Arab Cinema and its problems By Farida Marei

in 7th Delhi CineFan

by Farida Marei

Although the Osian’s-Cine Fan Film Festival is mainly concentrating on Asian Cinema, the organisers had in mind the idea of creating a space to discuss other kinds of cinema. This was a new part of the festival this year and under the umbrella of Infrastructure Building for Minds and Markets (IBM2), Arab Cinema was lucky enough to find a room in this festival for the second year running. In spite of the fact that the session of Arab Cinema was only one hour, it was still full of important issues. Arab filmmakers and film critics were there to represent different Arab countries such as Palestine , Bahrain , and Egypt , and to represent different point of views concerning their film industry, and the problems that Arab filmmakers face. One of the main obstacles that Arab filmmakers face is financing. Young filmmakers are lost because they are not known. They haven’t proved themselves yet so producers decline to help them because they are not sure that they will get their money back. As for big names in the directing field, they have two choices: to accept the conditions of the producer (if they succeed to find one) who usually try either to impose their own point of view at the expense of quality, or to seek funds from foreign countries, which depends normally on personal relations.

The government usually does not give any help, or gives a little in rare cases. Cinema is not one of the priorities on their agenda as they look at cinema as pure entertainment and therefore it comes at the bottom of their list. Even if Arab filmmakers succeed in making their films, they still have to face the problem of distribution in other countries and in the Arab world itself. Although all Arabs read and write the classical Arabic, colloquial Arabic is different. Egyptian films can be distributed commercially in most Arab countries for its easy dialect, but other Arab countries like North African countries for example (Morocco, Tunisia, & Algeria) cannot distribute their films commercially in the Arab world. The reason is that their dialect is very different and sometimes hard to follow. Therefore, they are only shown in festivals.

The other serious problem that Arab filmmakers suffer from is censorship and there are many regulations. Any thing against the policy of the state is forbidden. Dealing with religion is prohibited, dealing with politics is prohibited, and dealing with sex is prohibited. Therefore, filmmakers are crippled, denied their freedom of expression to tackle any subject they want. There are many examples in this direction – the films Five Doors (Khamsah Bab), and The Road of Love (Darb al-Hawa) were both denied approval until the writer removed some sex scenes. Even after removing them and after the films were ready for screening, they were both banned because there was still too much sex (in their opinion). The producer had to go to court and he won the case. The Palestinian director Michel Kheleifi faced the same problem with his film Galili Wedding (‘urs al-Jalil) because there was a scene with a naked woman.

The late director Attef al-Tayyib had the same experience but on the political level. He was criticising the secret police and their brutality in his film The Innocent (al-Bari’). He had the choice whether to sacrifice the whole film or to sacrifice the last scene, which was the most important scene in his film. He was very smart, and agreed to change the last scene in one version that was released commercially, but he kept for himself the original version. It was sold to other T.V. channels and was shown in many screens all over the Arab world and every body knows the real film now. Even being famous and well known internationally, like the famous Egyptian director Youssif Chahin, is no protection. His film The Immigrant (al-Muhajir) was banned for religious reasons and he too had to go to court, and won the case.

However, the picture is not as gloomy as it looks. Most Arab filmmakers succeed in skating around these rules. They manage to get their message across and say what they want between the lines, counting on the smartness of the Arab audience who usually get the message. In spite of all these difficulties, Arab filmmakers were able to find their way and impose their names in the film field, particularly in the cases of Salah Abu Seif, Youssif Chahin, Michel Kheleifi, Bassam al-Thawadi, Nouri Bou Zeid and many others.