Written by Joobin Bekhrad
This autumn, the Arab British Centre, in partnership with the Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Dubai International Film Festival will present, in their own words, ‘the most ambitious programme of popular Arab film ever seen in the UK’.
Beginning September 20, Safar – A Journey Through Popular Arabic Cinema, curated by Egyptian-British writer, curator and producer Omar Kholeif, will screen an eclectic mix of films spanning 50 years of Arab cinema. Featuring comedies, dramas (and melodramas, of course), re-mastered classics, and new releases, the week-long event will celebrate and demonstrate the diversity and richness of Arab cinema.
Although the event will focus on films produced in Egypt (the epicenter of the Arab film industry), Safar will also feature films from other Arab countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan. Steering clear of politics and cultural stereotypes, Safar will rather aim to ‘invite local audiences to experience local popular culture’, and discuss the efficacy of film in general in depicting social history.
Although a host of great films appealing to Middle Eastern and non-Middle Eastern audiences alike will be screened at the event, five in particular – Bosta, Terrorism and the Kebab, Watch out for Zouzou, Alexandria, Why? and The Yacoubian Building – are expected to be the event’s highlights. As well, the programme will feature Q&A sessions with internationally-acclaimed film experts, actors, and filmmakers such as Alaa El Aswany, Khaled Abol Naga, and Nadim Sawalha.
Highlights – Synopses courtesy the Arab British Centre
Dir. Philippe Aractingi, 112 mins, Lebanon, 2006-07
The first post-war musical made in Lebanon, this comic tale tells the story of a group of renegade dancers who seek to modernise the traditional Lebanese dance (dabke). When challenged by the conservative regime, the troupe sets out on its bosta (Arabic for ‘bus’), and takes its style of dance to the nation. A box office record breaker at the time of its release, Philippe Aractingi’s road-musical also stars Nadine Labaki (star and director of Where Do We Go Now? and Caramel) in one of her first iconic roles.
Terrorism and the Kebab / Al Irhab Wa Al Kebab
Dir. Sherif Arafa, 105 mins, Egypt, 1993, Cert 12A
One of the most popular Egyptian films of all time, Terrorism and the Kebab,starring comedy legend Adel Imam is a farce denouncing the absurdity of bureaucracy in modern Egypt. Adel Imam plays a father who wants to move his son to a school closer to home, and accordingly goes to one of the Government’s major administrative buildings, El-Mogamaa (the building in Tahrir Square that was heavily spray painted in the 2011 uprisings), to pick up the required documents. Frustrated by the lack of response he receives, he ends up attacking a Government official, and when armed police respond to the situation, a machine gun accidentally finds its way into Imam’s hands. In his new found position as a terrorist, Imam’s demand to the Minister of Internal Affairs is simple: shish kebab made of the highest-quality lamb. After having a hearty meal with his hostages, however, his demands become more political. Interestingly, Adel Imam was later tried on charges of blasphemy for his role in the film. Terrorism and the Kebab will be popular among those who loved films such as Four Lions and other satires, and this screening will mark its first big screen appearance in the UK.
Watch Out for Zouzou / Khali Balak Min Zouzou
Dir. Hassan Al Imam, 120 mins, Egypt, 1971, Cert PG
Watch Out for Zouzou is the legendary Soad Hosni’s (widely recognized as the Marilyn Monroe of Arabic cinema) most famous film. Zouzou is a student who has paid her way through college by bellydancing in her mother’s troupe. She has kept this fact a secret, but has decided to give up dancing because she has fallen in love with her college professor. The professor breaks off his own engagement, although not before his fiancée discovers that Zouzou has been keeping her dancing a secret. Soad Hosni came back into public consciousness recently with visual artist Rania Stephan’s epic homage The Three Disappearances of Soad.
Alexandria, Why? / Iskenderia Leh?
Dir. Youssef Chahine, 127 mins, Egypt, 1978, Cert 12A, Restored 35 mm Print
Alexandria, Why? marked a radically introspective turn in filmmaker Youssef Chahine’s active career, as well as in Arab world filmmaking in general, marking a striking departure from his 1950s musicals, melodramas and his later epic and political films. The first of Chahine’s semi-autobiographical trilogy (entitled Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), Alexandria, Why? focuses on a precocious adolescent whose dreams and colourful attempts to become an actor unfold against the vivid backdrop of Alexandria during World War II. A marvelous cast, including Ahmed Zaki and Farid Shawqi take part in an array of dramatic subplots that capture both the uproarious and emotional aspects of wartime existence. The autobiographical nature and nostalgic flavor of Alexandria, Why? make it one of Chahine’s most audience-friendly works, and a charming and entertaining film that is a homage to the Hollywood musical genre, and which delivers an impassioned message against conflict.
The Yacoubian Building
Dir. Marwan Hamed, 161 mins, Egypt, 2006, Cert 15
The Yacoubian Building in Cairo was long regarded as the last word in comfort and elegance. Nowadays, however, the veneer has cracked and the shine has dulled to reveal the truth underneath the façade. Through the interwoven stories of a number of the residents, the film paints a portrait of corruption, fundamentalism, prostitution, homosexuality, and drugs in central Cairo, and creates a vibrant yet socially critical picture of contemporary Egypt. As polemical as it is nuanced, The Yacoubian Building was penned by leading Egyptian literary figure Alaa El Aswany and directed by Marwan Hamed, and at the time of its production was the most expensive Egyptian/Arab film ever made.
This article first appeared in REORIENT magazine