Arab Cinema



BEGINNINGS AND LANDMARKS

Domestic film production activity in several Arab countries other than Egypt remained limited and sporadic until they gained their independence in the period between the early 1940s and the early 1960s. During the colonial period, film production was mostly attributable to the initiative of ambitious young artists and entrepreneurs who were enthused about cinema and the possibility of making quick profits. In 1928 Al Mutaham al bari ( The Innocent Victim ) became the first Syrian feature-length fiction film. Based on real events, it tells the story of a band of thieves who spread havoc across Damascus. Its producers also created a film production company, Hermon Film. Despite the film's commercial success, the budding Syrian film industry nearly died out owing to the arrival of sound and the ability of Egyptian film to streamline and diversify its mass production. In Lebanon cinema did not come into existence until the early 1960s, although, as in Syria, attempts at filmmaking had begun in the late 1920s. The first Lebanese film, Mughammarat Elias Mabruk ( The Adventures of Elias Mabruk , 1930), is a silent amateur comedy about a Lebanese immigrant who returns home from America.

Similarly, in the Arab Maghreb—Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria—national cinema only emerged in the aftermath of these countries' independence. The French in 1946 created major studios in Tunisia (Studios Africa) and Morocco (Studios Souissi), but they did so as part of a strategy to ensure the creation of an Arabic-language cinema alternative (with colonialist French propaganda) that could counter the popularity of Egyptian cinema. Films emerging from these studios were all foreign-directed, -produced, and -written.

The postcolonial period in the Arab world witnessed unprecedented interest in creating authentic national cinema. Throughout the 1940s and into the mid-1970s, however, Egyptian cinema maintained its position as the major attraction for Arab audiences across the region. But the rise of left-leaning, pan-Arab nationalist regimes in several countries ultimately encouraged the public sector to play a major role in filmmaking. In Egypt this shift weakened the private film industry, but in other respects it also improved the quality of production and helped diversify and widen the thematic and stylistic interests of Egyptian cinema. In Syria and Algeria public-sector film production benefited from new regulations allowing the use of a proportion of the income generated from the distribution of foreign films. Government support also helped expand filmmaking activity and inadvertently launched the careers of numerous Arab filmmakers.

In 1959 the new left-leaning nationalist government in Iraq created the Cinema and Theatre General Organization. The organization soon undertook the production of several documentaries and a few fiction shorts and features. In the late 1970s a cinema department was created at the University of Fine Arts that was later provided with state-of-the-art equipment. With the launching of the Iraq-Iran War in the early 1980s, however, Iraqi cinema drew to a virtual halt. Aside from a few propaganda films (such as the 1981 film Al-Qadisiya , a historical epic made on commission by the veteran Egyptian filmmaker Salah Abouseif), filmmaking became almost entirely restricted to reflecting the opinions of political authority. In Syria, on the other hand, the creation of the General Institution of Cinema in 1963 signaled the beginning of a new filmmaking culture.

By the 1970s Syria was producing a number of high-quality documentary and fiction films. At the time, films like Knife (Khaled Hammada, 1971), al-Makhdu'un ( The Dupes , Tewfik Saleh, 1972), and Kafr Kasem (Borhan Alaouie, 1974) made Damascus the focal point of an "alternative" Arab filmmaking movement. These films influenced film practice in other Arab countries and rejuvenated interest in themes of social, cultural, and anticolonial resistance. In the 1980s, however, Syrian cinema became more associated with a limited group of auteurs such as Samir Zikra (b. 1945) ( Hadisat an-nusf meter [The Half-meter incident], 1981), Mohamed Malas ( Ahlam el Madina [Dreams of the City], 1985), and Usama Muhammad (b. 1954) ( Stars in Broad Daylight , 1988).

Palestinian cinema, on the other hand, emerged in the late 1960s in the refugee camps of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria and in conjunction with the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Film activity began with the creation of the Photography and Cinema Section of the PLO, which produced and gathered footage on current political events. With the later creation of the Palestinian Cinema Institution, young filmmakers/activists such as Samir Nimr, Mustafa Abu Ali, and Qasem Hawal and the cinematographer Hany Jawahrieh began to make feature documentaries depicting the situation in southern Lebanon, battles with the Israeli army, and Israeli raids on PLO bases. Among the first films to attract international attention was Hawal's Limatha Nazraa Al-Ward? … Limatha Nahmil Al-Banadiq? … ( Why Do We Plant Roses? … Why Do We Carry Guns? … , 1974), a poetic documentary on Palestinian participation in the Tenth International Youth Festival in Berlin (held in the former German Democratic Republic) in 1973.

After Algeria won independence in 1962, its films mainly focused on themes relating to the war of liberation. Several such films became landmarks in the history of what came to be known as Third Cinema. Also in 1962 a private production company helped finance several big-budget European films, among which was the classic La Battaglia di Algeri ( The Battle of Algiers , 1965) by Gillo Pontecorvo (b. 1919). After Algeria nationalized its film industry in 1964, the National Centre of Cinema was created. The Centre produced several high-profile films like Rih al awras ( Winds of the Aures , 1966) by Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina (b. 1934); L'Opium et le baton (The opium and the stick, 1970) by Ahmed Rachedi (b. 1938); and The South Wind ( Rih al-Djanub , 1975) by Mohamed Slim Riad (b. 1932), along with numerous documentary and feature shorts. By the mid-1970s an average of five feature films per year were being produced, including Hamina's big-budget epic, Chronique des années de braise ( Chronicle of the Years of Fire ), which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1975. The film focused on a family in an Algerian village and its fight against poverty, a mad village prophet, feudal collaborators with French colonialism, and religious fanatics. By the early 1980s an increasing number of filmmakers began to focus on issues of land reform, industrialization, and the situation of North African immigrant workers in Europe. The work of Al-Amin Mirbal, Mohammed Bou-Ammari (b. 1941), and Mirzak Allouashe (b. 1944) reflected these emerging preoccupations.

Even countries unaffected by the new active involvement of the public sector experienced the rejuvenation of cinema. In Lebanon, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s (the beginning of the Lebanese civil war), an influx of Egyptian filmmakers and film personnel fleeing the constrictions placed on their work by the nationalization of various branches of the film industry helped create a hub for film production investment and activity. However, as early as 1952 (even before the nationalization of Egyptian cinema), two studios, Al-Arz and Haroun, were already in place. Another production company, Georges Nasser's Films, made important and widely screened films such as Ila ayn ( Whither? , 1958) and Al Gharib al saghir ( The Small Stranger , 1960). By the mid-1960s large sums of capital had been invested in the film industry in Lebanon, and new studios with high-quality equipment such as Ba'albeck, Near East Sound, and Modern were created. Following Egypt's lead, Lebanon created a university-level film training institute at St. Joseph University in Beirut.

Ironically, the most important period in the history of Lebanese cinema was born out of the destruction of civil war. Widely acclaimed films were made in the 1970s and 1980s in Lebanon and in exile by experimental feature documentarists such as Borhan Alaouié ( Kafr Kasem , 1974, and Beyroutou el lika [ Beirut—The Encounter ], 1981), Heini Srour ( Saat el Fahrir Dakkat, Barra ya Isti Mar [ The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived ], 1974), Jocelyn Saab ( Egypt City of the Dead , 1978), Maroun Bagdadi ( Beyrouth ya Beyrouth [ Beirut Oh Beirut ], 1975, and Les Petites guerres [ Little Wars ], 1982), and Jean Chamoun and Mai Masri ( Tel al-Zaatar , 1979; Under the Rubble , 1983; Wild Flowers: Women of South Lebanon , 1986; The War Generation , 1988; and Children of Fire , 1990). All these films captured the anxiety of a war-torn country and people, and the suspended dreams associated with the Palestinian dilemma.

Postindependence film production in Tunisia and Morocco took longer to emerge than it did in other Arab countries. However, despite its reliance on sporadic individual initiatives, filmmaking in the 1970s and 1980s signified the birth of an authentic movement that fostered the emergence in the 1990s of a new Arab national cinema. In Tunisia the completion of the publicly supported Gammarth studios in 1968 facilitated early training of several young cinephiles. But it was not until the 1980s that Tunisian filmmakers began to make their

ELIA SULEIMAN
b. Nazareth, Israel, 1960

With only six films to his credit to date, the Palestinian director, writer, producer, and actor Elia Suleiman already has won the attention of film critics around the world. Suleiman left his hometown of Nazareth in Israel to live and study film in New York City where he spent nearly twelve years in a self-imposed exile. Two of his feature films, Chronicle of a Disappearance (1997) and Yadon ilaheyya ( Divine Intervention , 2002), garnered eight major awards in international film festivals (Chicago, Bodil, Cannes, Cinemanila, European, Rotterdam, Seattle, and Venice). In 2002 the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not allow Divine Intervention to be entered for competition in the Best Foreign Language Film category, igniting major controversy (although one Academy official claimed that Suleiman did not actually submit the film). Many saw the decision as a political rejection of Palestine; however, the film was allowed to compete in 2003.

Suleiman focuses on the Palestinian dilemma, but his approach mixes humor, ambiguous imagery, and heavyhanded sloganeering. His stories are fragmented rather than constructed as seamless and straightforward narratives. Suleiman often plays himself, a filmmaker pursuing motivation and deliverance through his relationship with a politically active Arab female protagonist. With a style reminiscent of the French director Jacques Tati, Suleiman's witty, absurd and highly unsettling portraits of the lives of the Palestinian middle class offer a scathing political critique of its class's complicity in the political stagnation that afflicts the Palestinian predicament.

With Chronicle of a Disappearance Suleiman offered a unique vision of the theme of living under occupation. The film invokes Waiting for Godot as it presents the story of people waiting, and waiting, for something that never happens. Divine Intervention tells the story of a young Palestinian filmmaker. The film is built around numerous segments depicting the life of the filmmaker as he discerns moments of inaction and waiting among some middle class Palestinians. The only action in the film occurs in the imagination of the filmmaker: he eats an apple and throws away the remains only to have it turn into a bomb that destroys an Israeli tank; a balloon with the image of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat surmounts Israeli barriers and unites with the dome of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem. In one of the most memorable and fitting comments on the Palestinian people's state of affairs, the final shot is that of the filmmaker and his mother watching a pressure cooker. "It should be enough now—turn the heat off," the mother tells her son as the shot intolerably lingers on the pot about to boil over.

Suleiman's utilization of static long shots and slow editing rhythm might not be a preferred choice for some viewers. This, as an example, has effected how his films were received among some Palestinian critics, some of whom saw his style as somewhat elitist. Yet, his film aesthetics indeed represent an original and somewhat unique attempt to cinematically translate both personal and collective experiences of people living in the shadow of occupation.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING

Introduction to the End of an Argument (1990), Harb El Khalij … wa baad ( The Gulf War … What Next? , segment: Homage by Assassination , 1993), Chronicle of a Disappearance (1997), War and Peace in Vesoul (1997), Cyber Palestine (1999), Divine Intervention (2002)

FURTHER READING

Alexander, Livia. "Is There a Palestinian Cinema? The National and Transnational in Palestinian Film Production." In Palestine, Israel, and the Politics of Popular Culture , edited by Rebecca L. Stein and Ted Swedenburg. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2005.

Asfour, Nana. "The Politics of Arab Cinema: Middle Eastern Filmmakers Face up to Their Reality." Cineaste 26, no. 1 (2000): 46–48.

Bresheeth, Haim. "Telling the Stories of Heim and Heimat: Home and Exile in Recent Palestinian Films and Iconic Parable of the Invisible Palestine." New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 1 (2002): 24–39.

Porton, Richard. "Notes from the Palestinian Diaspora: An Interview with Elia Suleiman." Cineaste 28, no. 3 (Summer 2003): 24–27.

Malek Khouri

Elia Suleiman.

mark on Arab cinema. Aziza (Abdellatif Ben Ammar, 1980), along with Dhil al Ardh ( The Shadow of the Earth , Taieb Louhichi, 1982), Les Baliseurs du désert (The wanderers, Nacer Khemir, 1986), and Rih essed ( Man of Ashes , Nouri Bouzid, 1986), were enthusiastically received by film critics in both Europe and the Arab world. The films addressed various aspects of the decline of agrarian social and economic structures in the face of foreign capital invasions.

In Morocco, Wechna ( Traces , Hamid Benani, 1972), Les Milles et Une Main ( A Thousand and One Hands , Souheil Ben-Barka, 1972), and La Guerre de pétrole n'aura pas lieu (The oil war did not happen, 1975), along with Winds of the East ( el-Cherqui , Moumen Smihi, 1975) and Trances (Ahmed El Maanouni, 1981) all reflected the emergence of a stylistically and thematically rich cinematic movement. These films sensitively evoked social, political, and cultural predicaments and landscapes. The government-created agency Fonds de Soutien a l'Expansion de l'Industrie Cinématographique expanded its role in the 1980s, allowing Moroccan feature film production to grow at unprecedented rates: thirty-three films were produced in just six years, from 1980 to 1986.



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