When filmmaker Khaled al-Siddiq died in October 2021, his debut film, Bas ya bahar (The Cruel Sea), produced in 1972 and nominated by Kuwait to the Oscars, experienced a posthumous renaissance of sorts among independent filmmakers in the Middle East. It wasn’t just that al-Siddiq was noted as the first in his country to produce a feature film: it was his unflinching realism, which echoes and inspires today.
More than 50 years after the release of The Cruel Sea, film enthusiasts and historians are examining anew the 1970s era of Arab filmmaking, often referred to academically as the era of New Arab Cinema.
It was a time when filmmakers like al-Siddiq were making socially conscious films with pan-Arab storylines that broke with mainstream Egyptian cinema. In the 1940s through the 1970s, often called the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema, film plots mostly featured predictable storylines and happy endings with actors playing typecast parts. Al-Siddiq, however, looked to the darker, harsher side of life: His film told the story of a struggling pearl diver who dives to ever-more-dangerous depths in a desperate bid to find a pearl valuable enough to earn him the money he needs to marry Nura, who has been promised to another, wealthier man, but that pearl comes into Mussaid’s hands only on his last—and fatal—dive.
Egyptian-German author and filmmaker Viola Shafik, who wrote three books on the history of Arab cinema, says by the mid-1930s, Egypt earned its distinction internationally as a rising hub of industry. By the end of World War II, Egypt was producing about 50 films each year, and by the 1980s, Egypt distributed nearly 100 films per year, viewed throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Despite British colonialism, she says, “it was a relatively prosperous economy” that allowed local entrepreneurs and artists to invest in film and create an industry that started “catering for Egypt and its neighboring countries.” The Egyptian film industry spiked in the 1980s with the introduction of video cassette, through which it expanded its viewership into the more conservative Gulf countries, which had few cinemas. At its peak, it was the third-largest film industry in the world, “the Arab Hollywood,” but since then, it has declined. By 2008 it was producing only about 40 films a year, and in 2021, despite pandemic conditions, it produced 21, according to elcinema.com.
Film historians and enthusiasts are today discovering similarities with filmmakers of al-Siddiq’s genre, who were then willing to push the status quo, and a rising generation of filmmakers based in Arab-majority countries who are producing more cinema than ever—often with more financial backing than ever. Yet today, even with more films and filmmakers, the industry is driven less by the telling of sweeping, pan-Arab stories and more by the growth in opportunities for filmmakers to find financing and distribution for more specifically localized themes. Propelling this trend is the worldwide shift in viewing via online platforms and streaming services that developed their own, content-hungry production houses.
The Cruel Sea isn’t really being rediscovered six decades later, says Nadia Yaqub, a professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but rather, discovered for the first time. She also attributes the interest in decades-old Arab films like The Cruel Sea, in part, to a renewed energy across MENA to connect its roots and contributions to the Arab films of today.
The late 1960s through early 1980s is important for Arab cinema for a number of reasons, says Yaqub, whose ongoing research covers Arab literature and film throughout MENA, a subject she examined briefly in her 2018 book Palestinian Cinema in the Days of Revolution on Palestinian filmmaking in the 1970s and its regional impact on neighboring countries.
Yaqub credits the founding of several important institutions for matriculating filmmakers in the region and helping them produce substantive and highly regarded films on an international scale. The Cairo Higher Institute of Cinema, founded in 1957, for example, was the first of its kind to train regional filmmakers in film production. Public-sector film industries, which may include government-commissioned films, are prevalent in Syria and Algeria, as well as the Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage, or Carthage film festival, in Tunisia is known as the oldest in Africa and has created opportunities to fund, showcase and nurture Arab cinema and filmmakers through the decades, with each generation becoming stronger and more confident.
“Young filmmakers who came of age in the aftermath of the 1967 war were galvanized by that defeat and seized on opportunities to challenge accepted practices in a range of areas, including accepted filmmaking practices,” Yaqub says, mentioning it still took decades for most Arab filmmakers to find funding and a platform to create their projects.
The launch of the Dubai International Film Festival, which ran from 2004 to 2019, followed by the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (2007–2015) the Doha Tribeca Film Festival (2009–2012) as well as several smaller Gulf-based festivals all existed to advance up-and-comers in the industry. The international festivals showcased features and shorts from global directors in many languages but remained in operation with the goal of giving screen time to Arabic-language independent films.
Even by the 2000s, there weren’t that many Arab films to screen at international film festivals, unless the Arab festivals helped produce them. Each festival committed to creating funding and mentorship programs for Arab filmmakers, followed by similar initiatives from media companies and film schools throughout the Gulf region. The strongest example is the Doha Film Institute and its grant program, which is still in operation and managed by Algerian producer Khalil Benkirane, even though the institute’s film festival shuttered. Since 2010 when the institute first launched, it has helped finance nearly 700 short and feature length Arabic-language films, many later recognized with prestigious international prizes. Annemarie Jacir’s Wajib (2017) of Palestine, won Best Foreign Language Film at the 2018 Academy Awards; Moroccan filmmaker Meryem Benm’Barek-Aloïsi’s Sofia (2018) won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival; Sudanese filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala’s You Will Die at Twenty (2019) was nominated for the 2021 Academy Awards Best International Feature Film; and Naji Abu Nawar’s Theeb (2014) was the first Jordanian film to be nominated for an Academy Award.
The Doha Film Institute also cofinanced Oscar-nominated Palestinian film director Hany Abu-Assad’s Idol (2015) and Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s Oscar-nominated Capharnaüm (2018). The most recent festival to draw international enthusiasm is Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival in Jiddah, which launched in 2019 but pushed back its debut to November 2021 due to the global pandemic. Its second edition is scheduled for the first week of December.
“The festivals did indeed foster a film community in the region, and they also gave exposure and opened up regional audiences to films from small but long-established film communities in, for example, Tunisia and Morocco,” says Jay Weissberg, former Variety film critic and senior film critic at The Film Verdict.com. “There is interesting work coming from these places that most (Westerners) don’t have access to.”
The festivals also made it possible for Arab filmmakers to meet each other, says Jordanian producer and screenwriter Nadia Eliewat, who was part of the award-winning Theeb creative team. She moved to Dubai from Jordan in 2016 and immediately discovered others in her profession and began partnering on Arab film projects.
“Such connections wouldn’t have been possible in Jordan,” she says, mentioning Dubai’s robust global filmmaking community. Networking in Dubai’s dense professional cinema circles led her to meet Lebanese music video director Sophie Boutros, who invited Eliewat to cowrite and produced Boutros’ 2013 directorial film debut, Solitaire, available on Netflix. Eliewat also connected with Oscar-nominated Yemeni Scottish filmmaker Sara Ishaq, and currently producing Ishaq’s first feature, The Station.
Talal al-Muhanna of Kuwait, an independent and documentary filmmaker, says the Gulf film festival markets were the reason he decided to base himself in Kuwait, rather than the United States or United Kingdom.
“Each time I traveled to film markets at the festivals, I would get pitched projects by filmmakers coming from elsewhere in the region and, importantly, from filmmakers in the Arab diaspora,” he says, explaining many of the Kuwaiti filmmakers he now knows and works with regularly were connections he formed while attending regional film festivals.
Even by the 2000s, there weren’t yet many Arab films to screen at international film festivals, unless the Arab festivals helped produce them.
“In 2017 I was Head of Industry at that year’s edition of the Kuwait Film Festival, which allowed me the chance to translate all the regional networking I had done from 2008 onwards into invitations to the most important film funders in the region that were active at the time,” says al-Muhanna, noting that like others in the region, the Kuwait festival has since closed. “It was such a privilege to have all those organizations respond to the invitation to attend our event in Kuwait and pay forward some of what I had learned at other festivals over the years.”
The Rawi Screenwriting Lab in Jordan, an annual five-day workshop for emerging Arab screenwriters, scheduled the last week of November, has provided development tools for more than 100 students since 2005. Its mentorship program, which began in partnership with the Sundance Institute, the nonprofit host of the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, offered a premier platform to screen Haifaa al-Mansour’s 2012 feature, Wajda, credited as the first movie filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia. Young Saudi filmmakers have been making low-budget web series and short films since YouTube launched in 2005. Mahmoud Al Sabbagh, of Saudi Arabia, showcases his films on YouTube, beginning with his 2016 romantic comedy Barakah Meets Barakah.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has embraced film, lifted its ban on cinemas and is now encouraging filmmakers like Al Sabbagh to get connected and creative. Al Sabbagh was tapped as the Red Sea’s first festival director, but his tenure was cut short due to pandemic-related delays.
Since opening its cinemas in 2018, Saudi Arabia has replaced the UAE as the largest theatrical box office in West Asia, according to Comscore Media Measurement, a US-based media analytics company. Unlike in Dubai, where expat populations disproportionately outweigh the local population and therefore Hollywood films dominate box offices, Saudi Arabia’s top-grossing movie in 2021 was Waghfah Rajallah (A Stand Worthy of Men), of Egypt, followed by two Egyptian comedies, Mesh Ana (Not Me) and Mama Hamel (Mom is Pregnant).
Saudi Arabia is one of the only Arab countries where movie theaters—and movie theater attendance—are on the rise, when many countries around the world are experiencing historical lows of cinema patronage following pandemic-related closures, according to Gallup. As Egyptian films have historically been favored in the kingdom, the cinema revival and audience demand for more content could mean Egypt’s film creators could see an uptick in production. It may also mean existing multiplexes throughout MENA experience more traffic or that more movie theaters are constructed to cover underserved areas. More likely to see a surge, however, are Egyptian movies made for online streaming and the launch of more streaming networks and film channels for watching new and classic films at home or on mobile devices. Egyptian classic films are broadcast on satellite free-to-view TV channels across Egypt and can be watched on the Saudi-owned Rotana Classic channel, Rotana Cinema channel and the Egyptian-based M Classic channel, among others.
Arab filmmakers want to tell quality stories, beyond the Arab tropes and typecasts, and transcend geography and language.
The Dubai-based Shahid-MBC, an Arabic-content streaming platform launched in 2008, also streams new and classic films to its 27 million monthly viewers, among other options for prerelease and new-release films, documentaries, TV shows, and content for children. Shahid-MBC has recently started including international content with partner companies on its platform to appeal to an even wider market, but it faces competition from Bahrain’s Orbit Showtime Network, Amazon and Netflix, which are increasingly acquiring or coproducing Arabic language films for their platforms. Like the film festivals, streaming platform business models need constant new content to sustain.
“The platforms are great for small films,” says Eliewat, who underscores the opportunities they offer for independent producers. “They allow us to produce faster and finance faster.”
Eliewat is currently producing Yellow Bus, a drama directed by Abu Dhabi-based American Wendy Bednarz and coproduced with the India–based Sikhya Entertainment. It’s one of only about 25 films to be filmed in the Gulf that are about the Gulf.
“This is the first time the company has partnered with an Arab producer. It’s been an amazing exercise,” she says. “I think it’s something fresh and different coming from the Gulf region.”
While the United Arab Emirates is producing the most Arab content, its financing and producing focus has been international. The Abu Dhabi and Dubai Film and TV Commissions offer attractive huge rebates and financial incentives for production companies to film in the Emirates, including Dune (2021), Mission Impossible 6: Fallout (2018), Fast and Furious 7 (2015), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol (2011), and Syriana (2005). Bollywood productions have also begun filming in the Gulf, and many of India’s major film stars now reside in Dubai, including Shah Rukh Khan, who has appeared in more than 100 movies and is referred to as the “King of Bollywood.”
While making films in Kuwait, al-Muhanna is increasingly aware of how the Gulf region has become a crossroads for an exciting and expanding film and entertainment industry. This was once true in Cairo, but now filmmakers want to be in the Gulf, particularly in or near Dubai. More importantly, al-Muhanna says, Arab filmmakers want to tell quality stories, beyond the Arab tropes and typecasts, and transcend geography and language. They continue to fight for more funding and exposure, but they’re committed to making their mark and sharing their projects with the most globally connected audience the world has seen to date.
“In some ways, we are still playing catch up with more advanced filmmaking industries and economies in other parts of the world,” al-Muhanna says. “But there are such rich stories to tell from this region, and Arab filmmakers are not going away any time soon.”