By Omar Robert Hamilton.
No form of art is as tied to reality as cinema. Though Hollywood would have us think differently, the fundamental element to making a film is to press record on a camera. From cinema verité to Avatar – the first step toward making a film is the conversion of reality into a frame rate. And yet, cinema works tirelessly to free itself from the responsibilities of reality. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Arab world, where for decades a barrage of romantic comedies has inundated us and formulaic thrillers populated by ever more irrelevant and tasteless plots. These films have always been big business, which has led to economies of production that are controlled by a small group who re-circulate the flow of resources. This ecology has left table-scraps of cash for independent filmmakers, who have to fight over what they can attain in America, France, Germany, and the UK et al.
Conversely, countries such as France regulate that a percentage of each ticket sold goes back into local production, Germany channels film subsidies to producers, while the UK has various governmental and regional bodies supplying financial and development resources to support independent film-makers, and even Hollywood distributes independent films. Of course, each nation could go further with its support; the point to make is that they nevertheless, host an infrastructure. In the Arab world, the production, distribution and exhibition of films are tied up by a handful of companies, each with enough control over the various stages of the process to ensure that there isn’t any significant competition. They produce feature films, subsequently distributing them and, in Egypt’s case, own enough theatre screens to ensure that their picture will play for as long as it takes to make its money back. Because the group of big players so comfortably monopolizes the industry, it is nearly impossible for independent films to break into this market. Moreover, most established actors will not work away from their adoptive film studio, and screens are rarely ever given to independents. In a sense, popular Arab cinema adopts an old-fashioned Hollywood studio hierarchy.
Foreign owned television stations and festival success are the two key cracks in this conventional system, but on the whole, the independent scene is being strangled from every side. The government-state, of course, is nonexistent in this equation. For many years the only real source of production finance was Europe, so the recent cash injections from the film festivals of the Gulf such as the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and the Dubai International Film Festival, are a welcome addition. Still, a lack of funding opportunities should never be an excuse for a lack of quality. And while there have been a handful of standout films over recent years, which have managed to make the transition to the international art house circuit – Paradise Now (2005), Le Grand voyage (2004), Adhen: Dernier maquis (2008), Son of Babylon (2009) stick out for me – still, the international reputation of Arab cinema seems insipid in comparison to our Turkish or Iranian neighbors.
Still, we can be optimistic. In 2011, there was a handful of genuinely engaging Arab films: Smugglers’ Songs – the new feature from Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, whose second film, Adhen: Dernier maquis, was an overlooked masterpiece in the Arab world. Free Men is the second film from Ismaël Ferroukhi, whose Le Grande voyage managed to be charmingly personal and refreshingly broad in reach for an independent film. Omar Killed Me – an investigation into a high-profile French murder case that was pinned on an Arab gardener – generated a great deal of buzz at this year’s Doha Tribeca Film Festival. All three directors are Arab/French. Truly the mission civilisatrice has an interesting future ahead of it.
Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now – a comedy about religious tensions in Lebanon – won the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Her first feature, Caramel, made $14m worldwide, its international popularity making it one of the most successful Lebanese feature films of all times. Finally, Amin Matalqa, who directed the first ever feature film to come out of Jordan, Captain Abu Raed (2007), has been snapped up to direct The United, Disney’s first feature film in Arabic, a story about a legendary football coach coaxed out of retirement by a team of misfits. Though the plot line sounds all too familiar, the fact that its scripted by the emerging writer Nizar Wattad and scored by the esteemed Omar Fadel – two key names to remember for the future – suggest it could extend beyond the Oriental trappings that one would come to expect.
If Matalqa’s family-friendly touch finds him a significant audience, he may very well be launched into the mainstream. It will be interesting to see then if he keeps a foot in the Arab world or is sucked irretrievably towards Hollywood.
Apart from having Arabs behind the lens, what these films all share is that their production dates all fell pre-revolution. An independent feature film takes, on average, three years to morph from pen to an expensive arthouse DVD. So these films are the last of the pre-revolution era. What kind of change can we expect our revolutions to bring to the cinema? The material conditions of production haven’t changed. The same companies and systems still exist. There certainly isn’t any government stable enough to set up subsidies or tax incentives or film schools.
Nothing has changed in apparent terms, but psychologically everything has. Civic and personal engagement across the region has been hyper-energized by the interplay of arts and culture during the revolutionary movement. The changes we require will take significant time, but there is an independent filmmaking scene working hard to intervene through these processes. The longer the time frame of revolutionary struggle, the more likely cinema might be able to play an active role in it.
Any experienced filmmaker will argue that the craft of cinema requires graft, although some practitioners are able to bypass agony and do turn into production machines. Yet filmmaking splits into two camps in times of rapid flux: that which is directly engaged in the production and dissemination of agitprop, of material that they hope will affect the course of contemporary events; and that which is working for the future, collecting material, quietly observing the varied new worlds all competing to be born for later fictions or more thoughtful documentaries. A filmmaker can achieve both aims, but their films by nature are fixed in place and time. On the other hand, we can see an opportunism espoused here, as in The Cry of An Ant (2011) and 18 Days (2011), which utilized revolutionary dissidence as much to inform their marketing campaigns, as they did, their subject matter.
This brings us to the question: How can filmmakers represent reality when it’s shifting every day? How can you write for the future when you cannot control the present? How can you reflect on the past when every moment is spent preparing for tomorrow? None of this is impossible – these are hugely interesting challenges. With mobile phones recording every instant of crucial dissidence, and with more people turning to social media for their pictures there is a recalibration of the public’s relationship with the moving image. For the first time, citizens are taking control of their personal narratives, governments are being confronted daily with the power of the camera, and millions are being mobilized by the democratization of media.
Cinema in the Arabic-speaking countries has for too long been a tool of escapism rather than confrontation. Perhaps the post-revolutionary condition will enable an evolution that will shift the manner in which way we make, view and discuss the cinema of the Arab world.
Omar Robert Hamilton is an independent filmmaker based in Cairo and the West Bank, Palestine. He is a founder of Tahrir Cinema, and is Producer of the Palestine Festival of Literature.