Arab Cinema


Since the late 1980s the anxieties associated with, on the one hand, the stagnation of the pan-Arab project of national self-determination, and on the other, the wave of religious fundamentalism, have been reflected in Arab cinema. Cinema in the region is increasingly reaching toward a national identity struggling to affirm its heterogeneity and to find a new role in the fight for social and national liberation.

In Egypt, the film production center of the Arab world, the wave of Islamic fundamentalism directly affected intellectual and cultural life, resulting in a flood of films dealing with the issue. Algerian and Tunisian filmmakers have also explicitly tackled fundamentalism, depicting its practices and its impact on youth and youth culture. In Merzak Allouache's Bab El-Oued City (1994), the protagonist, Boualem, works the night shift in a bakery. He steals the loudspeaker installed on the roof by a group of religious fanatics who use it to increase their influence in the district. Yamina Bachir's (b. 1954) Rachida (2002), looks at religious terrorism against women through the eyes of a schoolteacher who refuses to abandon her profession and accept the role prescribed for her by religious fanatics.

Emerging out of the highly charged political atmosphere in the region throughout the 1990s and beyond, numerous popular films have commented on colonial and neocolonial dominance there. Usama Mohammad's stylized approximation of life in a small village in Syria during the 1967 war with Israel, Sunduq al-dunyâ ( The Box of Life , 2002) links the struggle to modernize social relations with resistance against neocolonialism. In turn, new Arab cinema tends to foreground social and cultural settings and characters that reflect a rapidly changing society struggling to reclaim its national identity against internal as well as external pressures. The Lebanese filmmaker Randa Chahal Sabag's (b. 1953) film Le cerf-volant ( The Kite , 2003) turns an across-the-barbed-wire love story between a young Arab girl and an Arab Israeli soldier (both from the same Druze religion) into a stinging critique of the oppressive reality of occupation. Earlier examples of this new trend include Asfour Stah ( Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces , Férid Boughedir, Tunisia, 1990), al-Kompars ( The Extras , Nabil Maleh, Syria, 1993), and al-Lail ( The Night , Mohamed Malas, Syria, 1993).

In a related thrust, the Palestinian dilemma remains among the more frequently visited themes in Arab cinema. Since the late 1980s, however, more emphasis has been put on approaching the issue through the eyes of its real victims: refugees, peasants, fishermen, working-class and unemployed Palestinians. Filmmakers such as Michel Khleifi ( The Tale of the Three Lost Jewels , 1994). Elia Suleiman ( Yadon ilaheyya [ Divine Intervention ], 2002), Hany Abu-Assad ( Al Qods Fee Yom Akhar [ Rana's Wedding ], 2002), and Yousri Nasrallah ( Bab el shams [ The Gate of Sun ], 2004) place an accent on exploring the politics of personal experience.

New Arab films also approach the notion of national self-determination with an eye for celebrating the heterogeneity of Arab identity and culture. The role of Arab Christians in the religiously diverse Arab society is one of the narrative threads, if not necessarily a main theme, running through several Arab films. However, since the creation of the state of Israel, allusion to Jews as part of the Arab cultural mosaic has largely remained a taboo in Arab cinema. This taboo has been frequently challenged in Arab films since the mid-1990s. Férid Boughedir's 1996 film Uńeté à La Goulette ( A Summer in La Goulette ) includes a Jewish girl as one of its three main characters. Presenting the story of three Tunisian teenage girls—a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew—the film revisits history by way of exploring the religious and cultural richness of Arab identity. During the 2003 Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentary and Short Films in Egypt (the largest festival of its kind in the Arab world), the first prize was awarded to Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs—The Iraqi Connection (Samir, 2002), which depicts the life and struggle of four Iraqi communist Jews as they face national alienation as Arabs living in Israel.

The notion of national identity and resistance is increasingly becoming integral to the discussion of gender

Manal Khader in Divine Intervention (Elia Suleiman, 2002).
and sexual politics. One early example is the classic Urs al-jalil ( Wedding in Galilee , Michel Khleifi, 1987), which draws connections between repressive gender and sexual relations within Palestinian society and the stagnating efforts to achieve national liberation for Palestinians. Samt el qusur ( The Silences of the Palace , Moufida Tlatli, 1994) redefines the parameters for the struggle of its female protagonist to affirm her personal identity: in the end, rejecting her boyfriend's wishes to abort her baby denotes her resistance to patriarchy, but also underscores her defiance of today's "postindependence" power elite and its complicity with colonial and neocolonial interests.

More Arab filmmakers are also intrepidly delving into the issue of gay and bisexual relations within Arab society. Two examples are the 1998 Moroccan film Adieu Forain by Daoud Aoulad-Syad (b. 1953), which features a homosexual transvestite dancer in the lead role, and Une minute de soleil en moins ( A Minute of Sun Less , Nabil Ayouch, 2002), in which the principal character is a police inspector whose friend is a transvestite. Other films are even clearer in their rebellion against the sexual repression of gays and bisexuals, but because of their experimental character they are less likely to reach a wide audience. The Lebanese director Akram Zaatari's documentary short, How I Love You (2002), and the Palestinian Tawfik Abu Wael's dramatic short, Diary of a Male Whore (2001), are two important cases in point.

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