It would be impossible to think about Arab cinema in 2010-2020 without taking into account the decade’s political and economic circumstances. The global economy had barely survived the crisis of 2008-2009 when the Arab Spring broke out, leading to a decline in commercial film production even as the revolutionary euphoria pushed not only filmmakers but also producers and funders to feature the events in question. This in turn led to wider participation in festivals worldwide, generating unprecedented benefits for Arab cinema.
In the first couple of years after the start of the Arab Spring, low- to medium-quality films on the topic were produced. In 2011, 10 Egyptian filmmakers (Yousry Nasrallah, Sherif Arafa, Kamla Abu Zikri, Ahmad Abdallah, Mohamed Ali, Marwan Hamed, Khaled Marei, Mariam Abu Ouf, Ahmed Alaa and Sherif Al-Bendary) contributed a piece each to Tamantashr Youm (18 Days). Most were unoriginal and clichéd but the film, which premiered in the special screening section of Cannes Film Festival, was very effectively self-produced by its makers and was made on almost no budget.
Coming Forth by Day
In 2012, few of the films about the revolution were as satisfying as they might be. Yousry Nasrallah’s Baad Al-Mawkeaa (After the Battle), which premiered at the official competition of the Cannes Film Festival and thereby met the highest standards, was thought by many to defend the thugs who attacked protesters in the Battle of the Camel on 2 February 2011. Ibrahim Al-Batout’s Al-Sheita Elli Fat (Winter of Discontent), starring Amr Waked and Farah Youssef, premiered in the Orizzonti section of the Venice Film Festival and won the best actor award at the Dubai International Film Festival. The filmmaker focuses on police brutality, the revolution’s principal trigger. It too was not very well received. Meanwhile, in Tunisia, veteran filmmaker Nouri Bouzid’s Ma’nmoutech (Hidden Beauties) — one of the earliest productions on the Tunisian revolution — was average and full of clichés but had the courage to criticise political Islam and promote secularism. It premiered in the official competition of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
In later years there appeared more mature productions: Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab’s 2016 Eshtebak (Clash) premiered in Canne’s Un Certain Regard competition and won the silver Tanit (Tanit d’Argent) for best cinematography and best editing at Carthage Film Festival as well as the Horus Award for best director at Cairo International Film Festival in 2017. The characters and the dialogue were unoriginal, but there was skill in creating a whole drama within the confined space of a police vehicle after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Premiering at the Berlinale in 2016, Tamer Al-Said’s Akher Ayam Al-Madina (In the Last Days of the City) was one of a handful of good films about the Egyptian revolution. Al-Said, who also wrote it, tells the story of a documentary filmmaker trying to finish a film about his late father, his dying mother and his friends. Through him, downtown Cairo in the last two years of the Mubarak regime is fully revealed. Though widely admired, the film has never been screened in Egypt.
In Tunisia, the 2016 Inhebek Hedi (Hedi), directed by Mohamed Ben Attia, won best first feature and best actor (Majd Mastoura) at the Berlinale, among many others. The story doesn’t include the revolution as such, merely alluding to the economic crisis that faced Tunisia after 2011. It portrays the psychological trauma that the protagonist suffers due to an authoritarian mother. Ben Attia made his second feature narrative film Weldi (Dear Son), about a Tunisian man looking for his son who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State in 2018. The film was selected in some film festivals and won the best actor award (Mohamed Dhrif) at El Gouna Film Festival.
It Must be Heaven
In 2017, the Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Bein Hania’s Aala Kaf Ifrit (Beauty and the Dogs) premiered in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes and won the Special Jury Prize at the Valladolid International Film Festival. The importance of the film lies in its directorial technique as the filmmaker tells the story in 10 scenes made up of a single shot. The film portrays a young girl’s experience with the aggression and brutality of the Tunisian police. Like Ben Attia, Ben Hania was keen on making a film about the Syrian crisis and in 2020 her second narrative feature The Man Who Sold His Skin turned out to have nothing to do with Tunisia. Rather, it is the story of a Syrian young man who agrees to let a Belgian artist use his back as a canvas for a new project. The film premiered in the Orizzonti competition at the Venice Film Festival where it won the best actor award (Yahya Mahayni). It also received the best Arabic film award at El Gouna Film Festival.
I am Afraid to Forgot Your Face
Meanwhile, only a handful of Syrian filmmakers made narrative features about the situation in Syria. One of them is Soudade Kaadan who made Yom Adaatou Zouli (The Day I Lost My Shadow) in 2018, mixing realism with fantasy to portray a mother’s trip into a war zone in search of a gas cylinder for her home. Also screened in the Orizzonti competition, it won the Lion of the Future (Luigi De Laurentiis) Award.
On 11 April 2019, the Sudanese president was removed from his post by the Sudanese Armed Forces after many months of mass protests. The Sudanese Revolution led to the selection of the Sudanese narrative feature Satamuto Fil Eshreen (You Will Die at 20), directed by Amjad Abu Alala for the Venice Days, where it too won the Lion of the Future in 2019. Among other awards, it also received the Golden Star at El Gouna Film Festival and the best screenplay award at the Carthage Film Festival. The film doesn’t include the Sudanese Revolution in its drama. It is the story of a young man cursed at birth by the prophecy of the village’s holy man.
This decade saw a rise in low-budget films made by younger filmmakers not necessarily dealing with anything political. Hala Lotfi’s Al-Khoroug Lel-Nahar (Coming Forth By Day) won the best director award in the New Horizons Competition at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2012, and a Special Mention for Cinematography at Thessaloniki Film Festival in 2013. The filmmaker’s goal was to illustrate how people lived with death as she depicted the daily routine of a young girl and her mother taking care of the father who has a brain stroke.
Ahmed Fawzi Saleh’s Ward Masmoum (Poisonous Roses) premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and won Salah Abu Seif (Special Jury) Award at the Cairo International Film Festival, where it screened in the Arab Cinema Horizons section. The filmmaker tells the story of a young girl and her brother living in the tanneries of Cairo. The girl is obsessed with her brother, the boy dreams of leaving the country.
Another important event of the decade is that of the Egyptian film selected in the competition of Cannes Film Festival six years after Nasrallah’s After The Battle: Abu Bakr Shawky’s Yomeddine. The film won the François Chalais Award at Cannes 2018 and the Silver Tanit at Carthage Film Festival, among other awards. Shawky made a road film illustrating some details of Egypt as he follows a Coptic man with leprosy who leaves the leper colony where he spent most of his life in search of his family in Upper Egypt.
In 2018, the Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki won the Jury Prize at Canne’s official competition for Capharnaüm, which was also nominated for an Academy Award for best film in a foreign language. The filmmaker focuses on a marginalised slum area in Lebanon where a 12-year-old child with an incredibly high IQ struggles to survive.
Although on the political scene the Palestinian cause has not been in the foreground as all kinds of horrors overtook Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, Palestinian filmmakers continued to make masterpieces. Hany Abu Assad’s Omar, which won the Special Jury Award when in the Un Certain Regard competition in 2013 and was nominated for an Academy Award, is about a young freedom fighter called Omar (Adam Bakri) who is involved in an attack on an Israeli military base — only to be betrayed by friend as well as foe.
Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven won the FIPRESCI Prize and the Jury’s Special Mention at Cannes in 2019. The filmmaker had won the Special Jury Prize in 2002 for Yadon Ilaheyya (Divine Intervention), among other prestigious awards. As in most of his films, Suleiman portrays himself using humour and sarcasm to depict his hometown of Nazareth as he shows positive reactions from people all around the world when they find out where he is from, but goes on to show how they offer him no help at all.
One of the most prestigious awards that an Egyptian or Arab film received this year was a Palme d’Or for the short film 16 (I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face) directed by Sameh Alaa. Such triumphs should affect art house cinema production, encouraging producers from all around the world to invest in the Arab cinema not only to highlight a political situation, but to create art.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly