Nineteen years after it was first published, “Arab Cinema” remains one of the very few books offering a comprehensive overview of filmmaking in the Middle East.
The release of the third edition has allowed author Viola Shafik to add a useful afterword about the latest developments in both popular and art cinema over the past 20 years. This revised and updated edition introduces us to some of the most remarkable films produced in the last two decades in the Arab world.
Egyptian cinema is largely unknown in the West and yet films made in Hollywood are very popular in the Arab world.
Egypt’s love of cinema began in 1896, only a few months after films by France’s Lumiere brothers were shown for the first time in Europe. The screenings of the films took place in the Tousson Stock Exchange in Alexandria and in the Hammam Schneider (Schneider Baths) in Cairo.
Egypt’s best films were produced during the golden era of the 30s, 40s and 50s. Arab viewers never tire of watching the same old films featuring actors such as Umm Kulthum and Farid Al-Atrash.
One of the best Egyptian films is “The Nightingale’s Prayer” (1959) directed by Henry Barakat, who is considered the master of classical cinema in Egypt. Based on a novel by Taha Hussein, this movie is humane and beautifully made. The heroine, a peasant girl, wants to take revenge on a handsome engineer who seduced her sister which led to her “honor” killing by her uncle. In order to exact revenge, the heroine becomes the engineer’s live-in maid but soon finds herself falling in love with him. It features a very young Faten Hamama, who went on to become a famous star. She acts with grace and elegance without ever seeming contrived or dull.
Another film worth mentioning is “The Mummy” (1969), Shadi Abdel Salam’s most famous movie. Set in Egypt toward the end of the 19th century, it is the story of a rural family living off the illegal trade in pharaonic artifacts. The main theme is the continuity between ancient and modern Egypt and the importance of preserving pharaonic culture.
The author derides the popular success of recent comedies such as “Al Limbi” (2002) which was a huge success in Egypt. Critics and academics tend to overlook the fact that cinema’s main goal is to entertain. The recent success of films rejected by the critics only proves that people watch movies in order to have a good time. This is definitely the case with “Al-Limbi,” which was directed by Wa’il Ihsan and starred Mohammed Sa’d, who plays a young, naïve, lower-class illiterate whose chances to marry are hindered by his being jobless.
Shafik has written an extensive chapter on 21st century Arab cinema, country by country. Under the heading “The Emergence of New Players: The Gulf States,” the author introduces the reader to cinematic development in the Arabian Peninsula. “The most remarkable change in terms of film culture has occurred in Saudi Arabia since 2006, where a small but quite diverse number of feature-length films has appeared, directed by both Saudi men and women,” Shafik writes.
The Saudi film that attracted the most international attention was “Wadjda” (2012), which was entirely shot in the Kingdom and directed by Saudi Arabia’s leading film director, Haifaa Al-Mansour. In an interview with London’s Daily Telegraph, Al-Mansour spoke about the film: “My veiled sister loved it. And she’s my target audience. She’s educated but she’s still conservative, and she really saw her life in the film,” she said.
In a section on Lebanese cinema, Shafik underlines the remarkable success of Nadine Labaki’s films. Her second feature, “Where Do We Go Now,” earned as much as one-third of what the most successful American film grossed in Lebanon. This movie deals humorously with the rise of the sectarian conflict that blew the country apart in 1973. “No wonder Nadine Labaki’s light and entertaining take on heavy subjects has sold better and in more countries than the usual Lebanese art house films,” Shafik writes.
Palestinian cinema has enjoyed “astonishing success” since the second intifada, which began in 2000.
One of the greatest Arab filmmakers of his generation is the Palestinian Michel Khleifi. His most famous film “Wedding in Galilee” is a masterpiece. He has also made a beautiful documentary, “Fertile Memory.” It is the story of two women: one is a radical young Palestinian novelist who is divorced and lives with her daughters in the occupied territories and the other is Khleifi’s illiterate aunt who lost her husband after the 1948 war. It is considered the first feminist Arab film and sheds light on the roots of political engagement.
“Arab Cinema” is a useful reference book for anyone interested in the subject. Despite a dense narrative, Shafik arouses our emotions and we genuinely feel the desire not only to read about Arab films but also to watch them.