Interview with Eliane Raheb about Arab Author Cinema

A Hunger for Individuality

Beirut DC, a film co-operative founded in 1999, seeks to make independent Arab author cinema more widely known, among other things via "Ayyam Beirut", the Arab Film Festival that recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. Mona Sarkis talked to Eliane Raheb

​​ Mrs. Raheb, you describe author cinema as the mirror image of Arab identity. Why?

Eliane Raheb: The individual gets a raw deal in everyday discourse. Political discourse has traditionally emphasized the "Umma", the Arab community. Hierarchical family structures rule us from above. The media also bombard us with numbers: "60 dead in Iraq", "30 killed in Palestine", etc. Moreover, the mainstream culture of soap operas and such is only aiming at "society". But Arab societies are composed of individual characters.

We have noticed that author cinema is one of the true and rare mirrors of our identity. The truly authentic films are being made by filmmakers who express their individual vision of human beings with stories and experiences that seem unique to them and through which they question "reality". This is, for example, the case in The One Man Village by Simon al Habre or low-budget fiction films like Ein Shams by Ibrahim Battout.

Another example is the boom in short experimental films, which began five years ago and proves the need for personal views. I am referring here to those installation- and performance-like short movies that, for example, repeat one specific phrase a hundred times. This is an extreme example of the search for individuality. Sometimes the filmmakers become very narcissistic.

How big is the audience’s demand for these movies?

Raheb: Of course, author cinema can never financially compete with commercial films, most of which come from Egypt or Hollywood. Nevertheless, there is enough interest to make a success of "Ayyam Beirut" every two years. This year we had about 10,000 visitors in little Beirut. But the international audience is also interested in these films. It has become trendy to show them. Organisers and curators forget why most of these films are being made and the purpose of showing them. At "Ayyam Beirut", we insist on debating them with their makers in order to understand their vision.

​​ Nevertheless even this worldwide recognition – or worldwide trend - does not solve the funding problems faced by Arab independent cinema.

Raheb: The problem is the lack of Arab funding for these films. There is some state money in a number of Arab countries like Morocco, Tunisia or Syria, but it is not enough. This might change soon as TV channels in the Arab region are multiplying and some of them seem interested in such films.

The Egyptian Arab Radio and Television channel (ART) has, for example, brought in a program director solely to fund author movies. Al Jazeera has launched a documentary channel and intends to produce.

But until enough Arab funding exists, filmmakers will continue to turn to mainly European institutions like the Jan Vrijman Fund, the World Cinema Fund, the Hubert Balls foundation, the Fonds Sud … and seek co-production with European production companies and TV channels.

At the same time, there is much criticism of European producers.

Raheb: Some Arab filmmakers accuse foreign producers of thinking only of their target groups, which ultimately affects the director’s own vision. When addressing a foreign audience you have to explain more, and with the so-called "clash of civilisations", the foreign audience expects the filmmaker to explain his culture. This concerns mainly documentary filmmakers and becomes particularly obvious with subjects like Islam, Palestine or gender issues.

You not only have to explain the basics, you also have to serve colonialist stereotypes like "Islam threw Lebanon – the former paradise of progressive Christians – back centuries." Arab viewers are bored and outraged by this.

Nor can a documentary filmmaker simply present a Palestinian family without immediately being asked by his producers: "And where is the Israeli family?" Why must the Israelis be ubiquitous? Also, when you are relating relationship stories, you are expected to show macho men and oppressed women, etc.

​​ Personally speaking, I am noticing more and more that the real problem is not European money that could be linked to a certain agenda, but the non-existence of Arab money and producers, and this is where Arab filmmakers should start trying to change things.

If this problem were to be solved, then Arab filmmakers could focus on their own audience without serving western clichés or adding extra explanations. In addition, if they wanted funding from a European co-producer, they could argue from a more powerful, self-confident position, because they would have experienced their own audiences' judgement. Right now, they mainly experience the judgements of foreigners, who start deciding who is a good director and who is not, and what trends are "in" or "out". Even though it is a non-Arabic example, it is a good example: in the nineties, mainly French producers had a crush on Iranian cinema, but starting in the year 2000, they got tired of it. What are those filmmakers supposed to do then?

These are not the only reasons why some authors prefer being their own producers. Another problem is the profit.

Raheb: Arab filmmakers are able to realize their projects on the spot with a budget of US$100,000 because they get help from their friends. This is not profitable for a foreign producer, so he raises the budget to US$500,000, of which a large part has to be spent in his country.

Foreign technicians, consultants, staff, etc. are brought in, devouring some US$400,000. Finally the producer himself wants to have his share. So at the end of the day, there remains much less for the Arab author than if he had realised his movie with a mini budget on the spot. It takes a lot of love and passion for this job to stick to it.

Interview: Mona Sarkis

© Qantara 2009

The Lebanese filmmaker, Eliane Raheb, is one of the founders of the initiative Beirut DC. She has been art director of the Arab Film Festival "Ayam Beirut al Cinem'iya" since 2001 and organises workshops, produces, and directs documentaries on behalf of Beirut DC. She also lectures in documentary films at the Saint Joseph University/IESAV in Beirut.

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