Arab cinema refers to the film industry in the Arab world. There is no single description of Arab cinema since it includes films from various countries and cultures of the Arab world and therefore does not have one form, structure, or style. In its inception, Arab cinema was mostly an imitation of Western Cinema. However; it has and continues to constantly change and evolve. Arab Cinema is a constantly changing and evolving industry. It mostly includes films made in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. However, Egypt is a pioneer among Arab countries in the field of cinema. Each country in the region has its own unique characteristics and identifiable brand of cinema. Elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East, film production was scarce until the late 1960s and early 1970s when filmmakers began to received funding and financial assistance from state organizations. This was during the post-independence and is when most Arab cinema took root. Most films produced at that time were funded by the state and contained a nationalistic dimension. These films helped to advance certain social causes such as independence, and other social, economic and political agendas.
Arabic cinema is dominated by films from Egypt. Three quarters of all Arab movies are produced in Egypt. According to film critic and historian Roy Armes, the Cinema of Lebanon is the only other cinema in the Arabic-speaking region, beside Egypt's, that could amount to a national cinema.
While Egyptian and Lebanese cinema have a long history of production, most other Arab countries did not witness film production until after independence, and even today, the majority of film production in countries like Bahrain, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates is limited to television or short films.
There is increased interest in films originating in the Arab world. For example, films from Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria and Tunisia are making wider and more frequent rounds than ever before in local film festivals and repertoire theaters.
Arab cinema has explored many topics from politics, colonialism, tradition, modernity and social taboos. It has also attempted to escape from its earlier tendency to mimic and rely on Western film devices. In fact, colonization did not only influence Arab films, but it also had an impact on Arab movies theaters. Apart from the history of Arab cinema, recently the portrayal of women became an important aspect in the production of Arab cinema. Arab woman shaped a great portion of the film industry in the Arab world by employing their cinematic talents in improving the production of Arab films.
Film production in Arab cinema
The Arab cinema did not flourish before the national independence of each of them, and even after, the films production of the Arab cinema was restricted to short-length films. However, there were exceptions for some of them. For example, Egypt scored the highest number in producing films for cinema amongst Arabs and produced more than 2,500 feature films. During the 1950s and 1960s Lebanon produced 180 feature films. Two full-length Kuwaiti films were produced at the end of 1970s, and a full-length Bahraini film was produced in 1989. Syria produced around 150 films, Tunisia approximately 130, 100 films produced from each of Algeria and Iraq, Morocco almost 70, and Jordan’s productions were less than 12.
Impact of conflict on Egyptian and Palestinian cinema
The history of the Arab cinema primarily revolved around was impacted by political challenges such as the Egyptian revolution of 1952, the defeat of Israel in 1967 and the Palestinian resistance. However, during the Egyptian revolution of 1952 the feudalism system was substituted with a nationalism ideology led by the Rais. This new government have impacted the film industry in which many of the film produced were ‘social realism’ films depicting the real life of Egypt. Many of the films produced by Salah Abou Seifin 1952 were neorealism such as Master Hassanwhich portrayed the difficulties of the different classes in Cairo. Moreover, this system is said to be derived from the Italian neorealism, however, it wasn't very successful as only a few films were produced. After the defeat of the 1967, where Israel defeated the Arab nation, An Association of New Cinema was introduced and in 1968, the representatives of this association wrote a manifesto which call for “the emergence of a new cinema with deep roots in contemporary Egypt” where “It is necessary to establish a real dialogue within the Egyptian culture in order to create new forms”. However, the Palestinian resistance has inspired many of the Arab filmmakers since the 1948 to produce films about their struggle. In fact, in 1972, an Association of Palestinian was developed to bring all the Arab filmmakers together who their work was about the Palestinian resistance.
Movie theaters in the Arab world
The influence of films and cinemas on Arabs was due to the effect of the West on the Arab World, therefore, natives were not the owners for the movie theaters that are located in their own lands. The first cinema in Egypt was built by the French company Pathé in 1906 in Cairo, aside from the cinématographe that is owned by the Lumière Brothers in Alexandria and Cairo. In 1908 a cinema was opened in Jerusalem that is called Oracle by the Egyptian Jews. Where in Tunisia they had the Omnia Pathé which did not launch before 1907. In 1908, in some of Algerian cities, the cinemas were built in places depending on the population of Europeans who live in Algeria, like Oran for example. Less than 20 years later, most of the Arab countries had more than a theatre for films screening. In Saudi Arabia and North Yemen cinemas were not accepted or prohibited because of religious objections. But in 1960s to 1970s this issue was, in general, solved and accepted by King Faisal, the king of Saudi Arabia. However, in alliance with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Muhammed Bin Salman's vision of 2030, which calls to expand the artistic, cultural, and entertaining fields in the country, there opened the first Cinema in Jeddah on April 18, 2018.
Full-length Arab films
Full-length feature films began to be produced locally in the Arab world after the 1920s. Like the Syrian film Al-Muttaham Albari’ (The Innocent Accused) which was presented in 1928, Mughamarat Ilyas Mabruk (The Adventures of Ilyas Mabruk) in Lebanon 1929, the Egyptian film Laylain 1927. At this time, the process of inserting the sound into movies used to be done in Paris, and Egypt were able to produce two sound film, one is entitled Awlad Al-Bhawat (Sons of Aristocrats) and the other is Unshudat Al-Fu’ad (The Song of the Heart). Although these films are produced in the Arab World, they mostly are directed, produced, or had any artistic sides from foreigners or immigrants.
Role of women in Arab cinema
Women succeeded in representing 6 percent of the total number of feature filmmakers in the Maghreb during the 1990s, and less in percentages in the Middle East. The first 35mm feature film that is directed by an Algerian woman is called Rachida, by director Yamina Bachir-Chouikh, and it was released in 2002 to be screened in cinemas. In the 2000s number of women in film medium increased and was likeable in Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia. Arab women directors were more considerable to women's lives in the Arab World. Arab women also pioneered in screenwriting, where some as the Algerian novelist and the prize-winning Assia Djebar and Hafsa Zinaï-Koudil made their own feature films. One was released in 1978 and the other in 1993. Women from the Middle East who were interested in filmmaking, were cared of since they, who were born during the 1960s and 1970s, were sent to study about this medium in the United States, such as Najwa Najja rfrom Palestine and Dahna Abourahme from Lebanon, and others who studied Paris, Canada, and New York. Therefore, the European style in their feature films is quietly noticeable, apart from the effect of colonisation. Arab filmmaker women also had an important role in providing sense of civil war traumas that happened during the war. Also, providing some of social issues in films; the social issues were specifically related to women, like the sexual abuse issues for example. Director Yamina Bachir-Chouikh was so considerate to reveal these kinds of stories, which some, preferred to keep buried because they did not want to face this unpleasant reality.
Rise of young Arab filmmakers
The young generation of filmmakers born in the 1960s had used the cinema as a way of expressing their national identity and the political history of their country, since the Middle East have experienced many political uprisings including wars and invasions. Although these independent filmmakers had their own cinematic approaches, they were heavily influenced by the West, especially France through European film training and other program that were offered. These young Arab filmmakers produced films concerning issues related to the freedom of expression and the role of women in society. In fact, Arab filmmakers such as Nadia El Fani and Laila Marrakchi made films that were sexually explicit and unlikely to be depicted in the Arab cinema. These female filmmakers and many others, especially from Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco focused on shedding light on woman's issues in the Arabic screen. However, Armes believes that “the views of the 2000s generation [of filmmakers] are defined by the pressures and possibilities of globalization.” Many of the young Arab independent filmmakers have hybrid identities and the different personal and global references are reflected in their films and Rizi describes this form of issue as “transnationality.” For example, the producer of the Last Friday is Palestinian-Jordanian who was raised in Saudi Arabi and worked in the city of Amman. These cosmopolitan identities of independent Arab filmmakers have given them access to major funding institutions. The rise of the new technology in the Middle East have aided in the production of documentary films by young filmmakers through the availability of equipment. In fact, the film Five Broken Cameras by a Palestinian director speaks of the influence of these technologies in the region. Apart from documentaries, feature films were covering issues about national identity, diaspora and nostalgia as they were aiming to connect the outsiders with the Arab society. For example, the Algerian feature film Bled Number is about an Algerian who left France and returned to Algeria as his family greeted him with love and support. These young Arab filmmakers reflect their national, political and historical context of their countries into their films and also discusses issues related to criticism, freedom of expression and woman's role hoping for a brighter future.
There are numerous film festivals that have historically been and are held in various parts of the Arab world to both honor and showcase films from the Arab regions, as well as international standouts.
Aswan Women’s Film Festival
Beirut Cinema Platform
The Beirut Cinema Platform is held every year in the spring in Beirut, Lebanon.
Cairo International Film Festival
Since 1976, Cairo has held the annual Cairo International Film Festival, which has been accredited by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations. There is also another festival held in Alexandria. Of the more than 4,000 short- and feature-length films made in Arabic-speaking countries since 1908, more than three-quarters were Egyptian.
Carthage Film Festival
El Gouna Film Festival
International Film Festival of Marrakech
The International Film Festival of Marrakech (FIFM) is an international film festival held annually in Marrakech, Morocco. Since its inaugural year in 2000, the FIFM has been one of the biggest events devoted to Moroccan cinema. It is also the site of the principal photography of many international productions. The festival's jury gathers international writers, actors and personalities, and endeavors to reward the best Moroccan and foreign feature and short films. The FIFM is chaired by Prince Moulay Rachid of Morocco.
Mogadishu Pan-African and Arab Film Symposium
In 1987, the inaugural Mogadishu Pan-African and Arab Film Symposium (Mogpaafis) was held, bringing together an array of prominent filmmakers and movie experts from across the globe, including other parts of Northeast Africa and the Arab world, as well as Asia and Europe. Held annually in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, the film festival was organized by the Somali Film Agency, the nation's film regulatory body.
Tripoli Film Festival
Elias Khallat founded and continues to curate the annual Tripoli Film Festival, held every year in the spring in the city of Tripoli in Lebanon
Defunct or cancelled festivals
Dubai International Film Festival
The Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) is an international film festival based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Launched in 2004, it aimed to foster the growth of filmmaking in the Arab world. The DIFF is held under the honorary Chairmanship of Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum. It was a not-for-profit cultural event, presented and organized by the Dubai Technology, Electronic Commerce and Media Free Zone Authority.
DIFF presented cinematic excellence from around the world and offers a high-profile platform for aspiring home-grown talent. The Muhr Award for Excellence in Arab Cinema was launched in 2006, with the aim of recognizing Arab filmmakers both regionally and internationally. In 2008, the Muhr Awards for Excellence were expanded to include two separate competitions, the Arab Muhr Award, and the AsiaAfrica Muhr Award. It also introduced a new program segment dedicated exclusively to Animation.
Abu Dhabi Film Festival
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF) was another key international film festival in the larger Arab region. Created in 2007, the ceremony was held annually in October in Abu Dhabi, UAE by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), under the patronage of Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, Chairman of the ADACH. The ADFF aimed to encourage and foster the growth of filmmaking in the Arab world by showcasing movies from the region alongside standout productions from prominent international filmmakers. The first festival debuted with 152 movies and 186 screenings shown in five Abu Dhabi venues. A total of 76 feature films and 34 short films from over 35 countries competed for the Black Pearl Awards.
Doha Tribeca Film Festival
The Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF) was an annual five-day film festival founded in 2009 to promote Arab and international film, and to develop a sustainable film industry in Qatar. The Festival was one of Qatar's largest entertainment events attracting over 50,000 guests in 2010.
DTFF was the annual film festival of the Doha Film Institute, an organisation founded by H.E. Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani which implements, consolidates and oversees film initiatives in Qatar.
The 3rd annual DTFF was scheduled to take place from 25 to 29 October 2011 at Katara Cultural Village, Doha. Approximately 40 films were to be screened at the festival, within various themed sections, showcasing World and Middle Eastern Cinema.
In conjunction with the European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs (EAVE) professional training, networking and project development organization, the Dubai International Film Festival in 2010 also began offering to filmmakers the Interchange group of development and co-production workshops earmarked for directors, screenwriters and producers from the larger Arab region.
In 2011, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival launched the SANAD development and post-production fund for cineastes from the Arab world. With the goal of encouraging independent and auteur-based cinema, eligible filmmakers now have access to financial grants, screenwriting and pitch workshops, and personal meetings with industry mentors and experts.
Current state of Arab cinema
In the 21st century, many Arab filmmakers and cultural commentators are concerned about the current state and production of the Arab cinema. In November 2000, Arab filmmakers from eleven different countries across the Middle East held a meeting to further address this issue and discuss the future of the Arab cinema, as they are of the opinion that Arab cinema has been declining in popularity and quality. In fact, during the meeting, many of the directors, including the Omani, Kuwaiti, Emirati and Saudi participants believed there wasn't any film industry in their country to talk about. According to the Iraqi director, the film industry in his country has been suffering since the 1990s. The Palestinian filmmaker, Elia Suleiman, said that there are no interesting Arab films to watch any more. Moreover, even Egypt, ‘the Hollywood of the Arab world’ is declining and is unable to compete with Hollywood cinema and the American imported films. As, “the number of domestic productions has dramatically shriveled – from over sixty films a year in the 1960s to a little over a dozen a year today – and even those are being pushed out of theaters by the American imports”. One of the solutions, which the Egyptian filmmaker and director of El Medina, Yousry Nasrallah, came up with, is to establish a cinema for screening only Arab films, and he also ensures that there are people who are willing to invest in his project. One of the potential reasons for the decline in the production of the Arab cinema is due to the political conflicts. For example, the Palestinian cinema was introduced in 1976 and has always dealt with politics. Many of the films produced were documentaries about wars and refugee camps. Moreover, filmmakers across the Middle East such as Rashid Masharawi, Ali Nassar and many others began to also develop films on the Palestinian and Israeli conflict.
According to Nana Asfour, the fall of the Arab cinema is partially due to the great restrictions and censorship the Arabs put on directors who produce challenging films such as Ziad Doueiri and Randa Chahal Sabbagand who travel to the West to screen their films. She concludes by saying that “If enough Arab filmmakers follow their [directors'] lead and if enough Arabs learn to appreciate and nurture their domestic talent, Arab cinema could very well find itself a worthy companion to the acclaimed film industry of neighboring Iran."
- Cinema of Egypt
- Cinema of Lebanon
- Cinema of Syria
- Cinema of Jordan
- Cinema of Libya
- Cinema of Iraq
- Cinema of Morocco
- Cinema of Algeria
- Cinema of Tunisia
- Cinema of Saudi Arabia
- Cinema of United Arab Emirates
- Cinema of Qatar
- Cinema of Kuwait
- Cinema of Bahrain
- Cinema of Oman
- Cinema of Palestine
- Cinema of Yemen
- Cinema of Sudan
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