London's month-long festival of contemporary culture from the Arab world includes a strong cinema component.
Migration theme as Shubbak shows Arab films on the move
The development of the Arab film movement over the past five years has been a focal point of the Shubbak festival in London, a month-long series of events showcasing contemporary Arab culture in the UK capital.
Of the many events, one of the most prominent was organised by the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) and Invia (Institute of International Visual Arts). The DIFF programmers selected four award-winning Emirati short films to present: Sabeel by Khalid Al Mahmood, which won first prize at the fourth Gulf Film Festival (GFF), and was runner-up at the inaugural Muhr Emirati Awards at DIFF; Hamad Al Hammadi's End of December, the winner of a prize at the GFF Student competition; Slow Death which received a special mention at GFF; and Nayla Al Khaja's Malal (Bored), winner of the Muhr Emirati Awards at DIFF 2010.
The cinematic movement in the region has exploded at such a pace that the guest speaker Catherine David, former artistic director of documenta X, the tenth edition of an art exhibition that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, said: "It's all so new that it's difficult to have much expertise."
Nonetheless, the academic debate that took place after the films were projected on to a wall at the gallery highlighted some of the thoughts that have been developing about Arab film, as the seeds of a movement have been shooting up over the past five years.
At a discussion chaired by Kay Dickinson, a lecturer at the University of London and the editor of The Arab Avant Garde, one of the main topics discussed was the emergence of a cinema focusing on social and cultural aspects of life in the UAE, rather than the political - what David called "the looking at the social process". This was "happening faster", she said, observing that End of December, a film about the journey undertaken by an old man with his daughter after his room catches fire, reflected a discussion about the despair among older people in a fast-changing society. "Indeed, three of the four movies do not deal with the landscape of tall buildings and the heart of the city," she added, "and this is quite strange because visual artists are more concerned with the urban context."
Migration was a hot topic in these films, said David, citing Slow Death, in which a retiring gravedigger's desire to remain in the UAE, in which he has lived for 30 years, conflicts with rules on migrant labour.
The link between the Emirates, migration and the burgeoning economy of India is established in Malal. A young Emirati couple travel to Kerala for their honeymoon. The wife finds her arranged marriage emotionless and on the last day of the holiday has an encounter that transforms her honeymoon.
Sabeel is about the struggles of two young boys trying to buy medicine for their grandmother.
One of the features that David argued unified the films was their lack of dialogue. They all attempt to present experience directly and avoid analysis.
This discussion was the second of the Take 1/Take 2 Yesterday and Today in the Middle East events that took place at Invia. The first night focused on the exploration of gender and related issues as explored through fictional rather than documentary shorts. The films that made up this programme were Les Illuminées (The Enlightened) by Halida Boughriet, a film about the burqa set at a Paris Metro station; Wet Tiles by Lamya Gargash, looking at forgotten spaces in Emirati society; the Egyptian picture The Fifth Pound, which focuses on the policing of desire on a bus; Red Chewing Gum by Akram Zaatari, which takes place in a deserted alleyway, and Rabih Mroue's metaphysical movie Face A/ Face B. The writer and director Mahdi Fleifel chaired a discussion on the topics raised. He also disclosed that he is nearing completion on a documentary set in a refugee camp based on his own family history.
Syrian and Palestinian films were on the agenda when the London-based Zenith Foundation held an evening of six short films, under the heading Vanishing Spaces. Two films by the late Syrian documentary-maker Omar Amiralay were screened: his first film, Film Essay on the Euphrates Dam and his last, A Plate of Sardines. Two other films from Syria, They Were Here and Before Vanishing, were also about the industrial process and changes in society.
The evening started and ended with two black-and-white films from Palestine: Na'im and Wade'a by Najwa Najjar, who made the 2008 feature Pomegranates and Myrrh, makes use of archive material to recount the tale of her family's forced resettlement in Jordan. Larissa Sansour's Soup Over Bethlehem takes place over a dinner discussion about Palestinian life.
Land In Focus took a look at contemporary cinema from a different country or region at each of its sessions. The day-long event at the Richmix cinema was divided into six sections. The first focused on six short films made at film schools in the region. Other sections included Crossing Borders, which looked at European and Arab directors who had shot films in the region, one on Egyptian female directors, a look at films being made in Morocco, a special selection of Arab films, including a screening of Flu, which won Best Short Arab film at the Jordan Film Festival in 2010, and which was followed by an onstage interview with the director Riad Makdessi.
Also attending was the filmmaker Mahmoud Kaabour and his production partner and wife Eva Star Sayre. The evening ended with a section devoted to his films Being Osama and Grandma, A Thousand Times (originally Teta, Alf Marra) which recently won the top prize at the London Documentary Film Festival.
Being Osama was first shown in 2004 in Canada and uses the simple but ingenious concept of interviewing and recounting the experiences of people called Osama living in Montreal after the September 2011 attacks on New York. This starting point is then used to investigate themes of religion, displacement and immigration. It was a rare screening of the film, and Kaabour admitted to the packed audience that he would be watching the film again for the first time in several years.
Like many of the films on show at Shubbak, Grandma, A Thousand Times involves an Arab filmmaker using his family history as a focal point to tell a wider story about the changing face of Arab society. It's a touching and humorous portrait of family life, and is especially pertinent on how the importance and central role of the family in modern Arab society has changed.
Other events have included a focus on Yemeni cinema, which took place at the Royal Geographical Society and a retrospective on the works of the Egyptian filmmaker Youssaf Chahine. Feature films shown at the festival included Microphone by Ahmad Abdalla, which won the Best Arabic Language Film prize at the Cairo International Film Awards.
ŸShubbak's film events continue for the rest of the month. Between tomorrow and July 23, DIFF is screening a selection of Arab short films at the Mosaic Rooms in Kensington. Included in the selection is Mohammed Al Hushki's award-winning Jordanian feature, Transit Cities.