x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Avant-garde Arabia back on silver screen at Abu Dhabi Film Festival

Organisers hope to add cultural and historical context to the capital's cinematic showcase by introducing audiences to rarely seen works.

The Mummy will be shown at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which opens next month.
The Mummy will be shown at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which opens next month.

ABU DHABI // A collection of restored films from the Arab world will be screened as part of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year. Called "Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s to Now", the series is a three-year programme in partnership with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and ArteEast, a New York-based organisation that promotes Middle East artists.

The independent, avant-garde films, which were shot in the 1960s and 1970s, will be shown as part of an effort to add historical and cultural context to the festival. Many of the titles have been screened only a few times. Rasha Salti, the curator and artistic director of ArteEast, said "People, especially young filmmakers in the Arab world, don't know about these works. It is clear that this has been absent."

Ms Salti said Abu Dhabi's archival work is helping to bring forgotten gems to the public. "In building its archives, Abu Dhabi has actually supported the production," Ms Salti said. "Unconventional, non-commercial films have long been neglected in this region, as the widespread lack of funding for production, archives and research proves. But in Abu Dhabi, it is now seen as essential to preserve a broad range of seminal cultural goods for future generations, which is why we wanted to get involved in this exciting project."

This year's "Mapping Subjectivity" slate will include two contemporary works by Palestinian filmmakers: Elia Suleiman's directorial debut, Chronicle of a Disappearance, from 1996, and Divine Intervention, which was released in 2002 and was the first Palestinian film to compete at Cannes. Other screenings will include The Mummy, a film by the Egyptian director Shadi Abdel Salam which was restored by the World Cinema Foundation and Cineteca Bologna, and Al Yazerli, directed by Qays al Zubaidi.

Mr al Zubaidi has lived in Iraq and Syria, and his film tells the story of a young boy's faces a future of poverty and manual labour. The film was screened only once, in Syria. Peter Scarlet, the executive director of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, said: "This important new project promises remarkable insights into the past, present and future experimentation in Arab film. It offers audiences an opportunity to discover, that, contrary to popular belief, radical and artistic films have been a part of Arab cinema for decades. That these films can be screened in Abu Dhabi is testament to the region's increasing openness."

Mr Scarlet said theatres in Abu Dhabi were partial to Bollywood and Hollywood moneymakers and rarely showcased non-commercial Arabic films. "There is a lack of venues," he said. "But in Abu Dhabi, there is an attempt to put the history of film on the map. For young filmmakers here, nothing is available. These films have never been shown before here. Where else would people have a chance to see them?"

Three small films by Arab directors screened at last year's festival - Port of Memory by Kamal al Jafari, Son of Babylon by Mohamed al Daradji, and We Are Communists by Maher Abi Samra - all drew intense interest, and encouraged organisers to add "Mapping Subjectivity" to this year's schedule. Ms Salti said: "Last year was our first edition. The energy we got from the audience, from the workshops, if we didn't get that, we would not have gone through this year."

For example, she said, the question-and-answer segment for We Are Communists lasted longer than the film itself did. "The audiences were very appreciative," Ms Salti said. "Mapping Subjectivity" will travel to Abu Dhabi from MoMa, then to the Tate Modern in London, followed by a tour through some Middle Eastern countries. The fourth Abu Dhabi Film Festival begins on October 14 and closes on the 23rd.

@Email:sbhattacharya@thenational.ae