Three years after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, which sparked the first of a series of revolts throughout the Arab World, the state of affairs in the region has proven to be far too complicated to fit inside the umbrella term Arab Spring. With the spread of social media, there certainly is no shortage of images regarding protests and conflicts. Yet, the inundation of audiovisuals comes hand in hand with a great deal of manipulation and disinformation, urging us to be more cautious than ever about the context and accuracy of what we see and hear.
Therefore, there is a growing need for compelling works by documentary filmmakers who, free from the 24-hour news cycle phenomenon, are able to more deeply portray stories in their complexity and social, cultural and political context, and delve deeper into the people who will challenge our preconceptions, shake us from our indolence and open up our perspectives. It is high time we take a closer look at the incredible wealth of works by independent filmmakers across the Arab world, many of which excel in creativity and courage.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, Arab cinema has enjoyed a remarkable increase in independent filmmaking, with a proliferation of documentaries that tackle a wide range of critical social, historical and political subjects, ranging from Palestinian refugee camps to the Algerian War, from slave labour to domestic violence. In the footsteps of revolutionary masters of Arab documentary like Syrian Omar Amiralay and Palestinian Mustafa Abu Ali, a new generation of talented Arab filmmakers have demonstrated a high level of humanism and intimacy in their works, and a notable tendency towards personal stories, which gives them greater freedom to create their own artistic style and to formulate a subtle yet sharp political language that abstains from making simplistic conclusions.
After a thousand days of war and a death toll in the hundreds of thousands, the never-ending crisis in Syria requires the immediate attention of the international community, something which Talal Derki’s Return to Homs makes abundantly clear. The documentary follows two exceptional young men, once defenders of pacifism, who, with the change of circumstances, are pushed to fight on the front lines of an armed conflict. Filmed over two years in Homs, which has been under siege since May 2011, Return to Homs documents the appalling humanitarian crisis and the unbearable destruction of the city and the country. With its unflinching stance against the Assad regime, Return to Homs presents unprecedented footage, which even includes on-camera deaths. Much of the earlier footage was shot by the film’s producer Orwa Nyrabia, who, along with Diana El Jeiroudi, formed Proaction Film in Damascus in 2005, now a pioneer in the production of outstanding documentaries. Return to Homs is a shout-out to the international community to urgently stop ignoring the situation in Syria.
Egypt too has witnessed an unexpected turn of events since the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. While Ayten Amin, Tamer Ezzat and Amr Salama captured the psyche of Egyptians following Hosni Mubarak’s fall in their 2011 documentary Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician, the recent return of the army to power now points to an uncertain future for Egypt. Under these ever-changing circumstances, Marouan Omara and Johanna Domke, in Crop (2013), take a step back to reflect on the revolution from a creative perspective, through the notion of “image framing”. By disclosing the archaic mechanics of Egypt’s oldest and most influential state newspaper Al Ahram, as seen through the eyes of a staff photojournalist, the film offers a fascinating look into the media manoeuvring of the old regime. As we hover around the claustrophobic offices and corridors of the newspaper, in a series of beautifully composed shots, the camera gently reveals the deep roots of state control, which are too resistant to change.
Despite being eclipsed by the developments in Egypt and Syria, Palestine remains a notable regional flashpoint. Some 64 years after the Nakba, the Palestinian exodus following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, there are around seven million Palestinian refugees, of whom, according to UNRWA, more than 1.5 million individuals live in 58 recognized refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank. Mahdi Fleifel’s A World Not Ours looks at the distressing situation through an incredibly passionate portrait of Ain al-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, where the director grew up. Over 70,000 people live here within just one square kilometre, in dire living conditions. In A World Not Ours, Fleifel gently evokes memories of a beautiful childhood in the camp, blending subtle humour and a love of cinema and jazz music with a truthful depiction of the camp inhabitants’ daily struggle to survive, including that of his childhood friend Abu Iyad. Thus, the film shines with its honest and up-close portrayal of a shocking reality through the subjective lens of a filmmaker who defies any pretention and emotional manipulation.
Released alongside Algeria’s 50th anniversary of independence in 2012, Damien Ounouri’s Fidaï tackles a taboo subject through the delicate portrayal of a close relative: the director’s great-uncle Mohamad el Hadi, a fidai, who left Algeria to become a fighter for the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in France during the Algerian Revolution. El Hadi was imprisoned for the murder of a member of the Algerian National Movement and deported back to Algeria in 1962. After years of silence, Ounouri convinces his great-uncle, now aged 70, to revisit that time, but with an unusual approach where he gets him to physically re-enact his criminal acts, this time with Ounouri acting as the victim. The return to the actual sites in France evokes the memory of the body; the gestures bring back the moments with remarkable precision for el Hadi. Through a profoundly intimate tale that unearths a dark chapter in Franco-Algerian history, Ounouri’s sensitive and compassionate storytelling opens pivotal discussions on revolution, freedom, crime, justice and war.
Due to its ongoing struggles, not only in Egypt and Syria but also those that have receded into the background somewhat, such as suicide bombings in Iraq or Yemen’s battle with al-Qaeda, the Arab World will no doubt remain the centre of international attention. A region that suffers greatly from ignorant labelling and harsh prejudice, we owe a lot to many cutting-edge, multi-faceted documentaries by Arab filmmakers, who not only bring us profound insight into the region’s sociopolitical and historical dynamics, but also introduce us to a world full of poetic discoveries, humour and fascination.