DIFF Daily 2011

Arabs Spring Forward

Dec 07,2011 - 11:40 PM

By Esraa Aboushahin, Komal R. Lakhani, Mohamad Ali Al Ali and Rabiya Sonde

As the 8th Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) gets underway tonight, audiences will have the opportunity to watch some of the latest, most engaging films from the Arab world. In addition to the 25 features, documentaries and shorts competing in the Muhr Arab Awards, the festival’s programme also includes the Arabian Nights section with 20 films. 37 of the Arab films are World Premieres.

Film production in the region has never been more prolific, and the emergence of events such as DIFF, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and the Doha Tribeca Film Festival help champion the diverse genres of Arab filmmaking.

Only eight years ago, during DIFF’s inaugural edition, there were 38 Arab films in the festival programme. This year, the festival will screen 78. The number has doubled in less than a decade, and it’s expected to keep on growing. So how have filmmakers from around the Gulf and across the wider Middle Eastern and North African territories brought their domestic cinematic industries into the 21st century?

‘At one time, in international eyes, and somewhat throughout the region, Arab cinema meant Egyptian cinema,’ says Antonia Carver, programmer of the Arabian Nights section at DIFF. ‘Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to talk of one Arab cinema - such is the spread and diversity of cinema being produced across the Arab world and in the diaspora too. Arab cinema is in every language, dialect and accent of the Arab world, and beyond – in Arabic-flecked French and English.’

Young filmmakers today are turning to film production as an outlet to express their voices. A film can portray the everyday life of a community, and that’s the style that regional cinema has favoured lately. The continuing conflict in the Arab world has directed a lot of international attention towards its film industry; people are curious about the goings-on in the region, and seek answers in films. The Arab world has been entangled in conflict for the better part of this century; conflicts don’t only make headline news, they make for powerful cinema.

Many films emerging from the Arab world are based around wars; the struggles and scars of conflict have inspired many filmmakers, and Wissam Charaf, from Lebanon, is one of them. ‘A country affected by war is interesting to film,’ he says. ‘War is all we know. It is our most intimate friend. We cannot go on forever talking about cute fairy tales and cute love stories. There are issues that are important, painful and existential, they have to be considered and treated by films as priority.’

While conflict makes up the central theme of many an Arab movie, Carver maintains it is not a defining feature. ‘I think Arab cinema is beginning to take in many different genres – from populist comedy to experimental documentary and everything in between,’ she says. ‘Sometimes festivals are the only outlets for the more alternative forms of cinema – and part of our role is to showcase these films and allow the filmmaker the chance to debate the film with the public. In that way, I think festivals like DIFF can also play a vital role in encouraging debate, encouraging individuals to analyse and understand their place in a community or society.’

The Arab film industry may now be blossoming, but for a long time, it lagged behind the rest of the world, mainly due to a lack of funding. The region traditionally shied away from investing in filmmaking - however, that attitude began to shift, not so long ago. In the UAE, institutions such as ImageNation in Abu Dhabi were set up, and have taken on young talents and promoted their films. ‘If we want to spread our films throughout the world, we have to find a way to nurture our talents, and at the same time, monetise our films,’ says Ahd Kamel – a Saudi filmmaker who produced the film ‘Smile You Are in Jeddah’.

Help has also come through in Lebanon, where Charaf says financing structures are also emerging. ‘Organisations like the Screen Institute Beirut are finding practical solutions to make films happen,’ says Charaf. ‘It's a generation of filmmakers that has learned that it will not get any help from anyone and who is learning to stop nagging, find a camera and shoot.’

Many young Arab filmmakers are harnessing the power of social media, and distributing their short films on YouTube and social networks. Dr Meedo Taha -  a Lebanese filmmaker and instructor of digital production at the Mohammed Bin Rashid School for Communication at the American University of Dubai says, ‘A small HD camera can make a whole movie, and students can see the light by uploading their films on the internet. That is considered as a way of film distribution.’

The Arab world is seeing the emergence of a generation of talented filmmakers who are keen to make a point that they cannot be stereotyped. ‘2011 was a year of seismic shifts in the Arab world, and there are incredible stories to tell, now more than ever,’ says Carver. ‘Let’s hope filmmakers use the resources they are given – again, more now than ever before – to make films that are compelling, original, and that celebrate the Arabic language and Arab acting talent. Every sign is there that they will.’

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