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Arab Filmmakers Strive For Wider Audience Reach On Both Local And International Fronts

After being largely confined to auteur ghettos and fest circuits, Arab directors are increasingly shifting toward making more accessible pics that can connect with larger audiences, both at home and abroad.

A desire to appeal to a wide audience is nothing new, since historically there have been directors such as Egypt’s late great Youssef Chahine, who gave Egyptian cinema international exposure and also played well domestically. But since the so-called Arab Spring, a wider range of genres is surfacing, including comedies, thrillers and fantasy pics, just as a younger generation of filmmakers tackle the timely often tragic issues impacting daily life in the Arab world.

These issues — especially Islamic fundamentalism — are now seeping into more innovative types of narratives that can can give Arab cinema a wider reach besides being fodder for bona-fide dramas.

“There is a new generation of Arab directors who understand that they have to make movies with a more universal appeal,” says Eric Lagesse, head of France’s Pyramide Films, co-producer of Egyptian director Mohamed Diab’s Islamic fundamentalism-themed “Clash,” which is screening in Un Certain Regard in Cannes.

Set entirely inside an overcrowded truck packed with pro and anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators in Cairo, “Clash” is “very dramatic, but also funny” says Lagesse. Diab is known internationally for bold sex harassment pic “Cairo 678,” which played well both in Egypt and in France.

“Egyptian filmmakers have always looked to both the local and international markets,” says Intishal Al Timimi, co-topper of the Sanad Abu Dhabi film fund for Arab cinema. “But, for those outside Egypt it’s much tougher.”

Even Lebanese sensation Nadine Labaki, who set box office records in her home country, most recently with her fresh 2011 dramedy “Where Do We Go Now?” about a group of Muslim and Christian women in a remote village who band together to stop their hotheaded husbands from sparking another war, only played in Egypt for a few weeks, he notes.

More recently Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s “The Idol,” about Gazan singer Mohammed Assaf, who went from living in a refugee camp to winning “Arab Idol,” failed surprisingly at the Arab box office last year, Al Timimi points out. He blames this partly to the fact that several Arab territories don’t even have movie theaters, or are severely under-screened. While Egypt, somewhat like China, has a quota restriction on non-Egyptian films that penalizes outside Arab helmers.

In Egypt, however, a post-Tahrir Square pop culture is spawning fresh fare that’s getting local traction such as Amr Salama’s black comedy “Excuse My French,” about a Christian kid enrolled in an Islamic public school who’s forced to conceal his religious identity, and Marwan Hamed’s supernatural thriller “The Blue Elephant,” set in a psychiatric hospital. Both reached top slots in Egypt’s 2014 box office charts.

Salama’s next film will be “Sheikh Jackson,” about an Egyptian Islamic fundamentalist cleric with a secret passion for the music of Michael Jackson. Among other projects Hamed is developing is a film titled “Assassins” about the roots of ISIS.

“Cinema is very useful to show that life in these countries is not exactly what you see every day on CNN,” says Jean Labadie, head of French production-distribution company Le Pact. “I think right now there is plenty of interest on the part of international distributors to provide a perspective on everyday life in the Arab world that you just don’t get on TV.”

Ken Loach’s Sixteen Films, Le Pact, Germany’s Pandora and Egypt’s Film Clinic joined forces last year to co-produce Gaza-set romantic comedy “Catch the Moon,” by Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi, a European-Arab co-production effort that could serve as a model for mounting Arab movies with mainstream elements. “Catch the Moon” focuses on a young Palestinian whose father whimsically commits to providing him and his future bride a Mercedes-Benz as dowry, only to realize this is impossible due to the current Israeli blockade of Gaza.

“Conflict is just a context,” explains Labadie. “Inside this city at war there are still young people getting married and having love affairs. That’s the story we want to tell.”

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