Much of the talk and tributes at this year’s Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) will be of Sheila Whitaker. Right at the beating heart of the festival since its inception, Whitaker’s passion for Arab cinema and dedication to promoting it across the world was unparalleled and her death in July was felt by everyone who worked alongside her.
But before the festival kicks off in December, a tribute is starting in London in the shape of a year-long celebration of Arab film that has been dedicated to DIFF’s late director of international programming.
Discover Arab Cinema, which starts on Wednesday at the British Film Institute (BFI), is a 12-month exploration of film from the region and its diaspora, combining contemporary films alongside revisited classics. The selection has been put together by Zenith Foundation, the London-based organisation focusing on Arab culture.
“Sheila was basically part of the programme’s ‘thinking committee’,” says Mona Deeley, Zenith’s founding director and the curator of the film programme, speaking from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. “When I first presented it to the BFI, Sheila was also encouraging them to do more things with the Arab world. She was very supportive and thought it was a very good project.”
The programme fires up with a month-long look at new Egyptian cinema, starting with Winter of Discontent. Directed by Ibrahim El Batout and starring Amr Waked, the tense drama set around Egypt’s 2011 revolution screened at the DIFF last year and is followed by fellow DIFF attendee, Microphone – the 2010 docudrama by the rising star Ahmad Abdalla that comically prises open Alexandria’s underground music scene. Later in November, there’s Coming Forth By Day, Hala Lotfy’s hugely acclaimed debut that received support by Abu Dhabi’s Sanad fund, and Born on 25 January, a documentary by Ahmed Rashwan that follows four months of the Egyptian revolution.
“For the first time a group of Egyptian filmmakers that have been receiving a lot of international attention are being put under one umbrella,” says Deeley.
After Egypt, the focus moves to family life, with screenings of The Last Friday – the Jordanian drama that earned Ali Suliman the Best Actor award in Dubai in 2011. And in January, we turn to Algeria. Among the four films from there are Bab El Oued City, the 1994 drama by the newly crowned Variety Middle East Filmmaker of the Year, Merzak Allouache, and two by Mohammed Lakhdar Hamina, including Chronicle of the Years of Fire, the first Arab film to win the Palm d’Or.
“The Algerian selection covers different generations, but also different concerns. One is about independence and what the French were doing to Algeria, with another it’s the Islamists and with the last film is actually the diaspora returning home. The idea was to present a curated programme within each presentation,” says Deeley.
Discover Arab Cinema lands in London at the end of a globally successful year for Arab film, largely thanks to the continued success of the Saudi drama Wadjda. Since screening in Dubai last year, Haifaa Al Mansour’s debut film has gone on to open commercially across Europe and North America, capturing the hearts of critics and cinema- goers alike, and has been submitted as Saudi Arabia’s first nomination for the Academy Awards.
But although Wadjda has helped open a door into Arab cinema that was perhaps not readily accessible before, Deeley believes the screenings at the BFI are the sort that should appeal to any film- appreciative audience.
“Nobody interested in film as an art form would necessarily just watch American movies. But that’s why the BFI is a good venue. Subscribers to the BFI are all film lovers and I think film audiences are open to international cinema.”
After the 12 months comes to an end, Deeley says she hopes this focus on Arab cinema continues at the BFI. With the output from the region rising each year, backed up by continued support through the growing number of initiatives offered by film festivals and cultural organisations, there are likely to be plenty of new titles to choose from. It’s just sad that Whitaker, who also headed up programming at the BFI’s National Theatre (now called BFI Southbank) where Discover Arab Cinema will be screening, won’t be here to see it. Undoubtedly, she would have approved enormously.