x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Arab filmmakers at Tribeca festival hope for more artistic freedom

The Arab political revolts are not only screened around-the-clock, but also spread via Facebook, Twitter and other online media. Arab filmmakers gathered for the annual Tribeca Film Festival argue that uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya not only deserve to be televised - but would also make good movies.

The film
The film "Cairo Exit" caused controversy because of its depiction of a relationship between a Coptic Christian girl and a Muslim boy.

NEW YORK // In his lyrical polemic about 1970s America, the songwriter Gil Scott-Heron famously declared: "The revolution will not be televised". Four decades on, and the Arab political revolts are not only screened around-the-clock, but also spread via Facebook, Twitter and a host of online media.

Arab filmmakers are gathered in Manhattan this week for the annual Tribeca Film Festival. Spurred by events back home, they argue that uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya not only deserve to be televised - but would also make good movies.

Among them is the Egyptian-American director Hesham Issawi, who wrangled with censors last year when shooting a drama about forbidden love between a Christian woman and her Muslim boyfriend. He hopes political shifts in the country will bring greater artistic freedom.

"The story is about Coptics and Muslims and it was just way too sensitive for them," Issawi said of his film, Cairo Exit, one of the Arab offerings in New York this week. "Every time we got the camera out, undercover cops would appear out of nowhere and we would get arrested."

The Romeo-and-Juliet tragedy of lovers testing the bounds of tolerance was shot against a backdrop of mounting tensions between Egypt's religious groups, coming only months after the slaying of six Coptic Christians by Muslim gunmen in January last year.

Ministry officials were alarmed by the inflammatory theme and shut Issawi's set in April. He could not start cameras rolling again until he pledged to cut the controversial content - a promise he wholly ignored when editing the 100-minute drama.

The censors intercepted the only film strip of the movie as it was couriered back from the Dubai International Film Festival, where it had screened in December. Issawi had to revert to his original hard drives to screen at Tribeca this week.

While the religious row grabbed most headlines, it is the film's depiction of young people that has become prescient in the wake of January's revolts against corruption and joblessness under the rule of Hosni Mubarak.

Characters struggle to make ends meet in a gritty world of ill-paid jobs, unemployment, prostitution, drugs, soaring medical bills and the powerful impulse to chance a smuggling ship ride across the Mediterranean Sea.

"Before the revolution, Cairo Exit was criticised for only showing the problems and not offering solutions," said Issawi, 42. "But I couldn't see any solutions. We had to get rid of the corruption and that government. The only other solution was for people to leave the country."

Like many filmmakers in Egypt in January, when crowds flocked onto the streets protesting Mr Mubarak's 29-year rule, Issawi grabbed his digital movie camera and headed to Tahrir Square to record the mutinous masses.

He is using real-life footage from January 28, the "Day of Rage" when army units replaced police on the streets, as part of a film called Black Friday about three Cairenes from different backgrounds coming together in the capital, united by grievances.

Issawi is not alone. Sherif Mandour, the producer of Cairo Exit, Heliopolis, and other independent Egyptian films, counted 25 film-makers in Tahrir Square during the uprising. Next month's Cannes International Film Festival will feature screenings of eight short films from revolutionary Cairo, he said.

Mandour and other Arab filmmakers held a debate organised by the Doha Film Institute as part of the Tribeca festival on Monday. They all expressed hopes that new governments in Egypt and Tunisia would allow independent directors to tackle taboo topics on the big screen.

The public is already rejecting Egypt's mainstream production houses, which reliably produced comedies, action movies and dramas using a pool of well-known actors, said Mandour. "People hate the big stars now because they were with the regime and against the revolution."

Mahmoud Kaabour, 32, the Abu Dhabi-based director of an award-winning documentary about his family's matriarch, Grandma, A Thousand Times, another Tribeca movie, said the Arab Spring may herald a summer of hard-hitting, realist drama.

"There has been an evident symbolism in Egyptian and Tunisian cinema which has been a tool to bypass censorship, and if that is no longer the case, Arab cinema is going to enter a new school altogether," said the Lebanese director. "The stories will become more direct, less veiled, less coated."

Uprisings against autocrats will be the "plot line of many Arab films to come", said Kaabour. He hopes for cinematic versions of Arab uprisings that rank alongside David Lean's epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Gillo Pontecorvo's account of another North African uprising, The Battle of Algiers (1966).

"I just hope that the Arab world will witness the birth of an epic film of this sort that is accurate in its depiction of a historical period, made by an Arab," he said. "If we can't make something of that calibre in cinematic form then it's wasted opportunity."

The directors also suggest waiting for the dust to settle before chalking their clapperboards. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 did not yield an Oscar-winning account of East Germany's Stasi police state until 2007, with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others.

Kaabour is pushing the envelope with his next movie about a singing contest for South Asian labourers in the UAE, called Champ of the Camp.

Issawi knows that Black Friday will test whether Egyptian censors are ready to stomach cinematic dissent.

"In terms of censorship, we haven't had any experience yet," said Issawi. "Will we be able to make love stories about Coptics and Muslims in the future? That's a test. We don't know where the red lines are going to be."

jreinl@thenational.ae