The Arab Spring, which spread from Tunisia and Egypt, to Libya and beyond, has unleashed the biggest political upheaval the region has seen in more than half a century.
Some say that these forces of social change will also lead to a burst of filmmaking fervor and prompt a systemic shakeup of the Arab world’s film industry.
Hints of such a revolution were in the air at the 64th Cannes Film Festival. Just six months after young Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the impoverished town of Sidi Bouzid, sparking the social media and Internet phenom that prompted historic changes, several pics about the so-called Revolution 2.0, which has been trying to turn dictatorships into democracies, were unspooling along the Croisette.
Riding the crest of this wave, former StudioCanal CEO Frederic Sichler and his Middle Eastern partners used the fest as the launching pad for Arab world sales company Pacha Pictures, the first outfit dedicated to selling and promoting works by Arab auteurs internationally.
“Across the Middle East there is an explosion of desire to say things in a different way,” Sichler tells Variety. Major changes are on the way in terms of what will be said (in movies), and how (it will be said).”
Sichler, who has teamed with some of Egypt’s most exciting young talent and various industryites from the region, sees a possible analogy between the changes starting to take place within the film industries in several Arab countries and what happened in Hollywood in the 1970s, when new works by helmers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman — fostered by the freedom of that era — ushered in a new burst of creativity in the U.S. biz.
“Of course there are many differences,” Sichler hastens to add. “But just like Coppola and Scorsese made the Hollywood studio system more dynamic, something like that can happen now in the Arab film world where the industry is going through an economic crisis that will change its rules and completely rewrite its business models,” he says.
According to Sichler, the writing was already on the wall in “Microphone,” the 2010 pic about the underground hip-hop and multimedia art scene in Alexandria, Egypt, helmed by Ahmed Abdallah, produced by Mohamed Hefzy, and starring hot young Egyptian multihyphenate Khaled Abol Naga, who also co-produced. They are also among Pacha’s partners.
“Those are the guys who initiated the revolution,” Sichler says.
Portmanteau pic “18 Days,” consisting of 10 shorts by different directors about the 18-day Egyptian revolt, was the centerpiece of Cannes celebrations of the events, which toppled Egypt president Hosni Mubarak’s regime after more than 30 years in power.
In one segment, “19-19,” helmed by Marwan Hamed — whose “The Yacoubian Building” in 2006 laid down a liberal movie milestone for Egypt — a regional manager for Intel is arrested and tortured to death by state security, accused of being an organizer of the revolution.
Another short, “Window,” by Abdallah (“Microphone”), is about a young man who watches the revolution unfold via Facebook and the Internet, barely leaving his apartment.
The fest also hosted a bit of post-revolutionary Egyptian polemic. Some of the directors and actors involved in the shorts compilation were accused of having worked for the Mubarak regime, prompting an online petition and a partial boycott the Cannes screening.
“No More Fear,” a timely 77-minute docu about the groundswell spearheaded by young people that ousted Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, which marked the start of the Arab Spring, was also featured at Cannes.
Helmed by Mourad Ben Cheikh, who has worked extensively in TV and advertising in North Africa and Italy, the pic unspooled as a special screening, ending Tunisia’s 11-year absence from the official selection.
Docu, touted as the first feature-length work about the Tunisian revolution, interweaves several perspectives on the upheavals, including that of feisty young Lina Ben Mhenni, who recounted the Sidi Bouzid events in her blog “A Tunisian Girl,” defying censorship and jeopardizing her safety.
“What happened in Tunisia was able to occur only thanks to the disappearance of fear; that was the main tool used by the dictatorship against people taking action,” says Ben Cheikh.
The gutsy documaker also underscores that Tunisian bloggers exported a “revolution 2.0 handbook to Egypt” with very clear rules for success.
A tip for starting a revolution in the region: Don’t put your blog online until three in the morning.
“All the bloggers must do it all at once, because at that hour, the cyber police are so tired that they can’t stop a big flow coming all at once and are bound to let up the wall of censorhip,” Ben Cheikh advises.
The fall of that wall, and the transition to a democratic process is certainly seen as opening up new opportunities for filmmakers within the local industry.
“We will be seeing lots of innovative movies coming from Tunisia, Egypt and all the Arab countries soon,” says “No More Fear” producer Habib Attia, topper of prominent Tunis-based outfit CineTelefilms (“Laila’s Birthday”).
Attia and other Tunisian industryites are pushing for the country’s caretaker government to create a national film center, modeled on Gaul’s Centre National de la C, that could modernize moviemaking in Tunisia.
An entity of that type could be key to opening up funding for works conceived outside the pre-revolutionary box, which imposed a mix of censorship and myopic commercial constraints.
In Cannes, multihyphenate Amr Waked (“Syriana”), who is among Egypt’s most popular thesps, urged Arab pols to help usher in new business models for their local film industries.
“So far, the Egyptian industry has been reliant on financing from a very limited number of sources,” he said. “We must put pressure on the goverment to draft new laws that will allow producers to start making their films through loans from banks, or from funds, or from the government itself.”
Besides being among the thesps in “18 Days,” Waked was on the Croisette wearing his producer’s hat and seeking an international partner for “R for Revolution,” a naturalistic drama being touted as the country’s first feature following Egypt’s uprising.
Pic, being helmed by Ibrahim El Batout (“Eye of the Sun”), weaves together the lives of three main characters: a computer tech, a female news anchor and an Egyptian secret police officer during the Tahrir Square turmoil.
Produced by Waked in tandem with prominent Middle East post-production company Aroma and the helmer’s Ain Shams shingle, “R for Revolution” will finish filming this month with hopes for a Venice bow.
In a break with past practices in the Egyptian film industry, rights to “R for Revolution” were not presold before the shoot.
“This is our film; we own it, unlike what used to happen with most Egyptian producers,” Waked proudly points out. “I think slowly but surely the industry will change its ways, rather than rely on the old formulas.”
Adds Sichler: “It’s a step-by-step process. Nobody knows how many talents will emerge. But there are lots of young people, plenty of energy, and a wide interest in new technology.”
And, perhaps for the first time ever, the changes will be accompanied by a great deal of interest from the West which, Sichler notes, can open up new avenues of distribution.
John Hopewell in Madrid contributed to this report.