Cinema in the Arab World: the Temptation of Identity

Ahmed Baha Eddine Attia

Producer. Tunisia

There is no doubt that oral traditions inherited from our ancestors and from the Islamic prohibition of artistic representations have played a role in the conscious and unconscious difficulties experienced by film directors and by creators in general in our world. Arab cinema was born at the opening of the twentieth century and, from the beginning, consisted of two distinctive schools. The first was in Egypt and was personified by Talâat Harb who, by the time of his return from the United States, had become aware that cinema was an economic and industrial activity and who, parallel to his work creating studios, founded a bank to finance his activities. In this fashion during the first half of the century a cinema was born that reminds us of Hollywood in the same epoch: great romantic frescos, adventure films, and, above all, musical comedies featuring singers of a generation whose talent was unquestioned in the Arab world.

The second school of Arab cinema had an indisputable maestro who, in spite of his forays into the world of the feature film, with works like Zohra and Ain el Ghezal (The Girl of Carthage), basically dedicated himself to the description of reality and bequeathed us an exceptional documentary heritage. We are talking about Albert Samama Chikli, a Tunisian Jew. This distinction between the Machrek and the Maghreb still exists today, although with some remarkable exceptions. Theatre-based cinema shows appeared in the great Arab cities at roughly the same time as they did in Europe and South America.

Like all phenomena that arouse curiosity, in the image of the circus or the troupes of entertainers, cinema initially consolidated as popular entertainment art and, often, as a tool with which to assert Arabs’ group identity in the face of the colonial powers, to the point that the latter saw themselves obliged to make Arabic versions of some of their films (The Thief of Baghdad, The Madman of Qairouan, etc.). Going to see an Egyptian film spoken in Arabic constituted for the populations of the Arab lands an act of faith and an immersion in their culture and language, for all that the films shown had not the least interest in portraying social problems or reality. The dawn of independence saw the arrival of new generations of directors with content and forms of expression—amorous and musical, romantic and lacking in aesthetic interest—that profoundly modified the Arab cinematic landscape.

New paths for Arab cinema were opened with the verisimilitude of the fallah (peasant) in Chahine’s The Earth, the faces of the rail workers at central station, portrayed again by Chahine, the tribulations of the Palestinians in Taoufik Salah’s The Victims, the glorification of the anti-colonial struggle in films such as The Opium and the Baton, Chronicle of The Years of The Brazier and Wind From The Aures by the Algerians Ahmed Rachedi and Mohamed Lakhdar Hamina, Moroccan Souheil Ben Barka’s generosity and sensitivity towards local craftsmen and his battle against discrimination in the films One Thousand and One Hands and Amok, sensitivity towards everyday reality demonstrated by Tunisian directors Nejia Ben Mabrouk in The Trace, Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud in Crossing Over, Abdelatif Ben Ammar in Sejnane, and Nouri Bouzid in Man of Ashes and Clogs of Gold.

It is clear that Arab directors often looked to other content because of the multiple difficulties that the Arab world went through: a succession of wars with Israel, the militarisation of power as a result of war, the birth of new political doctrines that postulated an artificial Arab entity in a world with only a language in common, differences in tradition between the eastern and western zones of the Arab world, between the countries of the Gulf and those of the Maghreb, the unfeeling and merciless battle between modernity and conservatism, the deliberate isolation of part of Arab society as a defensive reaction against its own inheritance, and the appearance of extremisms and dictatorial power. There is no doubt that all these factors had a certain influence. However, a new group of directors is looming up behind the generation mentioned above, a group disturbed by social fracture, by difficulties in relationships between people, between citizens and power. All this has given rise to a cinema that flouts the status quo, a cinema that is often impertinent, attacked by the censors but close to the public, a cinema that has dared to touch on taboos such as sexuality, mixed marriage, social prohibitions, virginity, etc.

The dilemma faced by this new cinema oscillates between directors’ social preoccupations and their civic conscience on the one hand, and the desire to make attractive cinema with the necessary element of distraction on the other. Various solutions have been adopted: some directors, looking for a way to describe reality that takes account of social challenges, have taken refuge in miserabilist attitudes, often far removed from the expectations of the public and critics alike. On other occasions, certain artists have interpreted the image projected on us by the West literally, giving rise to a vein of neo-Orientalism that has pleased critics but that has been viewed with disdain by local and European audiences.

Thanks to new technologies, Arab society now confronts a multifaceted reality. On the one hand, Hollywood films relayed by satellite provide it with a glittering showcase of the West, in which opulence and ‘consumerism’ reign; the image of a hungry man looking through an armour-plated shop window at an appetising snack that will never be his has given rise to the powerful temptation of clandestine immigration, in spite of the Arab world’s quality of life and family solidarity. The alternative to this temptation is to turn inwards, an attitude that is spurred by the splendours of the Arab-Muslim past, by promises of a paradise beyond this earthly existence, and, finally, by the image of the martyr who immolates himself in the eyes of the Lord.

Thence emerge extremism and violence. The Arab artist finds himself rootless in this treacherous jungle, confronted by mass media submissive to the powerful and victims of a perpetual burden, national television that sings the success of current policies or that repeats day in, day out, that everything is going well, that we are the best, and that we have the best, most visionary leaders in the world. That is a very different reality, except in the eyes of our directors, for whom the daily spectacle is combined with vexation, humiliation, misery and intimidation. If they go to a western or an Arab embassy to apply for a visa, they always find they are lacking a particular bit of paper, a vital declaration; time and time again they experience the same negative or evasive answers. Verifying documents, the laborious search for a job and so on and so forth. Sometimes even something as simple as the purchase of a bar of soap can cause problems. In order to realise their projects, directors are forced to beg for aid and subsidy, conditioned by views and readings that disorient them and that often distract them from their own interpretation of reality. Failures in their own, limited markets result in a frustrating relationship with the public.

With the exception of Egypt, a successful film in our countries will recover only 10% of the investment. Many Arab films have been made and continue to be made thanks to French and European generosity. This is sometimes seen as a desire to intervene in film content, and on more than one occasion it has been considered by directors a western Trojan horse in the Arab world. Artists need to be more cautious, but it cannot be denied that the support offered by France and Europe for Arab and southern hemisphere production is the fruit not just of benevolence but of a well-designed strategy whose aim is the defence of European identity, conceived as an alliance of artists worldwide, with the aim of offering the public genuine cinematic diversity. Whether we are discussing features or documentaries, cinema that concerns itself with identity is a necessity for Arab societies.

The objectives of our region’s artists must be to confirm that identity, to speak openly of society’s wounds, to overcome taboos and to win a greater degree of freedom of expression. In doing so they will reduce the distance between their work and the public, as well as achieving a greater degree of differentiation from other local mass media. This, in turn, will furnish the West with a more realistic view of our societies. All this can help avoid the miscomprehensions and the distorted imagery offered by the western mass media. The Arab Muslim is neither a terrorist in the making, nor a bearded fundamentalist, but a human being like any other with problems and a daily fight to live, to survive. He confronts power in manifold forms, his own ambitions, his disappointments and his dreams.

When Halfaouine was released in France in September 1990, after the occupation of Kuwait and during preparations for the Gulf War, a journalist on Le Nouvel Observateur said: “We did not think that Tunis was so near Paris, nor that Halfaouine was a French neighbourhood.” That is to say, it is a film impregnated with humanity. It is clear that cinema that explores the field of identity is capable of demagogy and of great deceit. A classic example of this is the resounding public success reaped this year—with the Second Gulf War just around the corner—by an Egyptian film, a film that spoke of a hero who defended his country from the machinations of a group that sought to destabilise the government. This success sometimes represents the other side of the coin. Arab television networks, with the exception of Al Jazeera, do not consider producing or aiding cinema that portrays reality.

The only screen documentaries we see deal with animals or nature, or are reports commemorating individuals or events with a bearing on our contemporary history or current affairs.The documentary should, however, occupy a more important position in the mass media. With the exception of the Egyptians, the impression communicated by our directors is that they are out of touch with local or international markets, and that they are content to seek finance for a film in order to make it and parade it at festivals of varying degrees of interest around the world. It is of fundamental importance that our artists become conscious that cinema is popular entertainment and that films must emerge from the festival ghetto and go in search of a public, and that this applies to both big and small screen work as well as to national and international markets. Just as Arab directors do not need government lectures in order to reach the public, so neither do they need to reproduce Orientalist, poisonous imagery in order to please the West.

Their obligation is to speak, without censorship and with sincerity, of their perception of society and of the world that surrounds them. Sincerity and credibility—even impertinence—are the tools that will garner success amongst the local public and the West alike.The tension of the human condition is the key to its vanguard role in relation to society and to the public.