Tunisian star Hend Sabry expects a bright future for Gulf filmmaking

Tunisian actor Hend Sabry burst onto the Arab film scene in 1994. (Photo courtesy: DIFF)
Updated 13 December 2017

Tunisian star Hend Sabry expects a bright future for Gulf filmmaking

DUBAI: Tunisian actor Hend Sabry burst onto the Arab film scene in 1994 and since then, she has established herself as a star, garnering hits across film and television. Taking time away from her many projects in Egypt and her work as a global ambassador for the United Nations World Food Program, Sabry joined the jury for the sixth IWC Filmmaker Award at the 14th annual Dubai International Film Festival.
This year, the shortlist featured talent from across the GCC, including Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour, Emirati director Nayla Al-KHajja, Bahraini filmmaker Mohammed Rashed Buali and Omani filmmaker Munza Almusafer. Sabry found the selection as a whole to be a great step forward for GCC filmmaking.
“I noticed actually while reading the scripts that there’s a lot of maturity,” Sabry said to Arab News. “I think now that GCC directors and writers are reaching a maturity in their writing.”
Three of the filmmakers chosen were women, the significance of which Sabry noted.
“I also noticed, while it’s not new, the dominance of women in the field of cinema in the GCC, which is absolutely mesmerizing. It’s a beautiful thing to witness. There’s so many women involved in writing and directing in the GCC and it’s a lesson of empowerment, and a lesson to people who do not know exactly the condition for women in the GCC. It’s a very reassuring thing.”
While Al-Mansour was ultimately named the winner, Sabry sees a great future for each nominee.
“There’s no winners. It’s cinema at the end of the day, it’s art. It’s a lot more about timing, originality, a very unique angle, point of view and sometimes character. Sometimes it’s a unique perspective about a very common story. A lot of it is timing, and a lot of it is individual sensibility from the jury. All four of these are mature scripts. All four are viable in terms of production and I think all will see the light, whether they’re winners or not.”
Each of the stories were a revealing window into the Gulf region, according to Sabry.
“The storytelling and the characters in the four scripts are all portraying the Middle East as we see them today. They are all portraying a world that is very mysterious, and we’re all looking to reveal this region in an artistic way.”
While the filmmakers do portray the challenges that many face in the region with honesty, they do so with a sense of pride.
“We’re in a region where we always have gender issues and that’s very present in the scripts. But there are no judgments. Every one of these contestants is very proud of their origins and they’re not directing or writing a movie to please a crowd or an audience that just wants to see boundaries pushed. They’re being very genuine and sincere about where they’re living on a day-to-day basis.”
The Dubai International Film Festival a whole is an essential part of the GCC’s cinema landscape, according to Sabry.
”It’s one of the leading film festivals in the region, especially because … (of) the Dubai Film Connection, where every year there are so many projects that are being showcased and end up being the best projects in production the year after in the Arab world. It is a very important networking place. A lot of funders and investors come here, including people who are interested in partnering with young and upcoming Arab directors. It’s a dynamic place and that is rare. “
Arab cinema in general is reaching new heights on a global scale, with directors such as Hany Abu-Assad directing major Hollywood films with some of the world’s biggest stars. But Arab cinema’s heights go beyond just that.
“Assad directing a huge Hollywood blockbuster is very important, but it is a combination of many things. Every year we have very viable, valid movies that are representing the region at the Oscars, even if they don’t make it to the final shortlist. ‘Theeb’ (2014) was a very important film, one of the most beautiful movies that this region has produced. Now there are Arab directors going a bit beyond the local market to explore collaboration. This is what we need — more mingling with other regions in the world in terms of co-production, distribution, or both if you’re very lucky.”
Sabry herself wants to work outside of her adopted home of Egypt more often, especially with new styles and talent popping up across the region every year.
“I’m lucky to be witnessing a transition in how writers and directors in the region are developing their projects. They are leaning toward more unique stories with unique angles and characters that are striking yet common, which I like. Ten years ago, directors were very into big films, now everything is much more intimate. I’m looking into that.
“I really want to make a movie with a character that is unique yet common with a young director, as I really believe in this new wave of young Arab directors from across the region. I want to have a more pan-Arab CV. I want to start that adventure in markets other than Egypt while still being in Egypt, where I achieved great success and am happy to be.”

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).
Updated 19 April 2018

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

  • Syrian artists-in-exile discuss their absence from their homeland and its impact on their work
  • For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief

DUBAI: “Being away from Syria is difficult,” young poet Maysan Nasser said. “Seven years later, it still feels like a phantom limb. It feels like the echo of white noise that is reverberating louder by the day.”

Nasser, a Beirut Poetry Slam champion, was talking separation: The idea that the loss of Syria is like an amputation. After seven years, she is still looking for answers to questions of home and belonging.

The first time I saw Nasser perform was last year during Zena El Khalil’s ‘Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon,’ a “40-day intervention” designed to permanently kick open the doors of Beit Beirut, a museum to the memory of the city in Sodeco. Her performance was raw and emotive.

The second time was in the basement of Riwaq Beirut, a coffee shop, cultural center and bar all rolled into one. She was addressing a small but appreciative young crowd and looked nervous. It was just a few weeks after she had launched the open-mic night ‘Sidewalk Beirut’ and the anxiety and jitters remained. In reality they shouldn’t. The crowd loves her.

“In this enforced distance from Syria, such communities have become my anchors,” she admitted. Yet her work, although deeply personal — sometimes painfully so — never directly discusses Syria or her home city of Damascus.

“I believe the distance of separation was the birth of my work,” she said. “It was in this distance that I was able to reconsider who I am, what my relationship to my family is like, what my relationship to my body is. I believe my poems to be attempts at understanding myself and my surroundings, but also my past.

“So when I speak about my mother and my relationship to her, I am also considering my mother’s past and the traditions she has internalized and passed on to me, which inevitably cast light on a time and place in Syria, and which inevitably expose my own connections and roots — or lack of, at times. This separation, in a sense, has coincided with a coming of age.”

At the same time as Nasser was hosting her early edition of Sidewalk Beirut, a mile or so away at The Colony in Karantina Zeid Hamdan, a pioneer of Lebanon’s underground music scene, was preparing to perform at Sofar Sounds. The venue —hidden up three flights of stairs in the Dagher Building — was little more than two empty rooms and an adjacent terrace. With him were the Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).

Hamdan has been performing with the trio since they left Damascus in 2011. Theirs is an energetic, sometimes harsh, alternative-rock sound, although that is changing. Their soon-to-be-released new album, “Human Reverie,” is as much about electronica as it is guitars and vocals.

“This pressure we’re living is kind of unique,” said Tarek Khuluki, the band’s guitarist and sometime vocalist. “You see people who are nagging about it or who are trying to use this pressure as a tool to escape the reality we’re living in, which can lead to unbalanced results. At the same time, you see people who are making the best they can with the little amount of nothing that they have. All they want is to see their ideas manifest themselves in art or in any other shape. 

“Psychologically, we’ve learned not to think too much and not to play the role of victims, but to focus on our own language, which is music.”

It’s hard to discern whether the war in Syria has had a direct impact on Tanjaret Daghet’s work, or whether the wider woes of the Arab world are partially responsible for their sound and lyrics. They sing of political oppression and societal pressure, the absence of feeling and the loss of voice.

“We do not live the state of war in the real sense of the word,” says Khaled Omran, the band’s lead singer and bassist. “What we’re living is a kind of internal war, which has arisen from our instincts as humans. It’s our right to express ourselves through art and music because it’s more humanistic, and this has allowed us to meet several artists and to exchange expertise. Who knows, maybe if we had stayed in Syria, none of that would have happened.” 

Outside of Beirut, up in the mountains of Aley, a series of old Ottoman stables have been converted into a residence for Syrian artists. Since it was first opened by Raghad Mardini in May 2012, Art Residence Aley has hosted numerous artists, including Iman Hasbani and Anas Homsi. Both now live in Berlin. Beirut, for some, is only transitory. 

“It has given me a wider vision of the world,” says the artist and film director Hazem Alhamwi of his own exile in Berlin. “Maybe it’s more painful, but it’s more real. It is training for how to change pain into creative energy. Since 2014 I have been painting a collection I call ‘Homeland in the Imagination’. It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination.”

Alhamwi is best known for “From My Syrian Room,” a documentary in which, through art and conversation, he attempts to understand how Syrians have learned to live with the distress and anxiety caused by war. It was while editing the film in France in 2013 that he realized he could not return to Syria, he said.

“I feel tired,” he told Arab News. “I feel as if I have one leg here — where I have to integrate, and want to — and the other leg in Syria, where I cannot stop being interested in what is happening. My family, my friends and my memories are still there. On the other hand, I feel like I am discovering another kind of violence, moving from living under a military dictatorship to the dictatorship of money. It’s a smooth violence written on smooth paper and put into a clean envelope. I feel myself in the stomach of the capitalist machine.”

For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief; a way to portray an overwhelming sense of loss. For others, those expressions are more subtle.

“We watch so many lies on TV, that it looks like art could be the only honest witness to modern times,” said Alhamwi, whose next film, produced by Zeina Zahreddine and Florian Schewe, will examine issues of identity. “Even many people’s facial expressions are not real. But good art is not only a mirror of the artist, but also of the spirit of the time they live in; or it’s at least the result of this reaction (of) the artist (to) the era.

“Art always tries to get people to pay more attention and not to repeat the same mistakes, but to learn from them instead. In wars, where the feelings of people are ignored and all the focus is on weapons, killing, fire and iron, art protects people’s real memory, away from any agenda or propaganda. It is this complicated memory that reflects the events, the emotions and the point of view of the artist. That is why art is needed in war as a special documentation. To tell the stories of people who didn’t get involved, because of position or fate,” he continued. “Art is a way for artists to survive in a world controlled by violence.”