Out of the shadows
The Amal Film Festival puts independent Arab cinema in the limelight, writes Serene Assir from Santiago de Compostela
The fifth round of the annual Amal Euro-Arab Film Festival brought 47 short, feature and documentary films to an eager and varied audience in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, fitting screenings and other activities into a frenzied 10 days. Notwithstanding the diversity, the Arab world was the event's unifying theme, and a full range of Arab filmmakers from Bahrain to Algeria, Sudan to Syria, showcased their work alongside a smaller number of Europeans seeking to address issues relating to the Arab world today, among them the Apartheid Wall in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and immigration into Spain and the rest of the European Union.
Organised yearly by the Santiago de Compostela-based Fundación Araguaney, the Amal Film Festival reflects an inherent belief in the power of art and culture. "Amal means hope in Arabic," reads the festival's manifesto. "The Amal Festival translates this hope into knowledge and cooperation through a universal language capable of crossing any cultural and language barrier: the language of film." During the festival's awards ceremony last Wednesday, Araguaney's founder and President Ghaleb Jaber Ibrahim reiterated the importance of cross-cultural dialogue through the arts. "The first thing we must do to understand is observe," he told the audience. "When we understand, it becomes possible to reach out and build bridges. Only fear builds walls." Coming from a Palestinian businessman from Nablus based for the best part of the last three decades in Spain, such a statement carries undertones of the foundation's concern with the Palestinian question and its work to spread knowledge of it in and beyond the historically rich if often forgotten Spanish province of Galicia. Indeed the effects of Araguaney's work are immediately evident in local student culture: all across the city of Santiago de Compostela scores of young people wear the traditional Palestinian kuffiye around their necks: perhaps a gesture of protest against an increasingly unjust world. In addition, the city's university hosted last week a film festival parallel to Amal, titled From the Middle East With Love, showcasing 18 predominantly Arab student films were to the public.
In this light the festival's orientation of promoting interchange based on knowledge and presence rather than patronising "ideals" -- as in so many cultural-cooperation initiatives these days, is unsurprising. Araguaney achievement is in its search for depth, and the sheer variety of screenings in the present festival precludes the possibility of reducing the process to any one string of thought. In line with the work of the foundation as a whole, it was the purpose of the organisers, headed by Jaber's son and namesake Ghaleb Jaber Martinez, to avoid a homogenous portrait of the Arab world. "As we have seen through the past few days, there are issues of great weight pressing down on the Arab world today," Jaber Martinez said. "However, past these issues, there is also laughter, normality, fights and reconciliations of lovers -- universal things."
If there was one feeling common to most of the films, however, it must be the tension that characterises the region today: tension between freedom of spirit and awareness of the threats undermining such freedom. In a sense, by delving into the lives of Arab characters, both real and fictional, the programme, with varying degrees of directness, explores the beauty and cruelty of being an Arab today -- a tension often resolved through sheer resilience. One such film, Driving to Zigzigland, addresses the difficulties confronting Palestinian actor Bashar Daas -- playing himself -- as he seeks recognition in the United States, only to be offered, continually, terrorist roles on the big screen -- which he refuses. Directed by Daas' wife Nicole Ballivian, the film portrays a day in his life as a taxi driver in Los Angeles, trying to make enough money to pay the bills, including the cost of his residence permit. Just as he is about to gather enough money, Daas's cousin is taken ill, and is asked to pay up at the hospital. He does, and thus sacrifices his chance of remaining in the US. The conundrum and its resolution are clear, and all too characteristic of dilemmas facing Arabs today. Perhaps deservedly, Driving to Zigzigland won this year's Amal Award for Best Film.
Other issues of universal significance were raised, notably by Lebanese filmmaker Jocelyne Saab's Dunia, essentially an exploration of Egyptian society's simultaneous fetishistic fascination and moralistic condemnation of female sexuality, which had generated impassioned debate on its release in 2006. Perhaps indicative of the its power, there was a blockade on the film by the powers-that-be in the Arab world's most populous country. But this did not prevent Dunia from being aired many times in the two years after its completion, though it underlined the dangerous but historically constant relationship between power and art. "Power and art are in constant interaction," Saab told Al-Ahram Weekly. "But power flirts with the artist more than the artist does with power. Sometimes, power tries to break you. Sometimes the interaction is conscious, at other times it is so quick that you, as an artist, don't even have the time to realise it. But power is not static: power is also about timing, and as an artist, if you are alert enough, you have the capacity to seize time. In that case, the moment is yours." On the other hand, the festival also acted as a forum for Arab cinema to prove itself internationally as both and original technically sound. "I am so pleased that there is an increasing proliferation of good Arab films," said Algerian filmmaker Nasser Bakhti, who won the Amal Award for Best Director for his Night Shadows. "Filmmakers are working across the Arab world now, and they are bringing into being an entirely different perspective on the world. We have heard enough from the others -- now I feel it's our turn to speak about issues that affect us." Bakhti spent six years working on his film -- evidently prudently, since this complex feature is immensely graceful in that while it tackles, on the surface, the vexed topic of immigration and inter-race relations in Switzerland, at a deeper level it tells a story of pain, emptiness, longing -- and humanity. Filled with gentle symbolism, it is structurally intact and hard-hitting as reagards the sense of loss of humanity in urban Europe, where chaos is an illusion and the reality far more painful than immediately evident.
An impressive control over the medium informed many films, with an intelligent use of imagery serving not only aesthetic integrity but articulate communication of themes. Hady Zaccak's Refugees for Life, for example -- innovatively filmed and courageously edited -- will likely leave the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon imprinted on the minds of the audience for a long time to come. This documentary film takes the viewer from the homes of three Palestinian families in Lebanon to Germany, where their relatives live, and the visual contrast -- ironic in that both Lebanon and Germany are but different kinds of prison for the subjects in question -- remains key. In Lebanon, the Palestinians interviewed see no future for themselves or their children; in Germany, in spite of better material conditions, many are overcome by fear and lead their lives practically incognito. Perhaps the film's critical failure, however, lies in the omission of any meaningful explanation for what caused the Palestinian exodus to begin with: the sheer force utilised by Zionist groups in the phase leading up to and closely following the Nakba. Such an omission is however indicative of the broadly individual drive of the films selected for participation in this year's edition of Amal.
Overall, the films sought to describe a wider issue or set of questions in a single voice, or at most a small group of characters. In fiction this is as it should be, but of all the documentaries only Carol Mansour's A Summer Not to Forget sought to portray the sweeping effects and brute force of political power in a more general and inclusive framework. Given the setting of the festival, and the general difficulty of transferring factual, not just emotional knowledge to the West today, it would have been interesting had there been more such general documentaries able to communicate the reality of living in an effectively besieged region -- one of the functions of documentary cinema today. All in all, however, the festival was an inspiration. And it plans on growing. The films screened in Santiago de Compostela are likely to be shown again in Madrid, in collaboration with the Casa Arabe, an inter-institutional foundation whose goal is to strengthen Spain's relations with the Arab world. In the coming years, further development is expected -- and should indeed be desired by filmmakers and cinema-lovers alike, as Arab cinema makes ever stronger bids to be seen.
Interview with Sherif El-Bendary, director of Sabah El-Ful (Rise and Shine)
Sherif El-Bendary's short film Sabah El-Ful is based on a play by Dario Fo. The film's only character Sanaa wakes up one morning to find she has misplaced her keys. For nine minutes, the audience is confronted with her anxieties about love, work and life, which she voices in a continuous monologue -- until it transpires that, overwhelmed, she has forgotten this is her day off, for which she needs no keys in the first place. El-Bendary won this year's Amal Award for Best Short Film. Hind Sabry, who plays Sanaa, won the Award for Best Actress. El-Bendary was born and grew up in Cairo. He graduated from the Egyptian Academy of Cinema in 2007.
I first came across Dario Fo's play Rise and Shine in 1990, when I was just 10 or 11 years old. Abla Kamel was on stage [in a play directed by Hassan El-Geretly], and she gave the character extraordinary life. Though the memory of watching the play stayed with me for years, it wasn't until recently that I realised it was Fo's. For me, the theme of the play and the universality of the character transcend Fo's origins in Italy. I didn't feel the play was unnatural in an Egyptian setting. Take any woman from a disadvantaged social class in Italy, Colombia or Egypt, and she will likely be shouldering the pain that Sanaa experiences. That is the genius of the text -- that it is truly global.
Most people working in the cinema in Egypt today treat it like any other trade. For most, it is a means of survival. It is the same everywhere, in fact. If Egypt produces 50 films in any given time frame, it is normal to expect that only two or three should have any depth. As for short films, it is the case the world over that only a certain kind of viewer is interested. At a short film screening, what you have is specialist audience, one way or another -- the same is true of documentaries, too. One occasion on which I could see this clearly was following the screening of a documentary I made called Sit Banat (Six Girls), which documents the lives of six students from Port Said living together in Cairo. The girls faced many difficulties throughout their stay there -- and having a specialised audience confront those difficulties was not so easy. But with Sabah El-Ful, it was different. It may be because Hind Sabry was the lead, but the fact is that many people have shown interest from all walks of life. People are watching it online, perhaps because they can identify with the character or the setting.
On the whole, though, I understand if the majority of people cannot take the time to watch films like mine. People suffer many pressures in Egypt -- let my films burn if that will improve Egyptians' lives. Still, my advice is to young filmmakers is to be ambitious. Never be elitist. Try and make films that will reach out to everyone. If you choose to look at life from above, as so many have done and continue to do, then you are speaking to a very small sector of the population. Let your goal be to speak to the majority. They will listen if you try.
Interview with Anas Khalaf, executive producer of Driving to Zigzigland
Anas Khalaf's family moved to Paris when he was just three. Since then he has also lived in Germany, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. He is currently based in Damascus, the city of his birth. Driving to Zigzigland , which he produced, won the Amal Award for Best Film. The Palestinian Bashar Daas, who played himself in the film, won the Award for Best Actor.
Though a businessman, as you say, ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by film, especially political films. It was watching Costa-Gavras' films, however, such as Missing, Music Box, Hanna K. and Z, that made up my mind about being involved in cinema. These are heavily political, but subtle films. Costa- Gavras held a workshop in Jordan last summer, which I attended. He told us that any film has political ingredients. He once said that opening the tap in the morning is a political act. I've set off from that premise -- the premise that everything is political, and I see that film has the potential to tackle that reality directly. Everything about Driving to Zigzigland is political! Just because it is strewn with comedy, that doesn't mean the issues it addresses are not serious. The struggle of one Arab man in the US today is a deeply political subject. Inter-relations among the immigrants themselves -- that too is a deeply political subject. Daas's resolve to succeed is also a very courageous political act, as it is a transmission of the deeply human desire to leave something behind.
Because the film is a series of sketches, we needed to create variety. Real life is that way too: there is no homogeneity in a day. One feeling takes over another, almost by surprise. This variety that you see in the film is an effort to create depth. The fact that comedy reigns was a choice too. You will notice that many Arab films, or films dealing with an Arab theme, will reach a specialised audience. What we tried to do in this film was to depict our reality in a way that can reach out to as wide a variety of viewers as possible, so that even those who are unaware of the difficulties we face can come to understand. It seems pointless to make films that are for a niche who already have access to information. What we need to do is make our voices heard, and comedy is a very strong way to do just that.
Contrary to what people may believe, I've had fewer incidents of racism in the US than in Europe. I have been confronted countless times in France, for instance, by questions from police officers, who assume I do not have residency papers -- whereas in fact I am a citizen of the country. There is no understanding of multiculturalism in Europe: a difference in physique automatically infers foreignness, and by extension illegality. To be honest, I am pessimistic about the future of Arab living or working in the West. Of course, as you can see in the film, one always has to have hope. However, looking at the facts, things don't seem to be getting better.