This is a propitious time to be running an Australian festival devoted to Arab cinema. Not only have two relatively new, well-funded festivals in the neighbouring emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi given a shot in the arm to the region's filmmakers, but the region is undergoing the kind of social and political turmoil that can only nourish dramatic storytelling. Its filmmakers are not just making calling card films to land themselves a gig in Hollywood, as so often occurs in the West, but have local stories they are burning to tell.
Thanks to the recent people's revolts that began in Tunisia and spread across the Arab world, 2011 has been one of those landmark years in contemporary history to compare to 1989 (the collapse of the Iron Curtain) and 1968 (youth revolts in the west, uprising in Czechoslavakia). And it's not over yet. Australians awoke on Wednesday to news that Cairo's Tahrir Square had been awash with battles between protestors and security forces.
Clearly we can expect these momentous events to be reflected in the Arab films of the future, but you might be excused for asking what they have to do with the film world now. Filmmakers usually lag a few years behind major events in the news for the obvious reason that films take a long time to plan and produce.
Yet the program notes for this year's Arab Film Festival Australia, which screens in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide and Brisbane, tell us the feature The Cry of an Ant (pictured) is “the first feature film to address the Egyptian Revolution of January 2011”. Given we're only in July, and that this isn't some hastily edited documentary but a fictional feature, that is astonishing. How was it possible?
Festival co-director Fadia Abboud explains that the film reflects ordinary Egyptians' dissatisfaction with contemporary life, including the constant water cuts and lack of employment opportunities, and was already being made when the revolution started. The director, Sameh Abdel Aziz, changed the ending to include the new events and show that the people could make a difference and make their views heard.
Even more intriguingly, The Cry of an Ant is not the only recent Egyptian film to give insights into the frustrations of everyday Egyptians under the former Mubarak dictatorship. Another film on the festival program is Cairo Exit, directed by Egyptian American Hesham Issawi, which looks at the relationship of a Coptic (Christian) young woman and her Muslim lover.
Issawi and his crew filmed on the streets without a permit after Egypt's Ministry of the Interior temporarily halted production due to national security concerns. According to the Los Angeles Times, the script was submitted to the government censor shortly after the slayings of six Coptic Christians by Muslim gunmen in January. There were also violent clashes between the two communities in March. Abboud observes that even in Sydney's Egyptian community the film's subject matter has raised eyebrows.
This is not the only aspect of the film apparently torn from the headlines. In-depth background journalism this year has made it clear the Egyptian uprising has been fuelled by the emergence of an educated, computer-literate young class whose aspirations under the former system were continually frustrated. Cairo Exit illustrates this phenomenon with precision, its two lovers working in low-grade manual jobs. When the young man waits for an interview for an accountancy job, he watches with crushing disappointment as another candidate gets the position on account of a well-connected father, only adding to his desire to move to escape Egypt by moving to Italy.
The theme of whether to stay at home or move overseas is a common theme in recent Middle Eastern and North African cinema. It was also central to the recent prize-winning Iranian film A Separation (Iran is of course not Arabic, but is part of the Middle East region.). The jury at this year's Sydney Film Festival awarded A Separation its top prize while giving an honourable mention to Cairo 678, a powerful Egyptian film that looks at a trio of women fighting back against sexual harrassment and assault on the streets and buses of the nation's capital. The film reflects the courageous appetite for change from a female population long held-down by political and social conservatism.
If we are seeing the emergence of a new Egyptian cinema, this hasn't happened overnight. An early sign was the huge success of Marwan Hamed's The Yacoubian Building, the sprawling 2006 melodrama based on a popular novel that was reportedly the most expensive Egyptian production to date. As Abboud points out, that did not stop the film (which has screened on SBS) from covering “all the issues Egyptian films didn't usually address,” such as class difference, homosexuality and sexual harassment.
Prior to that the internationally respected director Youssef Chahine had laid down a pathway, says Abboud. The veteran, who died in 2008, had a proud record of fighting his government's censorship restrictions and included gay themes long before The Yacoubian Building. His final film Heya Fawda (Is This Chaos?), the story of a young woman who stands up to the bullying police officer who desires her, was especially influential among the younger generation of filmmakers.
The special importance of Egypt is that it has the Arab world's dominant, and most long-established film industry (not to mention its oldest major film festival in the shape of Cairo), but there's also an upsurge in film activity elsewhere in the region, as the Australian festival's program illustrates.
Other features to screen include The Circle (not to be confused with Jafar Panahi's Iranian film, but a story from the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait); Lebanon's Stray Bullet, which won the top prize at the most recent Dubai Film Festival, and from Morocco, Majid, about a street kid who longs to see a photo of his parents.
Arab Film Festival program and ticketing information