Director Nabil Ayouch returns to Cannes with an ode to Moroccan hip-hop

Director Nabil Ayouch returns to Cannes with an ode to Moroccan hip-hop
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Updated 17 July 2021

Director Nabil Ayouch returns to Cannes with an ode to Moroccan hip-hop

Director Nabil Ayouch returns to Cannes with an ode to Moroccan hip-hop

CANNES: It is a director’s dream to walk the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, but for French-Moroccan auteur Nabil Ayouch, this was hardly his first rodeo.

Ayouch has been making films for over 25 years and has seen a number of his features screened at the prestigious French festival, most notably in the Un Certain Regard section.

He returned to La Croisette with a bang in 2021, with his latest film, “Casablanca Beats,” which was in competition for the prized Palme d’Or.

Ayouch’s seventh feature was inspired by an authentic cultural center in Sidi Moumen, a district on the outskirts of the Moroccan city, and recounts the story of young people who express themselves through hip-hop.

Did you expect to see ‘Casablanca Beats’ selected as part of the official competition?

I expected everything and nothing at the same time. I have been making movies and coming to Cannes for over 25 years, and it’s true, the official competition is the ultimate selection. This gives me great pleasure, and when I heard the news, I was a bit stunned. In fact, I have the impression that a loop has come full circle.

Can we say that this is the first Moroccan film in competition at Cannes for the Palme d’Or, or should we qualify it as a French-Moroccan film?

It depends on how you look at the movie. It is funded by both Morocco and France, but in its DNA, it is mainly Moroccan. Why? Because all the actors are Moroccan, and because I shot it entirely in Morocco and in Darija Maghribia (Moroccan dialect). So, for me, the film is Moroccan in its very essence. Indeed, today the cinema as a whole is and can only be international in its financing, but this is truly secondary. So yes, it is the first time, and it is a wonderful thing for the movie itself, for Moroccan cinema and for Morocco.

Your films shed light on social issues. Again, you are talking about young people who have chosen hip-hop to express themselves. Why did you choose this theme?

I already mentioned a loop that has come full circle because of a long journey that dates back to the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, when I was growing up in the Parisian suburbs of Sarcelles and learned to look at the world through the lens of a cultural center, the MJC (Youth and Cultural House), which back then was called the Forum des Cholettes. At this center, I learned tap dancing, theater and choir; I watched my first concerts, my first movies — Chaplin, Eisenstein. Years later, when I had the opportunity to give back what I was offered when I was young, I built, together with some friends, Les etoiles de Sidi Moumen, a cultural center within the Ali Zaoua foundation, and this is where I shot this film.


For years, I watched these youngsters. I thought they were beautiful, captivating and extremely talented, so I aspired to make a movie about them. I sat down with them in order to better understand their experiences and they just moved me to tears.

In your films, you often call on amateurs with no previous experience in cinema. Is it a question of credibility or of budget?

I like to discover young talents. For my first short film, “Les Pierres Bleues du Desert,” (The Blue Stones of the Desert), which I made when I was 21, I chose as the lead role a young Moroccan from the Parisian suburb of Trappes who had never acted in films before. He was 14 at the time. His name? Jamel Debbouze, and since then he has come a very long way.


I really believe that in Morocco talent is everywhere; I see it on the street, in cultural centers and in Moroccan society. Very often, most of these young people end up pursuing a career and, believe me, they’re not just budding actors, they are full-fledged performers in front of the camera. They give everything they have, and they do so with incredible accuracy and authenticity. I also enjoy the job of directing an actor in his first role. It is something quite unique on many levels; the discovery of the camera, it is really beautiful.

Your youth has inspired you a great deal. Why did you choose to make films in Morocco rather than France? Are there more stories to tell in Morocco?

I was born with multiple identities: Muslim and Moroccan from my father’s side; Jewish and French-Tunisian from my mother’s; and I attended a secular republican school in France. It’s about two worlds, two cultures, two social levels: One life in the Parisian suburbs, and another on while on vacation in Morocco with my father. It got all mixed up, and I immediately felt a lack in my Moroccan identity that never had the chance to explore. It was the cinema that allowed me to discover it.

With the opening of movie theaters and film production, Saudi Arabia wants to strengthen its presence in the regional and international film industry. Do you believe there should be more collaboration between Arab countries?

I can only rejoice at the fact that movie theaters are opening up, no matter where. Whether in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, this is good news for the cinema. I hope this will help increase and develop South-South co-productions (greater cooperation between key players in the regional film industry). We would benefit a lot by sharing among us a common field of values, by developing ways of collaboration and co-productions, instead of automatically looking to other regions of the world.


I hope that the opening of these movie theaters and the dynamism that comes with the creation of the Red Sea Festival and other inspirations will allow this development.


New book aims to increase Muslim kids’ financial literacy

New book aims to increase Muslim kids’ financial literacy
Updated 28 October 2021

New book aims to increase Muslim kids’ financial literacy

New book aims to increase Muslim kids’ financial literacy
  • Children are taught to invest for the future, delay gratification and give to charity, all while ‘keeping it halal’
  • Nearly half of Britain’s Muslims live in the country’s most deprived areas, places that also have low financial literacy

LONDON: A children’s book using Qur’anic teachings to educate children on financial literacy could help to address systemic inequalities afflicting Muslims in Britain’s financial system, its creator has said.

Despite the UK having one of the highest financial literacy rates in the world, there are stark differences between Britons in their understanding of how best to manage their finances.

A poll conducted by Ipsos Mori in September found that Britain’s most economically deprived areas also have the lowest rates of financial literacy, meaning people are less aware of the most efficient ways to manage their finances in general, and of the risks and possibilities surrounding personal finance.

For Britain’s millions of Muslims — 46 percent of whom live in the top 10 percent of the country’s most deprived areas — this presents yet another barrier to social mobility. 

That is why Wahed, an Islamic finance investment and advisory company, partnered with Learning Roots to create the children’s book “The Prophet Yusuf’s Amazing Investment” — a free online book that calls itself “a child’s first guide to halal investing.”

Drawing on the Qur’anic story of the Prophet Yusuf — who encouraged his community to save through years of prosperity to prepare for years of hardship — the book teaches children the concepts of planning for the future, delayed gratification, and how to grow wealth, all while “keeping it halal.”

Readers are told: “Most investments need time to mature. So the earlier you start, the more your investments will make over a long period of time.”

The book does not teach children which financial products or stocks best suit them, but rather the foundational concepts that underpin healthy finances in the future — in a fun and accessible way, Wahed’s UK head Umer Suleman told Arab News.

“We’re teaching them patience, understanding what they have now, and what they may or may not have tomorrow,” Suleman said. 

“If you look at communities that are low on the socioeconomic ladder or are in poverty, you’ll find a direct correlation between their socioeconomic level and levels of financial literacy — even basic things like knowing how to save, taxation and planning ahead.”

He said the book is aimed at “uplifting” those communities while ensuring that people in more economically stable positions “understand how to interact with finance,” which “starts when you’re young and continues into adulthood.”

The book, Suleman added, teaches from a specifically Islamic perspective, so young Muslims are taught how they will interact and flourish in a wider financial system that was not built to accommodate their religious beliefs.

“Muslims need to feel empowered with the money they have, to be able to invest it in a way that reflects what they believe, so they can feel comfortable that it can be used for good,” he said, adding that the benefits of healthy finances expand beyond the bank account.

“There’s direct a link between mental wellbeing and financial wellbeing — if people aren’t able to manage their finances or get out of debt, it can push them into a dark space. We’ve especially seen that during COVID-19.”


Highlights from day 4 of Arab Fashion Week: Streetwear, sustainable style come to the fore

Lebanese label Emergency Room showcased a new collection. (Supplied)
Lebanese label Emergency Room showcased a new collection. (Supplied)
Updated 28 October 2021

Highlights from day 4 of Arab Fashion Week: Streetwear, sustainable style come to the fore

Lebanese label Emergency Room showcased a new collection. (Supplied)

DUBAI: Day four of Arab Fashion Week, currently underway in Dubai Design District, wowed audiences with innovative approaches to fashion and casual day wear for those in need of a break from the deluge of evening gowns.

Dubai-based Lebanese label BLSSD showcased a ready-to-wear collection of day wear dominated by oversized looks, maxi skirts combined with jackets, asymmetrical silhouettes and plisse mainly in black, metallic silver and white colors.

A model walks the runway for BLSSD. (Supplied)

Polish label POCA & POCA, a brand founded in 2010 by the sister and brother duo Karolina and Wiktor Gniewek, brought bows to pleats and ruffles to the runway.

The Poca & Poca presentation. (Supplied)

Meanwhile. Colombian label Glory Ang showcased a Spring/Summer 2022 collection titled “Magical Creatures,” complete with vibrant colors and eye-catching silhouettes.

Colombian label Glory Ang showcased its Spring/Summer 2022 collection. (Supplied)

The last highlight of the day was the Beirut based designer Eric Ritter, creative director of EMERGENCY ROOM, and his “Neverland” collection. The sustainable approach of the brand, which typically uses upcycled materials, was reflected in the presentation, in which a diverse cast of models showed off the new line.

The brand cast clients, fans, and supporters to walk the runway to a voice over by the creative director telling the story of his beloved Beirut and the current challenges it faces.

The collection was created from upcycled fabric and bed sheets.

(Supplied)

 


Lebanese director Mounia Akl’s silver-screen success story

Lebanese director Mounia Akl  has been praised by critics for her debut feature film. (Supplied)
Lebanese director Mounia Akl has been praised by critics for her debut feature film. (Supplied)
Updated 28 October 2021

Lebanese director Mounia Akl’s silver-screen success story

Lebanese director Mounia Akl  has been praised by critics for her debut feature film. (Supplied)

CAIRO: “Why am I obsessed with trash?” asks Mounia Akl with a laugh. “Actually, it’s funny because I have been called ‘the trash director’ by friends. But I think ‘Submarine,’ for me, was a stepping stone to ‘Costa Brava.’ So it’s not like I’ve been obsessed with trash all my life. It’s just that ‘Submarine’ was a fragment of ‘Costa Brava’ in many ways.”

The Lebanese director is sitting quietly in a corner of the TU Berlin Campus El Gouna, patiently discussing her debut feature, “Costa Brava, Lebanon.” At the film’s core is Lebanon’s trash crisis — a toxic and tragic disaster that has laid bare the fissures in Lebanese society. It’s a topic Akl knows only too well, having covered similar ground in her award-winning short, “Submarine,” and protested during the country’s 2015 trash crisis.   

Mounia Akl. (Supplied)

“It was the first time that I felt like I belonged to a movement, because that movement was leaderless in a way,” says Akl of the protests. “I grew up after the civil war in a country where you only matter when you’re following a certain person or a certain political party. And I don’t. I never felt like I belonged to that world. At the time of the garbage crisis I remember it felt like the streets belonged to my generation. The crisis also felt like it was a great metaphor for everything that was wrong about the country. It was not just an environmental disaster that transformed our city. It was all linked to political corruption.”

Into this world of activism Akl has thrown her fascination with family. In “Costa Brava,” that family consists of former political activists Walid (Saleh Bakri) and Souraya (Nadine Labaki) and their children Tala (Nadia Charbel) and Rim (Geana and Ceana Restom). Together they live a life of splendid isolation in the mountains overlooking Beirut, having escaped the city’s toxic pollution to enjoy an eco-conscious, self-sufficient existence. Living with this quirky, free-spirited family is Walid’s ageing mother, Zeina (Liliane Chacar Khoury). 

The film stars Saleh Bakri and Nadine Labaki. (Supplied)

However, their utopian dreams are shattered when the construction of an illegal landfill site on a hill bordering their property brings the country’s trash crisis to their doorstep. It is an act of environmental vandalism that will soon cause familial fault lines to appear.   

“I’ve always been obsessed with family and how, by observing the structure of a family, you can understand the cracks in a society,” says Akl, who co-wrote the film with Clara Roquet. “Growing up, I always thought that it was because of Lebanon that my parents were fighting. I was convinced that there was a relationship between the outside pressure that they felt and the fact that my parents had moments of vulnerability. So I wanted to make a movie about that friction. About how outside pressure in Lebanon leads to people not having the time to exist or to take care of themselves, which brings out our own demons because we’re always in a state of crisis.”

Filmed over 36 days in November and December last year and produced by Abbout Productions, “Costa Brava” had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September and won the NETPAC Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival soon after. It would go on to pick up the audience award at the BFI London Film Festival, but it was arguably in Egypt that the film began to gather serious momentum. The movie not only won the FIPRESCI Award for Best Debut Film at the El Gouna Film Festival earlier this month, but the inaugural El Gouna Green Star Award for sustainability. In doing so, it catapulted Akl and the film’s young stars into the regional spotlight.  

“It’s been a very heartwarming few months because I feel like we’ve been receiving a lot of open-hearted reactions from audiences,” says Akl, who cast her close friend, Yumna Marwan, as Walid’s sister Alia. “Being in London was quite emotional for me because not only was the room filled with an international audience that was very moved by the film, but also a lot of Lebanese expats who felt they really related to some of the struggles that the characters go through. And that’s something that has been very heartwarming — seeing how different people, whether in Venice, London, Toronto, or here in Egypt, react to the film. Because I feel that in each country people relate to a different character for different reasons.”

Much of the film’s success lies in its intimate portrayal of a family in crisis, but also in its two youngest and brightest stars. When Akl walked on stage to collect the first of the film’s two awards at El Gouna with Marwan and producer Myriam Sassine, it was the Restom sisters who stole the show. Seemingly unfazed by the cinematic spotlight, the twins were a highlight of the festival, with their charismatic and captivating portrayal of Rim (they took it in turns to play different scenes) integral to the film’s lovingly eccentric core.

“I remember seeing a video of this kid and I fell in love with her,” recalls Akl, who had already watched more than 100 other videos before casting the sisters. “Then the casting director told me there was another one and that they were twins. So I brought them both to the casting session thinking one of them would be Rim, but both of them were so great. Each of them had a trait of the character that the other didn’t. One of them was very emotional and hyper-empathetic and was like a 70-year-old person in a seven-year-old body. The other one was like this wild child Mowgli from ‘Jungle Book.’ So I divided the scenes between the two and it was a practical decision because one would get tired and we’d cast the other the next day.”

Filming was by no means easy. The August 4 explosion derailed the film’s production schedule and traumatized many in the crew, while the pandemic and the country’s deep economic crisis piled the challenges high. Such was Lebanon’s plight that the original idea of setting the film in a dystopian future was removed as reality caught up with the film’s production. In addition, green measures were implemented to create sustainability on set. That meant recycling, saving water and electricity, and reducing carbon emissions. It also meant utilizing special effects to create a landfill on an otherwise green mountainside. 

“I don’t think filmmakers should have messages in their films, but raise questions,” says Akl. “The most important thing for me is that some characters in this film are in agreement with each other that things need to change. That’s something that was important for me. Because when you believe you can change, then maybe there’s a bit of hope.”


E! People’s Choice Awards dedicates category to Mideast influencers

Lebanese influencer Karen Wazen is in the running for the award. (Getty Images)
Lebanese influencer Karen Wazen is in the running for the award. (Getty Images)
Updated 28 October 2021

E! People’s Choice Awards dedicates category to Mideast influencers

Lebanese influencer Karen Wazen is in the running for the award. (Getty Images)

DUBAI: US TV channel E! is hoping to engage Middle Eastern audience by dedicating a category of the upcoming E! People's Choice Awards to the Arab region.

For the first time, the E! People's Choice Awards has dedicated a category to the Middle East –  the Middle Eastern Social Media Star of 2021 – with eight contenders from the region in the running.

In the race to be crowned the Middle Eastern Social Media Star of 2021 are Syrian comedian and actor Amr Maskoun; Kuwaiti style icon and fashion influencer Ascia; Saudi Arabian fashion and style influencer Alanoud Badr, who goes by the online name Fozaza; Lebanese fashion guru and lifestyle influencer Karen Wazen; Emirati storyteller Khalid Al-Ameri; Egyptian Instagram sensation and beauty influencer Logina Salah; Iraqi YouTube sensation Noor Stars; and Bahraini filmmaker Omar Farooq.

"This last year has been game changing for creators — and in one of the toughest years of my career, it means the world to have been recognized and nominated,” Ascia said, according to a released statement.

For her part, Fozaza said: “It’s always a blessing and a reward in itself to be recognized and acknowledged for your passions, especially in the Middle East. I’m very grateful to be nominated for the People’s Choice Awards mainly because the people are the ones I do this for every day.”

"I’m so proud that there’s a category celebrating Middle Eastern voices. I’ve been such a fan of the People’s Choice Awards for years and to be nominated is already a win for me,” Wazen said, with Al-Ameri adding “since we started our journey of entertaining people on social media our goal has always been to build bridges between different parts of the world, to bring people closer together, and to show the world that there is more that makes us similar than makes us different. Just being recognized and nominated by the People’s Choice Awards on the other side of the world is an achievement in itself, and lets us know that we are on the right track, that our work is making a difference.”

The official voting window is from 27 October to 17 November. Fans can vote up to 25 times per day, per category on www.votepca.com/me.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Khalid Al Ameri (@khalidalameri)

 

 


Incomparable Cordoba — a cultural crossroads with unique history

Cordoba’s historic center is architecturally unique as it preserves, side by side, its complex Islamic, Christian, and Jewish past. (Supplied)
Cordoba’s historic center is architecturally unique as it preserves, side by side, its complex Islamic, Christian, and Jewish past. (Supplied)
Updated 28 October 2021

Incomparable Cordoba — a cultural crossroads with unique history

Cordoba’s historic center is architecturally unique as it preserves, side by side, its complex Islamic, Christian, and Jewish past. (Supplied)

CORDOBA: At a time when religious differences continue to divide, a visit to the Andalusian city of Cordoba is a refreshing history lesson, reminding us of what it means to live together in multicultural harmony. 

Cordoba’s historic center is architecturally unique as it preserves, side by side, its complex Islamic, Christian, and Jewish past. “Convivencia,” or coexistence in Spanish, is a term you’ll often hear in reference to medieval Spain, where Arabs ruled between 711 and 1492 CE. 

The Jewish Quarter. (Shutterstock)

Cordoba is a city that celebrates tolerance and knowledge. With its yellow buildings, narrow cobblestoned streets, and white walls clad with blue flowerpots, Cordoba’s historic center is a wonderful place for a holiday. 

The Hotel Maimonides — named after the Cordoba-born 12th-century Jewish philosopher — is a stone’s throw away from the city’s most-iconic monument, the Mosque-Cathedral. There will be hordes of tourists and street vendors attempting to sell you rosemary twigs, but it is worth the hassle. Built in the 8th century, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was first erected by Abd al-Rahman I, whose successors kept expanding it to accommodate the area’s growing population. At one point, it could fit in around 40,000 worshippers. Its concrete jungle of red and white, arching columns command attention, as does its sumptuous mihrab, decorated with golden mosaics.    

A statue of Maimonides. (Shutterstock)

When Catholic forces took over the city in 1236, they eventually built a gothic cathedral — also elegant in its own way — in the middle of the mosque. Nowhere else in the world does such a disorienting structure exist, which is why some believe the Mosque-Cathedral’s interior lacks visual harmony. While it’s free to enter the building’s spacious orange-tree courtyard, to enter the Mosque-Cathedral itself you’ll have to pay, but concessions apply for students, seniors and the disabled. The nighttime “Soul of Cordoba” tour is a great time to visit the Mosque-Cathedral. It is much quieter and breathtakingly beautiful with dimmed lighting. 

The nighttime “Soul of Cordoba” tour is a great time to visit the Mosque-Cathedral. (Shutterstock)

The Jewish Quarter, or ‘Juderia,’ is another historical point to explore. As you walk up Calle de los Judíos (Jewish Street), you will not only come across a well-known statue of Maimonides but one of just three remaining synagogues in all of Spain. Inside this 14th-century synagogue, which has a women’s gallery in the upper section, Hebrew inscriptions and geometric patterns cover the walls. In the past, the synagogue was also a hospital and kindergarten. 

The city is full of statues of luminaries associated with it, including the philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and oculist Al-Gafequi. If you have time, stop by the underground Baños del Alcazar Califal — an Arab bath house used by caliphs for socializing, pampering, and cleansing. 

Baños del Alcazar Califal. (Shutterstock)

Cordoba also has plenty of dining options. Casa Qurtubah is a lovely restaurant that cooks up Moroccan and Levantine dishes. For upbeat ambiance, go for La Chiquita de Quini. For cozy, try El Rincon de Carmen or Casa Palacio Bandolero for a quiet dinner. The restaurants’ popular patio spaces tend to get busy, so it’s wise to book in advance. Wherever you decide to go, the city’s simple and delicious staple of salmorejo, a thicker version of gazpacho soup, is a must-try.

A number of small and affordable museums are peppered around the city center. The Archaeology Museum, founded in the 19th century, sits on the site of an old Roman Theatre, the remains of which can still be found in the museum’s basement. The Museo Julio Romero de Torres is especially intimate with its deep red walls and sensual paintings of Spanish women. De Torres was born in Cordoba in 1874. He lived and died there, and his namesake museum was set up right next to his home. 

Elsewhere, over 20 years ago, Salma Al-Farouki founded Casa Andalusi, which educates visitors about Arabs’ long history of cultural contributions to Andalusia. Casa de Las Cabezas (House of Heads), meanwhile, is a charming museum — despite the gory myth of seven heads found hanging here — that demonstrates how an upper-class family would once have lived in this house and its multifunctional rooms. 

Finally, Museo Vivo de Al-Andalus recounts Cordoban histories through detailed miniature displays. The latter museum is connected to the Mosque-Cathedral area by the city’s long Roman Bridge. Crossing it, preferably around sunset, is an ideal way of ending the day, above the Guadalquivir River.