Cannes: Arab Filmmakers Seek Recognition at Festivals and on their Home Turf

One of the best films of the year premiered in Venice last September, toward the end of the festival. “Theeb” press-screened there on Sept. 3, when more than half the festival decamped to Toronto.

Luckily, this rare Jordanian feature directed by the talented debuting director Naji Abu Nowar (pictured), also played at TIFF. Even though Venice gave “Theeb” a lousy spot, at least organizers put it in the program. The same can’t be said for most other major fests.

While the paucity of Arab titles in Cannes this year could suggests it’s not a great season for the region, their consistent, conspicuous absence from international events means it’s high time the industry questioned why so few programmers bother to look at what’s coming out of these territories.

Fortunately, “Theeb” benefited from the foresight of Fortissimo, which boarded as sales agents before its premiere. Since then, the classic adventure tale, rich in visual counterpoint and displaying a cinematic maturity surprising for a first feature, not only played at scores of fests, but is a success in the Arab-speaking world, where homegrown pics outside of popular Egyptian blockbusters tend to limp alongside U.S. fare.

In March, Film Movement picked up North American rights, hopefully signaling a decent art house roll-out. But why is it that in the current global climate, with the media awash in stories from the MENA (Middle East-North Africa) region, so few of these films make it onto international screens?

On the Croisette, only two Arab-lingo titles are programmed: Nabil Ayouch’s “Much Loved” (Morocco), in Directors’ Fortnight, and “Degrade” (Palestine), directed by brothers Arab and Tarzan Abu Nasser, in Critics’ Week. We know Cannes has always turned a more favorable eye on Francophone Arab nations — Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia — or directors like Yousry Nasrallah with close Gallic ties, yet attentive watchers have long felt dissatisfaction with Arab films’ limited exposure.

That’s benefited Toronto, which had the intelligence to hire Rasha Salti as programmer for the region, and the fests in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which actively promote filmmakers from across the Arab world.

It makes little sense that so few European and American programmers fail to rise to the challenge presented by the increasing demonization of the region. Cinema, a facilitator of cross-cultural dialogue, is the ideal platform for combatting one-dimensional portrayals. (Talk to Arab actors trying to make English-language pics and they’ll tell stories about casting calls in which they’re offered nothing but terrorist roles.)

Even Tribeca, created in response to the need for cultural bridges, screened only one Arab film this year, a nine-minute short (“Kingdom of Garbage” by Iraq’s Yasir Kareem). Mention must also be made of the recent tragic loss of MoMA curator Jytte Jensen, one of the very few U.S.-based programmers who gave Arab cinema an appropriate platform.

Could it be there just isn’t the product? In truth, late 2014/early 2015 wasn’t the best moment for Arab features. (Documentaries however, such as Egypt’s “Mother of the Unborn” and Palestine’s “The Wanted 18” had a much stronger showing.) Political turmoil certainly plays a role, not just because making films in, say, Syria, is all but impossible, but because finding funds continues to be an uphill battle.

When Western film funds do express interest, they often demand script changes. One of the few exceptions is Berlin-based Razor Film (“Wadjda,” “Paradise Now,” and Assad Fouladkar’s upcoming “Halal Sex”), which doesn’t impose its vision on the directors it supports.

Back in 2011, Pacha Pictures was founded as the first company specializing in selling Arab-lingo movies internationally. Everyone thought the timing was ideal, given worldwide interest following the Arab Spring, yet the company folded the following year, unable to find enough buyers for its line-up.

With everyone looking at the MENA region, where were the brave programmers and distributors willing to showcase real Arab voices? Luckily, today Egypt’s MAD Solutions is drawing attention to the range of Arabic films available, but fest programmers need to expand their horizons and recognize that the problem isn’t with Arab cinema. The problem is with them.

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