Arab films receive top billing
It’s something we haven’t seen at the Berlinale for at least 20 years: a Tunisian film, or an Arab film in general, competing for the Golden Bear. It’s something that hasn’t happened since 1996, with Férid Boughedir’s A Summer in La Goulette – at least until Mohamed Ben Attia’s Hedi followed suit in February this year, the news causing a commotion in the Tunisian cinema world. Hedi is just an ordinary man who runs into a young girl and falls in love with her, just a few days before he’s supposed to marry someone else. It’s a simple, universal story. Mohamed Ben Attia may claim he was surprised to have been selected at Berlin, but the producer, Lina Chabaane, believed the film had the potential for success right from the start. She had already produced the director’s first five shorts.
Another country, another success: Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb became the first Jordanian film to be nominated for the Oscars. Taking place in the middle of World War I, the film tells a story of revenge and survival in the Jordanian desert. It popped up on the radar after winning the Best Director Award at the Mostra, in the Orizzonti section, according to George David, managing director of the Royal Film Commission Jordan. “The Oscars nomination is, in itself, a victory; even if the film didn’t win, it opened a door for Jordanian cinema,” he remarked.
What do these titles have in common? A great deal of preparation before shooting. Before taking its current form, Hedi participated in the Sud Ecriture workshop and also received a grant at the 2015 Carthage Film Festival for the completion of the film. According to Tahar Chikhaoui, a film critic, Tunisian cinema is experiencing a revival. And while he suggests that this renaissance concerns documentaries first and foremost, it doesn’t mean that fictional works are being left out: “New fiction films stick to the classic, Tunisian cinema tradition, but have been made with more professionalism: the projects are better structured,” he explained. “Hedi has become part of the canon of Tunisian cinema but brings something new that we’re not used to in the country: the boy is reserved, and there are occasional moments of silence, of restraint, and that can be quite impressive. The way it was filmed is also closer to today’s sensibilities.” The film’s seriousness was inspired by its co-producers, the Dardenne brothers, and its new approach is in line with that of As I Open My Eyes. Hedi has been branded the “male doppelgänger” of Leyla Bouzid’s debut feature.
When it comes to Theeb, the work was focused on innovative casting. To tell the story in the most realistic way possible, the director decided to work with non-professional actors, mainly Bedouins. Aside from two of the actors, they were all first-timers in front of the camera. Some hadn’t even seen a film at a movie theatre before. These budding actors followed an eight-month training course, after which the director and scriptwriter spent several months among Bedouins to better develop their story. For Tahar Chikhaoui, Theeb speaks “about reality but takes on a universal form, and that’s what works for this film. We can see a mix of archaism, regional culture and some kind of cinematographic methodology: it’s ingenious.” The film shares Hedi’s desire to speak to as many people as possible, no matter where they come from. Lina Chabaane commented, “The film is sincere, it pleases everyone, and it moves audiences from all walks of life, because it looks at life, love and the evolution of a character who suddenly finds himself with the strength to say ‘no’ to a seemingly predetermined destiny.” Two stories, two countries, but with one recipe for success: a universal story told through the language of sophisticated cinematography.
The number of films produced in Arab nations is growing constantly. In Jordan, between 2007 and 2012, 17 feature-length fiction films and six documentaries were put together. While this figure certainly doesn’t set the world alight, the films have frequently received awards at a large number of regional and international festivals. “Of course, there’s still a long way to go,” George David admitted. “The Royal Film Commission Jordan wants to develop new skills.” In order to do that, the commission has put in place a number of educational programmes and workshops for Jordanians wanting to break into cinema.
Far beyond Jordanian and Tunisian soil, Arab cinema seems to be going through a revival. Several directors are using the camera to tell their stories themselves. To back them up, funding mechanisms have been put in place over a number of years, particularly in Gulf nations. Mohamed Bendjebbour, the audiovisual attaché for the region, based in the United Arab Emirates, has been following this renewal very closely – especially the economic aspects. “The nations of the Gulf have realised that the cinematographic sector was a tool for economic diversification; it can be used as soft power. They are aware that they won’t be becoming cinematic powerhouses overnight, but they also know that by supporting cinema from other Arab nations, they will be able to gain some expertise and some savoir-faire through their participation in co-productions.” Theeb and Hedi also received financial support from Gulf cultural institutions. The support is not just financial, though; there were also a number of educational workshops. “A few years ago, there was a collective realisation about the quality of scripts,” Bendjebbour added. “Scripts from the Levant and the Gulf were often said to be one of the regions’ weaknesses. Honestly, there’s been a lot of work done to rectify that.” It’s work that was started a few years ago, and is just now starting to bear fruit.
For Hedi and Theeb, their appearances at Berlin and Los Angeles, respectively, were only the beginning of their success. All that’s left to prove now is the commercial aspect. Theeb is set to be distributed in more than 20 countries. The week of Hedi’s Tunisian release, several cinemas were displaying “sold out” signs, so it shouldn’t be difficult for it to cross borders. The film’s appearance at the Berlinale piqued the interest of foreign distributors and sales agents. For Lina Chabaane, “it’s been really satisfying because the distribution windows in Southern countries are often very restricted”. But this is a situation that could change for Arab films over the coming years.
Content produced in collaboration with Cineuropa