Arab Art at its London Zenith

Arab Art at its London Zenith
Zenith Foundation
Zenith is an organisation dedicated to contemporary Arab arts from “across the spectrum”. Functionning as a platform to the most exciting recent developments in Arabic music, film, art, architecture, design, fashion, literature, theatre and comedy.

Contemporary Arab arts remain one of the least visible in Britain despite recent shifts in the reception and representation of non-Western arts. The most familiar representations of Arab cultures in Britain are linked to Islamic art, mostly from the 13th century.

The perspectives that contemporary Arab arts bring to bear are all the more important today. This is in the context of the existence of 500,000 strong British-Arab communities, an even more substantial Arab Diaspora in Europe and elsewhere, and the centrality of the Arab region in a globalised world. Recent political turmoil has isolated Arab communities and cast doubt over their characters and values. In the absence of any direct experience of contemporary Arab cultures, the British public is unable to make up its mind on the basis of direct experience. The uncertainty cast over the possibility of harmonious co-existence within a multicultural Britain is unsettling to all. The focus of British cultural establishments on ancient Islamic art only serves to reinforce perceptions of a spent cultural force. It also ignores the multiple dimensions of Arab cultures outside the Islamic context.
Arab Art at its London Zenith
Arab Cinema @ the NFT
Throughout August, the National Film Theatre is presenting an Arab Cinema Season curated by Zenith, featuring some of the best films of the last decade from across the Arab world. The Season will give, for the first time, an overall sense of recent Arabic cinematic production. The mood of each region, Egypt, Levant and North Africa, is strikingly different as are the individual takes of each of the directors.

In order to best present the festival read the text by Ali Jaffar and a short history of Arab Cinema by Mona Tayara-Deeley , Director of Zenith Foundation:

'In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed; but theyproduced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’ With this quotation of The Third Man by Harry Lime in mind, the Zenith Foundation in London will present this summer a very rich programme of recent and original Arab Films.
Harry Lime, in The Third Man
Certainly the Arab world has had its fair share of warfare, terror and murder in the past 30 years, whether with the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the civil wars in Lebanon and Algeria, the first and second Gulf Wars involving Iraq, or membership, post-9/11, of the so-called ‘axis of evil’. What it has also produced, particularly in the last 15 years, is a dazzlingly eclectic number of fine films from across the region, from North Africa to Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. While the explosion of Iranian cinema throughout the 90s dominated Western media attention regarding cinema in the Middle East, Arab films have largely been overlooked. While much has been written of Egypt's ‘Golden Age’ of cinema the 50s and 60s, heralded by the likes of Youssef Chahine, Henri Barakat and Omar Sharif, filmmakers such as Daouad Abdel Sayed (A Citizen, an Inspector and a Thief) and Hani Khalifa (Sleepless Nights) represent a new breed of the socially-conscious, politically-aware school of cinema first developed under the ethos of Pan-Arab nationalism and the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Similarly, several film-makers have risen from the political ruins of the Oslo Peace Process to create individualistic works which explain, with far greater lucidity than any political speech, what it means to be a Palestinian. Michel Khleifi, Elia Suleiman, Hany Abu-Assad and Hanna Elias are all members of a generation who have witnessed two Intifadas, the rise and collapse of a peace process, and the often brutal consequences of military occupation. While the latter three directors portray in their films of a sense of the absurd in lives lived in utter powerlessness and sheer defiance, Michel Khleifi retains a more soulful approach. In Rana’s Wedding, for example, one scene shows the protagonist trying on her best friend’s wedding dress, while they discuss her fears and hopes for the future. What gives the scene added piquancy, however, is the sight in the window behind her of an Israeli bulldozer silently demolishing yet another Palestinian home.

Lebanese film-makers have set about narrating the Lebanese war, the post-war era and the effects of the Palestinian conflict on their society’s sense of identity and purpose. While Ziad Doueiri’s West Beirut masterfully arrates the war from the perspective of three teenagers, Ghassan Salhab’s taboo-breaking film Terra Incognita tackles the loss of direction of the post-war generation. Eliane Raheb’s So Near Yet So Far takes as its starting point the iconic image of the killing of the child Mohamad Durra in the arms of his father at the start of the second Intifada. It follows the lives of Arabs in Jordan, Lebanon and France, showing how their sense of identity and purpose has been shaped by their embrace or rejection of the Palestinian cause. Mohamed Soueid tackles the Palestinian issue from another direction in Nightfall, catching up with the now middle-aged (and heavy-drinking) members of the Palestinian
Student Resistance Squad.
Syrian cinema is rarely seen, yet offers a distinctive aesthetic style in grappling with difficult issues shaping Syrian lives; while diverse films emanating from North Africa raise the ever-elusive question of what it means to be an Arab. What emerges from the contemporary offerings from Algeria (Rachida and Bab el-Oued City), which reflect the crushing human toll of the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism, is a heady mix of history, lyricism and struggle, of love and longing. And not a genie or flying carpet in sight!
Ali Jafaar
Overview of Arab cinema
in Egypt with the first news film in 1909, and silent movies in the 1920s. However, the foundations of the Arab film industry were not laid until 1935 when Misr Bank established Studio Misr in Egypt. The following decade witnessed the rapid development of the Egyptian film industry. By 1948, six further studios had been built and a total of 345 full-length features produced. In the years after World-War-II, cinema was the most profitable industrial sector in Egypt after the textile industry.

Egyptian cinema, in all its popular genres, seeks to entertain. Musicals are a dominant genre together with melodrama. This is followed by farce, and to a certain extent, adventure. Egypt’s film industry is star led and is watched across the Arab world.
Over 10% of films produced in Egypt between 1930 and 1993 were literary adaptations. Realist literature played a decisive role in establishing realist cinema in Egypt, and owes a great deal to the influence of the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz. In particular, Mahfouz co-operated with the Egyptian director Salah Abu-Seif, resulting in nine scripts in 1948 alone. Two adaptations of Mahfouz novels directed by Abu-Seif count among the most important films of Egyptian Realism: Cairo 30, and Beginning and End.

Egyptian Realism used the melodrama aspects of the commercial genre. The "bad guys" were generally old-moneyed land owners, and the films emphasised the evils of poverty. The change brought by New Realism is mainly in its use of the action and police genre, and the identification of new enemies: unscrupulous businessmen, the corrupt nouveaux riches, and uncontrolled materialism. New Realism offers the possibility of social mobility, making the determinism of Realism outdated. The new heroes take the initiative, defend themselves, and are not afraid to use violence against the crooks. Their moral struggle is against materialism, egotism, and corruption. As such, they are guardians of the family and of traditional social norms. The Bus Driver (1982) by Atef El-Tayeb is a typical example of New Realism.

The roots of much Arab cinema outside Egypt lay in the use of the medium as part of resistance to colonialism. In Algeria, the provisional Algerian government residing in Tunis formed the Service de Cinema National in 1958. After the land reforms of 1971, a so-called New Cinema in Algeria began gradually to open up to subjects other than the war of liberation. Among the subjects that it was concerned with are the social injustices of post-colonial society, emigration to France, bureaucracy, and female emancipation, and since the 1990s, Islamic fundamentalism. By contrast to the studio-based and star led Egyptian cinema, Algerian cinema is mostly in outside settings and uses amateur actors.
Like Algerian revolutionary cinema, Syrian cinema has also been highly politicised. In 1972, the Alternative Cinema in Syria articulated its orientations. It consciously opposed commercial Egyptian cinema, and its focus was pan-Arab nationalism and social justice. At the heart of this is the Palestinian question. The Alternative Syrian Cinema movement included Palestinian and Lebanese film makers, as well as certain Egyptian directors such as Taufik Salih. He produced The Duped (1972) based on the realist novel Men Under the Sun by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani.

Following the Arab defeat in the six day war in 1967, there was a shift away from official ideologies and political discourses, as can be seen in films such as Omar Gatlato (1976) and Adventures of a Hero (1976) by the Algerian Merzak Allouache, and Stars in Broad Daylight (1988) by the Syrian Usama Mohammad. The genre of Satirical Realism, with its ironic distortions, questions the realist representation and subverts its idealistic and propagandistic contents, particularly in relation to social liberation, progress, and modernity. This includes the use of anti-heroes such as Hassan Terro, the reluctant resistance fighter in the film of the Algerian Mohammad Lakhdar Hammina; and the Syrian film The Nights of the Jackal (1989) by Abdel-Latif Abdel-Hamid. The theme of empty patriarchy (in the family, and at the levels of society and state politics) became prominent in films such as Wedding in Galilee (1989) by the Palestinian Michel Khleifi, and The Half-Meter Incident (1981) by the Syrian Samir Zikra. In particular, the works of Khleifi mark a new, more critical and stylistically lyrical, treatment.

Arab film-makers are increasingly attracting critical acclaim, such as Cannes Film Festival awards for the Lebanese Ziad Douairi, and the Palestinians Rashid Mashrawi, Michel Khleifi, and Elia Suleiman. However, Arab film industries (as with many film industries worldwide) have been persistently undermined by little or no national funding, censorship, the advent of satellite television, piracy, and an under-developed system for intellectual property exploitation. This has lead Arab film-makers to increasing dependence on co-productions (particularly with Europe). While co-productions create the possibility of artistic dialogue, there is still no long-term substitute to having a nationally-based infrastructure of support. Such backing is essential if Arab cinema is to step-up its international visibility and its engagement with contemporary issues and concerns.

Mona Tayara-Deeley

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