2019 has been an excellent year for films from Africa and the Middle East, with a higher presence in A-list festivals, and kudos for films such as Mati Diop’s “Atlantics,” which won the Grand Prix at Cannes.
The “new wave” of Arab and African cinema includes a small group of films that explore links with genre cinema – including fantasy, sci-fi and horror – which is related to a broader trend in literature and the contemporary arts in the Arab world that is exploring dystopias and fantasy settings.
Lamia Chraibi, a leading producer of daring films from the Middle East and North Africa region, is developing a pan-Arab genre series, “Meskoun,” with Moroccan filmmaker Hicham Lasri (“Jahilya”) as showrunner, in coproduction with Mohamed Hefzy’s Film Clinic (Egypt), Georges Schoucair’s Abbout Productions (Lebanon) and Habib Attia’s Cinetelefilms (Tunisia).
Chraibi recently produced Talal Selhami’s “Achoura,” Morocco’s first fantasy film, for which Orange Studios is handling international sales. The pic won the Special Jury Prize in the 2019 Sitges Fantastic Film Festival.
Until now Chraibi has specialized in social realism films with a strong political voice, but she believes that genre codes can also be used in stories set in the Arab world, since it has a rich fabric of stories and beliefs that can be explored. She nonetheless highlights the danger of producing a fake “Orientalism” that is not rooted in local traditions.
“Meskoun” coproducer Shoucair is developing his first genre-themed feature film. This follows in the wake of his founding of the Maskoon Fantastic Film Festival in Beirut, which is positioned as the only festival in the region focusing exclusively on modern genre film, dedicated to screening horror, thriller, science-fiction, fantasy and action films from around the world.
Maskoon is a member of the Méliès International Festivals Federation (MIFF). In its second edition Maskoon inked a formal partnership with Sitges Fantastic Film Festival, and the best short from Maskoon is shown in Sitges.
Inspired by this experience, Schoucair is now developing his first genre movie “Under Construction,” to be directed by Nadim Tabet, written by Tabet and Antoine Waked. In 2017 Schoucair produced Tabet’s debut feature “One of These Days,” about Lebanese youth.
The new pic, pitched as an “elevated horror film,” has been presented to several development competitions, including the Frontières International Co-Production Market in Montreal.
In the Cairo Film Connection (CFC), a co-production platform for Arabic film projects, it won the Arabia Pictures award and the Red Sea Festival prize, which means that the project will participate in the new Saudi fest’s project market. Schoucair hopes to shoot the pic in September 2020.
“Through Maskoon’s master classes and all the foreign filmmakers attending our festival, I discovered a new world. For me, genre movies offer an interesting way to tell stories with some distance and perhaps less risk of censorship. My main idea is to do something more commercial, closer to the audience, without going too commercial.”
Schoucair considers that streaming platforms have played a key role in fostering greater circulation of African and Arab content both within the region and to the world and have also stimulated the development of new trends such as genre films.
“I think the phenomenon of the streamers and Netflix in particular is one of the reasons for the change,” commented Schoucair. “The other streamers aren’t really inventing anything new in this region. Netflix has introduced audiences to non-English language films, documentaries and genre movies from this region. They have a creative and intellectual approach, not just commercial.”
The Marrakech Film Festival’s 2nd Atlas Workshops held two panel discussions on the theme of genre cinema, which analyzed the roots of the phenomenon and its likely evolution.
“Atlantics, Between Realism and the Fantastic: Writing and Filming Absence” featured a discussion between French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and screenwriter Olivier Demangel, moderated by film critic Farah-Clémentine Issifou.
Diop emphasized that she does not view her film as a genre film – she simply thinks that spirits form part of reality. She introduced the themes of phantasms and possession in her film to show the returned spirits of young Senegalese would-be emigrants who died trying to cross the sea.
“Unearthing the Fantastic: The Rise of Arab Genre Cinema and the Challenges Ahead” was a panel discussion between Moroccan filmmaker Talal Selhami, Lebanese writer Lina Mounzer, Palestinian artist and filmmaker Larissa Sansour, moderated by Egyptian film critic Joseph Fahim.
The participants noted that over the last three decades the main style adopted by independent films from the region has been social realism. In recent years, however, independent cinema has begun to embrace genre filmmaking, including directors such as Amin Sidi-Boumédine (“Abou Leila”), Abdelhamid Bouchnak (“Dachra”), and Larissa Sansour (“In the Future, They Ate from the Finest Porcelain”).
Fahim stated that “Arab genre cinema wasn’t born two years ago. If you go back to the history of Arab genre cinema you can trace it back to early days of Egyptian cinema with somebody like the great Kamal El-Sheikh, who is known as the Egyptian Hitchcock and who made amazing movies. You had this crazy movement in the 1980s of kitsch sci-fi and horror and we’ve had directors such as Morocco’s Nour-Eddine Lakhmari, who directed thrillers such as “Zero” and “Casanegra.”
Fahim added that 2019 has been a watershed year. “Film festivals, programmers and producers have finally taken notice.”
Mounzer discussed the phenomenon of Arab dystopian fiction including Ahmed Saadawi’s novel “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” which won the International Prize for Arab Fiction in 2014.
Sansour, whose dual screen sci-feature “In Vitro” was shown in the Danish Pavilion in the Venice Biennale, suggested that the contemporary art world is more open to genre approaches than cinema.
Her eco-apocalypse feature “Heirloom” which builds on the universe developed in “In Vitro” competed in the development competition of the Atlas Workshops. Her inspirations include Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and Bergman’s “Persona.”
Selhami said that he is part of the 1980s generation which rented films from video clubs that had a high number of American genre movies. “For me it’s very natural to come to fantasy and horror. I hate the term genre, and anyway certainly don’t think that genre is incompatible with arthouse.”
He cited the fact that Asia and Spain have made major genre movies over the last 20 years, and also referred to directors such as Paul Verhoeven, who has made important genre movies such as “Robo Cop” and “Total Recall.”
Selhami said that both international and national festivals have a clichéd view of Arab cinema as being essentially based on social realism. He said his own film “Achoura,” has been criticized by some in Morocco as having a European style.
He’s nonetheless optimistic: “Genre is a huge toy box. I think if we start using this something very interesting will emerge. We have a lot of urban legends, mythology, popular folk tales, and figures like the djinn that can be explored. It can take your imagination further. Genre is universal. Fear is experienced everywhere, in Morocco, Mexico and Japan. What makes each of us different is the interesting part.”