A Book Review by Ali Moosavi.

Its format of selecting representative films from various parts of the Arab world and analyzing them in detail is quite refreshing and very conducive to understanding the cinema from these parts of the world.”

Any book with the title “Arab World Cinemas” immediately raises expectations, especially when its author, Marlé Hammond, a Senior Lecturer in Arabic Popular Literature and Culture at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, states in its preface that her book aims to “celebrate the variety and richness of the Arab world’s cinematic traditions, from the early twentieth century through to the early twenty-first.”

The format of Arab World Cinemas (Edinburgh University Press) the 250-page book with its 100 photos, eight tables, and a comprehensive seven-page bibliography, resembles an academic thesis. The book is divided into three main parts: Egypt, North Africa: The Maghrib and Beyond and The Eastern Arab World. In each part Hammond has selected a number of films to dissect and discuss, and each film is analyzed in detail. Hammond discusses various scenes and individual shots in the film from both an aesthetic viewpoint and also in relation to their sociological, philosophical and political relevance. At the end of each chapter there is a list of “questions to consider.” These questions require the reader, or her students, to have watched the movie in question.

First of all, I have to declare that though I’m familiar with the cinema of the countries discussed in the book and have seen many movies by filmmakers from those countries, I’ve not seen the majority of the individual films discussed in the book. Though one of the immediate outcomes of reading Hammond’s book is that I have made a list of those to find and watch.

Of the 28 films discussed in the book, ten are in the Egypt chapter and nine each in the other two chapters. Hammond admits that this is by no means a comprehensive list and rightly asserts that she cannot imagine any would be. She informs us that her selection of films was based on two factors: personal preference and availability of films, adding that most in the book met both criteria.

With Hammond devoting a third of her book to Egyptian Cinema, perhaps she expects many readers to contest this decision, one she defends in her preface. Egypt is undoubtedly the largest film producer in the Arab world. It has produced internationally renowned and respected filmmakers such as Youssef Chahine, though Hammond confesses that in the filmmaker’s quartet of celebrated autobiographical films, only Alexandria, Why? (1979) inspires her. I would argue that the bulk of Egyptian movies made these days are popular mainstream commercial films aimed at the mass market. Whereas a country like Palestine, which despite having the lowest means and toughest conditions for filmmaking, produces a truly impressive quota of films that matter. As the acclaimed Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir told me (FI, January 6, 2018), “where there are financial or political restrictions, filmmakers have to think harder about what they are doing and how they are going to do it, and this helps creatively.” Also, in recent years films from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, as well as Palestine, have been highly acclaimed at film festivals. Hammond’s film selection also reflects this. Out of her 10 Egyptian films, only two were made after 1990. Whereas in both the North African and Maghrib films and the Palestinian films seven out of nine were films made after 1990.

Alexandria, Why?

However, Egyptian Cinema’s significance in the Arab Cinema could be justified in historical terms. As Hammond states, Egyptians were “cinematic pioneers,” as the first film screening in Egypt dates back to 1896. The first films by Egyptian directors were made in the 1920’s. Hammond divides the themes in Egyptian movies during different governments in an interesting way. During the Nasser rule, it was British colonialism; during the Sadat government, movies were critical of the Nasser regime; during Mubarak’s era, they criticized the Sadat regime; and she wonders whether the movies in the current El-Sisi government will be critical of the Mubarak regime.

One Egyptian film that Hammond rightly highlights is Chadi Abdel Salam’s masterpiece, The Mummy (Al-mummia), AKA The Night of Counting the Years (1969). She compares it with Chahine’s Alexandria, Why? which she claims does not have the artistic status of Chadi Abdel Salam’s film.

In her “Regional Essay” for the middle chapter, Hammond writes that “the Arabic cinema of the countries of the Maghrib is the cinema most concerned with form and aesthetics.” Since Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco were all colonized by France, Hammond sees the influence of the French New Wave in some of the films from these countries. Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina’s classic Chronicle of the Years of Embers (1975) which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes, kicks off the films in this chapter. Interestingly, the three films from Morocco are all made in this century, perhaps an indication that currently Morocco produces the most interesting films from that part of the world. The fact that Morocco hosts the most respected international film festival in the Maghrib region and has served as location for many movies made in the West, may have something to do with it. The richness of the contemporary Moroccan cinema can also be seen when Hammond discussing the feminist impulses in Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch’s Casablanca Beats (2021), notes that he is married to fellow director Maryam Touzani whose The Blue Caftan (2022) was highly acclaimed and was a prize winner at Cannes. Both Maryam Touzani and The Blue Caftan would be suitable subjects for future editions of Hammond’s book.

I am heartened and applaud Hammond for including films from two women filmmakers who I greatly admire in this section of the book; Nadine Labaki’s Caramel (2007), for me her best and most underrated film and Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda (2012)….”

The final chapter, The Eastern Arab World is dominated by Palestine, or rather Elia Suleiman, where three of his films, Chronicle of a Disappearance (1966), Divine Intervention (2002) and The Time that Remains (2009) are discussed in detail. Though Suleiman is a great filmmaker (I would not argue against him being the greatest Palestinian filmmaker), to restrict other Palestinian filmmakers such as Hany Abu-Assad and Annemarie Jacir to mere mentions, to me is not maintaining a proper balance. Especially when one considers that films directed by Abu-Assad and Jacir have been honored with awards at Cannes, Berlin, Locarno, London and other film festivals. Furthermore, since 2003, where Palestine was first allowed to have films submitted for Best Foreign Language Oscars, Palestine has been represented twice by films directed by Elia Suleiman, but three times each for Hany Abu-Assad and Annemarie Jacir.

Chronicle of the Years of Embers

I am, however, heartened and applaud Hammond for including films from two women filmmakers who I greatly admire in this section of the book; Nadine Labaki’s Caramel (2007), for me her best and most underrated film and Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda (2012), surely destined to become known as the turning point in the history of Saudi Arabian film industry. It signaled a major shift in the role of women in Saudi Arabia, long considered to be one of the most conservative societies in the world. As Al-Mansour told me (FI, May 18, 2021), “attitudes do not change easily, so part of the goal of my film is to start a dialog about the core values that are at the heart of these issues”. Hammond compares Wadjda to Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006) and pointing at the compulsory use of hijab/veil for women in Iranian films, writes that Al-Mansour had much more freedom to represent women in a “realist” fashion than her Iranian counterparts.

So, what to make of Arab World Cinemas? It is not, and does not claim to be, a comprehensive guide to this cinema. However, I found its format of selecting representative films from various parts of Arab world and analyzing them in detail, quite refreshing and very conducive to understanding the cinema from these parts of the world. The numerous still selected from the films are serve as a useful aide to the discussions. Arab World Cinemas made me both even more interested in the Arab Cinema and also feel a strong desire to seek and watch most of the films analyzed by Hammond in her book. I thoroughly recommended it for students of Arab Cinema.

Top Image: Wadjda (2012)

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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