There was surely no shortage of talent at this year’s Dubai International Film Festival. The lineup – 158 films in 43 languages from 61 countries – featured over eight days in the city’s Madinat Jumeirah complex.
At workshops, panels and star-studded red carpet events, the ninth edition of the festival – which ran from December 9 to 16 – promised to show “the diversity of the region and the maturity of its cinema”, says artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali.
The festival also showcased the tumult in the Arab world. Two years ago, a young Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor lit himself on fire and died, frustrated with the obstacles he faced trying to support his family. What followed is still debated among political scientists and analysts around the globe.
Whether a domino, ripple, or whatever else you prefer to call it, much of the Arab world experienced a rude awakening. And as Egypt debates the future of its constitution and the death toll in Syria mounts with no end to its civil war in sight, the path to change is paved.
Several of this year’s offerings in Dubai hailed from so-called Arab Spring countries, and some from neighbouring countries which perhaps had tried and failed, or not really tried at all to lunge towards a new era. Whatever the case, each film carried its own unique message.
A few steps forward, and then?
“After the fall of Ben Ali, we felt like a people,” says Tunisian director Hinde Boujemaa.
Her documentary, “It Was Better Tomorrow”, follows a homeless Tunisian woman named Aida as she struggles day-to-day to obtain the most basic of life’s necessities. With her bold presence and unfiltered thoughts, Aida perseveres although her life hasn’t changed much with the country’s change in leadership – a theme echoing across a region with a staggering lack of economic opportunity.
The film’s producer, Habib Attia, says a film like this would never have existed had there never been an uprising, “because social and political issues were taboo in Tunisian cinema”.
“I’m not here to document what’s happening in the country. I wanted to make a film that relates to me and what’s happening around me.”
– Ibrahim El Batout, Egyptian director
Egyptian film “Winter of Discontent” does not focus on one single character or element of the 2011 uprising against the government of ousted president Hosni Mubarak. Rather, director Ibrahim El Batout set out to detail the experiences of three individuals through the 18 days of protests that ended Mubarak’s almost 30 years of rule, while holding a magnifying glass to a subculture of police torture many had previously been too afraid to openly discuss.
“A lot has changed since February 11. Every day, [the revolution] brought change in the political arena in Egypt,” El Batout says. So with the film, “we had to be flexible, and that happens”. As the situation continues to evolve, is Egypt on the path to another winter of discontent? El Batout believes the answer is no. “The country will keep on changing, but it’s a different track.”
Meanwhile, few people sinking into the theatre seats with popcorn and soda in hand expected the opening scene of “The Scream” – a flood of women, dressed head-to-toe in black, descending upon a sea of male protesters. And equally unexpected was the person who brought “The Scream” to the festival: a female Yemeni diplomat who left her post in Paris, flew to Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, and turned her camera on.
Ousting a leader from power was a daunting task, director Khadija Al-Salami points out, but what was doubly difficult was challenging the firmly established role of women – and veiled women, at that. “When I went there, I was enthusiastic the first few days,” she says. “But then I was so disappointed with what these women had to face – not from the regime but those that call themselves revolutionaries who are calling for democracy and equality.
“How can you revolt but you’re also oppressing your partner in revolution?”
Humanising the Kingdom
With a denim backpack, grungy Chuck Taylor sneakers, and an abaya – the traditional black dress worn by many women in the Gulf region – “Wadjda” is a tomboy with simple dreams of buying a bicycle to race a boy in her neighbourhood. “For me, it was very important to make a film that goes beyond what’s happening in the region,” says Haifa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker. “I wanted to show the human face of Saudi.”
A prominent theme in “Wadjda”, as in “The Scream”, was the status of women’s rights in society, and how some women are testing the boundaries of their role amid rising tension between modernity and tradition.
Words like “morals”, “honour” and “respect” were tossed around in the script, reminding the audience how deeply rooted the vernacular is. “What I really wanted to do is not to victimise the woman…but rather show an inspiring character, one that achieves success,” Al Mansour says. “The human being in the Arab world must change – that’s the only way we’ll find success.”
Whether or not their films directly addressed the recent changes in the Arab world, some directors stress that the storytelling is far more important to them than the politics. “I’m not here to document what’s happening in the country,” El Batout, an Egyptian, says. “I wanted to make a film that relates to me and what’s happening around me.”
And as for the pioneering Saudi filmmaker who says she wasn’t afraid of creating a film she knew would stir controversy, Al Mansour says: “I don’t want to use big words like revolution or revolutionary change. My endeavour throughout my films is to find characters that drive us ahead.”
“Wadjda” went on to win the festival’s award for best Arabic-language feature film. And while this and other films will continue to compete on the festival circuit, what remains to be seen is whether the real lives that inspired them will also find success.
Follow Dina Elshinnawi on Twitter: @dinamotion