Prospects for Euro-Arab film
The development of a Euro-Arab film market is the theme of this year's Biennale of Euro-Arab cinema in Paris, the continent's bi-annual rendez-vous for Arab film, writes David Tresilian
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Late actor Ahmed Zaki is remembered at the Institut du monde arabe's 8th biennale by screening 10 of his films including (clockwise from top-left) Mohamed Khan's Zawgat Ragul Muhim (Wife of an Important Man) and Ayyam El-Sadat (Days of Sadat), Dawoud Abdel-Sayed's Ard Al-Khawf (Land of Fear) and Zaki's latest Sherif Arafa's Halim, in which he plays legendary singer Abdel-Halim Hafez
Exhausted by the unseasonably high summer temperatures presently reigning over France and much of Europe, Parisians have been able to find refuge from the heat in the air-conditioned splendour of the Institut du monde arabe's subterranean cinema since last weekend, audience to the hundred or so films being shown over the next two weeks as part of the 8th biennale of Euro-Arab cinema in Paris.
A bi-annual event last presented in 2004, this year's biennale opened last Friday with a screening of Egyptian actor Ahmed Zaki's final film, Halim. It presents feature, documentary, and shorter films from across the Arab world, chosen for competition from work produced in 2005 and 2006.
As always, a strong Egyptian presence marks this year's biennale. In addition to screenings of recent films such as director Marawan Hamed's adaptation of The Yacoubian Building, the best- selling novel by Egyptian writer Alaa Al-Aswany, and 'An Al-'Ishq wal Hawa (Of Love and Infatuation) directed by Kamla Abu Zekri in the feature-film category, Egyptian director Tahani Rashed's El-Banat Dol (Those Girls) is being shown among the documentaries, following the film's success at this year's Cannes festival.
Egyptian filmmaker Dawoud Abdel-Sayed is on the jury for the feature-film section of the biennale, and Ali Abu Shadi, a film critic and historian and head of Cairo's National Centre for Egyptian Cinema, heads the jury in the documentary section. The organisers of this year's event have also arranged evening screenings in the open air outside the Institut for many of Egyptian actor's Ahmed Zaki's best-known films, intended to pay tribute to a career tragically cut short by his early death in 2005.
Earlier films such as Al-Hob Fawqa Hadabet Al-Haram (Love on the Pyramids Plateau), Al-Bari' (The Innocent) and Didd Al-Hukuma ( Against the Government), all made with director Atef El-Tayyeb, are there, as are specimens of Zaki's later work, such as Ard Al-Khawf (Land of Fear) directed by Dawoud Abdel-Sayed and director Mohamed Khan's Ayyam El-Sadat (Days of Sadat). The latter director's Zawgat Ragul Muhim (Wife of an Important Man) and Ahlam Hind wa Kamilia (Dreams of Hind and Camelia), both released in 1988, are also being screened. Halim, a film based on the life of singer Abdel-Halim Hafez which Zaki was making at the time of his death and directed by Sherif Arafa, crowns this retrospective series.
According to the catalogue essay by Magda Wassef, head of the biennale's selection committee, production of Arab film over the last two years has been marked by the appearance of a promising crop of new directors, with 11 of the 16 films selected for competition in the biennale's feature-film category being debut features by younger directors. Elsewhere, she writes, there has been a clear trend towards the staging of the self among the documentaries on show.
"The kind of subjective way of looking at things that mixes private life with collective history and that has been familiar in the rest of the world since the arrival of digital technology made possible a kind of 'home-made filmmaking'" has now spread in the Arab world, she writes, something signalled by the development of new regional festivals dedicated to documentary film.
However, this "subjectivity of regard" does not only surface in the documentary films on show. Autobiography forms the core material of Those Girls, of course, a documentary film in which Cairo street children talk of their experiences direct to camera, but films such as Halim also draw on biographical material, and biography and autobiography are in evidence, too, in diverse films from other places besides Egypt.
Al-Awda ila Balad Al-'Aga'ib (Return to the Land of Marvels), for example, one of the handful of Iraqi films on show in Paris this year (an Iraqi-European co-production), stages the return of Maysoon Pachachi, daughter of veteran Iraqi politician Adnan Pachachi, to her native land and sets the protected world of green-zone politics against the everyday realities of contemporary life in Iraq. Like most of the documentary and shorter films on show, this has been shot on video -- Beta SP in this case.
Similarly, Ahlam (Dreams ), another Iraqi film this time in the feature-film category and directed by Mohamed Al-Daradji (Iraq-UK), follows the lives of individuals trying to reconstruct their lives in the wake of the collapse of the Saddam regime and under the conditions of the US- led occupation.
Al-Manara (Algeria), also in the feature-film category, presents the lives of three young people caught up in the 1988 disturbances in Algeria and subsequent civil conflict, while Barakat! (Algeria-France) follows a young doctor, Amel, in the search for his wife, a journalist who disappeared during the "dirty war" that took place in the country in the 1990s.
Bosta (Lebanon) presents a group of young people travelling through Lebanon as part of a theatre company, following a long period of exile in France. Through staging these young people's return and the effects of the long years of conflict that each finds as he or she travels through the country, the film suggests the ways in which individuals cope with them.
This is Lebanese director Philippe Aractingi's first full-length film, but because of the present conflict in Lebanon he has been unable to be in Paris to present it in person at the biennale. Indeed, this conflict is everywhere in evidence at this year's event, Paris screenings all being introduced by short digital works of reportage from Lebanon showing the present destruction.
Zilal Al-Samt (The Shadows of Silence, Saudi Arabia) is an unusual film, one of the few to come out of Saudi Arabia, and it, too, is Saudi director Abdullah Al-Moheissen's first full- length feature. However, the film continues the exploration of subjective experience and the links between this and larger social trends, showing a group of scientists, intellectuals and politicians working together at a desert conference centre and discussing their hopes and fears. Taht Al-Saqf (Under this Roof, Syria) presents another closed environment, this time flats in a Damascus apartment building in which individuals are left alone to come to terms with their memories and their anxieties regarding the future.
In addition to serving as a showcase for Arab film, the Paris biennale also serves as a meeting place for Arab and European film professionals, supported this year by a European Union initiative called Euromed Audiovisual, Caravan of Euro-Arab Cinema. A one-day seminar on 28 July organised as part of the biennale is intended to explore, in the words of Magda Wassef, "the conditions necessary for the emergence of a Euro-Arab film market".
How this might work is not specified in the literature accompanying the biennale. But at the very least the seminar should cover finance, as well as, just as importantly, the promotion and distribution of Arab film in Europe and elsewhere. France has long played an important role in the production of Arab film, not only through the work of interested French producers, such as the late Humbert Balsan in his association with Youssef Chahine and others, but also in the role played by French finance in supporting film from the Maghreb and particularly from Algeria.
Nevertheless, work on the production side is insufficient if distribution and promotion are neglected. How to get Arab films onto the screens of more than the handful of independent cinemas that currently show them in Europe?
With the European Union unable to promote even European film effectively in the face of the Hollywood juggernaut, the best option is probably to continue to support valuable initiatives such as the Paris-based Euro-Arab biennale. This year, an effort has been made to extend the event to more than just the Institut du monde arabe's traditional audience, with films also being shown in selected cinemas in Paris, Marseille and Poitiers during the length of the biennale.
Alaa Al-Aswany's novel The Yacoubian Building has become a surprise best-seller in France following its publication in a French translation by Gilles Gauthier in January this year, setting a new record for European interest in modern Arabic literature. Even so, it will be interesting to see how many screens the film version is shown on in France when it goes on general release later this year, not to speak of in Europe as a whole.
8ème Biennale des cinémas arabes à Paris, at the Institut du monde arabe, Paris, and at selected cinemas in Paris, Marseille & Poitiers, until 30 July 2006.