June 2011, arsenal cinema

Before the Storm Independent Arab Film

HAWI, 2010

The "Before the Storm" series focuses on independent cinema from Arab countries. Over six different evenings, the Goethe Institute will be presenting insights into the period before the "Arab Spring", showing both features and shorts about societies in the "waiting room of time".

Arab Shorts
"Arab Shorts"refers to a whole range of different things: a small festival, a website (www.arabshorts.net), a travel program to enable those involved in Arab film to travel to Germany and Germans to travel to the Middle East, and a series of moderated screenings and publications. "Arab Shorts" is a three-year project being carried out by Goethe Institutes in North Africa and the Middle East which seeks to create a more intensive network of contacts between those active in the independent Arab film scene and Europe. The project also seeks to provide insights into an area of special cultural resonance – a world beyond the shackles of state control where an unstinting proximity to reality and artistic radicalism find articulation. A total of 19 curators put together a selection of films and present them on a yearly basis.

What films are there to see? Films notable for their frankness, such as the sociocritical kaleidoscope contained within a telephone shop or a claustrophobic short film set in a lift which uses a blunt prison metaphor to describe female experience. On the other side of the spectrum, the program also includes enigmatic images of desert flights allied to an "aesthetic of disappearance" and "broken films" which catapult the chaos of war on to the screen in a series of dissonant fragments, conceived as a sarcastic greeting from Beirut with love. Amongst all these, there are always further treasures to be found: a wonderful film reminiscent of a Tunis-set reconstruction of Eisenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, an ironic self-portrait entitled ARAFAT & I, a film made using American newspaper photos about Iraq and an insightful study about becoming an adult and the path, step by step, into a harsh, fractured society.

The films shown as part of "Arab Shorts" reveal visual worlds that are both exceptional and unfamiliar, including intelligible messages and enigmatic concealments. According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the codes of art are used here "to represent an Arab world how it really is: human and full of diversity." As television channels beam touching images of the struggle for freedom and scenes of shocking violence into our everyday lives, it is somehow too much and too little at the same time. For one thing is certain when it comes to cultural exchange with the Arab world – we simply know too little about one another. The artistic director is curator and filmmaker Marcel Schwierin. The highlights of this project will be shown at Arsenal (June 17 and 18). The short films can all be seen at www.arabshorts.net (Günther Hasenkamp).

Independent Egyptian Film – Independent from What?
Egypt is a regional power, taking a leading role in the Arab world both politically and with respect to the entertainment industry. In 1925, an important businessman had already opened the Egyptian Society for Acting and Cinemas as one of his bank's many investment sectors. This established two of the central elements of Egyptian film: its commercial character and its preeminence in the Arab region, much of which was still under colonial rule at the time. The mainstay of this Hollywood on the Nile, which was conceived as a deliberate imitation of its American counterpart, has always been the stars. They represent the risk capital of film, which is then paid back in full at the box office. This has given rise to mass-market compatible escapist works, which do not shy away from controversial issues, usually related to love, within the darkness of the cinema auditorium and in hermetically sealed cinematic textures.

Censorship has no real significance in such a system. It is, however, necessary to suppress any more overt forms of artistic expression. Censorship was brought to Egypt by the English colonial administration and has not fundamentally changed since then. Scripts must be shown to the authorities in advance; once the film is complete, the censors then issue a screening permit.

In addition, it is necessary to obtain authorization from the Film Syndicate, which is, officially speaking at least, only possible for its members, i.e. graduates of the state film school. Obtaining this authorization costs between 10,000 and 25,000 $, with an extra premium charged for non-members; both have to be negotiated under less than transparent conditions. Over the last seven years, increasing numbers of filmmakers have started flouting these rules, a phenomenon which has in Egypt been referred to as independent filmmaking. This concept refers primarily to a rejection of state control, but is also used to describe works without stars and that are interested in real life. This relates predominantly to short film and documentaries, which do not normally receive a cinema release.

Four independent cinema films have been completed thus far and will be shown at Arsenal. Ibrahim El Batout's AIN SHAMS (2008, June 19) is of central importance: Batout did not obtain any of the necessary permits and documented the whole process of deliberate disobedience using a range of different media. In a clear breach of the rules, the censors only saw the work once it was completed and complained about it in the press to this end. They still, however, passed the film, which explores social and political truths and lies in Egypt, for a cinema release nonetheless. In his next film, HAWI (2010, June 20), a detailed study of society set in Alexandria, the director used the same working methods, developing the material together with the actors, avoiding casting stars, shooting in original locations and focusing on content that confronts the reality of life in Egypt.

Ahmad Abdalla set his first film HELIOPOLIS (2009, June 21) in the Cairo district of the same name and goes in search of the area's lost cosmopolitanism whilst showing its current lack of communication. Although he works in a similar fashion to El Batout, he ends up creating a film significantly different to Batout's. In MICROPHONE (2010, June 22), Abdalla presents a portrait of Alexandria's musical subculture. Khaled Abol Naga is the protagonist of both films and has his roots in the star system. (Irit Neidhardt)

An event realized in collaboration with the Goethe Institute.