x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A pick of Arab cinema at Safar film festival

We round up the highlights of the film festival Safar: A Journey Through Popular Arab Cinema, in London.

Nadine Labaki in the 2009 Lebanese melodrama Stray Bullet. Courtesy Abboutt Productions
Nadine Labaki in the 2009 Lebanese melodrama Stray Bullet. Courtesy Abboutt Productions

“People who make war in the Middle East should really sit down to a few Arabic cinema film seasons. It would be good for them.” So says Malu Halasa, a writer in residence of Safar: A Journey Through Popular Arab Cinema – a new festival of Arab film in London – which is dedicated not to gloomy documentaries or trendy art house flicks, but to blockbusters and cult classics from Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Talks by filmmakers and critics will shed light on films such as the Four Lions-style comedy Terrorism and the Kebab and the road musical Bosta, some of which have never been screened in the UK. Dubai’s International Film Festival is the event’s programming partner and several of the films to be shown have already been hits in the UAE.

Here is a guide to Safar’s forthcoming highlights, as suggested by Halasa and the festival curator Omar Kholeif.

Watch Out For Zouzou

The “Marilyn Monroe of Arab cinema”, Soad Hosni stars in this 1971 Egyptian musical as a belly-dancing student who falls in love with her college professor, played by Hussein Fahmy – and it’s Fahmy who will be introducing the film at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. “So many people have been excited about this film,” says Kholeif. “People grew up watching [Hosni] as an icon, but it’s hard to get hold of this material in the UK.” Halasa says that its portrayal of women is especially interesting: “Zouzou just wants to dance, but by the time you get to films from the 2000s, such as The Yacoubian Building or One-Zero, if the women have any public life they really have to justify it in terms of working to support a family.”

Stray Bullet

The Lebanese director and actor Nadine Labaki stars in this melodrama from 2009 which won Best Film at Dubai. She plays a bride-to-be who escapes to the woods in the run-up to the wedding and is caught up in tragedy. “She’s the best female actress to come out of the Middle East recently,” says Halasa. “She wouldn’t get involved in just anything; the director had to make the role meaty to get her involved. The film shows what happens to women in the mid-1970s. They either conform, or go mad.”

The Yacoubian Building

This recent Egyptian blockbuster needs little introduction. Adapted from Alaa Al Aswany’s novel about the residents of an apartment block in Cairo, The Yacoubian Building broke records for its budget and for box-office takings. “It pushed Arab cinema into new territory,” says Kholeif. The film’s director, Marwan Hamed, is flying into London to answer questions after the screening and Kholeif promises to challenge him with some difficult questions.


Winner of Best Screenplay and Best Feature at Dubai, One-Zero is notable for being the first Egyptian film in recent memory to have a female director, writer, editor and director of photography. It follows eight characters on the eve of the Africa Nations Cup final and, in Kholeif’s opinion, stars “some of the best actors in Arab cinema”. Halasa finds it intriguing that “it’s about something as patriarchal as football” and says that it gives a strong sense of the maleness of street life in Cairo, featuring characters who are totally believable.

Alexandria, Why?

Kholeif will introduce this semi-autobiographical film from the Egyptian auteur Youssef Chahine, which shows a precocious adolescent struggling to become an actor against a vivid historical backdrop. Halasa calls it a sprawling epic with a Lawrence of Arabia gloss. She adds: “It takes in 1948 in Palestine, it takes in the Second World War, it takes in workers’ rights in Egypt, it has a romance between a Muslim man and a Jewish woman: it has everything and the kitchen sink thrown in.”

Safar at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London begins on Friday and runs until September 27