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Another no-show for Arab films at Cannes

The Arab cinema is suffering from mediocrity and creative ineptitude as it fails to break into the international spotlight.
A palm tree is seen above a poster of the 67th Cannes Film Festival near the Port of Cannes on the eve of the opening of the Festival in Cannes May 13, 2014. The festival will run from May 14 to 25.        REUTERS/Yves Herman (FRANCE  - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT)   - RTR3OWVU

Along with the various Arab film fests that sprang across Europe, the United States, Latin America and Australia over the past decade, Arab films have become a major fixture in dozens of film festivals all over the world. They carry a particular exoticism of a cinema fraught with political, social and economic instability. The recent success of Hany Abu-Assad’s “Omar” and Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square” at the last Academy Awards boosted the reputation of Arab films, while the huge revenues Haifaa al-Mansour’s “Wadjda” — one of the highest grossing foreign films of 2012 — proved their largely overlooked commercial potential … or that’s what Arab observers presumed.

At the end of every year, critics tend to get overexcited about the small crop of Arab films that made noise internationally; 2012 was a breakthrough year, mainly for those three aforementioned movies. But a look at the Arab representation at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival reveals a starker reality Arab filmmakers and producers must confront.

This year, only two films made it as an official Cannes selection: Omar El Zohairy's “The Aftermath of the Inauguration of the Public Toilet at Kilometer 375” from Egypt — the first time an entry from Egypt made it to the Cinefondation section for student films — and Ossama Mohammad’s “Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait” from Syria, screening outside the competition. Another movie, Kaouther Ben Hania's brilliant mockumentary “Challat of Tunis” from Tunisia will be screened at the ACID, a program outside the official selection set up to assist filmmakers find theatrical distribution.

Not a single Arab film made it to the four main Cannes sections — Official Competition, Un Certain Regard, Director’s Fortnight and Critics’ Week. There was no shortage of Arab applicants this year. Major, high-profile movies from Egypt, Palestine, Algeria and Morocco have all been rejected by the world’s pre-eminent film festival, forcing filmmakers to try their luck with Locarno, San Sebastian and Venice.

Whether Arab filmmakers will fare better this year remains to be seen, but the incessant shutout of Arab films from Cannes and other major festivals — the exception is Venice, which has been far more hospitable to Arabs than Cannes — suggests one simple truth: Arab films are still not good enough.

There are certainly a number of films that deserved significant spots in Cannes and wider recognition than they have received. Faltering under the weight of a collapsing economic structure, Egyptian mainstream cinema gave way to an indie movement that started to fully blossom, producing some of the most remarkable Arab works of recent years. Chief among this lot is Ahmad Abdalla’s “Rags and Tatters,” which was rejected by Cannes before taking the United Kingdom by storm when it made its European premiere at the London BFI Film Festival last year. Hala Lotfy’s “Coming Forth by Day” deserved better than the Forum slot it was given at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, while Nadine Khan’s aesthetically ambitious “Chaos and Disorder” went largely unnoticed by major fairs.

Moroccan Hicham Lasri’s anarchic, anti-monarchy works — “The End” (2011) and “They Are the Dogs” (2013) — remain strangely anonymous in the international film scene. The same goes for Tunisia’s Nejib Belkadhi (“Bastardo,” 2013) and Alex Pitstra (“Die Welt,” 2012) who, along with Ben Hania, represent a new Tunisia cinema free of colonization, subjugation of women and religious fundamentalism that defined North African cinema for more than a quarter of a century.

But these are exceptions to the rule — small gems floating in a swamp of mediocrity and creative ineptitude. There have certainly been major developments in Arab cinema, evident most prominently in Egypt and Tunisia as mentioned, but the quality of produced works from the region remains exasperatingly inconsistent.

To make it to Cannes, films must be backed up by prominent distributors, a feat eluding Arab filmmakers. “Omar,” which was featured in last year’s Un Certain Regard, was distributed by German powerhouse The Match Factory. Cannes does not only stress artistic loftiness. Like any festival in the world, it craves big stars, big publicity, big hype and glamor — factors still lacking in Arab cinema.

The universality of themes is another missing factor. Most Arab films continue to orbit around a fixed axis that does n’t allow for ideas, sentiments and characterization to translate abroad. Censorship remains a thorn on the side of Arab filmmakers who still haven’t figured out how to work around it. It takes a great deal of invention and courage to emulate the Iranians who succeeded in achieving global stardom through freeing themselves from the shackles of genre filmmaking. That’s not the case with most Arab filmmakers, who continue to search for the crucial sense of urgency needed to alleviate their works from the mundane to the transcendent.

Apart from Egypt, Arab cinema is widely considered a developing one for various reasons, with the main factors being the absence of a real industry and stable models of finance. The availability of funds from the Gulf festivals have provided up-and-coming filmmakers with adequate resources, but state support in all Arab nations but Morocco is absent. An impressive debut feature has been a common occurrence in the Arab fest scene, but an equally impressive sophomore follow-up is a rarity.

The international obsession following everything Arab after 2011 has petered out and now Arab cinema finds itself perplexed in a post-Arab Spring culture, fighting to attract attention to stories situated in a different sphere from that of TV news.

Specific factors were responsible for the success of the big three Arab productions of 2013: the novelty of “Wadjda,” the great credentials of Oscar-nominee Abu-Assad and the enduring interest in the Egyptian revolution. All three were backed by major companies — Sony Pictures, Netflix and Match Factory respectively — that gave them an edge above their rivals. All three proved that with good narratives, good artistry and good marketing, Arab films could soar.

Cannes remains the pantheon every filmmaker dreams of reaching. Artistic level is not the sole criterion Cannes uses to select its films. Connections, marketing and politics play a substantial role. But it all boils down to the uniqueness of the artists’ visions, and until this happens, Arabs will continue to grapple over these highly coveted spots in the world’s biggest film gathering.

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