As the Red Sea Film Festival gears up for its second round in December of this year in Jeddah, an important share of its agenda will focus on Saudi and other Arab productions.
The festival highlights Saudi Arabia’s serious quest to give talent in the Kingdom the opportunity to realize their films and dreams, and present them on one of the world’s cinema screens, and perhaps explore other ambitions outside the homeland.
The Arab festival reveals innovations from the Arab environment with several films competing for moral and material prizes that are the highest among all Arab events and in many non-Arab countries.
When it comes to talking about grants to be distributed to future projects, it is certain that, in turn, they are among the highest in the history of international festivals, if not the highest.
This does not mean at all that Arab cinema, with all its countries and productions, has achieved its goals. The Saudi festival is presented to put a spotlight on these talents and achieve their ambitions, but the quality of most Arab cinemas cannot rise to the requisite level of opportunity except with a limited percentage of works.
One of the first and most important reasons is the lack of political and economic stability in many Arab countries. How can Sudan, Syria or Iraq, for example, continue what they started at different stages and stopped doing more than once? What about Algerian cinema, which we hear about more than we see? And how will the Lebanese crisis affect its effective contributions? Is it inevitable that cinema in Libya will not exist?
When Italy entered the turmoil of World War II, its cinema was very active. The momentum during the years of that war (1939-1945) was hit by crises, but the production wheel did not actually stop.
When the guns fell silent and a new Europe was created, Italian cinema returned to activity, and it was so perceptive that only a limited percentage of its productions after 1945 revolved around the war itself.
The crossroads were simple: to return to the same genre of early Italian films that relied on stories and dramatic themes as social entertainment (even if tragic) or to a new cinema stemming from the necessities of the new reality.
Neorealist cinema was born in that space, with Luchino Visconti's Ossessione and Bellisima, Rome Open City and Stromboli by Roberto Rossellini, Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio De Sica.
One of the reasons prompting these directors to provide an alternative cinema that takes place in streets and homes instead of studios, as was the case previously, is that the Italian studios had stopped working during the last years of the war. This imposed new techniques for films that wanted to convey social images of the situation after the war and pursue the approach of treating the stories in a different way.
Some of what that meant was either bringing in unknown actors or bringing in non-professional actors who had never appeared on screen.
It is an experience that distinguished Italian cinema and left its impact on others, including Egyptian cinema. But what we should note here is that most of these films revolved around an Italy far from the frontlines or post-war Italy itself.
This is in contrast to what many Arab films have said, and political events (such as the Spring Revolutions, the Iraqi war, or the Lebanese civil war) were valuable incidents to talk about.
The impact of realistic cinema on Egyptian cinema was limited to two decades (the fifties and sixties). However, it did not account for all types and methods of work, but rather participated in the exceptionality and vitality of that era.
Today, the Egyptian films being produced are mostly mass-oriented and without artistic standards, even within their desire to be purely artistic. Much of the Egyptian work follows, if not copies, the style of American films, rather than sticking to an actual Egyptian identity.
With the exception of a large number of Arab films, the cinema that took over the history of the aforementioned stormy security events received little attention. Basically, only a few were shown to the public, which deprived the films and the public of any mutual benefit in this regard.
But the fatal thing is that many of the films that Arab cinema produced about these events (such as The Square, My Name is Tahrir Square and Epic from Tahrir Square) did not add much to what was broadcast by news agencies and television stations on every radio.
The bright side is that some films that dealt with the issue of the Arab Spring in Egypt, such as Clash by Mohamed Diab and Curfew by Amir Ramses, presented social and political themes without being attached to the scenes of the demonstrations that took place in 2010 and later.
Although there are documentaries that deserve attention, it is the narrative films (like these two aforementioned films) that add to these events the desired goals and dimensions.
The luck of Lebanese cinema from the civil war that extended for about two decades (1975-1990) was that it was more numerous and better in production. There was no YouTube and Internet during the war or immediately after it, which enabled Lebanese film, both documentary and fiction, to preserve its identity and vision.
The first four films were in themselves distinguished for their importance, albeit at different levels, namely, Beirut Encounter by Burhan Alawia (presented at the 1976 Venice Film Festival as part of the competition), Beirut ya Beirut and Little Wars by Maroun Baghdadi, The Refuge by Rafik Hajjar and Lebanon… why? by George Shamshoum.
After the war itself, films produced about it and its aftermath multiplied, such as The Ring of Fire by BahijHojeij (2004), I am not a Martyr by Sameh Al-Qadi (2015), One Day in Beirut by Jocelyn Saab (1995), It is Time by Jean-Claude Qudsi (1994), The Flower House by Joanna Hajitoma and Khalil Joreige (1999) and Case 32 by ZiadDouiri, up to recent films such as Miguel’s War by Eliane Raheb and many other films by George Hashem, Dima Al Hur, Philip Aractingi and GhassanSalhab, along with other films of the above-mentioned (Saab Hajjaj, Qudsi, etc...).
Of course, not all Arab cinema is films of wars, problems and revolutions. This needs a separate study as it reflects many issues, political, economic and social, and several classifications can be extracted from them under the names of the city, generations, memory, immigration, return from immigration, etc...
But the dilemma that Arab cinema is going through raises the question - how can Arab films can leave essential (and not transitory) marks in the world of international shows, commercially and on the screens of international festivals?
There are films that have undoubtedly done this, such as Capernaum by Nadine Labaki, Case 32 by Ziad Douiri, Clash by Muhammad Diab, Omar and Paradise Now by Hani Abu Asaad, Wadjda by Haifaa Al-Mansour, and The Man Who Sold His Back by Kawthar bin Haniyeh, among others, in the last twenty years.
But all these endeavors did not form a steady stream, nor did they dig a groove that could not be bridged. It is very surprising that many Arab countries do not have a permanent presence in international festivals, nor in those foreign markets that have theaters specializing in foreign films.
One of the primary reasons is that there are few Arab films that can cross the barrier between local and international cultures. The situation of Arab cinema in this context is no different from that of Finnish, Mexican, Indian or Nigerian cinema.
These are active cinemas at home, but the material they have to show to the eyes of other serious cinema enthusiasts or the issues dramatized with an art and a craft that are suitable to pave the way outside the local map, are almost completely absent from international festivals because popular interest outside the countries of origin is non-existent, as well as any cultural interest.
Arab films shown at international festivals are visited by two types of viewers: the first is curious and the second is sympathetic. Both make up no more than 20 percent of the festival audience.
The rest flock to the upcoming films from the United States, France and Italy, respectively, and then to the brilliant directors who have previously achieved a remarkable and large presence, even if they came from different parts of the world.
At the core is also the fact that the method of artistic narration and treatment of tales circulated in any direction may be exciting for Arab critics and intellectuals, but they are not easy to accept for others.
By this, I mean that many Arab films could not penetrate their artistic and narrative methods into other capitals. The use and selection of shots varies and the scenes to which they belong vary accordingly. The cultural source and individual or collective behavior is not difficult without control over the subject, and few Arab directors are good at it.
The criticism does not suggest that Arab cinema should imitate an American narrative for ease of access, but so many of our directors work within a box of their own cultural preferences. They work on their material as they think it is right and appropriate for everyone. Among them are those who never think outside the box. They lack creativity and talent in the search for maximum importance and presence.
The gesture of the Red Sea Film Festival and its features stand out here. This is because commercial production companies in the Arab world are not interested in achieving works with goals higher than the general desire of viewers (and even in this direction there are shortcomings and many films that did not achieve their commercial targets).
Those that are ready to produce “artistic” films (in parentheses to facilitate the indication) do not have the funding that would allow the individual director to deviate from the prevailing pattern and accomplish a great work.
Fortunately, the history of Arab cinema witnessed many remarkable achievements in this field. Many of them are forgotten today, but if they were collected in a list, the fact would become clear that talent and skill do not know one country, but rather move freely between everyone who has ambition and after that the financial ability to achieve it.
Our problems in this context require the attention of officials on an equal basis with many other cultural and social issues. The experience of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, despite its modernity, is pioneering and serious, and suitable for investment in other Western or non-Arab countries.
It is the clear goal that Saudi officials put into practice without delay or doubt, realizing that cinema is the primary indicator of the development that the Kingdom is undergoing today and a reflection of talents that will in turn reflect their achievements on the Kingdom and its distinguished and large presence around the world.