The third BBC Arabic Festival, which took place between 24 and 30 March, was a full week of over twenty films, ranging from short to feature-length documentaries, fiction films and reportages that drew a diversified crowd of all nationalities to the almost-packed BBC Radio Theatre in London.
Following many films there was a wide range of Q&As with the filmmakers as well as eye-opening seminars.
During one of these nights, documentary filmmaker, Adam Curtis, talked about the Western media's manipulation of stories and how over the past 40 years America and Britain have invented fake visions of the Arab world to sell to their own people.
At the heart of the talk was the story of the Libyan former president Muammar El-Gaddafi and his relationship with the Assad dynasty.
The closing ceremony was hosted by standup comedian Hisham Fageeh and featured music concert by El-Doum ethnic band.
(Photo: still from A Man Returned)
The premiere, out of competition: Makkah Under Siege
The festival also included very fresh premieres, most notably the BBC documentary Makkah Under Siege.
The film which took over five years to produce, came fresh from the oven at 6am on Monday 27 March, and it was screened only six hours later, followed by a discussion with the BBC production team.
The film tackles the most important historical incident in the history of Saudi Arabia.
On dawn 20 November 1979, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia woke up to the news that the Grand Mosque in Mecca had been occupied by a large group of gunmen.
Prayers ceased as the men and their leader Juhayma Al-Oteibi, announced the end of the coming of the awaited Mahdi (Redeemer) ushering a new age that would render the kingdom itself obsolete.
Almost forty years later, the story remains a mystery, giving birth to different narratives of speculations and myths about what happened, both in the media and the popular imagination.
The film digs into the historical facts and disputes the myths and legends. It also features some of the men who took an active part in the events, including members of the French commandos whose participation in the liberation of Islam’s holiest place was kept under a heavy lid.
For the first time witnesses who were in the Grand Mosque, whether trapped or by choice, speak about the events. The documentary uncovers who the rebels were and what really happened in Mecca during those fateful 15 days.
The film also tackles an important turning point in the history of Saudi Arabia, as before the siege there were women TV presenters and Saudi Arabia was headed towards modernisation.
But those men who besieged the Grand Mosque calling for a more conservative form of Islam with no role for women eventually won if not the battle of the mosque then definitely that of ultra-conservatism, and women were banned from TV and film appearances ever since.
Following the screening there were a lot of interesting questions from the sophisticated audience at the theatre in London.
Many asked about the widely believed myths of Iranian involvement in the events, as they coincided with the Iranian revolution, but the filmmakers dismissed the rumours as there is no historical evidence to confirm them.
Also, a member of the audience asked about portraying the rebels and how in the film Juhayma, who claims to be the Mahdi, appears very attractive, with his curly hair and wide black eyes defined with kohl, and the camera close ups on his face may appear to glorify his image.
The filmmakers answered that in all the interviews eye-witnesses say he was a charismatic leader and the film tried to replicate his image as shown in the few actual photos that were found of him.
“There were two narratives, the Saudi official narrative that portrays the rebels as devils, and the eyewitness narrative that displays them as charismatic and they did believe that God was on their side and that Al-Oteibi was the Mahdi or redeemer. The film tried to put both narratives to understand what really happened,” said Ellie Melki, producer of the documentary.
(Photo: still from Ambulance)
No easy competition
Many films won prizes deservedly, yet it was no easy competition, as the quality of the most of the films was really high. The stories they portrayed were extraordinary, even if we might question some of their elements.
The movie Ambulance won GBP 10,000-worth of equipment and a yearlong hands-on training from the BBC.
Undeniably, the film has a very powerful narration, achieved by very graphic scenes of war, destruction, dead bodies and broken bones from the latest war on Gaza, images that are too shocking for many viewers.
The voice of the filmmaker Mohamed El-Jebaly and his honest and true commentary is perfect, but the film fails to tell a story, neither of the ambulance team, nor of the many dead bodies we see without a name or a history.
It makes one wonder if the spectators have the right to see those dead bodies and their families' grief without even knowing their names or their stories.
However, it was chosen for the very same reasons.
“We don’t see these strong images in the Western media. The jury saw something promising in the filmmaker and chose to work on his skills and next year we will see his new production and I am sure it will be promising,” said Samir Farah, head of BBC Arabic service, who added that the BBC invests in the future of young filmmakers.
(Photo: still from Here You Are)
Yet, there were also films that didn’t win prizes but deserve recognition as they were highly artistic and included graphics, stop motion, poetry and music that are very technically advanced.
For example, Jareedy, the first Nubian film in the Nubian language, is an extraordinary film with the perfect combination of prose, music and songs, and excellent quality sound and picture.
Jareedy is philosophical and touches on the delicate subject of dreams. The protagonist of the film is a Nubian boy who throughout the film tries and succeeds in conquering his fear of water, he saves every penny of his small school allowance to build a jareedy (a small wooden boat), crosses the Nile and climbs a rock on an island.
The movie tackles the story of the land of gold, Nubia, whose people lost their precious land, houses and dreams when the Aswan High Dam was built on the Nile to prevent floods.
There was a rich discussion with thee writer and producer of this magical-realist film, Mohamed Hisham, like most movies at the festival.
But unfortunately the artists behind some great movies couldn’t make it to the festival as they were either in the middle of production of their next movie or they were denied a visa.
(Photo: still from The Wheels of War)
Another film worth underscoring is A Man Returned, which follows protagonist Reda who lives in Ain El-Helweh refugee camp in Lebanon.
He dreams of escaping to Europe but his dreams are shattered and he returns from Greece a heroin addict. He decides to marry his sweetheart in the camp, which is torn apart by the Syrian internal strife, and we see him realistically mix his heroin doses in front of his family, and set up a kitschly decorated bedroom inside the camp. The film is as bittersweet as the camp itself.
The Wheels of War is a captivating feature-length documentary about war-torn Beirut. Protagonists Marwan, George, Jamal and Ghassan tell their story of how they decided to flee the civil war that they realised was not worth dying for, and follow their dreams of motorbiking. They establish the first Harley Davidson club in Lebanon.
The film mixes innovative techniques, powerful graphics depicting the civil war, talking-head interviews with protagonists, and beautiful images of biking against the soaring green mountains of Lebanon.
For its turn, the film Yaman takes its title from the protagonist, who is a young inventor. His greatest invention is an incredible machine which can bestow super powers on paper tissues. This innovative stop-motion short film is directed by Amer Al-Barzawi and depicts a shocking contrast between the ugly reality of the little boy, a tissue-seller, and his dreams of sky-rocketing inventions.
And let us close with yet another film that deserves to be highlighted: Here You Are, an experimental video-poem and piece of art where text and trance music takes us on an internal journey and sheds light on the mental health issues of refugees upon their arrival at their destination. The film is directed by Tyma Hezam, a Syrian-Palestinian psychology student in Los Angeles.
This year, the BBC Arabic Film festival managed to showcase some excellent artistic films in both cotent and picture. It seems that out of the sad reality of the situation in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon, some very creative films are coming to give us hope, after politics have failed us.
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