When it comes to organising film festivals in the Arab world, a little competition seems to go a long way. What used to be a rather thin season of arbitrary, half-hearted cinematic events has, in the past few years, become a crowded, fiercely competitive field. The film festivals running across the region this autumn are now jockeying not only for celebrity glitz and red-carpet glamour but also for serious, high-quality films and airtight, on-point programming.
The next three months are key to the development of film in the region, with a bounty of film festivals across the Middle East. The ninth Beirut International Film Festival opened on Wednesday. In Abu Dhabi, the third edition of the Middle East International Film Festival opened on Thursday. The Doha Tribeca Film Festival is making its debut on October 29. The Cairo International Film Festival, celebrating its 33rd anniversary, opens less than two weeks later, on November 10. The ninth International Film Festival of Marrakech follows on December 4 (the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, the chief judge in Abu Dhabi, is presiding over the jury in Marrakech as well). And the sixth outing of the Dubai International Film Festival rounds out the year on December 6.
The total revamping of this year's festival in Abu Dhabi is a particularly good example of the competition factor. The first two editions were flimsy, haphazard affairs. Judging from the strength of the screening schedule, the third is a powerhouse, and that despite the fact that the festival's new director, Peter Scarlet, has described it just a beta-testing version of a better festival to come. But in an interview with Ed Lake for this newspaper, Scarlet also balanced the optimism of this year's event with a few sobering observations about the cinema situation in the Emirates: "To the best of my knowledge there's no education in cinema, media literacy of any kind," he said. "People consume films at malls," he added, "and apart from Hollywood and Bollywood hits, there's not much else on offer."
This begs a somewhat rhetorical but nonetheless crucial question: Are film festivals enough? If the intention is crudely commercial - to use film festivals to brand cities, revitalise economies, encourage property developments and bring in tourists - then the answer is probably yes. What worked for Tribeca in New York, reversing the neighbourhood's wrecked fortunes after the events of September 11, 2001, will probably work for any number of cities, suffering lightly or heavily in the wake of the global financial downturn. But if the intention is slightly more thoughtful, long-term and forward-thinking - to use film festivals to engender a rich and meaningful culture of cinema - then the answer is obviously no.
Having covered a few film festivals as a journalist, I can say from experience that no normal person wants to take in an event like this the way film critics or industry professionals do. Nobody I know, working outside the field at least, thinks it's remotely healthy or sane to see three films a day for seven days straight, no matter how great the selections. Maximising an entire festival is a marathon enterprise, requiring patience, perseverance and a touch of madness as well.
Film festivals are exhausting. For anyone making only an average wage, they can also be expensive and therefore economically self-selecting. That said, at Dh20 for a film and Dh200 for a full festival pass, the ticket prices in Abu Dhabi are a remarkably good deal. But midday screenings are patently unrealistic for anyone working a nine-to-five job. This means that casual viewers and the public at large must be highly selective in what they choose to see. And then, the question is this: how many of the films now being featured in the Middle East International Film Festival are likely to return to regular cinemas in the Emirates any time soon, if at all?
After MEIFF rolls in and rolls out, what's left in the local theatres besides Hollywood and Bollywood? If a student falls in love with cinema after catching some gem at the festival, and finds the courage to pursue a career as a director, or a cinematographer, or a film composer, where is he or she likely to get more exposure to risk-taking and adventurous cinema. And when? Waiting for the festival to return next year isn't soon enough to sustain such interest.
Festivals may be necessary for creating a film culture, but they are not sufficient. Needed above and beyond temporal and ephemeral events are, first and foremost, dynamic film schools, but also independent theatres and cine-clubs, regular destinations and programmes that are open to the public and continue throughout the year. Needed, in other words, are options, every single night of the week. Coincidentally, I have spent much of the past few weeks interviewing the Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari, who spent his adolescence dreaming of becoming a filmmaker. Zaatari used to read every review he could find by the Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah, who worked for years as a Beirut-based film critic for the Arabic-language newspaper As-Safir, before passing his job on to another moonlighting director, Mohamed Soueid, whose latest documentary, My Heart Beats Only for Her, is screening in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. (A note to newspaper editors: the evolution of film culture requires the existence and circulation of good, serious, well-crafted film criticism.)
But when Zaatari reached university age, there were no film schools in Lebanon for him to attend. Even today, he says, "film programmes in Lebanon don't help you to love film. They help you to love your equipment, and to really use your equipment to serve the different markets that exist, such as the television or advertising industries, but they don't help you to love film as a form or as an art. And they don't help you see more and more."
As a student, Zaatari did all of this on his own. He kept copious notes on (and a detailed count of) the films he caught on television, rented on VHS cassette or watched in the once-grand cinemas of Beirut, which, however battered by Lebanon's civil war, maintained a strong tradition of screening art-house fare, alongside mainstream American and Egyptian movies, well into the 1980s. Despite the lack of educational opportunities, the culture of cinema was strong in Lebanon at the time. The cultural wing of the Communist Party in Saida, for example, introduced Zaatari to the work of Bernardo Bertolucci, both the French Cultural Centre and the Goethe Institute in Beirut were actively screening foreign films and cine-clubs were popping up all over the city.
Zaatari also ran the American University of Beirut's cine-club, which had fortuitously received two 35-millimetre film projectors as a gift from the university president's wife. He asked foreign embassies to help him locate available prints, and he programmed films by Sergei Eisenstein, Ingmar Bergman, Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, Carlos Saura and Martin Scorsese. Although they are small in scale, cine-clubs constitute an intriguing subculture for cineastes in the region, and they also fill in some of the gaps left between film festivals and the mall-bound multiplexes. They are on the wane in Beirut, but there are still about a dozen of them in the Lebanese capital, assembling seasons for Iranian cinema, Turkish cinema, Korean cinema, documentaries about music, American indies, classic road movies and more.
In April 2008, Rasha Salti and Daikha Dridi edited a beautiful collection of reflections on cine-clubs in the region for the arts organisation Arte East. With vignettes on both formal and informal film societies in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and more, the collection, titled "In the Clement Society of Cinema", is a must-read for anyone interested in the region's propensity for embracing, supporting and encouraging film.
Cine-clubs also do something very important: they train a future generation of film programmers who may one day take over the big film festivals, start their own or try a difficult tack by formalising their cine-clubs into real, bricks-and-mortar art-house cinemas such as the Metropolis in Beirut. In June, the Metropolis's founder, Hania Mroue, joined forces with nine other art-house cinemas and cultural organisations in the region to create NAAS, the Network of Arab Arthouse Screens. Included in the group is the formidable Cinémathèque de Tanger, established by the Moroccan artist Yto Barrada, along with Arte East, Al Balad Theatre in Amman, the documentary film festival Doxbox in Damascus which made its debut this summer, Semat in Cairo, Chrysalide in Algiers, the Jesuit Cultural Centre in Alexandria, Marrakech's Ecole Supérieure des Arts Visuels and Ramallah's Al Kasaba Theatre and Cinémathèque.
Independent art spaces and galleries have also contributed to the film scene in the region. Just as the Beirut Art Centre, Darat al Funun in Amman and the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo all organise their own film programmes, so too do the galleries The Third Line and XVA in Dubai. But when a young cultural organisation or newly created film institution in the UAE joins up with a group like the NAAS, it will mean more for the local culture of cinema than even the best of festivals.
* The National