Europe and the Political Economy of Arab Cinema

by Garay Menicucci
published in MER235

Texts Reviewed:

Roy Armes, Postcolonial Images: Studies in North African Film (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005).

Kevin Dwyer, Beyond Casablanca: M. A. Tazi and the Adventure of Moroccan Cinema (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004).

 

Arab feature film production, once a thriving industry and a source of cultural pride, fell into a precipitous decline from the 1990s through the turn of the millennium. A variety of economic and political disasters, including the economic embargo and invasion of Iraq, the civil war in Algeria and the war in Lebanon from 1975–1990, have brought the film industries in these countries to a screeching halt or forced them into total dependency on external financing -- mostly from Europe. With the exception of Egypt, no Arab country has a large enough internal market to sustain an independent national film industry. But even the Egyptian film industry is increasingly dependent on Saudi and European financing. There are no cineplexes in Saudi Arabia, but Gulf investors have poured money into Egyptian film studios to produce programming suitable for heavily censored Saudi television. The Europeans, mostly the French, are bankrolling auteur cineastes such as Youssef Chahine and Yousry Nasrallah to make films that make the rounds of European film festivals and art houses. Cairo, the Arab Hollywood, once cranked out 150 films per annum -- but now a good year produces only 15 or 20. Two new books by film studies professor Roy Armes and anthropologist Kevin Dwyer show that this bleak outlook extends to North African cinema as well.

Roy Armes cites gloomy statistics about North African film production. In recent years, the Algerian film industry has totally collapsed and Algerian directors are only making films in exile in France. Tunisian and Moroccan film production is modestly increasing -- in Morocco thanks in part to state subsidies and co-productions with European partners. Moviegoing as a social activity is also in rapid decline -- a casualty of the proliferation of cable and satellite television. Armes notes that the number of cinema houses has dropped to half the number at independence in 1955 in Morocco, to 36 in Tunisia and only a dozen in all of Algeria. (181) The same trends are evident in Egypt. Old cinema houses are closing. New cineplexes are opening in luxury hotels and upscale shopping malls. The cineplexes show first-run American blockbusters and the 20 or so Egyptian features that are released throughout the year. Egyptian director Chahine has resorted to investing in his own cinema chain in Cairo to get his films screened to Egyptian audiences.

Although Kevin Dwyer’s book on Moroccan cinema is an ethnography of only one director, Muhammad Abderrahman Tazi, it contains a wealth of detail on the pitfalls of co-production financing for burgeoning Arab national cinemas. The main financial backers for North African, Lebanese and Egyptian cinema are French government and European Union cultural agencies and private television companies such as Channel Four in Britain and Canal Plus Horizons in France. Even with foreign financial backing, hardly any Arab film outside of Egypt turns a profit. Arab regional distribution outlets are limited and the European television rights and theater play dates do not allow for capital returns that might be reinvested into a national film production fund. Film scripts that get pitched to European financiers have to appeal to European tastes and aesthetics. Co-produced Arab films typically contain nudity or sexual situations that are appealing to European audiences but would not pass the local censor. Tunisian directors in particular have produced European box office successes with the requisite amount of sexual content to sell tickets -- Ferid Boughedir’s Halfaouine (1990) and One Summer at La Goulette (1995) were groundbreakers in this sense.

The sad distribution history of Yousry Nasrallah’s 278-minute two-part film Door to the Sun best exemplifies the down side of French co-financing. An epic historical drama covering the saga of the Palestinians in Lebanon from 1948 until the Oslo years in 1994, the film is adapted from the novel by Lebanese writer Elias Khoury. The film was shot in Syria and employs a multi-Arab cast of Egyptians, Syrians, Tunisians, Lebanese and Palestinians. The main funding was French and the technical work was completed in French studios. The content was mildly adjusted for the French market. French audiences are meant to identify with a character written into the script in part two -- a French actress (Catherine Dalle) plays a French actress who visits a refugee camp and becomes emotionally caught up with the plight of the Palestinians.

What should have been the Palestinian Ben Hur has not had an enduring run on the Arab big screen. Door to the Sun was first shown out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004. It had its commercial release in Lebanon in October 2004 where it played to virtually empty houses in a cineplex in the Ashrafiyya area of East Beirut. The Palestinian subjects of Door to the Sun were perhaps unlikely to venture into Ashrafiyya to see the film since it had been the stronghold of the Phalangist militias that entered the Sabra and Shatila camps in 1982 to carry out the massacre of as many as 3,000 residents. Ashrafiyya is still plastered today with posters commemorating Bashir Gemayel, the Phalangist leader installed as Lebanese president just prior to the Sabra-Shatila massacre and subsequently assassinated.

Door to the Sun has had showing dates in Damascus and Amman. It was not released in Egypt until January 2005 and it has not been an overwhelming popular success. With its mismanaged Arab debut, it is having a short afterlife along the film festival circuit in Montreal, New York and elsewhere. It was playing for a week’s run in Ramallah in May 2005.

With severe curtailment of state subsidies for the film industry in Egypt and North Africa, Arab national cinema is reliant on market forces and the market is in Europe. More and more Arab directors are émigrés or European-born, producing films about the Arab experience in Europe (what Armes calls “immigrant cinema”). In 2001, these directors produced more films than were produced by directors in any single country in North Africa. The themes of this new “immigrant cinema” are Eurocentric: anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia and cultural alienation. What is produced in the Arab world through these European financial channels is usually politically “lite” or mediated by European characters like the French actress who visits a Palestinian refugee camp and symbolizes the post-colonial European conscience in Door to the Sun. The Arab voice for itself is vanishing in the globalized film industry.