Arab cinema back with a bang; bringing lepers, lust and class conflict to Cannes

Lebanese film-maker Nadine Labaki’s highly-anticipated third film ‘Capernaum’ — about a 12-year-old boy with an axe to grind about being born into a miserable, loveless existence — has racked up a string of distribution deals ahead of its premiere at Cannes. (AFP)
Updated 17 May 2018
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Arab cinema back with a bang; bringing lepers, lust and class conflict to Cannes

  • Not since 1970 have two Arab films been in the running for the Palme d’Or top prize and female Arab directors are particularly making a splash this year.
  • Nadine Labaki, who set her first film ‘Caramel’ in a Beirut beauty parlour, zooms in on neglected children and migrants in ‘Capernaum.’

CANNES: A boy who takes his parents to court for having him is one of a wave of Arab films making people sit up and take notice at the Cannes film festival.
Not since 1970 have two Arab films been in the running for the Palme d’Or top prize and female Arab directors are particularly making a splash this year.
Lebanese film-maker Nadine Labaki’s highly-anticipated third film “Capernaum” — about a 12-year-old boy with an axe to grind about being born into a miserable, loveless existence — has racked up a string of distribution deals ahead of its premiere late Thursday.
And two first-time female directors made impressive debuts with films about suffocating social conventions in Syria and Morocco.
But while the #MeToo movement continued to make waves, with several Hollywood actresses ditching frilly frocks for pants for their photo shoots, Arab film-makers appeared more concerned with social alienation.
Labaki, who set her first film “Caramel” in a Beirut beauty parlour, zooms in on neglected children and migrants in “Capernaum,” which has drawn comparisons with Charlie Chaplin’s story of a street boy, “The Kid.”
Labaki said she found the idea staring her in the face one night when she was driving home from a party.
“I stopped at a traffic light and saw a child half-asleep in the arms of his mother, who was sitting on the tarmac begging.”
The encounter spurred her to use a mostly hard-up, amateur cast including a Syrian refugee child for the lead role.
Going toe-to-toe with her and the likes of Spike Lee for the Palme d’Or — won only twice in 70 years by Arab directors — is A.B. Shawky, with his feel-good first feature about an Egyptian leper and his orphan friend, also played by amateurs.
A year after the award-winning “The Nile Hilton Incident,” a noirish tale of murder and corruption set during the 2011 revolution in Cairo, “Yomeddine” serves up less political fare.
“What I really want to do is highlight marginalized groups. I wanted to give a voice to people who don’t necessarily have anybody to speak for them,” said Austrian-Egyptian writer-director Shakwy.
Similarly, the Moroccan entry about an unmarried woman threatened with jail for falling pregnant is actually more preoccupied with class divisions.
The film shows a middle-class, 20-year-old from a Casablanca family scrambling to avoid bringing shame on her family after an unwanted pregnancy.
The real victim in the affair, however, is not the one left holding the baby.
“I found that the debate about the condition of women in the Arab world was being reduced to the issue of patriarchy and chauvinism, which to me falls short of the mark,” director Meryem Benm’Barek told AFP.
“Whether you are a man or a woman, what determines whether or not you are a victim is your social status,” she said.
Tunisia director Mohamed Ben Attia’s “Dear Son,” about a father trying to trace his son who has run away to join the Daesh group, is also more family drama than a political broadside.
The birthplace of the Arab Spring, which has been mired in economic crisis ever since, is estimated to have supplied more militants in Syria than any other country.
Ben Attia, who won acclaim with “Hedi,” about a young man torn between duty and passion in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution, tries to tease out the malaise behind the lure of Daesh for disaffected Muslim youths.
Like Labaki, Shawky and Benm’Barek, he believes the story could be transposed to many parts of the globe.
“There is a sort of misery, not only spiritual but emotional, not so much a thirst for ideology as a desire to walk away from this lifestyle... and all the values that are foisted on us.
“They could be living in Paris or elsewhere, it’s the same,” Ben Attia added.
War and unfulfilled desires also collide in the Syrian film, “My Favourite Fabric,” the first film of Paris-based Syrian director Gaya Jiji.
French-Lebanese actress Manal Issa puts in a standout performance as a sullen young Syrian fantasising about sexual abandon and escaping to the West as the war drums begin to beat in early 2011.
She carried her protest over onto the red carpet at Cannes, where she held up a placard reading “Stop the Attack on Gaza.”
Gaza also made it onto the big screen, in a documentary by Italian filmmaker Stefano Savona about the massacre of an extended Palestinian family in 2009 that received rave reviews.
With Saudi Arabia also unveiling big tax breaks for filmmakers at Cannes — Arab cinema may be entering a new era.


Muse: Singer-songwriter Gaya talks storytelling and creativity

Updated 27 May 2018
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Muse: Singer-songwriter Gaya talks storytelling and creativity

DUBAI: Dubai-based singer-songwriter, vlogger and content creator Gaya (Gayathri Krishnan) talks storytelling, creativity, and experimentation in a conversation with Arab News.

If you want your voice heard, build your own microphone, your own channel, your own soapbox. When you’re young you feel like the world owes you a stage, a chance, a shot. But with time you realize that the dream opportunity, whatever it is, the surest way to get there is to create that opportunity for yourself.

Music inspires me to do most things in my life. It really sets the tone for everything I do and I am. My exploration as a creative person started with music, but over time it has taken me into the spaces of film and design. Whatever the medium, though, a need to be creative and tell a story is what drives me.

Getting into the vlogging space has been extremely rewarding as it has a semblance of the immediacy that a live performance has; you’re connecting with people in real time and you’re breaking the third wall and putting yourself out there. The space feels familiar to me and brings together all my loves — music, shooting and editing films, and telling stories.

I don’t see my work as separate from my life or who I am. It is a very intrinsic part of my existence, so being creative is something I’m engaged in most of the time. I’m proud of having figured out how to make a living by doing all the things that I love and not having to limit myself to doing only one thing or being only one thing.

A lot of my work is autobiographical to some degree. It gives me great joy to be able to have a record of my life and be able to stay present in the moment through the pursuit of my work. I love that I am the boss of my own time and have the privilege and pleasure of working for myself. Most of all, I love that the intent of any idea that I work on is to be able to connect with people on an emotional level.

Every time I travel, I feel like I’m getting to live an alternate reality. I try to have an experience as close to a local as possible, making sure to carve out days to do the mundane things I would do in my own city. This really feeds my creative process in so many ways and many unfinished songs have been completed during my travels. I love traveling for extended periods of time as opposed to short trips because I feel like the best songs and writing come from that pivot point between comfort and discomfort. And when I travel, that oscillation is constant and really gets my creative juices flowing.

I move from project to project with a certain level of uninhibitedness. This somehow leads people to believe that everything I do is locked into some of kind of well-thought out strategy, but in reality every day is pretty much an experiment.

The biggest influence on me as a person has been watching my parents’ love and appreciation for music while I was growing up. Their ability to take anything we were listening to and appreciate every note, every nuance, every instrument, the timbre of the singer’s voice… It was a masterclass in music appreciation. It taught me and my siblings at an early age about the value of art and creativity in the world and how much of a two-way street it is: That as much as one must create for oneself, a perceptive audience is an essential part of any art form made for public consumption.

I admire any artist who isn’t afraid of going against what they set out to do when they started. I think the biggest disservice you can do to yourself as an artist is to say, “I do this one thing.” As great as it is to have a signature style that distinguishes you, it also important to not let it box you in.

My husband is also my music producer. In our relationship, the music came before the love and the marriage, so music has sort of been the cupid in our story. I think what makes it work is that I have always felt an immense sense of trust with him as a producer; that he too, wants the best for these songs. So when we’re both setting out with the same intention, everything else is gravy. We have learned to communicate well with each other and are able to both stand our ground, have both our voices heard and still love each other no matter how heated the creative arguments may get.

There’s still such conditioning around what a woman ought to be and what her role is, and it’s the root of so many problems. “Ambition” in a woman, for example, is seen firstly as something that needs to be talked about or pin-pointed and secondly, and most annoyingly, as some kind of negative, cut-throat thing; a quality that shouldn’t be possessed by women. I’m hoping to continue to voice my opinion when I feel like I’m being boxed into some archaic idea of what a woman ought to be.

A lot of men seem to be shaken and a bit confused about how they figure in a world where women are demanding their rightful place in various spheres. Very few men are happy to engage in a dialogue about this without feeling like we are on opposite sides of the table, but by getting involved they can help move the needle as opposed to drawing more lines in the sand. We need to get on the same page to actually move forward.