ROTTERDAM (IPS) - Arab cinema, which had a promising presence at international film festivals during the 1990s, may now be going through a declining phase for lack of patronage.
Among the Arabic films that made it to the IFFR was "Time That Remains" by Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman and "Every Day Is a Holiday" by Lebanese filmmaker Dima El Horr.
Intishal Al Timimi, Baghdad-born program advisor to the IFFR, believes that the selection of films for the festival depends on the director's knowledge. "If the director does not have enough knowledge about Arabic cinema, then we will notice a decline in the participation of the Arabic cinema," he told IPS.
But Iraqi filmmaker Khalid Alzhraou said there are other considerations at play. "European donors prefer to fund film projects produced in countries that enjoy political stability rather than those with conflicts."
Alzhraou, who is based in Rotterdam, also blamed lack of initiative on the part of Arab organizations in networking and introducing Arab film directors to international donors or potential co-producers. "It is natural for film festivals to host films funded by their partner organizations."
London-based film director Koutaiba Al Janabi said that Arabic filmmakers not only failed to get support from international donors but also from Arab governments, especially if they deal with the political problems of the Middle East.
"For many years I dreamt of completing my film 'Night Trains,' based on a story by the Iraqi writer Mohammed Khudair. I finally received support from a Dutch organization and IFFR gave me the platform to meet international filmmakers and film producers."
Janabi said Iraqi governments have not been adequately supporting the film industry for decades. "We are always expected to get funding from foreign donors."
Al Timimi agrees that inadequate support by Arab governments for the industry was an issue. "Arabic film producers are reluctant to ask their governments to help pay for travel expenses to, or accommodation at, film festivals even though films are a way of boosting national image."
One exception is Egypt. In fact, the dominance of Egyptian cinema within the Arab world has been attributed to its state-subsidized production houses and, more recently, to privately-owned production companies.
The lack of a single, large market has also been the bane of Arab cinema.
Alzhraou says there is no such thing as "Arab Cinema" and refuses to use the phrase. "We don't have Arabic media as such, what we do have is movies from countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Egypt."
Unifying Arab cinema is impossible because the tastes of Arabic film-goers differ widely according to dialects and lifestyles. What may sound normal for Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian or even Egyptian audiences may be unintelligible to viewers in North Africa, such as Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria.
Within the Arab world, Egyptian cinema is known for its Egyptian accented- Arabic language film industry which dates back to 1908, and boasts a contribution of more than 4,000 short- and feature-length films.
Egyptian movies have never shied away from presenting political themes or the grittier side of life, or even what is taboo in most of the Arab world.
In 2006, a young Egyptian filmmaker provoked a public outcry with a film bold enough to show a couple making love in a bus with verses from the Qur'an playing in the background. The film, "The Fifth Pound," was named for the two Egyptian pounds that each of the lovers paid as bus fare and a fifth extra pound to buy the silence of a voyeuristic driver.
Among the Arabic films that made it to the IFFR was "Every Day Is a Holiday" by Lebanese filmmaker Dima El Horr which opens with the scene of a couple running through a tunnel to avoid arrest. The woman calls out to the man but he is captured by police and led away. She is then joined in the tunnel by other young women, all carrying pictures of their imprisoned male lovers.
The shared dilemma of the women continues as they take a bus to Lebanon's male prison, a drive out of Beirut and into the desert. Here the women are thrown out onto a landscape of parched rock, land mines and the heat of the sun and the bond they share dissipates in the struggle to survive.
One way to ensure stronger Arab participation at international festivals is to improve the quality of festivals in the Arab capitals. Since the 1970s Egypt has annually held the prestigious Cairo International Film Festival and this, along with state support, has helped the growth and dominance of the Egyptian industry.
Al Timimi agrees that the Arabic film festivals play an important role in promoting Arabic cinema. "I would say big film festivals like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Damascus provide good access to international film directors and programmers. Last year the Dubai International Film Festival hosted 150 foreign film directors and programmers."
To many the way forward for Arabic cinema lies in the political themes that are sensitively presented, rather than flag waving. At the IFFR the film "Time That Remains" by Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman drew the attention of peers.
Suleiman's film is the visualisation of a diary divided into four historic episodes of the filmmaker's family life, spanning from Al Nakba where his father was a resistance fighter in 1948, during the occupation of Nazareth by Hagannah militias, forcing many Arab residents to leave Palestine — among them the filmmaker's lover.
Suleiman shows fragments of the daily life of his family and that of the Palestinian minority living in Israel and the West Bank. He reflects on a return to his hometown where he finds some old friends, the old houses and witnesses the changes in the new generations.
Commenting on Suleiman's film, London-based director Al Janabi, who was among those unhappy with the poor Arab showing at the IFFR, said: "I personally liked Suleiman's plot and his style of presenting political issues. He [Suleiman] has remarkably contributed in shifting the look of the Arab cinema from the classical style to contemporary film language."
Al Janabi is proud of his own film "The Departure," an anti-Saddam Hussein film, which is based on his exile from Iraq 30 years ago. The film follows the struggle of an Iraqi refugee, Sadiq, as he moves from one country to another, living in the hope of joining his estranged wife in London.
Through the film Al Janabi recalls how he was forced to change his occupation from a wedding cameraman to a chronicler of the violence and executions perpetrated by the Saddam Hussein regime.
For Alzhraou, political films are unavoidable. "I don't wish to make films limited to political representation, but the life I lived in Iraq has influenced my professional career as a filmmaker."