In Berlin, politics trump art in Arab films

The Arab film selection at the 67th Berlinale was dominated by themes such as the Syrian War and the Palestinian cause.

Closing and Awards Ceremony - 67th Berlin Film Festival
Palestinian filmmaker Raed Andoni won the Glashutte Original Documentary Award at the 67th annual Berlin International Film Festival [Clemens Bilan/EPA]

More than any other major film festival, Berlin’s has always proudly worn its politics on its sleeves.

In recent weeks, the festival’s director Dieter Kosslick has tackled in several interviews the effect of Donald Trump’s presidency on art and the crucial role film must now assume in battling the populism (with fascistic tones) taking over the western world.

Skimming through the programme of this year’s edition is akin to surveying every imaginable human malaise: the subjection of women; gay and transgender rights; racism; religious fanaticism; poverty; white privilege; colonialism; displacement; and of course, the topic du jour, the Syrian civil war.

Existential quandaries, universal love stories or comedies of manners, on the other hand, remain sacred properties of the United States and West Europe – prosperities that developing cinemas are not allowed to touch.

Arab cinema – a prime subject of cultural colonialism for decades – is no different. As usual, the Arab film selection at the 67th Berlinale was largely informed by familiar themes: the Syrian civil war, the Palestinian cause, the Lebanese civil war, religious fanaticism in Algeria and political oppression in Morocco – the same topics western festivals, producers and critics expect to see from the Arab world.

The freedom Arab filmmakers are fighting for to tell their own stories any way they desire is still a pipe dream. Only the form, the choice of aesthetics, is where Arab creators have been allowed to roam undirected, challenging perceptions of what Arab films are expected to look and address and injecting newfound urgency, newfound humanity, into these issues.

Ghost Hunting

The most conceptually intriguing film of the Arab selection this year is Palestinian filmmaker Raed Andoni’s documentary Ghost Hunting; the long-awaited follow-up to 2009’s Sundance hit Fix Me.

Eschewing the tedious talking-heads format prevalent in Arab documentary filmmaking, Andoni pairs former Palestinian prisoners with actors to recreate the nightmare of Moskobiya interrogation centre in Jerusalem.

Replicas of the detention centre rooms are built as the former inmates assume the roles of their captors in a fascinating, and at times harrowing, reversal of power dynamics.

Taking a leaf from the Brazilian Theatre of the Oppressed; Andoni relentlessly pushes his performers physically and psychologically in a valiant, sometimes vain, endeavour to transpose the full experience of incarceration.

Fiction and reality blur; the actors begin to question his punishing methods as both the filmmaker and performers get a taste of the corrupting nectar of power.

Like Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, Ghost Hunting poses one of the most pertinent questions facing documentarians today: In the pursuit of truth, what’s the dividing line between authenticity and exploitation? Between empathy and sadism?

Andoni’s second feature – which won the best documentary award – refuses to give any easy answers, leaving the viewers with glimpses of a traumatic reality, of blaring injustice, that is yet to wind-up.


The most acclaimed Arab story of the festival is, in fact, a Belgian production, directed by a Belgian filmmaker but with a cast comprised entirely of Arab actors from Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.

After tackling the Rwandan genocide in his debut feature The Day God Walked Away, cinematographer-turned director Philippe van Leeuw directs his attention to Syria with Insyriated, a highly claustrophobic, and at times punishing, portrait of the ongoing horrors of the Syrian civil war.

Set almost entirely in one apartment over the course of a single day, van Leeuw offers a snapshot of the Syrian nightmare in this concise account of a family matriarch – Palestinian star Hiam Abbas – who struggles for most of the duration of the film to inform her neighbour that her husband has been shot outside their building.

The tightly concocted narrative allows van Leeuw to zoom in the little-known daily challenges of the war-torn country: the scarcity of water, lack of sanitation, shortage of food and the grave danger of committing a small action like stepping out of one’s home.

Van Leeuw doesn’t attempt to make grand statements about the situation in Syria, nor does he offer any subjective interpretation of the incomprehensible politics of the war.

Insyriated, above all, is a portrait of arrested lives thrust in a Catch-22 with no end in sight.

By strictly focusing on the human aspect of the conflict; on the physical and psychological impact of this fear-ridden dystopia on ordinary citizens, on the chaos and uncertainty and pain of loss, van Leeuw has created one of the most powerful fictional depictions of the Syrian war made thus far.

Headbang Lullaby

Returning to the Berlinale for the third consecutive year is Moroccan enfant terrible Hicham Lasri with his fifth feature, Headbang Lullaby, a surreal, shaggy tale of an emotionally paralysed policeman assigned to patrol a remote bridge situated between two sparring villages.

Set in the aftermath of the 1981 bread riots which left hundreds dead and many others in prison, Lasri continues to examine the violent legacy of the King Hassan II reign using the same punk aesthetics and surreal imagery that cemented his reputation as Morocco’s most confrontational filmmaker.

His Morocco is a land of zombies, populated by outlandish characters whose peculiar behaviour seems to be the only fitting mode of conduct for a country governed by an absurd rule.

Headbang Lullaby may lack focus and discipline, constantly drifting towards the shenanigans of its characters, but Lasri’s vision is as bold and inventive as ever, cunningly alluding to contentious contemporary matters such as the trauma of violence, the thorny relationship between the authority and its people, and the various means with which the oppressed citizens employ to anaesthetise themselves from reality.

Investigating Paradise

Far less ambitious aesthetically, but equally daring in subject is veteran Algerian director Merzak Allouache’s documentary, Investigating Paradise, a road movie/journalistic report on the Islamic afterlife myth of the 72 virgins designated for every devout man.

Utilising a mixture of one-on-one interviews with different figures from Algeria’s intellectual left along with jaw-dropping footage of Salafist preachers discussing at length the sexual riches awaiting jihadists in the afterlife and testimonials from the average young men invested in the preachers’ fantasies, Allouache explores some of the biggest taboos in the Arab World: the role of women in Islam, the demagogic influence of Wahhabism, the authority’s manipulation of religion to enhance their powers, and the irreconcilable bequest of the civil war.

READ MORE: Refugees take centre stage at Berlin’s film festival

Its straightforward aesthetic and narrative approach is quite banal, and a considerable number of these testimonials get repetitive, but the sheer force of Allouache’s laudably audacious discourse, light, humorous tough, insightful reading of Algeria’s socioeconomic status and purity of his filmmaking makes Investigating Paradise one of the few movies that can change perceptions of the masses.

With multiple Oscar nominations and awards at the world’s top film festivals, Arab cinema has made a great stride in recent years, cementing its place in the international film map and exporting talents to Europe and Hollywood.

The Syrian civil war, Donald Trump and Brexit shall boost Arab cinema’s profile even further; but the unmitigated autonomy Arab filmmakers dream of may take longer to reach, that is until western festivals take a chance on Arab stories that deviate from the norm.

The signs in Berlin are promising, nonetheless, beckoning what could turn out to be a defining year for a maturing cinema at its creative peak.

Joseph Fahim is an Egyptian film critic and programmer. He is a member of Berlin Critics’ Week and the Arab film consultant of Karlovy Vary Film Festival. He is also the former director of programming of the Cairo International Film Festival and the former arts and culture editor of Egyptian daily, Daily News Egypt.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.