Increased exposure and support for the Arab film industry offers hope for the future despite a wider backdrop of political upheaval
The Arab spring has focused western attention on the Arab world in an unprecedented way. While events in Bahrain, Libya and Syria have turned progressively more violent, there was a period last year when Arab youth inspired onlookers with their courage and thoroughly modern attitudes. However, for a region of more than 300 million people, and with a rich tradition of folklore and storytelling, the Arab world has been historically underserved by its cinema. Egypt can boast of a proud film-making industry that dates back more than a century but, beyond that, the picture has often been less encouraging.
When I began my career as a film producer in Tunisia in the 1970s, there was nothing remotely resembling an Arab film industry. Potential financiers, particularly those in the petro-dollar fuelled economies of the Gulf, were more focused on infrastructure and defence investments than culture. The region was also woefully lacking in cinemas and, while the Arab world was officially bound by the same language, in reality the 22 countries all had dialects and local customs that frequently remained specific to their own borders. The result was the absence of a genuine pan-Arab market for Arab cinema, with only a handful of film-makers, such as Egypt’s Youssef Chahine, receiving international recognition.
Consequently, my focus at the time was to attract international productions to my country. I brought to Tunisia George Lucas and Star Wars, Steven Spielberg and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and – memorably – the Monty Python team, with The Life of Brian. I would always insist that Tunisians be a part of the crew so that, in time, the trainees of today would become the film-makers of tomorrow.
Black Gold grew out of my reading a book on the set of Star Wars. It was by Swiss-German novelist Hans Ruesch called South of the Heart, and dealt with the discovery of oil in the Arabian peninsula in the early 20th century – telling it, most importantly for me, from an Arab perspective. I first tried to make the film in the late 1970s but, even though I had interest from one of the major Hollywood studios, Paramount, I could not find any funds from Arab sources. I put the project back on the shelf.
Three decades later, the Arab media landscape has changed immeasurably. The rise of pan-Arab satellite TV – more than 500 free-to-air channels at last count – has given local content a platform that never existed before and helped break the hegemony of state-controlled outlets. There are new major film festivals such as Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with sections – and funds – dedicated to Arab cinema. From north Africa to the Middle East, we are seeing a potential Arab cinema renaissance.
The value of culture, and cinema in particular, has become clear to today’s Arab investors. That is why we were finally able to turn Ruesch’s book into a big budget feature film. My partner on the film was the Doha Film Institute, which was only launched in 2010, by Sheikha al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, daughter of the emir of Qatar. It’s organisations like this that have made it possible for Arab film-makers to depend on real support from their own area.
Major challenges remain. In Saudi Arabia, financially the region’s biggest consumer of entertainment, cinemas have been banned since the 1970s. Other populous, and potentially lucrative, markets such as Iraq and Syria are also largely untapped due to political instability. Without a vibrant, economically viable local audience for Arab films to rely on, film-makers will remain compelled to ensure their projects are attractive to international audiences. Unfortunately, the great Omar Sharif is still the only Arab actor in the past half-century to have enjoyed worldwide fame and star power.
The long-term ramifications of the Arab spring, particularly in the context of its impact on society and culture, are also still unclear. We witnessed the beginning of it with our own eyes while filming Black Gold in Tunisia; the revolution erupted around us. What filled me with huge hope was seeing my entire Tunisian crew show up for work, on time, the very morning after the revolution in January last year. To see them take such pride and responsibility in their work keeps me optimistic for the years ahead.
from (author unknown)