Arab Cinema Striving to Survive

Five Films from Five Brilliant Directors

Collapsed Walls Hakim Belabbas (second from left) during the screening of his movie
Collapsed Walls Hakim Belabbas (second from left) during the screening of his movie

Arab Cinema Striving to Survive

Depending on the situation of the Arab market in relation to cinematographic works, the majority of Arab productions do not find their way to Arab screens - or even, in many cases, local ones, that is, those belonging to the country of production itself.

It is an issue that is difficult to accept although the reasons are clear.

In the first place, they are films that are not produced by commercial companies with a purely commercial concept related to the purpose for which the producers work in the “business” of cinema.

On the other hand, Arab cinema lacks distribution companies interested in independent and different cinemas as well as private or commercial institutions that accept the support of this cinema.

We are talking here about films that do not see opportunities for traditional screening after their production. Many of them kick off at a local or international festival and that suffices for their exposure. There is no showing of these films to the general public outside the festivals, and no opportunities for success, which encourage investors and financiers to connect with the new talents available in every Arabic-speaking country these days.

It is unfortunate for several reasons, including that the talent behind these films is what deserves to be endorsed outside the scope of festival performances. The biggest prize for a director is when he finds that his film finds the right offers as any commercial film wooed by production, distribution and screening companies.

Some festivals do a wonderful job of encouraging and protecting artworks. The funds allocated by the Red Sea Festival in Saudi Arabia allows filmmakers to work tirelessly. It gives them financial rewards for future projects that make up for the absence of other opportunities for production.

There are other Arab festivals that do the same, but not with the same rewards, which makes the Red Sea Festival the destination for Arab filmmakers aspiring to work and succeed.

However, this will not change the basic problems of distribution and financing, and the Arab cinema's lack of a successful mechanism for distributing and showing films even if they win prizes in Arab or Western festivals. While the victory is supposed to be an incentive for audiences wanting to watch unique films from the mainstream, there is this gap that makes such mainstream distribution and acceptance still a pipedream for Arab film-makers and other movie talent in the Arab world.

1- Collapsed Walls | Hakim Belabbas (Morocco)

This movie is unlike any other. The director, Belabbas, uses an unconstrained imagination, drawing inspiration from the lived reality and from the present social environment, which enriches it. 

Composed of 17 stories that are collected under one umbrella, tales revolve around what the director knows very well because he lived in the environment and grew up in the same society before carrying his memories with him wherever he went.

Each of his tales has a different event, but they converge in their belonging to the fountain of memory that is occupied with the freedom to mix reality and imagination. 

The proportions are different. 

In the first tale, for example, a young man is not seen by others, but the tale itself is not a fantasy. It is, like the rest of the imaginary tales, drawn to the ground. 

Belabbas deals with the individual, the family, relatives, strangers, the village and what happens there. His tales are replete with ghosts of the past and with memories of some of them, because the film is not the kind that wants to play with memory by extracting the most beautiful memory that it holds. 

They are tales of women, men, young men and children in front of life situations that baffle adults and are lived by young people, even on the surface of their other concerns.

There is room for a simple sentimental tale (a schoolteacher recommends one of his students to hand a love letter to the girl he loves) but most deal with thorny issues. 

Death comes in the second story, then its presence is repeated in more than one story. Prayers are also present and repeatedly: a woman praying to God to give birth. Prayer list. Funeral. Religious stanzas.

The film carries ambiguous symbols that the director intends to enrich the image, sound and drama that is presented. Much of what we see does not have a complete explanation for its occurrence. What is the meaning of that unseen young man? The absence of whom? Who is that young man in chains in the basement of an old woman’s house? What is the story of the car that flies? What is the difference between fantasy and reality? How do the two fit together seamlessly on one page?

It is a unique film by a director who has made documentaries and fiction before, but nothing like this work. This film showcases the director's inimitable ability to tell his stories with appropriate ambiguity without alienating one even if the audience cannot grasp the underlying subtle meaning immediately and he manages to hold the audience without losing interest in what they are watching. 

There is a brief period when the viewer wonders if the big movie includes what he cannot carry about that weight that accumulates story after story. But with the continuation of the film, that question is overthrown because of the strength of its approach and despite the many stories.

2- Abu Saddam | Nadine Khan (Egypt)

It is the second film by director Nadine Khan (daughter of the late director Mohamed Khan) after “Harag w Marag” which was shown at the Dubai Festival in 2012.

It is a road movie stopping at certain stations, in which it allows the study of the main character and extracts from its social shadows about the position of the traditional man in today's society and studies the relationship between the strong outer form of man and the inner weakness in him.

It is a tale based on the man who drives a truck with equal strength and dominance. Both are huge and imposing their existence. They both look at the world below. He fights it without knowing it. They are both of their stubborn size. It's as if the character of Abu Saddam couldn't drive any other kind of car. He and the huge truck are cognate symbols.

Abu Saddam (as Mohamed Mamdouh aptly performs) drives his big, empty truck from one remote location to another, with young Hassan (Ahmed Dash) at his side as a paid assistant. 

Abu Saddam’s instructions to the boy Hassan are orders he must carry out: “Your eye is on the road,” he asks him more than once, but the boy’s eye is on the money he discovered in a bag not far from his reach. 

Hassan steals the money twice, but his fear of Abu Saddam's tyranny if he discovers the theft makes him return the money each time. This side of the story comes in a natural course, but it is not more important than what happens to Abu Saddam himself when a woman driving a messy red car overtakes him and he meets her again, makes her feel his danger and who resorts to inform the traffic police who are holding him.

Abu Saddam's problems are surrounded by his lack of understanding of his status as a man. His problems are with that fragile envelope that surrounds himself. 

The heart of the film is that “Macho” relationship. He is at odds with his wife, threatening her with more violence if she contacts her family, and that she will not return home if she leaves him. 

On the road he meets a dancer who responds to his invitation to share the truck in a highly customized cabin behind the driver's seat. 

We do not see what happened, but we conclude that the dancer did not get the orgasm that she expected of him, and when he tries to make love with her again in order to confirm his power, she repels him, hits him, and reproaches him.

He became charged even before the checkpoint stops him and before he sets off after another red car to take revenge, thinking that it was the same car whose owner insulted him by reporting him.

3- Had Al Tar |  Abdulaziz Alshlahei (Saudi Arabia)

Had Al Tar is a social drama about a love that did not end with the marriage of the two lovers. Her name is Shama (Adwa Mahd), who was forced by tradition to marry a young man who committed a murder and is soon facing execution. But her heart beats with love for another young man Faisal Al-Dokhi who wants to propose to her, were it not for obstacles and traditions. 

Meanwhile, she and her mother must continue to provide singing and playing at weddings for women.

In a parallel narrative, there is that young man that she loves who was advised by his father to work as a swordsman. The first task assigned to him, after winning the job, is to behead the accused himself!

This leaves him confused even though the girl he loves loveshim. That fabric between the task entrusted to him and the act of execution is treated with great skill, and his role remains prominent and influential.

From this foundation, Had Al Tar proceeds as an emotional synthesis with steps that are at the same time confident in managing characters, distributing shots, and directing scenes. 

What is remarkable is the director's research into the social structure of the characters he presents. He does not bother to beautify them because they are originally beautiful in spirit and behavior. 

He presents them naturally (although the presentation and the context itself are influenced by the features of television dramas) and places them in situations that each clash with their own desires and problems with their surroundings.

What rises from the rest of the work elements is the general management of the scenes, good photography by Hossam Habib, and a sincere and unconcerned representation of the film's hero, Adwa Mahd and Faisal Al-Dokhi, as well as the rest of his actors.

4- Oltelak Khalas (State of Agitation) | Elie Khalife(Lebanon)

Elie Khalife's film is the most distinguished among all the above feature films here. It is a personal story performed by the director himself. 

In the movie (as in life), we see Khalifa trying to make a new movie, but he seeks perfection in what he writes. Every time a good new script comes out, there is a possibility that there will be another good new one and he starts afresh. 

The effect on his girlfriend is catastrophic. She leaves him. The impact of this on his community relations is no less virulent. 

When he finishes the script and starts searching for the product, he receives advice that if he had followed them, he would not have been Elie Khalifa.

It's about Elie Khalife himself. He is the director and he is the hero. He is a man with curly gray hair, bewildered eyes, and an expressionless face that matches his words and feelings. He is similar to the American actor John Turturro, the movements of Jack Tati in his confusion, and the features of Buster Keaton.

Eleven years ago, Khalife presented his first feature film “Yanusk” and it was shown at the Dubai Festival. After that, there was no support for the plot and the subjective issue of the new film as the film talks about a scenario that Khalifa has been writing for years. 

He takes it as an excuse for not communicating with life and with the woman he loves. He is still young and when his girlfriend leaves him in a scene that reveals his preoccupation from the beginning, he remains alone. The scene shows that he drives with her on a mountain road and then stops abruptly, leaving her in the car to see nature.

Khalife faces what every director trying to stand out from his work faces. When Elie meets the producer George Kaadiinside a barber shop in the movie to ask him his opinion on the script, he had previously sent to him, he starts criticizing: “You are the best person who writes unsatisfactory scripts.” Wondering why his female characters don't speak, Eli replies that the producer, in an earlier version, complained of too much dialogue. Elie steps out and whispers something to the producer. 

Another comic scene that aims to reveal the prevailing concept of cinema for some takes place when a school teacher shows the students a film directed by Khalife. 

The professor is full of appreciation, smiles and affection, but he presents the director standing next to him as “Elie Khalouf.” He does not apologize when Khalife corrects him, but rather shakes his head, and here he snatches the conversation from the children even when the question is directed to the director.

A third model is a man (Businessman) who asks Elie Khalifefor a business project and tells him that he wants to expand his business. Khalife (looking at him silently) has to manage a group of beautiful young women with job aspirations. 

He wants a women's film, and "you can supervise during filming... but from afar."

All this and more, Wade Elie is an expert at capturing the same city of cars and buildings in the tumultuous hustle of life versus nature that only a few pays attention to in front of or behind the camera. Khalife’s film is parallel to many Western films about directors' experiences with their films, but itsinteresting and thoughtful treatment makes it among some of the best.

5- El Hara | Basel Ghandour (Jordan)

The film warns the viewer through a voiceover that  “You should believe half what you see and two-thirds of what you hear,” before launching a story that surprises us on several levels under the sure hand of a professional and thoughtful director. 

It is a five-part film that moves seamlessly and contains many characters played by good actors in creating the moment in which they live.

Ali (Imad Azmy) is a character who lives in a constant fantasy that he uses to give himself credit in the neighborhood in which he lives (in Amman). 

In the first part (under the title "Khalta") we get to know him pretending to be talking on the phone with no one. He is making this in order to arouse the curiosity of two men whom he thought will respond to him when he invites them to go to the nightclub where he will collect his commission. The club is under the supervision of the head of a gang of thugs run by Abbas (Monther Rayhana) and the girl who works under his direct management (Maysa Abdel Hadi). 

Ali sincerely loves Lana (Baraka Rahmani), but her mother Aseel (Nadra Imran) wants to marry her off to another. The film does not enter the usual emotional story here because the mother, the owner of a women's salon, will go to Abbas to deal with Ali as he does what he needs to do: a hot clash in the middle of the street and without anyone's interference because Abbas is known for his strength and brutality.

Then all the issues raised within the scope of that preamble are complicated. It is a movie about a young man trying to probe life with lies and illusions, a gang that terrorizes the neighborhood, a mother seeking to protect her son, seeking the help of her ex-husband, and the gang girl (Maysa Abdel Hadi) who will protect her leader so that life can continue in that neighborhood as it used to.

There are many paradoxes and details in the film, and they all fall into place without hesitation or confusion. This is a new movie in all its characteristics and under the direction and execution of a man with whom there is no point in searching for the beginnings. The project itself (the neighborhood, its events, characters, and the consequences of everything that goes on in it) is handled with knowledge. 

The film does not place an advertisement saying that the events are real, but the course of the work is true between the director’s relationship with the film and the film’s relationship with what can be real, even if we believe half of what we see and two thirds of what we hear.


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