Arab Spring presents oppotunity for some, censorship for others

Revolutionary times are breeding revolutionary conditions for filmmakers in the Middle East, giving rise to a cinematic New Wave even as political instability is leaving many in the crosshairs of civil war and some of the region’s top talents seeking safer harbors in Hollywood and Europe.

“Right now, it’s like the Nouvelle Vague of the Arab world is going on, but a lot of filmmakers are going to suffer a post-Arab Spring backlash as their governments become more Islamist,” says British-born Yemeni helmer Bader Ben Hirsi. “That’s why many are moving abroad and forging links with Europe and North America.”

“Cover and Mattress,” the follow-up project from Ahmed Abdallah (“Microphone”), about a prisoner who escapes from jail during the Tahrir Square uprising, recently faced censorship snags in obtaining a permit to shoot in a Cairo mosque. Ben Hirsi, whose “A New Day in Old Sana’a” (2005), was the first feature to come out of Yemen, is shooting “Little Brides,” centered around child marriage in Yemen, in Morocco. Oscar-winning Iranian helmer Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) is filming his as-yet-untitled next pic in French in Paris with Berenice Bejo and Tahar Rahim (“A Prophet”), with Gaul’s Memento Films producing. (Iran, which is not an Arab country, has a longstanding cinematic heritage.)

“The challenge for Arab cinema right now, aside from political and economic problems, is to make movies that aren’t just arthouse, otherwise the industry simply won’t take off,” says Mohamed Hefzy, Egypt’s most prolific young producer, whose Cairo-based shingle Film Clinic has slated both Abdallah films, and also features “Site 146″ a 3D horror pic involving an unexplored Egyptian tomb, helmed by Gaul’s Alexandre Aja (“High Tension”), set in Cairo and shot in Morocco. That film is being co-produced with Fox Intl. Pictures.

Film Clinic’s London-set gangster movie “My Brother the Devil,” the acclaimed first feature of Welsh/Egyptian helmer Sally El Hosaini, which melds genre, an ethnic element and a gay twist, will get its Mideast launch in Dubai in December, though theatrical play in the region is not likely.

Jordanian producer Heba Abu Musaed underlines that the only director from the Arab world who has succeeded commercially and artistically is Lebanon’s Nadine Labaki, who followed up her 2007 breakout international hit “Caramel,” about five Lebanese women working in a Beirut beauty salon, with “Where Do We Go Now,” about a group of Muslim and Christian women who join forces to prevent men in their village from getting into a religious war. The film, picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, scored a slew of prizes and traveled widely after bowing in 2011 in Cannes.

“We need European funds and European publicity to break out and make it happen,” Abu Musaed says.

Lebanon, which, like Iran, has deep cinematic roots, more recently spawned at least two standout pics, both launched at Toronto. Docu “The Lebanese Rocket Society,” by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, a look at the country’s 1960′s venture into the space race; and “The Attack,” a drama about a surgeon who discovers his wife is a suicide bomber, by U.S.-based Lebanese helmer Ziad Doueiri (“West Beirut”). “The Attack” recently scooped the top prize at the Marrakech Film Festival in Morocco.

In the Gulf, which is fostering filmmakers in a region where such jobs simply did not exist, the breakthrough is Haifaa Al Mansour’s “Wadjda,” the first Saudi feature helmed by a woman, which focuses on a 12-year-old girl whose desire to ride a bicycle pushes the boundaries of a woman’s place in Saudi society. Sony Classics, which will be releasing “Wadjda” Stateside in 2013, may ask the Academy to drop its requirement that pics in the foreign-language Oscar category be released in their country of origin, since movie theaters are banned in Saudi Arabia.

Ali F. Mostafa, whose 2009 Dubai-set “City of Life,” a multilingual depiction of the city’s social fabric, was the first feature by an Emirati director, saw the film become a local hit in 2010, though it did not travel. Now, Mostafa is developing a road movie set in Abu Dhabi and Beirut, which he describes as an Arab cross between “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Hangover,” with Abu Dhabi-based Twofour54 onboard.

Not surprisingly, the Arab Spring has opened inroads for documakers.

“We’ve seen it in Cairo, because so many people simply got a camera, or even just their cellphones, and started shooting,” “Sand” producer Mahmoud Sabit told Variety in October at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where the evocative work, which PBS will air Stateside, scored director prizes for Omar and Dib. But Sabit added that such freedoms appeared unsustainable. “There are bound to be constraints on this,” he said.

The impact of politics on filmmakers in Egypt, which remains the Arab movie industry’s powerhouse, was on full display at the revived Cairo Film Festival. The late-November fest got off to a turbulent start amid demonstrations against a power grab by the country’s Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, that prompted boycotts of the event by helmers and talent.

When Cairo opened a day late, on Nov. 28, with Egyptian helmer Ibrahim El Batout’s dark “Winter of Discontent,” which depicts torture during the Hosni Mubarak regime and links it to last winter’s uprising, neither the director nor its star and producer, Amr Waked, were on the red carpet, in a show support for demonstrators against Morsi.

Others who boycotted the fest included Hefzy and directors Wael Omar and Philippe Dib, who pulled their docu “In Search of ‘Oil and Sand,’ ” which, ironically, is set during the days preceding Egypt’s great 1952 revolution.

“I refuse to participate in a film festival associated with the ministry of culture when the Egyptian government is attacking citizens on the streets,” Omar said in a statement.

Both Cairo and the Dubai film festivals (Dec. 9-16) pulled pics whose directors are considered supporters of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, where filmmakers, largely non-professionals using cellphones, have been targeted by the snipers and soldiers they film in that civil war-torn nation.

In September, documaker Tamer Awam died of shrapnel wounds while filming the Syrian insurgency in Aleppo. Earlier, in May, helmer Bassel Shahade who gave up his studies at Syracuse U. to film the rebellion in his homeland, was shot in the war-ravaged city of Homs.

Syria was set to resurface big time on the fest circuit with several entries at the Dubai fest in December, but Dubai recently announced the removal of three Syrian titles from its selection, including young helmer Joud Said’s sophomore work “My Last Friend,” a follow-up to his well-received “Once Again,” which revolved around the Lebanese-Syrian conflict.

The Dubai fest in a statement claimed that Said was among those who signed the so-called “Syrian Filmmakers Statement” in May 2011, which called for political reforms to be made under Assad’s regime rather than his removal, and have since not retracted their support for the Syrian president. Said maintains that his position has been misrepresented by Dubai as being “an enemy of freedom and pro-killing.” He says he opposes radical Islamic groups, some linked to Al Qaeda, who are part of the anti-Assad uprising.

Dubai will include some Syrian pics, including one from France-based Meyar Al Roumi, who is a vocal opponent of Assad, and whose “Round Trip,” about a Damascus cabbie, is screening in the fest’s Muhr Arab Feature section.

What: Middle East filmmaking is rising.

The takeaway: Change offers opportunities for some, even as censorship causes others to seek haven in the West.

Jay Weissberg contributed to this report.

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