Giant leap for Arab cinema? London festival spotlights Mideast movies

The desire to expose UK audiences to Arab cinema has often stemmed from conflicts in the Middle East

Nabila Pathan

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The desire to expose UK audiences to Arab cinema over the past decade has often stemmed from a reaction to conflicts emerging in the Middle East. Building bridges through cinema is even seen as a conflict antidote by some.

The determination to build these bridges has never been more pronounced than in the recent drive in the UK to showcase the plurality of Arab cinema through festivals and seasons hosted by Safar, BAFTA and now the British Film Institute (BFI).


The BFI’s exploration to 'Discover Arab Cinema' is currently half way through its 12-month journey to expose audiences to film from the region and its diaspora.

Each month has been organized according to a different theme, genre or region.

Described as an “unprecedented” dedication to Arab cinema and applauded for widening the scope of audiences, it stands in sharp contrast to other Arab film festivals or seasons in the Western world which usually span between a few days to a month.

Mona Deeley, curator of the program in association with the Zenith Foundation, says: “There isn’t a more exciting place than the BFI. It has great cinemas and most of all it’s an open public space.”

Pushing the envelope with experimental Arab films

The British Film Institute is currently showcasing Experimental Arab films, which engage viewers with new angles on the familiar and reconfigure perspectives on the pressing questions of our time.

The compilation of films question with wit and creativity the politics, media and people of their homelands, and give the viewer a chance to step outside of their preconceptions.


Arab cinema plays an important role in popular Arab culture. For instance, many Arab audiences embrace Egyptian popular cinema, often viewed as a leader in the film industry.

The growing talent of film producers and the widening scope of the art form is being increasingly recognized. But bringing it to wider audiences is the current challenge. There is a raft of opinion regarding why Arab cinema has not yet crossed over to the UK.

According to a Antonia Roupell, a filmmaker who focuses on the Middle East: “The UK film industry is a leading market for commercial English language films. The British public, unlike their other European neighbors, are not accustomed to subtitles or dubbing and this has stunted the film variety of films available in mainstream cinemas as well as audience appreciation.”

Spate of Arab films

There’s been a spate of Arab films that have recently received critical acclaim in the British press. Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda is one such example. Being the first film to be directed by a Saudi woman, it provided a discussion platform and insight about women in Saudi Arabia.


But what is adding to the challenge for cross-over films is the complex film production process in the Middle East. Roupell likens the Arab cinema industry to a “political industry where co-production agreements only exist between production countries of separate nationalities if the countries in question have agreed to a treaty with each other.” She notes that “Britain has notably very few co-production treaties with MENA countries.”

Over the past two years, Arab Film festivals in the UK have aimed to support an emerging crop of filmmakers, producers and directors, not only to help challenge these obstacles by introducing British audiences to Arab cinema but also with the aim to move beyond European and American centric world views about the region.

There remains an underlying caution to not simply reinforce Western expectations of progress in the Middle East, hence most programs have attempted to provide an eclectic range of films.

Desire for a cross-over

Beyond the commercial, the desire for a cross-over of Arab cinema in the UK is rooted in a desire for identity, understanding and the engagement of perspectives. As Mona Deeley explains, films form the “zeitgeist” of our time. When scenes from the Arab world convey terror, conflict, human suffering and hate as part of the rolling news, the silver screen plays an important role in widening representation beyond the narrow field of vision of the news cycle.

The year-long feature at the BFI, in its efforts to widen audiences to Arab cinema forms a fitting tribute to Sheila Witaker, who was not only dedicated to promoting Arab film across the world but was an important figure in initiating the yearlong season. Many believe her legacy will be the cross-fertilization of Arab cinema to wider audiences.


Nabila Pathan is the founder/Director of the London-based Full Picture Club and an arts and culture writer focusing on diaspora Muslim communities.