x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 September 2017

New Arab films at Venice tell human story of the uprisings

This year's crop of films about the Arab spring are closer to the ideals of the revolution – by not being about the revolutions at all.

This year's Venice Film Festival, the world's oldest international film festival, starts tomorrow, including a handful of films from Arab directors. In contrast to last year's offerings, this year's crop of films about the Arab spring are closer to the ideals of the revolutions - by not being about the revolutions at all.

In Hinde Boujemaa's documentary It Was Better Tomorrow, the Tunisian filmmaker follows a woman as she searches for a home, seeking to make a better life for herself and her children. The backdrop of the film is last year's revolution, but Aida, the protagonist, has only a minimal interest in those historic events. Her focus is narrower, her goals smaller.

The same is true for the Egyptian film Winter of Discontent, by Ibrahim El Batout, which follows three characters - a journalist, an activist and a member of the state security apparatus - over two years leading to the events of February 2011. Asked about the film, Amr Waked, who plays the activist who is searching for a love interest amid the chaos, said the film contained "a message of human resilience".

Two films then, with similar backdrops and similar messages.

Movies about the Arab spring at last year's Venice Film Festival - in particular the Egyptian Tahrir 2011 and the Syrian The Sun Incubator - were about the protests themselves, heavy with meaning and conveying the fear of standing up to an inscrutable security state. These recent films, by contrast, are more about the people affected by the protests.

There is a reality to this, an understanding more in keeping with the spirit of the revolutions.

The woman in Boujemaa's documentary echoes the struggles of so many Tunisians, today and yesterday, seeking to make a better life. The revolution has made that chance more likely, if only because responsive government is better than the calcified system of the Ben Ali regime, but it has yet to deliver tangible results.

This is the real story of the Arab revolutions - the desire of so many millions to find a better life. It was the combination of this desire and the weight of the repressive state that motivated Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation, and ultimately fuelled the massive uprisings that spread elsewhere.

In last year's Tahrir 2011, subtitled "The Good, the Bad and the Politician", the filmmaker Ayten Amin shows the viewer how she found herself facing the oppressive security forces of Hosni Mubarak's government. One can read Tahrir 2011 as an attempt to explain the revolution as an event, a way of trying to understand what happened, how the mass uprising came about and what it meant to live through it.

Winter of Discontent takes the cinematic examination of revolution to its logical next step by charting the lives of those affected. What makes the uprisings so interesting, and what will continue to be fascinating as filmmakers explore these issues, is not the revolutions themselves, but how people made their accommodations, before, during and after. The "human resilience" that Waked talks about was apparent in these countries long before the uprisings, and it will be needed as post-revolutionary events play out.

It is noticeable that fewer films have been made charting the revolution in Libya than those in Tunisia and Egypt. There are several reasons for this - one being that Egypt's cinematic history is the oldest in the Middle East. Also, Libya's uprising, with outside intervention and a bloody conflict, defies a simple narrative.

The same is true of the Syrian uprising, which continues with no clear end in sight. The Sun Incubator shows how the Syrian uprising was influenced by the Egyptian one, but ends without a clear conclusion, in the same way as the uprising is itself in doubt. Indeed, the narrative arc of the Syrian uprising - and it is hard to discuss with analytical language what is, as I write, a horrific war - changes the way that events will be explored on film.

Listen to the view of Syrian artist Muna Al Akkad, now living in exile in Jordan: "The revolution in Syria was very peaceful, it was like theatre. Generally, revolution is a matter for art. There was an artistic point of view in it, despite what happened later with people holding guns and weapons."

These artistic and cinematic explorations of astonishing events are a way for filmmakers and audiences, in those countries and abroad, to understand what was happening in the world around them. But these explorations can only come after the events are over.

When the history of the Syrian uprising is depicted in film, it will doubtless follow a similar path to the Tunisian and Egyptian explorations of their events: first looking at events, then at characters and then at causes.

It is to be hoped - with the Assad regime still committing massacres, with refugees still fleeing Syria - that this artistic process will begin soon. The beginning of a new narrative will mean the bloodshed has ended.

 

falyafai@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

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