The 'Cinema of the Orient' Is Not a Hyped Illusion
Finally, it has arrived. A book on Arab, Turkish and Iranian cinema, which has been winning awards at film festivals for decades and is becoming increasingly visible on German movie screens. Of course, it hasn't had the kind of commercial success that is the norm in France.
Those of us in the business of distributing films, who for a while were willing to take a chance on films from the Arab world, could fill volumes with stories about how cinematic masterpieces flopped in Germany because they weren't as folkloristic as German (and in many cases, expatriate Arab) audiences expected them to be.
But let us accentuate the positive: This book is the work of a knowledgeable author who has attended leading festivals for many years to talk with the best filmmakers about their craft. Amin Farzanefar, a film journalist working in Cologne, Germany, has collected their voices in an important volume named "Kino des Orients" (Cinema of the Orient).
Of course, this is an ironic concession to the national market in Germany, which doesn't want to surrender its right to dream – authored by someone who is currently at work on a dissertation about the depiction of the Orient in popular western cinema.
"Kino des Orients" presents a wide diversity of voices from the Maghreb, Egypt, Palestine, Iran, and Turkey, while also including a number of filmmakers born in Germany to immigrant parents. There are brief introductions to each of the directors, whose work shares one common trait: It brilliantly disappoints every expectation to be exotic.
You won't find any 'superstars' here
There's no trace whatsoever of designer products such as "Women's Wiles" – a feministic "better living in Morocco" soufflé. Even the superstars of Iranian cinema, the Makhmalbafs and Kiarostamis, with their (pardon my French) "better suffering in Iran" time warp experiments are noticeably absent.
Instead, we find the Kurdish Bahman Ghobadi, who tells his peoples' story of suffering in all its harshness. Or expatriate Iranians Solmaz Shahbazi and Tirdad Zolghadr, who made a documentary about concrete architecture in the megacity Tehran – and wonderfully biting remarks about the western taste for heart-warming human interest stories.
The typical reaction to their film: "Where are the veiled women, the bazaar, the chaos?”
And why do they show only the upper class? Zolghadr: "Well I'm sorry, but I have no time for the proletariat." Shabazi: "People always want to see suffering and poverty instead of what's normal!"
Zolghadr: "This poverty tourism! Just look at all these documentary film festivals, which are a collection of various shades of human suffering. It is hard to tell what the purpose is, aside from the resulting pleasant sensation: Thank God we live here and not there. We didn't want to fall into that trap."
Leaving the clichés behind
These statements deserve a round of applause; the clichés they choose to avoid, the arias of oppression and greetings from the women's rights movement are truly unbearable. A perfect example of a true but satirical story is the one about the director of a documentary film festival who didn't care much for Zolghadr – until he heard that the director had once spent time in jail!
Yes, that's the way it is: In the west, the artistic element is often the least interesting aspect of films emerging from the Islamic world. (Farzanefar excludes mainstream cinema; his book deals solely with art house films.) Everything from the Orient is interpreted as being a socially critical document.
How fortunate we are that great storytellers such as Egyptian Yusri Nasrallah rebel against this attitude: "No, I don't say anything about Arabian woman!"
That's because his characters are individuals who represent no one but themselves, and because all of the authors represented in the book are artists who dare to say "I". They are individuals who reveal the individual for their respective societies. For that reason, they are justified in protesting when their creations are reduced to journalistic theses by western critics.
The "Cinema of the Orient" is blossoming
Feisty, thoughtful, witty – this is a gathering of sharp minds. Each chapter offers some surprising realization. Who wouldn't complain that the Arab festival film funded by Europe – who else! – is in fact purely an export product?
Well, 'Ali Zaoua,' Nabil Ayouch's wonderful ballad of street children, was filmed using French financing – and attracted 500,000 filmgoers in Morocco. A breathtaking total!
For the sake of comparison: 'Against the Wall,' which won at the Berlinale, drew 750,000 in a country whose population is three times as large. This is encouraging: The new "Cinema of the Orient" is not a hyped illusion; it is blossoming and flourishing in its respective homelands and here in Germany. In this sense, Amin Farzanefar's entertaining introduction is right on time.
© Qantara.de 2005
Ludwig Ammann is orientalist, author and founder of Kool Film Distribution.
Amin Farzanefar, "Kino des Orients", Schüren Verlag, 2005, 19.90 EUR
Translation from German: Mark Rossman