Action!: How films from the Arab world are creating a buzz at the Berlin Film Festival

In Germany, where hundreds of thousands of refugees mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have arrived in the last year, the interest in this year’s Berlinale is huge. And for good reason. The annual film festival in Berlin has a particular focus on movies from the Arab world this year. The Tunisian film Inhebbek Hedi […]

In Germany, where hundreds of thousands of refugees mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have arrived in the last year, the interest in this year’s Berlinale is huge. And for good reason. The annual film festival in Berlin has a particular focus on movies from the Arab world this year.

The Tunisian film Inhebbek Hedi (I love you Hedi) directed by Mohamed Ben Attia runs in the official contest, while other films come from Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria and Saudi Arabia – a country that has no cinemas.

This collection of Arab films is hardly a coincidence. In the biggest crisis of the Middle East, it seems that a daring new cinema has evolved, says Christoph Terhechte, head of the more avant garde-oriented “Forum” section at the Berlinale. “We did not plan to do ‘Best of Arab films’. There are so many in the ‘Forum’ because during the selection process we felt there was a lot of interesting stuff coming from the region: documentaries, experimental and hybrid forms, current debates.”

Inhebbek Hedi is more of a conventional story about a young man torn between traditional family life and his desire to break out. This is a common theme shared by several other films from the region at the Berlinale: tackling the old and narrow social norms, which remain largely in place after the revolutions.

Filmmakers from the region are looking for new ways and forms to express their stories. And they explore the history of Arab societies to try to find ways out of the current stalemate.

“We are compelled to deal with all this in our films,” says Tamer El Said, who worked for seven years on Akher Ayam El Madina (In the Last Days of the City). The poetic portrait of Cairo was shot just before the protests started in 2010, and both the paralysis of Hosni Mubarak’s rule and the looming energy of change can be felt throughout the movie. The main character, Khalid, and his friends – filmmakers from Beirut and Baghdad – feel insecure about the future and simply live from one day to the next.

The film did not have a regular script, interaction was largely ad-libbed and the dramatic events that have taken place since also shaped the movie in post-production. “I know the Arab Spring is a long-term project,” says El Said. “But something has changed and our films are part of this.”

This generation clearly is not up for heroism. This is not about The Battle of Algiers or the glory of religion, says Mahmoud Sabbagh from Saudi Arabia. “Our generation is not like this – we are more anti-heroes.”

The film Barakah Yoqabil Barakah (Barakah Meets Barakah) that he brought to the Berlinale is one of the surprise hits of the festival. It had its premiere there and is one of the very few feature films from Saudi Arabia that came out in the past year. The film is a comedy love story and features music by none other than Zeid Hamdan. It was also shot without a script, in a freewheeling style in the Saudi port city of Jeddah last year.

There are currently no cinemas in Saudi Arabia but Sabbagh points to the past, when Jeddah had a lively alternative cinema culture. With his comedy, which was warmly received by the audience in Berlin, he wants to test the waters of a growing space for reform in Saudi Arabia. It is a compelling statement for more freedom by a younger generation which is almost totally excluded from the public space and is concerned about the future.

“Perception of life and death is different, if you are in a war zone or in a peaceful situation,” says El Said. “We feel a special urgency in our life and in our art as well.”

That is certainly true for the Syrian Berlinale contribution shot in Aleppo. Manazil bela Abwab (Houses Without Doors) by Avo Kaprealian seems to draw a special kind of artistic energy from the catastrophe. The experimental documentary is shot entirely in the Kaprealian family apartment in Aleppo’s Armenian quarter, Al Midan. The film is a mix of distant (and closer) war images from the balcony, surrealist film scenes and images of the Armenian genocide and flight from Turkey 100 years ago.

In 2012, Kaprealian was detained by the Syrian regime. All material he had shot until then was destroyed. “After that, I started to think intensively about memory, history and storytelling,” he says.

The documentary styles of these young filmmakers are as fragile and in transition as the whole region.

Returning to the critical issues of refugees, Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) by Italian documentary filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi, tells the story of those newly-arrived on the Greek island of Lampedusa and their relationship with local residents. It is a strong contender to win the main prize in Berlin, the Golden Bear.

While Germany debates its immigration policy, the Berlinale sends its own message in solidarity with the refugees and strong films that keep the hope for positive change in the Middle East alive.

René Wildangel is a historian, writer and former director of the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation office in Palestine. He lives in Berlin.

Source: art & life

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