Locarno Film Festival artistic director Giona A. Nazzaro has come to Saudi Arabia for the first time to serve on the jury panel for the works-in-progress showcase at the Red Sea Film Festival’s industry section, the Red Sea Souk. A former head of the Venice Critics’ Week, Nazzaro has been tracking Arabic cinema for a while and programming pics that are breaking its mold. He spoke to Variety about the challenges directors from the region face as they try to do new things.
My impression is that Arab directors these days are less beholden to an auteur vision of cinema. Do you agree?
This is something that has been going on for quite some time. The fact is there has been a great change of paradigm within cinema from the Arab world and from the MENA region at large. This is largely because institutions such as the Doha Film Institute have had the lucidity and the smarts to put a lot of intriguing new talents on the map. One name that’s representative of this is Ala Eddine Slim (“The Last of Us”), who is from Tunisia. But at the same time, in order to obtain visibility Arab filmmakers are always being pushed toward making what [Lebanese director] Ghassan Salhab calls an “issue oriented” film. For instance a film like “La Riviere” (2021), Ghassan’s latest work – which in my opinion is extremely good – has not enjoyed the success of his previous film [“The Valley”] because there was not a recognizable “issue” item to pin on it.
What I see now as the main challenge for directors in the region is that there is clearly a tangible need to express themselves in a way that does not compel them to deal only and always with “issues.”
What do you think dictates these narrative constraints?
It needs to be stressed that those boundaries are not necessarily always set by Arab countries themselves, but sometimes also by European expectations of what an Arab film should be, which can be very limiting. From my point of view, as the director of the Locarno film festival we are always looking to be surprised and to go in a direction that is unexpected. Last year we world premiered on the Piazza Grande the dark thriller “The Alleys” by Bassel Ghandour, a film that could have been made by [neorealist director] Giuseppe De Santis in Italy in the 50s or in the 60s by Pietro Germi. And I’m saying this as a compliment. It’s a completely popular film; but it’s also an auteur film; it’s fun, but also tense. These are the names that need to be supported in the region
Can you give me another example of an Arabic film that transcends “issue oriented” constraints?
Sure, when I was still at the Venice Critics’ Week I was sent a film by a then unknown Tunisian filmmaker named Abdelhamid Bouchnak. It was a horror film called “Dachra” (2018), which we screened out-of-competition and has recently been released in a wonderful Blu-Ray edition in the U.S. ‘Dachra’ [which is Tunisia’s first horror film] opened the gates to the idea that horror films can also come from the so-called Arab world. And also fantasy films, and so on. You don’t have to alway deal with poverty porn in order to make yourself understood and this is maybe the major shift.
I think that if commissioning editors and people in the Arabic film funds are wise enough to support this new generation of filmmakers we will have a lot of great surprises. Just think of [Tunisian serial killer drama] “Black Medusa,” directed by Youssef Chebbi and Ismaël. It’s a tiny genre film, but if you see what’s going on in “Black Medusa” it’s already telling you the story of the [current] Iranian revolt. There is a moment in the film when the female [killer] protagonist is triggered just by seeing a cleric at night walking. Obviously there are “controversial” elements, but you can’t have art without being controversial.
What’s your take on Saudi cinema?
Directors in Saudi, like in Qatar, and in other countries in the region where cinema is new, are not as streamlined in their narratives as we would like them to be. Whenever you open the door to the art of cinema, there are changes underway and you need to work on them. I see that there is a strong need on the part of Saudis to share stories, this is something very important. We are only at the beginning and I can only hope that the Red Sea will continue to support the strong positive energies that are in this region.