A month-long series of auteur works being screened at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art aims to change western viewers' perceptions of Arab cinema.
Manhattan film festival seeks to tell the Arab story
NEW YORK // Attracting film buffs to screenings of Arab cinema in Manhattan is easy, says Livia Alexander. Simply plaster posters of niqab-clad women across the city and title your movie series something like Unveiling the Veil.
But Ms Alexander, the co-organiser of a series of Arab New Wave films that opened yesterday at the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) is willing to risk securing a full house in order to tell a more daring story about Middle Eastern cinema.
Her month-long film festival will feature restored and recovered reels that have languished in storage for decades. The series of experimental, esoteric and artistic films will also showcase modern cinema, celebrated masterworks and lesser-known offerings from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria and the Palestinian territories.
A handful of films from Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema 1960s - Now screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which ended on October 23. The collection will travel to the Tate Modern in London next year and tour across North and South America, Europe and the Middle East. "The easiest, crowd-pleasing programme we could do is Unveiling the Veil," said Ms Alexander, director of ArteEast, a New York-based organisation that promotes Middle Eastern art and co-organised the film series with Moma.
"Do Unveiling the Veil - and everybody in the US will come: the intelligentsia, film aficionados and members of cinema clubs. But we wanted to avoid that discourse. The challenge is to move away from that and create programmes that are not necessarily easy," she said.
Since New York was attacked on September 11, 2001, the city has been a forum for debate on Islam and Arab politics, including the current row over building an Islamic centre near the site of the World Trade Center.
Exhibitions of Middle Eastern art, notably last summer's Muslim Voices, have been part of the discussion. Organisers of that 10-day event said they aimed to "create new connections" between New Yorkers and the Muslim world.
But, according to Ms Alexander, art events should neither be diplomatic tools nor part of efforts to "build bridges of understanding between the US and the Arab world". The goal is misguided, she says, and reinforces a patronising view of world politics.
"It carries an underlying assumption that we are the humanists, advanced, and have it right. That somehow they have it wrong," she said. "That art is this tool for advancing democracy and civility and that by critiquing patriarchal convention or Islam, audiences are basically participating in this fight to promote democracy and secularism.
"This is, of course, not the case. The reality is more complex. That is why these programmes are unhelpful. They do not unpack any of those assumptions or problematise the position of audiences."
The centrepiece of the Moma series is Al Zaman al Baqi (The Time that Remains), the semi-autobiographical 2009 film about Israeli occupation by the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman. The final chapter of this up-and-coming filmmaker's trilogy won plaudits at last year's Cannes and Toronto film festivals.
Abu Dhabi Film Festival provided support and funding for the production of two movies that will screen in New York: the Lebanese film Sheoeyin Kenna (We Were Communists), by Abi Samra, and Mina' al Thakira (Port of Memory), written and directed by Kamal Aljafari.
Collecting the rare works saw ArteEast's curator, Rasha Salti, scour film clubs and academies and interview filmmakers for three years in a bid to unearth hidden treasures of Arab cinema.
These include the experimental and obscure 1972 movie Sayf Sab'een (Summer 70), from Italy's Paolo Isaja and Egypt's Naji Shaker, the only movie made by the Egyptian director before he turned his hand to puppetry. The festival also features an Iraqi-Syrian movie from the same year, Al-Yazerli, by Qays al Zubaidi.
Ms Salti, also a programmer for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and co-curator of next year's Sharjah Biennale, described the importance of filling the gaps in cinematic history and conserving and restoring works that have been "written out of scholarship".
Ms Alexander said US$30,000 (Dh110,181) was raised to restore Sayf Sab'een from a version that was stored in a Cairo cupboard for decades. Curators had to return to the negatives of Al-Yazerli because censors had hacked apart the existing printed reels in their bid to expunge explicit content.
The World Cinema Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna spent about $500,000 restoring the classic 1973 Egyptian movie about a discovery of royal mummies, Al-Moumia (The Mummy/Night of Counting the Years), which will also screen at Moma with improved colour and audio.
The series presents a chronological evolution of Arab cinema - the experimental approach in the 1960s and 1970s together with the modern offerings from Suleiman, Aljafari and others, who have benefited from the cost-cutting digital revolution from the 1990s onwards, said Jytte Jensen, the curator of Moma's film unit. She said she hoped to see as many as 10 films from the annals of Arab cinema rediscovered and undergo the expensive and labour-intensive restoration process as part of the project.
"Now people are asking themselves, where does this new movement come from. Is it a movement? What are its roots? The most interesting thing for us is that filmmakers working today have their roots in this cinema from the 1960s and 70s - even if they don't know it," said Ms Jensen. "It's like it was transmitted by osmosis through the culture, the cinematheques, people discussing form and language and critics being very supportive of this early cinema." The selection, according to Ms Jensen, will plug a gap in our understanding of modern cinema by showing the Arab contribution to a global wave of experimentation that was echoed in Brazil's Cinema Novo, Italian Neo-Realism, the French New Wave and cinema elsewhere.
"People should be astonished that in the whole discussion of modernity the consideration of Middle Eastern cinema has been sorely lacking," she said. "That is what we want audiences to get out of this series - an appreciation for the kind of artists' cinema and experimentation that has until now been a hidden treasure that deserves a place in film history and a much broader audience than it has had - internationally as well as at home."