A decade on, Safar film festival expands reach of Arab cinema across UK

The Arab British Centre is marking Safar's 10th anniversary with a 'bold' programme of contemporary films with the theme 'The Stories We Tell'

Award-winning filmmaker Karim Aïnouz’s documentary feature 'Mariner of the Mountains' traces his trip by boat across the Mediterranean on his first visit to Algeria, his father’s homeland. Photo: The Arab British Centre
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Safar Arab film festival is celebrating its 10th anniversary in the UK with expansion plans to satisfy its growing audience.

Founded in 2012 under the auspices of the Arab British Centre, Safar is the only festival in Britain dedicated to promoting cinema from the Arab world.

Recognising the festival’s maturity after a decade, Safar is now sharing its programmatic repertoire across the country and transitioning from a biennial to an annual event.

It will take its cinematic offerings beyond London to an additional seven cities in England, Scotland and Wales, and has launched a Futures Mentorship Scheme, with the support of the City of London, for aspiring UK-based Arab filmmakers.

The programme director of the Arab British Centre and Safar said the expansion was a “natural progression” for a festival that means “journey” in Arabic.

“We are so delighted to be bringing Arab cinema to new audiences in all four corners of Britain. As independent Arab filmmaking continues to diversify and expand, we are proud to further cement our position as the home of Arab cinema in the UK,” said Amani Hassan.

This year’s programme of contemporary films falls under the broadly-titled theme, “The Stories We Tell”, which curator Rabih El-Khoury says goes back to “the very essence of filmmaking: storytelling”.

“In The Stories We Tell, we’ll be exploring the devices used by Arab filmmakers to push cinematic boundaries, reclaim overlooked histories, and present new perspectives to audiences both at home and abroad — importantly, on our own terms,” said Berlin-based El-Khoury, who returns as Safar’s curator for the second year running.

With an array of some of the best new feature films — including documentaries and shorts — from the Arab world, organisers say this year’s festival showcases a wide variety of “experimentations in form” that blend the “traditional with the radical”.

While some films “bring colonial traumas to the global stage”, others embark on an inspection of contemporary social issues through “surreal and fantastical lenses.”

Of the 22 films from 13 countries being shown, the Egyptian film Feathers — one of five films to have its UK premiere at Safar — is one such radical and surreal experimentation that has garnered both criticism and acclaim.

Omar El Zohairy’s fantastical tale of a father living in the countryside who turns into a chicken when a magic trick goes wrong was Egypt’s first film to feature in International Critics' Week at Cannes Film Festival, and it went on to be awarded the Grand Prize. It also, however, generated opprobrium for what some deemed its “negative” depiction of the large Arab nation, with several high-profile actors and even some politicians criticising the film and its director.

Safar opens with the UK premiere of Farha, the feature debut by Darine J. Sallam, based on a true story of the eponymous 14-year-old girl in Palestine in 1948, who is concealed by her father to protect her from pending danger.

Sallam is one of the filmmakers who will be taking part in a series of live talks, workshops and panel discussions at the festival.

Five stories by five directors examine modern womanhood in Saudi Arabia’s Becoming, a film that looks at the kingdom’s changing society through various female protagonists.

Marking the 20th anniversary of its release, Waiting for Happiness by Abdelrahmane Sissako is one of Safar’s “Arab classics” on offer to audiences. The 2002 French film looks at how a teenager visiting his mother in a Mauritanian village finds himself a stranger in his own country because he doesn’t speak the local language.

For a deeper dive into the region’s cinematic past, the debut film from renowned filmmaker Michel Khleifi will be shown at the festival. Released in 1980, Fertile Memory is the first full-length Palestinian feature to be shot within the occupied West Bank and addresses the roles of women, family and politics following the Six-Day War of 1967.

Safar screening partners in London are the ICA, Cine Lumiere at the Institut Francais, and Barbican Cinema.

Cities joining Safar nationwide are Manchester, Glasgow, Cardiff, Liverpool, Hull and Plymouth.

Safar Film Festival runs from July 1 to July 17.

Updated: June 28, 2022, 11:00 AM