A New Wave for Arab Cinema?

17th floor of the Hotel Africa in the capital of Tunisia. Early morning, the city prepares for a new day. Sunshine. To the right the beautiful clock with the sea behind it, to the left a look down the Avenue Bourguiba, that leads to the medina and the kasbah square, which was a main location for the uprising almost a year ago. The avenue is impressive with its trees and accompanying bird concert. It is full of outside cafés and what could be better for a man from the North of Europe to sit here, in the month of November, with a café crème and a warm croissant au beurre, watching life passing by. And the men (not many women at the cafés!) chatting, cigarette smoking.

Inside the hotel the Euromed Audiovisual III, an EU funded programme, hosts a conference for a couple of hundred people, which one way or the other deals with the theme ”Towards a New Mediterranean Cinema?”. The organisers have decided to practise the classical panel format for the conference. Thus one group of people after the other takes the floor to express opinions and convey information. The problem with that format is that you need strong moderation to avoid the time schedule to fall apart. The conference organisation lacked that skill so there was a constant delay and time pressure. At the same time as many speakers seemed to have prepared a half an hour powerpoint presentation, and were given 10 minutes to deliver that. And your prejudice about French speaking people needing more time to make their points was not shot down. Not at all!

Themes – data collecting, statistics about production and distribution, promotion, cinemas, film funds and commissions, the role of television. All on the background of the Arab Spring and the hope for a better and more free cinema, be it fiction or documentary. In the room were film people from Arab speaking countries – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya (!), Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. The clearest optimism was to find in the hosting country. ”You know what”, said the director Ferid Boughedir (”Halfaouine”, 1995, wonderful feature film), ” we were called from the Ministry of Culture. Please rewrite your film project with no  self-censorship”!

The main question, however, that came up in all panels, was the lack of Sud-Sud collaboration and whether the Arab spring could spark a new era in that respect. Each country has a close look on own problems – lack of funding, bad television, few cinema halls, dependency of financing from the North (=

Europe), no or few film schools etc. There was a lot of complaining but also some positive examples like young Tunisian filmmakers, who are organising themselves and have concrete plans for creating a public interest in films, be it documentaries or feature films. Or in Jordan where they have a (Royal) Film Commission and a new film fund, or in Palestine where the organisation Shashat has a focus on women working with films and an audience target towards children. In terms of festivals, the FidaDoc, run by Nezha Drissi, stands out as a strong documentary film festival based in Morocco.

On behalf of EDN (European Documentary Network) I asked the question whether an Arab Documentary Network was an idea. In a pre-meeting fellow panelists thought it could be a goal, but in the panel all stuck to their own situation, at the same time as all agreed that a Sud-Sud action should happen. The question about archive came up, extremely important it is of course to keep the images from the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia – and the ongoing one in Syria. Representatives from the Cineteca in Bologna, Italy talked about restoration of films (35mm) and declared that ”restoration of films is like an act of love”, which easily could be transferred to the current (post-) revolutionary situation.

A bombardment of information, sometimes inspiring, sometimes far too predictable and boring comments, sometimes passionate and angry outbursts from producers – as a conference which was the first regional one, organised by Euromed, probably has to be.

Some quotes from the two days at Hotel Africa in Tunis:

”… recording the revolution, yes, but we must be able to understand what is happening. We must create Arab cooperation. We must preserve the memory and pass on from the period of YouTube clips”

”The Arab spring will bring us together in order to understand each other better”.

”In the era of the Arab Spring it is a golden opportunity for all of us to make stories that talk about the silent majority, their feelings, small stories from their lives”.

The two Libyan representatives asked the participants to think about the 50-80.000 martyrs from the revolution and continued to state that ”we have not been making films for 20 years, we have to start from scratch. We need collaboration. With other Southern countries”. ”Can we get rid of self-censorship?”

Several stated that ”we have to aim for self-financing”, and then at the next stage go to the North for help.

A new wave of Arab cinema?

PS. Surprisingly, there was not a lot of discussion of the political situation and it eventual impact on the development of a free and independent cinema. In general people told me that the succesful result of the islamist party in Tunisia would probably not mean anything. Anyway, there had been problems and – to say the least – there are problems in Egypt and Syria, and what will happen in Libya and so on so forth. Here is a Tunisian case from this summer: ”A Salafi group was linked to a 26 June attack on a cinema in Tunis that had advertised a film publicly titled in French “Ni Dieu, Ni Maitre” (No God, No Master) by Tunisian-French director Nadia El-Fani, an outspoken critic of political Islam. In the week before the election, police used tear gas and arrested dozen of self-proclaimed Islamists, who attacked a Tunisian TV station that screened the film “Persepolis”.” (Source Open Democracy) 

http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/kristine-goulding/tunisia-arab-spring-islamist-summer

For the activities of the Euromed, visit

www.euromedaudiovisuel.net

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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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