Rabih El-Khoury on the challenges and triumphs of Arab film

Much of Rabih El-Khoury’s working life has been dedicated to the promotion of Arab cinema. (Supplied)
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Updated 06 October 2020

Rabih El-Khoury on the challenges and triumphs of Arab film

  • Sudanese and Saudi cinema are blossoming

LONDON: When Rabih El-Khoury first visited Berlin for its international film festival in 2007, he was struck by the similarity of the German capital’s Wall, which used to separate East from West, and the Green Line that demarcated his hometown of Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. That similarity has informed his perspective on Berlin — where he has now lived for six years —ever since.

El-Khoury works as diversity manager for Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum Frankfurt (DFF) and is curator of Alfilm, the city’s Arab Film Festival. This year he has also curated the UK’s 2020 SAFAR film festival, organized by the Arab British Centre, bringing his extensive experience of covering Arab cinema to the event.

He appreciates Berlin for its “openness and multiculturalism,” while conceding that “it has its fair share of racism and prejudice, such as you would find anywhere else.” But, as he told Arab News, it was Beirut that “made me who I am today.”

Rabih El-Khoury works as diversity manager for Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum Frankfurt (DFF) and is curator of Alfilm, the city’s Arab Film Festival. (Supplied)

A few weeks ago he returned to the Lebanese capital with a sense of dread to make contact with family and friends in the aftermath of the devastating port explosion and to see the results for himself.

What he found, alongside the obvious blast damage, was a general loss of hope among the people. This, he said, “was much more heartbreaking for me than the physical devastation.”

“People have very little confidence in the future so long as the political elites stay in power. They cannot even retrieve their money from the banks. Basically, leaving is on everyone’s minds, but it is very difficult to leave without money.  The people have not only lost relatives and homes — their dreams have also been stolen,” he said.

Rabih El-Khoury with Filmmaker Vatch Boulghourjian and Score Composer Cynthia Zaven of Tramontane at Alfilm Berlin. (Supplied)

He added that a scene from 2014’s “The Valley,” by Lebanese director Ghassan Salhab, came to mind as he surveyed the ruins of his city because it contained a reference to the possibility that “Beirut may disappear.”

Another painful aspect of his return to his home city was the fact that the renowned Metropolis Art House Cinema — on of the few in the region that showed films that did not make it onto commercial screens — closed its doors in January due to a business dispute.

El-Khoury joined the Metropolis as administrator when it opened in 2006 and eventually became managing director. 

“There is no cinema at the moment and the team has been shattered by the repercussions of the blast and the political situation,” he said. “It is very difficult for them to continue but they have a fantastic spirit and a director who is very keen to push things forward and make sure that culture becomes available again to everyone.”

A screengrab from “In the Last Days of the City.” (Supplied)

DFF is raising money to that end, El-Khoury said, as well as for filmmakers in Beirut “who have lost so much.”

Much of El-Khoury’s working life has been dedicated to the promotion of Arab cinema — he has organized more than 20 Arab film weeks around the world. And despite the current situation, he sees many promising signs for the industry in the MENA region.

“Sudanese and Saudi Arabian cinema are blossoming. There are so many emerging talents, and filmmakers such as Amjad Abu Alala and Suhaib Gasmelbari in Sudan and Shahad Ameen and Abdulmohsen Aldhabaan in Saudi Arabia offering broader subjects,” he said. “With emerging countries, you are seeing completely different things compared to countries such as Egypt with a longer history and experience of film.

A screengrab from “Tramontane.” (Supplied)

“We cannot yet talk about an Arab film industry as such, but we are advancing in the right direction,” he continued. “We see there is support for filmmakers and producers to come up with new and exciting projects, but funding — especially state funding — will be very tricky over the next few years across the world due to the pandemic.”

He expressed his disappointment at the apparent cessation of the Dubai Film Festival.

“It’s a real loss, not just for the UAE, but for Arab film generally, because so much was achieved. It was a fantastic initiative and many people were discovered during the festival. The problem with the Gulf, in my view, is that so many initiatives are launched but not maintained,” he said.

But overall he maintains a positive outlook: “I am looking forward to seeing what will emerge and how people reflect on their societies,” he concluded.

With 13.5 million fans, Keemokazi talks life as an Arab TikTok star

Updated 24 November 2020

With 13.5 million fans, Keemokazi talks life as an Arab TikTok star

LOS ANGELES: “It first started when I just decided to prank my mom,” Kareem Hesri told Arab News from his family’s beautiful southern California home. “I threw it on TikTok. She didn’t care. 10 million overnight. It blew up.”

Hesri is a Syrian American teenager and the only boy among his five siblings. He is also an online celebrity known to most as Keemokazi, most famous for his videos on the social media app, TikTok.


A post shared by KAZI (@keemokazi)

Every day, millions of viewers watch Keemokazi and his family in skits and prank videos such as the one that launched Hesri’s career in what is one of the newest entertainment jobs: Influencer.

“My passion always led me to entertainment. It was either music or acting,” he said.

His family was supportive of his entertainment aspirations but recognized the challenges of breaking into the industry. Hesri’s father set firm but realistic goals for him: By the end of high school he needed to have got a solid start as an entertainer or he would need to explore more traditional jobs. Not interested in an office job, Hesri began working on his passion.


A post shared by KAZI (@keemokazi)

“I first started out with acting. I was on a show called ‘The Last Ship’ on TNT. I played a Syrian refugee. So, I did acting first. I met a producer at an acting camp and rapped for him. He brought me to the studio,” Hesri added.

His music career launched in 2017 with his sister Serene acting as his manager. But after some early audience growth, his audience stagnated. “I was stuck at 10,000 followers for years. I never grew. So Serene was always emailing people, trying to get my music played.”

Around the same time, the short-form video content app TikTok was a social media sensation. Created by a merger between the apps Musical.ly and Douyin, TikTok had become home to a generation of online content creators particularly those who had originally gained popularity on the by then defunct app, Vine.


A post shared by KAZI (@keemokazi)

Hesri watched as entertainers his age went from unknowns to receiving millions of daily views. “I never wanted to be the rapper or the music artist that did silly videos. I wanted to be taken seriously,” he said about his initial apprehension at joining TikTok.

But after seeing the kind of success that other young people where finding on the platform, Hesri created his Keemokazi profile and debuted the prank video that launched him and his family into the spotlight. Now it has become his full-time job.

For Hesri the work begins with research. He spends hours before going to bed each night on TikTok’s For You page looking through popular videos in search of inspiration for the next day’s filming.

“If you want to be on TikTok, and you want to be viral on this app, you have to see the trends,” he added.


A post shared by KAZI (@keemokazi)

From there he writes, directs, films, and edits multiple 15 to 30-second videos each day. The workload may not sound difficult, a perception that can put influencers under scrutiny from outside observers.

“If you watch a video, you’ll think it’s easy. If you do the video, it’s hard. It’ll take hours for at least one video,” he said, going on to mention the additional factors of needing to stay timely and consistent.

Hesri is not alone in this work. His family members have gone from being supportive of his dream to having supporting roles in his dream. Followers tune in to Keemokazi not just to see his antics but to watch the entire Hesri family. He attributes much of his success to his family and their Arab roots.


A post shared by KAZI (@keemokazi)

“We hit the Middle East, a very loyal fanbase, because my mom was cursing and yelling in Arabic. People loved it. We have to stay loyal to that because we are Middle Eastern as well as from Syria. So, we connect to them very well. It’s a different kind of connection. I don’t consider them fans or supporters. I consider them family,” he added.

A recent trend among Hesri’s contemporaries is the influencer house, where groups of content creators on TikTok or Instagram will live together under one roof in a sort of social media reality show. Yet despite its rising popularity, Hesri said he had no plans to join the trend.

“This is where the heart lies. This is where the gold is: With family.”