Family lives: Discover Arab Cinema

An introduction to Arab cinema in 12 easy steps, BFI Southbank’s year-long Discover Arab Cinema season continues this month with four acclaimed directorial debuts focusing on family life.

Mona Deeley
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The Last Friday (2013)

The Last Friday (2013)

December sees the continuation of Discover Arab Cinema, a year-long regular strand at BFI Southbank that launched last month in collaboration with Zenith Foundation. The body of works presented in this strand create a unique perspective on cinema, old and new, across countries of the Arab region and its diaspora, showcasing the diversity of the thematic concerns and styles of its most interesting directors.

Many of the films have not previously been seen in the UK, or did not enjoy wide theatrical releases, so the season will help to highlight an important part of world cinema that remains partly in the shadows in terms of public exposure in the west.

Each month is organised by theme, genre or country, with four films or a selection of shorts shown within that framework. The launch theme in November was New Egyptian Cinema, which grouped the filmmakers leading this movement. We started with a screening of Winter of Discontent (2013), the latest film by Ibrahim Al Batout, who is considered the spiritual father of New Egyptian Cinema.

Atash (2004)

Atash (2004)

In December, the focus has shifted to portrayals of family life. Families have been a powerful theme in many films made in the Middle East. Inherently emotive and formative in defining identity, the family may also serve as a microcosm for wider society.

All four films selected are the feature debuts of their directors. Each has won critical acclaim, with both Hold Back (2012) and Atash (2004) winning the FIPRESCI critics’ prize at Cannes, while Le Grand Voyage (2004) won the Luigi De Laurentiis Award at the Venice Film Festival. The Last Friday (2011) received best film awards at San Sebastian and Dubai International film festivals. As a Jordanian fiction feature film, The Last Friday is still something of a rarity, despite the development of the Jordanian Film Commission’s work over the past decade.

The oldest two films in the family-themed selection were made in 2004. Le Grand Voyage is a tender film following an elderly Moroccan immigrant and his adolescent son, Reda, on a road trip across seven countries to join the Hajj to Mecca. In contrast, the Palestinian film Atash has tensions running high between harsh patriarch Shukri and his family, who live together in a state of extreme isolation.

Le Grand Voyage (2004)

Le Grand Voyage (2004)

The Last Friday couples familial dysfunction with the need for family when Youssef, having lost his home and wife thanks to his compulsive gambling, finds himself in urgent need of money to pay for a life-saving surgical operation. This sudden change in circumstance shatters his sense of isolation, while his teenage son, Emad, seems to be heading down a similar path.

Portrayals of empty patriarchies can echo those of destructive authoritarian political authorities, such as in the semi-autobiographical Syrian film Dreams of the City (1984) by Mohamad Malas, and Palestinian director Michel Khleifi’s Wedding in Galilee (1987). Both films reference Galilee and narrate family experiences where political struggle and strife are integral to shaping relationships and the trajectory of one’s life.

Accounts criticising family life in these films offer a counter-narrative to the established order of patriarchal societies and may invite a change of attitudes that could help transform social and political structures.

Hold Back (2012)

Hold Back (2012)

In Hold Back, the lone father figure is absent and replaced by a band of 40 men reminiscent of the 40 thieves of Baghdad. The film is set in Paris within an Algerian-French family in which Sabrina is the only girl among 40 brothers. She is in love with a young, black, Christian man and they want to marry. However, her eldest brother, Sleiman, gathers his siblings to oppose the union, reflecting the tension in relations between Arab and black communities in France and pressures emerging from a generation going through a renewed conservatism.

Discover Arab Cinema offers a rare opportunity to discover contemporary films and revisit classics from the Arab region. Future highlights include thrillers, experimental films, literary adaptations and documentaries, and programmes of Algerian, Gulf, Palestinian, Moroccan and Syrian films.

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