Five years after the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East, cinema from the Arab world is getting emotional, experimental and decidedly more evolved.
Investigative projects flourished in the months following the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and beyond, with young helmers harnessing the power of YouTube and social media to bear witness to an existential power shift that rocked an entire region. Democracy did not always win out, but documentary absolutely did.
Newer on the scene, though, are genre pieces — laffers and even thrillers among them — from upstart directors determined to dispel their region’s reputation for one-size-fits-all films packed with stereotypes.
“There’s a real diversity in voices, styles and even genres coming from the Arab world,” says Rasha Salti, TIFF’s international programmer. “Social drama typically prevails in the region, but now we’re seeing more and more comedies, like auteur arthouse comedies even. And there’s more hybrid cinema where fiction and nonfiction are blended.”
Salti points to a classic domino effect that has boosted Arab cinema across the board: more local grants from non-governmental sources has loosened censorship and boosted first-time helmers. The cash influx has led to a boon in production, which in turn has raised standards, increased professionalization across the board and encouraged directors and screenwriters to invest more time and effort in evolved, mature storylines.
But while production as a whole is up and decidedly more evolved, it’s the upstart helmers who are starting to make their mark in the region. As the Arab Spring anniversary hits the half-decade mark, the Middle East’s traditional hubs of film production — Egypt, Lebanon and Syria — have stalled or dried up entirely.
“In Egypt, they haven’t stopped production, but where we used to see 40 films a year we now see about 15,” says Intishal Al Timimi, director of Arab programming for the Abu Dhabi Film Fest’s SANAD development and post-production fund.
“You don’t have the big productions you once had, even in the UAE. There is no production at all in Syria anymore.”
As traditional big productions have stalled, however, a newfound appreciation for arthouse and experimental cinema has flourished.
“Storytelling in the region was always rich,” says Ali Al Jabri, director of the Abu Dhabi Film Fest. “But in the last three or four years, many young new filmmakers have started production, and they have a new language and really fresh ideas.”
They also have new means for bringing their projects to the world.
Thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet, the classic pipeline for production has also been upended, allowing for bigger risks.
“With horror and thriller films from the region, there have been some really interesting experiments in Web broadcast and very low-budget production,” says Toronto’s Salti. “It’s a reflection of what the new generation of filmmakers likes and wants to see. They don’t feel the same urgency to make a social drama or express their political opinions. They’d rather make a horror film.”
Despite its strengths, Arab cinema is still seen by many to be a super-niche market, so distribution deals for young filmmakers can feel elusive.
Palestinian helmers Elia Suleiman and Hany Abu-Assad, as well as Lebanese female director Nadine Labaki, are well known on the international market. But foreign distributors, especially those in North America, have yet to warm to many of the Arab world’s other promising helmers.
According to Salti, however, audiences are starting to catch on.
“I have less and less trouble filling cinemas each year,” she says about her picks for Arab-world programming. “People are not watching an Arab film for the first time. They’re coming back and watching their 15th or 20th film.”
The Arab world isn’t the only region that’s shifting, though. Vimeo and Netflix have upended traditional distribution models, cracking open the market for Arab filmmakers in ways never seen before. All this is good news for audiences hungry for a fresh take on such an important corner of the world.
(Pictured “The Idol”)