In its 10th edition, the biennial Ayam Beirut Al Cinema’iya took place from March 29 to April 6, 2019. The film festival has showcased, fostered, and defended Arab films made and conceived independently, however vague a definition that might be, for the past twenty years. Middle Eastern cinema has historically struggled on two fronts: the domestic one, in the fight against censorship; and the far more insidious international one. In the artistic flight from poor or inexistent funding and distribution circuits that favor commercial cinema (from either Egypt or the US), Arab filmmakers in many cases have had to rely on Western producers, festivals, and co-production platforms to get their projects going. Arthouse philanthropy doesn’t come cheap and the price film directors from the region often have to pay is, curiously enough, one affecting their creative autonomy. For while “freedom of expression” is supposedly what international support is meant to afford them, the reality is far less romantic than these beautiful, empty words suggest.
Diana El Jeoiroudi, the director of the (now defunct) Syrian documentary festival Dox Box, raised a particularly interesting point in this regard in a recent interview where she claims that “it's a fact that countries with [a] poorer film economy and film distribution look towards the countries with [a] richer film economy and distribution opportunities, and this has its effects on the whole production of films.” In the same interview, she goes on to admit that “some content producers and filmmakers have been able to navigate this complexity and bring out their stories with organic unique artistic voices […] but [there have also been some] unfortunate experiences where directors and storytellers, as well as their producers, were unable to shape their films as natively and organically. The thrill or temptation of having success was far more relevant to them than their own voices.”
There is no going around the fact that most festival programmers, producers, and distributors, upon which the international exposure of Arab films depend, have little more than a touristic understanding of the region’s dynamics, artistic and otherwise. As a matter of course, the films that get greenlit, selected, and financed at prestigious international festivals/markets inevitably reflect the expectations, assumptions, and cultural myopia of the people behind these decisions.
It is precisely in this problematic respect that an initiative like the Beirut Cinema Platform, a sidebar dedicated to co-production now in its 4th edition, is no mere “industry event.” Born to enhance the local film industry and to facilitate co-productions, BCP this year has brought together a total of 29 film projects in development and post-production from around the Arab world. The organizers noted in the accompanying booklet that this edition also registered a “growth in diversity” and films “ranging from epic romances to gore genre, from marginal communities to sexuality.” It goes on to note that “this year’s topics push the boundaries [with] which we have come to associate Arab cinema.” If more nuances, both narrative and aesthetic, are to emerge from regional productions, the self-determining role of such platforms is going to be crucial. This is not to say that identitarian culturalism and artistic nationalism are a desirable alternative to the dominant model of film production, distribution, and exhibition. But for transcultural synergies to be meaningfully such, it is imperative to question the economic subordination Arab cinema, as a matter of political course, finds itself in. In doing so, the paternalistic benevolence and superiority complexes afflicting the European film industry will be put into perspective. Who knows, maybe one day, audiences will stop associating Arab cinema exclusively with wars, veiled women, and social realism thus making room for the heterogeneity, warts and all, lurking behind cinematic stereotypes and preconceptions. That it is women who are willing and capable to transcend the limitations of “Arab cinema” as (stereo)typically intended might not be entirely coincidental.
If the works by the younger generation screened during Ayam Beirut Al Cinema’iya are anything to go by, there clearly is a will to evade the representational limits of realism and surpass the tropes commonly held by Arab cinema. Muriele Honein’s Flouty Express (Lebanon, 2019); Maha Al-Saati’s Hair: The Story of Grass (Saudi Arabia/Canada, 2018); and Mariam Mekiwi’s Before I Forget (Egypt/Germany, 2018), despite their genuine imperfections, are all characterized by a formal audacity stemming from a tangible, expressive urge.
In Flouty Express, the director toys with the iconography of noir without ever descending into pastiche, sustained by a very quick wit and a knack for inventive compositions. A couple drives a car on a deserted mountain road; in the backseat is a dead guy who the girl is planning to marry so that she can get the inheritance. The whole film is recounted in voiceover by the dead guy.
In Hair: The Story of Grass, Maha Al-Saati stages a flamboyant charade on the gender politics of facial and body hair. She playfully turns the narrative devices of fairytales upside-down, slipping into her short film some thoughtful considerations about the farcical tragedy of traditional roles.
Possibly the most proficient of the three, Before I Forget, is an elegiac piece of seafaring science-fiction. Plot-wise not much is given, let alone made clear. The film’s synopsis doesn’t add much either: “El Captain disappears, one of his disciples takes a journey in the ocean to cut off the internet cable, the water level is rising, an amphibian woman appears at the shore looking for her mother, and the memories of two women in a ward intertwine. Scientist Dr. Sharaf is trying to congregate all of them – the members of the secret society of amphibians – in an attempt to save the world.” Though not driven by a self-explanatory narrative, Mekiwi’s amphibious film is traversed by a hypnotic feel sublimated by terse photography, a supernatural understanding of locations, and a sentient use of the actors’ and actresses’ bodies. With no special effects, the director is able to transfigure the maritime set and conjure a space of metaphysical abstraction where not only disbelief is suspended, but also any need to make sense of the story.
Rosa Luxemburg, the evanescent subject and muse of Ghassan Salhab’s last film, consigns herself to political eternity by defying the mores of her own time and lucidly anticipates the reactionary insufficiency of social democracy (which literally killed her). As the title suggests, An Open Rose (Lebanon, 2019), is not concerned with any conclusive or explicative account of the Polish Marxist’s life. If anything, the film is haunted by the specter of Luxemburg’s heterodox communism, its lasting legacy, and, let’s face it, forgotten lessons. Like a dowser, the director roams the streets, waterways, and open wounds of the German capital to register the echoes of Rosa’s thoughts. Never directly addressed, her thoughts are evoked through archival footage of WWI, whose multilateral imperialist nature Luxemburg had presciently understood to be a recipe for disaster; Nico’s sepulchral interpretation of Nazi Germany’s national anthem; and, most vitally, through a polyphony of languages. Her farsighted criticism of Leninism and its centralizing tendencies remains as cogent as when it was first articulated in 1918, and it is reflected in Salhab’s film by the poetry of Alexander Blok. Unlike traditional biopics which usually mummify their subjects in hagiographies of nostalgia, An Open Rose reanimates the corpse of Rosa Luxemburg to liberate her spirit and unearth its contemporary relevance (The Invisible Committee appears in the film’s final credits).
Another intrepid woman is at the literal center of Mohamed Siam’s Amal (EG/LB/DE/FR/NO/DK, 2017), and it’s solely on her fiery charisma that the whole documentary relies. The titular character, whom the director followed and filmed over a period of six years, is a plucky teenager facing the disappointments of post-revolutionary Egypt with her head held high. Amal struggles to find her own place in a society she is not willing to passively accept, fearlessly hitting back at whoever tries to put her in “her place.” But if for a hypothetical moment we shut out her rapturing presence in front of the camera, we can’t help but wonder about the artistic substance of those behind it. Yes, the film is competently packaged and even furnished with a palatable message about the necessity to never give up in the face of reaction, but it leaves no room for the spectator to move. Unlike Amal who constantly questions the established order around her, the spectator can do little aside from partaking in the infatuation that Siam’s documentary unilaterally conveys.
Far more interesting, though less accomplished in terms of narrative consistency, is Maroun Omara’s and Johanna Domke’s Dream Away (Egypt/Germany, 2018), a Ballardian ethnography of a Sharm El Sheikh deserted by tourists. With a cast of non-professional actors, the actual employees of a luxury resort, the film is at once anchored to their surreal, daily routine and metaphysically detached from the actual set. With no holiday-makers in sight, the staff performs their professional duties like a religious ritual without believers: morning fitness in front of an empty swimming pool, waiting table where none sits, dj-ing for an empty dance floor, tidying rooms where none have slept and waiting for passengers that will never show up. In this non-place of orientalist absurdism, the existences of these real-life characters are exposed in all their fragile humanity but also invested by an eerie symbolism. Their inner thoughts, chimerical hopes and dreams are confided to a giant bear that roams the spectral streets of Sharm El Sheikh on the back of a car, a sort of Big Brother confessional on wheels. No univocal meaning is forced onto the film and at times its dramatic resolve feels out of focus, but the idea behind it is strong enough to carry it through, however imperfectly.
Possibly the festival’s freshest and most idiosyncratic revelation, at least as far as writing is concerned, was Hajooj Kuka’s aKasha (Sudan/South Africa/Qatar, 2018). A military comedy, the film follows Adnan, a Sudanese revolutionary whose heart is torn between Lina and his AK47. When one day he is late to return to his military unit, the army commander launches a kasha: the rounding up of deserters. Adnan’s picaresque fugue kicks off a delirious narrative that Kuka stages and directs with visionary inspiration, experimenting with form without stooping to gratuitous formalism. The film is in fact traversed by a mischievous refusal to comply with any aesthetic requirements or cinematic expectation, delivering an unpredictable experience that is very much its own thing. One cannot but hope that this eccentric, singular film will rouse further interest in the cinema of Sudan which at this year’s Berlinale has received some long overdue attention with the restoration and screening of Ibrahim Shaddad’s Al Habil (eight films by the Sudanese Film Group, which he co-founded in 1989, have also been restored). For it is often at the marginal (and marginalized) corners of the (Arab) world that creative insubordination manifests itself in the most surprising forms.
It is telling that a good part of the films screened during Ayam Beirut Al Cinema’iya had received their world premiere at other, more “prestigious” international film festivals. But to have these same films programmed, contextualized, and shown along with new titles closer to their home is an important occurrence. For however superfluous and privileged the idea of a film festival may externally appear, its significance is to be measured not by the individual success of any given film but by its ability to contribute to a larger discourse. If merit is to be ascribed to Ayam Beirut Al Cinema’iya, it is to keep trying, through cinema, to elaborate and disclose the layered complexity of a region whose representation is often reduced to simplifications or stereotypes, either projected or self-inflicted.
Giovanni Vimercati is a freelance critic whose work (often under the pseudonym Celluloid Liberation Front) has appeared on Cinema Scope, The Guardian, Mubi, LA Review of Books, Film Comment, Variety, New Statesman, Filmmaker Magazine, Sight & Sound, Huffington Post, Reverse Shot, The Independent, Cineaste, The Brooklyn Rail and other international outlets.