Since its early beginnings in the late 1920s and until the late 1940s, the influential Arab Egyptian cinema evolved and reinvented itself largely by incorporating Hollywood's well-tested formulas. By the mid-1950s Egyptian cinema was loosely amalgamating various realist cinematic trends, including French poetic realism, Italian neorealism, and socialist realism. It also began to incorporate modernist German expressionist tendencies as well as early Soviet dialectical montage. These impulses, however, were assimilated by Egyptian and other Arab filmmakers as complementary rather than antithetical to existing local film practices. By the early 1990s Arab films were frequently using self-reflexive stylistic strategies.
In the Palestinian film Divine Intervention (2002), directed by Elia Suleiman, the story of a young Palestinian filmmaker (played by Suleiman himself) is punctuated by shots of the filmmaker placing the film's cue cards on the wall of his apartment. Kanya Ya Ma Kan, Beyrouth ( Once Upon a Time in Beirut , 1995), by Jocelyn Saab (b. 1948), concerns the search by two young women for their own city. It presents a barrage of archival footage, film clips, and images of old downtown movie theaters, as the two women attempt a sort of excavation of the Lebanese capital before the civil war. Their search ends in the discovery of Western and Arabic film clips—including ones made by the Lumière Brothers—from the 1920s up to the early 1970s. And in West Beyrouth (Ziad Doueiri, 1998), a young boy's infatuation with his Super-8 camera results in his becoming a witness to the destruction of his war-torn city.
Developments in communications technologies, including the mushrooming of Arab satellite film and television networks, were a major element in the expansion of Arab cinema at the end of the twentieth century. Film festivals in the region are also growing. Among the most influential annual events that screen films from the Arab world and elsewhere are the Cairo, Beirut, Marrakesh, Damascus, and Carthage Film Festivals as well as the Dubai Film Festival, created in 2004. The burgeoning annual Ismailiah International Documentary Film Festival in Egypt has also become a major outlet for screening and discussing the latest trends in Arab documentary and experimental filmmaking. All these events are increasingly informing and informed by a renaissance of a pan-Arab national cultural interaction.
Important distribution centers for Arab film in the West include New Yorker Video, Winstar Home Video, and Kino International, all in New York. The largest source of Arab films remains Arab Film Distribution in Seattle. Among the major events that regularly screen Arab films are the Arab Film Festival in San Francisco (organized by Cinemayaat), the Seattle Film Festival (Arab Film Distribution), the Arab Film Festival in Montreal (organized in coordination with Cinémathèque Québécoise), the Biennial of Arab Cinemas (organized in Paris by l'Institut du Monde Arabe), and Arabscreen, a documentary and short festival in London.
On the one hand, and more than ever before in contemporary Arab history, a cultural revival is transcending divisions and borders between various Arab states, regions and peoples—a division originally prescribed and designed by colonial powers in the first decade of the twentieth century. This revival appears to be ushering in a new period in the development of Arab cinema. On the other hand, political tensions in the Middle East—including the continuing Palestinian dilemma, and the ramifications of the Gulf War (1992) and the Iraq War (2003) (both of which are widely viewed in the area as reflections of neocolonialist designs and interventions)—continue to stimulate politically and culturally conscious preoccupations in film. This complex backdrop has encouraged the emergence of new thematic trends and stylistic patterns in various areas of cultural production, including filmmaking. It has allowed for the growth of film practices that favor breaking down artificial barriers—of form, nationality, and "high" and "low" art—that so often delineate cinematic practices in the West. All this can only signal new beginnings for a cinema that bears the responsibility of expressing the struggles of its people.
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