Kaleem Aftab reports from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in London, where the best in Arab cinema has just been showcased.
Bafta travels east
Before I set off to its imposing headquarters in central London, I had to get over my fear of Bafta. My aversion to the most prestigious screen institution in Britain probably started when I was running around in my short trousers and school tie. Seeing pictures of stiff-upper-lip white men dressed in dinner jackets looking like my mum's bathroom tiles and patting each other heartily on the back in gleeful self-congratulation made me believe it's a club I'm never going to belong to. So it was with some trepidation that I approached this year's Bafta Goes to the Arab World. Even the entrance to Bafta is frightening. Situated at 195 Piccadilly, the building has double doors which magically spring open for other people. But whenever I stand waiting for the open sesame moment, the glass doors stare at me blankly and refuse to budge. It's only when a security guard spots me and presses his buzzer that I gain entrance. One of the first things I see on entering the building is the iconic Bafta mask. While it has given immense pleasure to the long list of stars who have received it, I convinced myself long ago that it was some sort of magical tribal mask sculpted to keep me at bay. Now here I am trying to ascertain whether Bafta will successfully manage to throw its arms around the Arab world. This is the third year of "Bafta Goes to ?" The first year featured Bollywood and the second Mexico, two countries with cinema communities that have been widely celebrated in the western world recently - Bollywood for its beautiful talents, thriving industry and continued ability to attract global audiences, and Mexico for the remarkable artistic output that has emerged in the generation of Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro Iñárritu. Arab cinema does not have star names in the same way and for the first time Bafta is using the event to showcase an emerging industry.
Bafta's previous global weekends on Bollywood and Mexico have resulted in more films from these countries being in the reckoning for Bafta awards - those masks that scare me so much. Mariah Kaderbhai, who programmed some of the films showing at the weekend, says this created a unique challenge. "There are no celebrities in Arab cinema as there are in India, for example, so we set about trying to discover first-time filmmakers so that we could highlight the emergence of the talent in the region. It presents a particular challenge because when you have Shahrukh Khan walking into Bafta, the great and the good in London all want to turn up to see him. Also, because there is not a single country that is emerging we decided to showcase the whole region."
The colourful event brochure said the four-day event focused on eight countries in particular - Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq - though the programme contained a feature film from Jordon, a short film from the Emirates and not a single work from Morocco. On the Saturday afternoon I visited, Bafta seemed the perfect place to be if you suffered from claustrophobia. There were a few people in the main theatre watching Ibrahim El Batout's Egyptian-set tragedy Eye of the Sun and She and He by the Tunisian director Elyes Baccar.
I chatted to the media lawyer and director Mona Deeley, who started the Zenith Foundation after September 11 to showcase positive aspects of Arabic culture as a counter to the negative stereotypes being propagated. The organisation is dedicated to showing contemporary Arab arts and has been doing cinema weekends since 2004. The first was held at the National Film Theatre, now renamed the BFI Southbank, and in 2005 and 2006 the events have been held in the cinema at Bafta.
This year, Deeley explains, is a far more prestigious proposition: "Although this is the third event we've done at Bafta, the difference this year is that Bafta has taken it under its own mantle and branding so it's become a Bafta global event of the year. As such the interest in the event is far higher." This increased prominence of the event was only partially reflected in the British media, which gave the weekend small but positive coverage. The Times ran a favourable review of the closing night film Captain Abu Raed stating, "This polished Jordanian production is a heartwarming tale".
In a preview of the event, The Guardian said, "Not to be missed are a distinctly apolitical Jordanian film (and 2007 Sundance Audience Award-winner) Captain Abu Raed, and She and He, a controversial film about teenager sex that cements Tunisia's reputation as a groundbreaker in breaching taboos". In the London listings magazine Time Out, Ali Jafaar, Variety's Middle East correspondent, wrote a preview. The personable journalist was also on stage after every screening conducting interviews with the numerous directors in attendance.
I told Deeley about my fears for the event because it was held at Bafta. I sat back waiting for her to tell me I was wrong, but was pleasantly surprised by her astute and honest observation. "It's been a double-edged sword in that Bafta is absolutely the best location to hold the event because it's such a prestigious institution, it's associated with quality, all its members are in the film business and you can't get a more picky audience that will scrutinise your films. And it's a private members club so it's a perfect place to hold an event over a weekend period. People can socialise and it's very intense. But at the same time, because it's a private members club, it's been a challenge to reach out to an audience that is outside the membership."
The honesty of her answer was exactly what I needed to break through my own prejudices and start seeing the many positives of the event. The most striking aspect was the quality of the attendees. I chatted to the chairman of the Dubai International Film Festival, Abdulhamid Juma, who said he didn't think twice about getting involved in the weekend. "Bafta has a beautiful brand name," he said. "They support the art of film, prestige, brand and they know what they're doing and can pull the right audience."
That audience included George David of the Jordanian Royal Film Commission in London, who was also meeting BBC executives to discuss the number of projects that the BBC are shooting in Jordan. Attending the closing night reception was Karim Saleh, the French actor who starred in Antonia Bird's Hamburg Cell and appeared in Kingdom of Heaven and Munich. The New York Film graduate Zeina Durra also was in attendance. Her short film The Seventh Dog starred Nadine Labaki and she is currently in preproduction for her New York-set feature film debut, The Imperialist Are Amongst Us. Numerous directors also were in attendance: Amin Matalqa, Ibrahim el Batout, Nadir Mokneche and Philippe Aractingi.
Batout captured the mood of his peers: "Every filmmaker dreams of expanding their audience from one to one billion. To be from an independent background with no budget for advertising, we fight every day of our lives so our films can be seen, and to be showing my film at Bafta is amazing." In a talk on the history of Arab cinema, Walter Armbrust, the chairman and director of the Middle East Centre at Saint Anthony's College, Oxford University said Arab cinema is a misnomer and a tag that was being fabricated by European Film Festivals. The reality is that cinema is different from country to country and hardly any of these films, apart from Egyptian films, have an audience outside their own countries. It was a sentiment that seemed to be shared by other audience members who contributed to the lecture with insightful questions.
The few dozen members of the public who turned up to for the event were universally impressed. After the screening of Paloma Delight, Ellie Bates, a student, said, "There are not many Arabic films that are on general release and that is what is great about this weekend. Normally the Arab films that get publicity in London are the Arab Israeli ones." The final day of the event was designated industry day, when Bafta branding could really make a difference by bringing Arabic filmmakers directly into contact with British distributors. There was a lunch hosted by Kevin Pryce, the chief operating officer of Bafta. There were a handful of British Independent distributors at lunch and the afternoon was rounded off with a panel discussion aimed at promoting the Arab world as a location for filming.
Afterward, Price said, "I think Bafta has made new relationships which will continue and new contacts. Optimistically, people that have seen these films, including myself, will want to see more. Bafta is ultimately interested in excellence and I don't think that this is a one-weekend wonder." By the end of the weekend, I felt like I'd learnt a lot about Arab film, so in that sense the event was a huge success, although it would have been nice if the non-industry-related events were held in a cinema that was more audience-friendly than the Bafta cinema.