Arab cinema: the struggle to be seen

In search of an audience

The historical notes below were issued by Channel Four television to accompany a season of Arab films shown on British TV in the late 1980s.

By the timemost countries were producing their first films, the West was already promoting its film stars, who are known throughout the world, while those of even the Egyptian cinema are only known in the Arab world by Arab audiences. In Morocco in 1959, of 2,267 films in circulation, 1,061 were American, 492 French, 347 Egyptian, 108 Indian, the rest from other European countries. In the same year in Libya, there were 394 films from America, 126 from Italy and 147 from Egypt.

Today American soaps are seen on Arab television screens, alongside those from Egypt which will probably never be bought for ours. The films we have discussed here will probably only be seen in arthouse cinemas, and even so in Britain today there are less than a handful of them in distribution. The 1986 screening on Channel 4 of Heiny Srour’s Leila And The Wolves was a notably unprecedented broadcast of an Arab film.

Even worse, many of the films will not be seen by audiences in other Arab countries than their own and possibly not even in those. "In the Arab countries ... authority is carried by an accumulation of parameters, identifiable by their use, whose function is to induce self-censorship ... I have never seen a single kiss in Algerian films! Yet there is no law preventing it ..." (Abdou B). This self-censorship is "internalised by the absence of a set of written guidelines", he continues. Religion is a major source of censorship (self or otherwise imposed), because although representation of the Prophet Mohamed in human form is forbidden in order to prevent idolatry, there is nothing written that prevents the cinema dealing with religious themes. Yet the absence of real debate, writes Abdou B, allows Islam to act "as a check on artistic expression (which strictly speaking is not its concern)".

There are many stories of censorship. Chahine was stripped of the (national) prizes Saladin had won and threatened with prison because of a script dispute. In Camera Arabe, Souhel Ben Barka describes his application to some five Ministers of Information to have The Petrol War Won’t Happen shown in Morocco and his determination to go on asking. Other films may only be seen at home, in film clubs, or small cultural festival contexts, rather than on a commercially viable circuit. Often the filmmakers are, as a result of this or other political pressures in exile.

Heiny Srour, whose film is about Palestinian and Lebanese women - today and in the past - lives in England and the film, although she is Lebanese, was shot partly in Syria. Najia Ben Mabrouk, whose feature La Trace, is still the subject of a production dispute and not yet released, lives in Belgium. Both filmmakers have experienced the ‘censorship’ women usually find: "Men are very priviliged in our societies, so they profit from their privilege -naturally. I must say that even if they (male directors) are well-meaning sometimes they idealise women. Woman is not a dream, she is a reality ... That’s what I want to talk about." (Najia Ben Mabrouk in Camera Arabe)

Syrian filmmaker Omar Amiralay lives in Paris: "We are seeing the death of Arab cinemas and the birth of new Arab films…" Also in Paris are (at least) four Lebanese filmmakers, three or four Algerians, two or three Moroccans, ditto Tunisians. Michel Khleifi, Palestinian filmmaker of two excellent films shot (no doubt with difficulty) on location in the occupied territories (The Fertile Memory, 1980, about two women in the West Bank, and Wedding in Galilee, 1987, his first fiction) also lives in Brussels, as does the Tunisian, Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud. He made Crossing Over (1982) on video because he could not raise the money for a film version, even trying in Britain. The story is of an East European dissident and an Arab visiting a friend in England, who find themselves refused entry at Dover. It being Christmas they are sent back to Belgium on the ferry but rejected there too: a series of humiliating journeys back and forth follow and a nightmare incident in between.

A film which deals with the kind of issues raised by Tahar Ben Jalloun above also has to tackle, in the European context, the kind of issues raised by Edward Said. In France, where there are more resident Arabs than in England, and where racism towards them is as present as it is towards Black and Asian people here, young first generation Arabs in France (les beurs) have begun their own film movement - cinema beur - often producing collectively and, of necessity, on the cheap format Super 8 film: "the way to get out of the city, not physically, but to make sure, since such a film is easily circulated, that their voice is heard even if they cannot be present" (Farida Belghoul).