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Cinemoz Piece: The Skyrocketing rise in Arab short films: is it only temporary?


My piece on the Cinemoz Blog:

Along with the sweeping changes that have occurred throughout the Middle East last year, the Arab Cinema has also experienced an upheaval and proved to be a turning point for the presence of Arabic films throughout  international festivals. Arab Festivals are popping out in cities all over the world, and the budding interest may have something to do with exploring the growing possibilities of liberty in expression that seems to be new ground for millions of people.

In general, though the number of Arabic feature films produced in the last year has increased significantly; short films have become highly appealing around the World, as they seem to pinpoint strong messages to the audience that feature films don’t capture as strongly. Since the upheavals of “The Arab Spring”, activists on the streets have turned into filmmakers, depicting their experiences on the streets and the impact of political change on individuals and families. This new trend, while exciting for some, particularly the youth who see this opportunity as a new medium for self-expression, is still fragile territory for traditional filmmakers, who are questioning the type of “cinema” this movement might create.

Fuad Helwani, an LAU graduate, is a young filmmaker who sees this change as essential to society. He believes that “cinema is becoming decentralized in the sense that more and more people are being able to make film. All the digital media transfer of videos, images, and voice clips is making the filmmaking open for the public. This to me is very important especially with the rise of the digital filmmaking which, by essentially being cheaper than traditional cinema, is giving more and more people the opportunity to express themselves with film.”

He believes that short films today are taking the style of the streets; that content is being focused on more than appearance. With their shaky cameras and improvised style in shooting, “these films are showing the true fervor of the current situation in the Arab World”.

Not all share this opinion. Elie Berbary, a film director in Lebanon, says he prefers film features to shorts, as it takes much more work and cannot simply be done by anyone who holds a camera.

“The main problem in Lebanon when it comes to making a feature is the lack of producers willing to sponsor Lebanese films. Short films can have great ideas, and for trained filmmakers, it is easier to send a straight-forward message through short films, since the financial issues are much easier to deal with. For untrained filmmakers, who have been inspired to create short films due to their changing surroundings politically, they do sometimes have strong cultural or political message, but in terms of technical aspects, like light, sound, camera, there is a great lacking in this area in most films that we watch.”

From Elie’s standpoint, he has spent years slowly and meticulously preparing for what he considers to be the “first real action film to be made in Lebanon”. He had filmed a demo, and is gathering sponsors and finance’s for his dream project. But it is a slow process, while admitting that the recent changes have been significant, due to the freedom that Arab short films have created in self-expression, particularly in politics, the “Arab, particularly, Lebanese cinema still has a long way to go”.

The idea that not just the Lebanese, but the Arab Cinema industry has still not found itself; that it is still somewhat confused, is the same opinion found among many others in this domain, as director Hani Khashfeh describes his view, yet he believes that the film industry in the Arab world has not changed at all. He regards short films to be a sort of platform of experience for Arabs to later on move towards proper feature films.

“A feature is more detailed, but everything starts with the well-written script, as most of movies we watch are not well-written, while some short films have ideas that should be made into features.”

His comments refer to the technical differences in shorts and features, and why shorts are a much more popular platform for Arab filmmakers. First of all there is a much smaller budget, which allows more focus on the message of the film, and no necessary obligation to please sponsors; therefore it creates an independent culture on its own. The creative process in itself to work on such projects gives a lot of inspiration that expands possibilities and ideas today more so than in the past.

Ceremony Manager of the Beirut Film Festival, Rosy El Beainy, who has kept track of all the films being submitted over the last few years, believes that there is a promising future for filmmakers in the region, where new genres of movies are coming out, a strong significant push in documentaries and thrillers, rather than just sticking to comedy or drama.

“There is a nice kind of competition between movie-makers. They are encouraged by their peers to make something significant out of the possibilities that are now available. The quality of the images and technicalities are better, as well as the directing and the script, because people are more focused on creating films that are closer to the reality we know as Lebanese.”

But one question not a lot of people have answered, or even asked. What is the future of Arabic Cinema?

As the region is still in a transitory period, rising fundamentalism is a source of worry for the outcome that will be produced on the region culturally and artistically. In Egypt, the motherland of Arabic cinema, Naguib Mahfouz’s literature, some of which have been turned to features, are now being debated for censorship, and in Tunisia, where Franco-Tunisian documentary filmmaker Nadia El Fani’s film ‘Ni Allah, ni Maître’ (Nor God, nor Master, 2011) on laicism was banned and the director exiled by Islamic fundamentalists, bring up many questions, none of which can now be answered.

When asked about this matter, Rozy elegantly withdraws the thin cigarette she holds and grins,

“Sara7atan (Honestly), they will delay it, but not stop it. Films and TV are becoming much more liberated than we expect, with kissing and lovemaking scenes existing more than it ever was before. And people have just found their voice to express their pain worries due to politics. They won’t let anyone take that away from them in a hurry. Don’t take too lightly the power of cinema. It gives much more freedom today than it can be controlled.”

An example for this is “Beirut Hotel”. Due to its censorship last year for a line in the script that was used concerning the assassination of Former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, it created eagerness among everyone to watch it. When it was aired in Lebanon from abroad, millions of Lebanese watched it for the simple reason of the censorship. It wasn’t a popular film and was heavily criticized due to the quality of the script and acting, but it did show that censorship doesn’t quite work the way the authorities want it to, particularly when sex is involved.

In Fuad’s words “Cinema will always be cinema, no matter how much persecution, intolerance, or suppression, don’t underestimate cinema.”

Hope he’s right.

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