Arab filmmakers say cinema is region’s ‘most powerful non-violent weapon’

Four artists say it’s high time Arabs reclaim their cinema heritage as ISIS dominates propaganda productions

Ismaeel Naar

Published: Updated:

From Omar al-Sharif to Noor al-Sharif, it’s been one tough year for Arab cinema with several of its greatest actors passing away.

Speaking at the Beirut Institute Summit last weekend in Abu Dhabi, Egyptian producer Karim Amer said that the state of Arab cinema is not what is used to be because “we don’t have heroes anymore.”

“Unfortunately in today’s Arab street, we don’t see the hero’s story anymore. And maybe that’s why ISIS is so effective these days with their online videos. We have to ask ourselves why have we failed to tell the story of modern day Arab heroes?” Amer asked

His comments came as he shared a panel discussion on Arab cinema with his wife Jehane Noujaim, whose first collaboration together was in the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Square,” based on Egypt’s 2011 revolution. They both shared the stage with Lebanese cinema powerhouse couple Nadine Labaki and her music composer husband Khaled Mouzanar.

“We in the Arab region have a rich history in storytelling. Yet somehow we are at a point in time where our Arab story is not being told correctly, especially by the West,” Noujaim said.

There has been much criticism of Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs on television and the silver screen, with U.S. shows such as “Homeland” and “Tyrant” being accused of “enforcing negative stereotypes about the Arab culture.”

“We have to take that back and tell our stories ourselves. Imagine if The Godfather was made with no Italian-American actors or perspectives? So we’re currently working with a lot of top producers back in the U.S. to counter that,” Noujaim said.

The old versus the new

Lebanese music composer Khaled Mouzanar said there have been valuable lessons from older generations on the power that the arts can play in overcoming political differences.

“Egypt’s Umm Kalthoum was a great example of when artists succeeded where politicians failed. When she used to sing on the radio, the whole of Cairo would fall silent in order to listen to her songs,” Mouzanar said, in reference to the internationally famous Egyptian singer, songwriter, and film actress of the 1920s to the 1970s.

Labaki, whose last film “Where do we go now?” won praise for telling the story of an unnamed rural Lebanese village where Christians and Muslims coexist in an uneasy peace, said that there is still some hope on the arts scene as modern technology has “made anyone a filmmaker.”

“What has been lacking in our region is for people to believe in the industry of filmmaking. In the past, you needed big investors to make a film but this isn’t needed now. Anyone can tell a story using a phone,” Labaki said.

“With everything that is happening in the Arab world, it much easier for people to be expressive whether through music, film or writing.”

But Labaki did contest that “more needs to be done.”

Countering ISIS

The Arab filmmakers reverted back to ISIS advances, not on the battlefield, but more so in their capabilities to create high-production videos.

In the past year, ISIS videos – especially those showing beheadings – have been analyzed by international experts for their seemingly hi-quality aesthetic features. Aside from style, the videos are also translated into English and a number of European languages, showing that ISIS intends to reach international audiences.

As long we stay like this, our stories will be told by ISIS and foreign powers

Karim Amer - Egyptian producer.

“We can’t blame anybody but ourselves, and that’s the reality we’re living in. As long we stay like this, our stories will be told by ISIS and foreign powers,” Amer said.

“We have to believe that we can be the authors of our stories. I do believe the majority of Arabs are storytellers and have a vision to tell. And I do believe that artists, politicians and civil servants are responsible to create a space for that,” he added.

But is there still hope for Arab productions to sprout mostly from the Arab world? Lebanese actress and director Labaki thinks so. “I truly believe that cinema is one of the most powerful non-violent weapons because it does synchronize people’s minds when it gathers many people in the same theatre,” she said

“There is a collective power there,” she added.

Noujaim and Amer are currently working on an upcoming two-part series on mothers of foreign fighters that have joined ISIS and an animated film collaboration with Angelina Jolie called “Breadwinner” – a tale similar to the Disney animated film “Mulan,” but set in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime.

Labaki is currently working on movie script focusing on children’s rights.