africa, with about 30 million living miles from their homeland.

Whether they are first-generation immigrants or descendants who have assimilated, what that diaspora creates is a bridge between two cultures and a series of tough choices – ones consisting of ­cooperation or conflict.

Those ideas are explored in this year’s special programme at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF), which begins on Thursday.

The nine feature-length films and three shorts chosen to represent the Arab diaspora were not selected on a theme of migration, assimilation and cultural differences.

But those notions are firmly entrenched in the work of the directors, as well as being an inescapable reality of their private lives.

Little wonder, then, that those preoccupations feature heavily in their films with subtly nuanced observations that carry more resonance and pathos than Hollywood’s often-clichéd depiction of the Middle East.

They include Heremakono (Waiting for Happiness) made in 2002 by the Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, set in a transit village and exploring themes of belonging, rootlessness and transience; Inch'Allah Dimanche (2001) by the French-Algerian director Yamina Benguigui, focusing on an Algerian woman torn from her roots to join her abusive husband in France; Jalla! Jalla! (2000), a comedy by Josef Fares about a cross-cultural relationship set in Sweden; and the Algerian-French director Lyès Salem's short film Jean Fares (2001), where a simple decision to name a new baby becomes a cultural minefield.

The films were all made in the past two decades because filmmaking from the Arab diaspora is relatively new, says Intishal Al Timimi, ADFF’s director of Arab programming.

“Some people started life in their countries and moved abroad. Some of them were born overseas and some have films in the language of their new country with little or no Arabic,” he says.

“It is very difficult to put all these films in one category but what they show is that there are Arab filmmakers or of Arab origin all over the world making wonderful films.

"We had a lot of candidates. Some of the films were successful in their home countries, some – like A New Day in Old Sana'a (2005)

– were never shown there.

“I think there is a possibility for Arab diaspora filmmakers to look at the problems from a distance and when you [can do that], you can look widely.

“Mostly the filmmakers are more critical because they are more independent and mostly intellectual people. They are not living in countries where you do not know if you would be arrested because of your film or even be killed.”

The diaspora films, which are among the 108 movies being screened over the 10-day festival, form a retrospective of sorts, although they do not go as deep into the archives as the past three years’ historic programme has done.

That is partly because the genre was triggered largely by Arab filmmakers leaving their home countries, where their creativity was often stifled.

“In general, many critics believe Arab cinema is going downhill,” says Al Timimi.

“There was a golden era in the 1950s and 1960s and production was big, especially in Egypt.

“By the end of the 1970s, political, economic and social problems and wars affected production in these countries.

“A lot of conflict and dictatorships affected Arab cinema. There was a boom of production in Lebanon at the beginning of the 1960s but during the civil war, the only films came from the diaspora.

“Syria had a good start in the 1970s but the same happened later. Jordan only has one film every two or three years and if you look at Iraqi history, it only has 110 films from 1947 until now.”

It falls to the diaspora to interpret and analyse the promise and flaws of their home countries from a distance. Time and distance means the rose tint has faded from the camera lens.

At the same time, directors – knowing they might only reach a limited audience across the Middle East – bring a fresh perspective from their new homes and adopted nationalities while making their films accessible to a western as well as an Arab audience.

At the end of Bawke (2005), Hisham Zaman pays tribute in his award-winning 15-minute short film to "all those leaving their native countries and their roots and language in search of a better life".

It is a poignant reminder of how far Zaman himself has come after spending seven years of his childhood as an Iraqi-Kurdish refugee with no passport and on the run from the authorities. “Film can never be like reality, however we want to portray it,” says the 39-year-old.

“The reality is much more complex and harsh. I can only put across 30 or 40 per cent of that.

“What I lived through, what my family witnessed, all the humiliations, were much more harsh … all this does something to you as a person.”

In a post-9/11 world, there has been an increasing fascination in Hollywood with the Middle East and an attempt to understand how those from the region have assimilated – or not.

Yet the few attempts to convey conflicts of culture, religion and politics have often failed miserably.

In the widely panned Crossing Over (2009), stereotypes – from the Islamic fundamentalist youth to the illegal Mexican mother – are rife and shed no light on why any of the immigrants would want to be chasing the American dream; that is simply taken as a given.

In The Immigrant (2013), Marion Cotillard's Polish character arrives on Ellis Island in 1921, America's monument to immigration, and despite the brutality of her situation as she is trafficked into prostitution, then forgives her pimp, it is ultimately a romanticised version of the harsh reality of the times. We leave her with the light shining on her face and the promise of a happier life.

Even in the more subtle The Visitor, (2007) we see Arab immigrants through a western prism. The hardships Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), Zainab (Danai Gurira) and Mouna (Hiam Abbass) suffered to get to America are only hinted at and we see them solely in terms of their relationship to Walter (Richard Jenkins), an American university professor.

Moreover, there is the suggestion we should only feel empathy for them because they are creative, bohemian types. Would we have been expected to feel for their plight in the same way if they had been, say, construction workers or shop staff instead of musicians and jewellery makers?

It is the journey itself rather than the end point that consumes the Iraqi Kurd director Hisham Zaman, partly because of his own experiences. Bawke, showing at this year's festival, his first feature film Before Snowfall (2013) and his second feature Letter to the King (2014), which will premier at the Dubai International Film Festival later this year, all depict an arduous journey from Kurdistan, rife with struggle and potential life or death situations.

“For me, it was important for me to empty myself of the stories that have bothered me for many years,” says Zaman.

“Then I can look further … It is therapy for me.”

Bawke, which has been shown at 40 festivals and won numerous awards, focuses on a father and his 10-year-old son as they set off in search of a better life, wedged under a lorry.

We do not know where they are escaping from or going to. There is no explanation of why they are fleeing or what they plan to do when they reach their destination.

Yet somehow the 15-minute film manages to encapsulate all the drama, pathos and bittersweet emotion of a feature-length film, which is probably why schools in Zaman’s new home of Norway still ask to show it nine years after it was made.

“I wanted to tell an immigrant’s story through a father and son by not thinking so much about the political aspect of immigration but more the human aspect – what humans do to protect their child in harsh conditions and a pressured situation and what one does when one leaves a country to come to a new one,” says Zaman.

“The aspect of a border is interesting for me. All these things come from the fact I myself have been a refugee once.”

Zaman left his home in Kirkuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan, with his family when he was 10 years old, fleeing to Iran and then Turkey.

For much of that time, the family was in hiding from the authorities, living in refugee camps and holed up in the basements of relatives to evade arrest.

“I find it uncomfortable to talk about it,” he says. “All I will say is it was much more harsh than my films and inhuman to put a 10-year-old child and siblings even younger than me on that journey because we were not choosing to flee. The choice was prison, death or to flee, so you choose the one that can give you an escape.”

Arriving in Norway at the age of 17 with his nine siblings, as UN refugees, was a “turning point”.

“It was the country that opened the door and gave me the possibility to reflect on all these things,” he says. Zaman’s father had died just before they arrived and, to support his family, Zaman began working as a mechanic.

It was only through amateur film clubs that he began to follow his passion for cinema and although his mother Golsar Mohammed was resistant, he joined the Norwegian Film School in Lillehammer in 2001.

At the premiere of Bawke, his first film after graduating in 2004, his mother cried. "She understood I could not go back to mechanical work and was serious about this," says Zaman. "Even today she says it is my best film."

Even more poignantly, the actors in the short were not professionals but refugees recruited from Kurdish cafes and community centres in Norway. The actor who played the father has since returned after seven years as an illegal nomad in Oslo.

Every year, Zaman would return as a filmmaker to Kurdistan and visit refugee camps in Oslo to gather new stories.

“You use some of these clichés but you humanise it so it is not just numbers of refugees – they become human.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Bader Ben Hirsi, 46, a well-spoken former investment banker with the most British of upbringings, raised in a Hampstead mansion in north London.

Yet he is as much of a part of the diaspora as Zaman, his roots firmly planted in Yemen, where his father, Yahyia Al Hirsi was related to the last king of Yemen, Muhammad Al Badr, ousted in the 1962 revolution.

Ben Hirsi, whose sister Ammetellah was married to the king, was born in London, where the family lived in exile.

“Outside the house we were normal Londoners, but when it came to going through the door and within those four walls of our house, it was back to being an Arab family,” says Ben Hirsi.

He went down a traditional route by working in finance to please his father but retrained as a filmmaker at Goldsmiths College.

In 1995, he visited Yemen for the first time, won over by a place which felt alien and yet familiar all at the same time. It sowed the seeds for his first film, A New Day in Old Sana'a, produced a decade later and making history as the first Yemeni feature film with a largely local cast.

“I could have quite easily carried on making films in the UK and been a minority filmmaker,” he says. “I realised I had a role to play in bringing the Middle East out to the West, as opposed to bringing the West to the Middle East.”

The shoot was beset with problems. The Yemeni ministry of culture, which had initially been supportive, imposed its stamp, insisting on approving every page of the script and even trying to change the ending.

The crew was accompanied by 30 soldiers and ministry officials at all times and rumours were rife in the local community that Ben Hirsi was trying to make porno­graphy and the set was stormed by a political group on the first day of filming.

Under pressure, Ben Hirsi retained just 60 per cent of his original script. “I had to change a lot as we were going but the important things I kept in,” he says. “I did feel enormous pressure because this was going to be Yemen’s first feature film.

“The story was quite tame but this was post-9/11 and every feature film that was coming out from the Arab world and diaspora was to do with terrorism – so I chose social issues and magical ­realism.”

At its heart, A New Day is a story of forbidden love between two people of different social classes. While it is perhaps less sophisticated than other films in the diaspora programme, what comes across is a love of the landscape and the people of Yemen, shown through the eyes of his Italian protagonist. Gossiping women form a Greek chorus, expressing society's disapproval as well as giving light relief with their humour, while there is an affection for the light-filled ancient city.

That collision of worlds is even more starkly contrasted in Ben Hirsi's riveting 2000 documentary The English Sheik and the Yemeni Gentleman – not showing during ADFF but easily available online – in which the filmmaker, awkwardly dressed in a pale suit, travels through his parents' homeland with the Arabist author Tim Mackintosh-Smith.

As a kandura-clad Mackintosh-Smith tears into a sheep’s head with enthusiasm and chats with ease in Arabic to Yemenis, a clearly uncomfortable Ben Hirsi admits: “I begin to wonder who the stranger is.”

Lily Mabura and Ronak Husni, from the American University of Sharjah, have been studying Ben Hirsi’s work as part of a research paper on Yemeni cinema, which has yet to be published.

Mabura says: "A New Day in Old Sana'a, within the larger context of Hirsi's oeuvre, highlights the city and Yemen as a cultural contact zone with Africa, India and the West, within a discourse that moves beyond the war on terror – an issue that has dogged Yemen in contemporary global media – to provide a more complete picture of the country and its people."

The film has yet to be screened in Yemen, which has fewer than five cinemas, but Ben Hirsi hopes one day to open a film school in the troubled country and insisted on training people on the ground during filming.

He says: “For many people, Yemen is the other. I had to open this film to a bigger market and audience … as a conduit so it could be something foreigners could relate to.”

For Salem, 41, born in Algiers to a French Christian mother and an Algerian father, the two cultures he grew up with inspired him to be a filmmaker.

“I think I am a filmmaker because of these two cultures,” he says. “I carry both in me but I am increasingly asked to choose one by each side and that makes me ­angry. My work is to give elements of understanding and respect to each.”

• This Wednesday’s arts&life section will be a special edition devoted to ADFF.

Tahira Yaqoob is a regular contributor to The National.