The “Friday of Departure”, when the announcement of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation after 30 years of rule triggered euphoric celebrations across Egypt, came on day two of the 61st Berlinale film festival last year.
A year on, and it seemed only right that the 62nd edition of a famously politically aware event should feature the Arab world heavily across its programme.
From films to panel discussions to installations to workshops, there were few areas where the region didn’t have a significant presence. Even the opening film about the French Revolution, Farewell My Queen, offered a hat tip to recent issues in the Middle East.
Diane Kruger, who plays Marie Antoinette, said during a press conference that the story of any revolution continues to resonate, particularly one aimed at “an abuse of power and an abuse of money”.
Perhaps predictably, it was Egypt that had the biggest foothold in the film schedule, particularly the Panorama section, aimed at building bridges and providing new insights.
Two documentaries took a slightly different look at the revolution as had previously been seen on screen. Hanan Abdalla’s In the Shadow of a Man saw the filmmaker paint a portrait of women caught up in the midst of change, while Words of Witness followed the young Egyptian journalist Heba Afify as she attempted to cover the protests in Tahrir Square while getting swept up in the movement herself. Both screenings saw packed-out crowds.
Looking further afield, the uprisings in Yemen were offered an unexpected tribute in The Reluctant Revolutionary. Directed by the British filmmaker Sean McAllister, the documentary charted the protests in Sanaa last year through the eyes of a sceptical Yemeni, with spectacular and emotional effect. Another largely ignored conflict was highlighted in Sons of the Clouds, in which the producer (and soon-to-be Bond villain) Javier Bardem attempted to explain the plight of the Sahrawis in western Sahara, under control by Morocco since 1975. Bardem came to the festival to promote the film, ensuring a filled room at the Berliner Festspiele.
Away from issues of conflict, the regional film festivals were given several reasons to be cheerful. Among the screenings was the Jordanian drama The Last Friday, which was financially supported by the Dubai Film Festival and won three awards there last year, including Best Actor for Ali Suliman.
Another popular film was Faouzi Bensaidi’s dark Moroccan crime noir Death For Sale, which screened in Abu Dhabi last year and received the festival’s Sanad grant as well as an award from the Dubai Film Connection. Fellow Sanad awardees In My Mothers Arms, by Mohamed Al Daradji, whose 2010 film Son of Babylon won numerous awards, and El Gusto, considered Algeria’s own Buena Vista Social Club, were being screened in the European film market, along with numerous others that had shown previously in the UAE, including Image Nation’s Sea Shadow. Image Nation is owned by Abu Dhabi Media, which also owns The National.
But it wasn’t all films. The festival’s World Cinema Fund Day was dedicated to “Filmmakers in the Arab Spring / Insurgency, Poetry and Engagement” and featured two lively and panel discussions, “Focus Syria” and “Documenting Revolution”. “The problem now,” explained the Syrian film journalist Alaa Karkouti, “it that even with all the efforts from talented filmmakers risking their lives inside Syria, it’s not effective on the Syrians themselves, because they never had a culture of watching films. I dreamt of studying cinema, but there wasn’t a chance.”
At last year’s Cannes film festival, which arrived just three months after Mubarak’s resignation, Egypt was made the guest country. It might be optimistic to wish that Syria will be bestowed with that honour this year, but the hope is that when the Berlinale rolls around in 2013, the films and discussions about the region are less about documenting conflict and more about capturing its rehabilitation.
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