After the Spring: The Marrakech festival legacy


By Faizal Khan

Why wait until Senegal gets hit? Tell the story now,” says Senegalese filmmaker Mamadou Dia, 36, in the same dispassionate tone that his first feature film Nafi’s Father speaks about the threat of Islamist fundamentalism in Arab societies.

Senegal is a peaceful West African nation where more than 90% of the population is Muslim, but Dia knows how religious extremism has wrecked countries. Nafi’s Father tells the cautionary tale of an imam’s fight against Islamist extremists who threaten to overrun a small Senegalese village.

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Nafi’s Father — part of the competition section of the Marrakech International Film Festival, on from November 29 to December 7- highlights the new visual energy and strong political content emerging in Arab cinema after the Arab Spring. “I like weaving in personal stories that are political.

My father, grandfather and great-grandfather were imams,” says Dia, who studied writing and directing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. At the Locarno festival, his film bagged the Golden Leopard for Cinema of the Present and the First Feature Award.

First-time filmmakers like Dia explore in their movies terrorism, religious extremism, gender inequality, conflict and national identity. Beirut-born director

Ahmad Ghossein’s debut feature film All This Victory is a poetic soundscape that relives the 2006 Lebanon

War through five people trapped in an abandoned home in South Lebanon. Algerian origin director Amin Sidi-Boumediene’s Abou Leila is about Islamist terrorism.

Moroccan filmmaker Maryam Touzani’s Adam is about an unwed mother.

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(Noura’s Dream by Hinde Boujemaa is a critique of Tunisia’s adultery laws that are harsh on women)

Tunisian Hinde Boujemaa’s Noura’s Dream is on the harsh punishment given to women for adultery. Egyptian director Sakr’s Ras El Sana is set in a Red Sea luxury resort on the eve of the January 2011 revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak.

Algerian-French filmmaker Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche’s South Terminal is about attacks on doctors, lawyers, human rights activists and journalists in an unnamed country on the Mediterranean coast.

“Filmmakers in the Arab world have become more daring, leaving behind the stereotypes that marked Arab cinema before,” says Christoph Terhechte, artistic director of the Marrakech festival. “After the so-called Arab Spring, there have been different results in different countries. Maybe it is not over yet. The ongoing protests in Lebanon show people are determining their own destiny.

In Algeria, too, it’s not over,” says Terherchte, who headed the Berlin Film Festival’s Forum section, representing fresh perspectives in world cinema, for 17 years before becoming artistic director of the Marrakech festival last year. “Artistic freedom without political freedom is unthinkable,” he says.

Abou Leila, which was premiered at the Cannes Critics’ Week last May, banks on visual narrative to depict the violence of the “Red Decade” in Algeria — the 1990s, which saw the government fighting the Islamists. The film, which has two cops pursuing an imaginary terrorist named Abou Leila, drives home the absurdity of violence with its desert landscape and prolonged pauses. “My lines in the entire film can be written down on two pages,” says Lyes Salem, who plays the lead role in the 140-minute film. “There is a new wave in Arab cinema,” says Rémi Bonhomme, head of Atlas Workshops, the festival’s industry platform supported by Netflix.

“For a long time, Arab cinema was content with European filmmakers handling political issues for them. Now there is a new generation of filmmakers in Arab cinema who want to tell their own stories,” adds Bonhomme. He has chosen 10 film projects in different stages of development and eight more in post-production stage, many of them with political content, from Africa and the Middle East for the Atlas Workshops’ second edition this year. Bonhomme, who is also the programming manager of the Critics’ Week at Cannes, says the 2011 political uprising have opened up the Arab society: “The revolution opened topics that were more difficult to tackle before. There is a real urgency for the people to express themselves.”

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Arab directors are also exploring genre filmmaking. “It is a way for young filmmakers in the region to imagine the society of the future through sci-fi and dystopian films,” explains Bonhomme.

One of the film projects at the Atlas Workshops is Heirloom by Palestinian contemporary artist Larissa Sansour and Danish artist-director Søren Lind. It is a sci-fi movie set three decades after an oil spill destroys the city of Bethlehem.

“All conflicts are meaningless in relation to disasters when we are about to be annihilated,” says the London-based Sansour, whose art installation, In Vitro, derived from her film project was part of the Danish pavilion at the just

concluded Venice Biennale. Says Sansour, “The film is trying to take out the casual context of and the common jargon used for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and find a new way of tackling it.”

(The writer is a freelance journalist)





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