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Last Updated: Monday, 23 August, 2004, 17:06 GMT 18:06 UK
New Arab cinema tells intimate stories

By Lucy Williamson
BBC Middle East reporter

Filmgoers in London are getting the chance to see what a new generation of Arab film-makers have to say. The UK's national film theatre is hosting a festival of contemporary Arab films.

Poster for Terra Incognita
A new Lebanese film is breaking taboos in Arab Cinema
Terra Incognita is a film about Beirut. Or more precisely it's a film about Beirutis, in particular a young woman called Soraya.

You see her smoking, you see her drinking; you see her naked; then you see her having sex - fully clothed - in a doorway. Then you see her naked again.

Now, be honest, is this really what you expected from an Arab film festival?

According to Mona Tayara-Deeley, the film festival's curator, the main change in Arab cinema is that directors have decided to tell small, intimate stories instead of flag-waving or political issues.

"They're really focusing on the point that people in the Middle East are living lives like everyone else - love, friendship, boredom, entertainment - it's just that the context they live in is different."

Arab films lagging behind

Many of the films in this festival are being seen in the UK for the first time.

And while the names of Iranian film-makers like Kiarostami or Makhmalbalf are now familiar to western film-lovers, the new generation of Arab directors don't seem to have made quite such an impact.

When you don't have a domestic market - a market that speaks the language of the film, that's naturally interested in the subject matter of the film - it's a massive handicap for any filmmaker, because you're pleading your case for funding with international backers
Omar al-Qattan
Palestinian film-maker
Yet many of the obstacles they face are the same - censorship, for example, or bureaucracy. So why do Arab films seem to lag behind?

Omar al-Qattan is a Palestinian film director based in London.

His film, Canticle of the Stones, is showing in the festival. He says Iran has been able to survive so well because it is a unified country, with a unified language - and a well-funded network of cinemas and distribution outlets.

By contrast, he says, the Arab world is anything but unified, and its cinemas have largely closed down - because of the video revolution, because of lack of investment and censorship. This makes it very difficult for film-makers like him.

"When you don't have a domestic market - a market that speaks the language of the film, that's naturally interested in the subject matter of the film - when that market is weak, and the Arab market is weak, it's a massive handicap for any filmmaker, because you're pleading your case for funding with international backers not the natural domestic market."

'Money in TV'

Egypt has the only real film industry in the Arab world. In its heyday during the 1960s and 70s, it was state subsidised and producing influential films about politics and the grittier side of Egyptian life.

Poster for Girl's Secret
Egypt has tended to dominate Arab cinema through its state subsidised production houses
Now, it turns out mostly light comedies that have little impact on public opinion.

Emad Abdulrazik, a film critic based in Washington, says all the money these days is going to television.

"The TV industry is enjoying a lot of subsidy from the state, and from the private sector as well. A lot of movie-makers cannot make movies any more. You know what they do? They do video clips. Or if they're lucky, they do soap operas for TV."

Without a strong domestic industry to fall back on, Arab film-makers - from Tunisia, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories - often rely on western co-productions to get their films made.

But for those like Omar al-Qattan, who have stuck to debating the big political issues of the region, the problems don't always end there.

"My films have been banned or censored in various Arab countries," he says.

"But there are different kinds of censorship here. In a way, they're harder to resist because the person imposing them, usually a commissioning editor, has much more power over you than a remote government.

"It may not be a case of someone saying, 'you can't say this', but - which in a way is more pernicious - you may be told that you may say this but you may not say it in this way, or at that particular time of the night, or in this particular form."

Aside from the politics, and the economics, there are cultural reasons why many Arab film-makers find it hard to distribute their films - even across the Middle East.

Because the Arabic spoken in Tunisian films for example is different to that spoken by Egyptians or Syrians, or because the lifestyles presented in one Arab country mean nothing to film-goers in another.


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