Society

Lights, Camera, Revolution: The Arab Spring Stars At Cannes

The revolt in the Arab world is featured in several participants at this year's film festival in France, as newfound freedom is celebrated in celluloid, if not yet incomplete in practice.

Jonathan Rashad
Jonathan Rashad
Clarisse Fabre

CANNES – For a moment this week, the Côte d'Azur became the latest flashpoint – at least in a cinematic sense – of the Arab world's ongoing tide of revolution.

On Wednesday, participants in this city's world famous film festival were treated to the world premiere of 18 Jours (18 Days), an Egyptian film shot during the North African country's recent uprising. Egypt is the guest country of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, with its "long film tradition that underwent a radical transformation," declared Thierry Frémaux, the Festival's chief representative. 18 Jours is a collection of 10 shorts made by filmmakers Yousry Nasrallah, Marwan Hamed, Sherif Arafa, Sherif El-Bendary, Kamla Abu Zekry, Mariam Abou Ouf, Mohamed Ali, Ahmed Alaa, Ahmad Abdallah and Khaled Marei.

Like any self-respecting revolution, the Cannes version came with its own blog – called "Pour un Maghreb du Cinéma" – which offers visitors a chance to sound off on 18 Jours and other revolutionary films being featured in this year's Festival. One of those is a documentary called Plus Jamais Peur (Never be afraid again), which Tunisian director Mourad Ben Cheikh shot after dictator Ben Ali fled that country on Jan. 14. A third related film is Ni maître ni Allah (Neither Master, nor Allah), directed by Nadia El-Fani. All three are feature-length movies that celebrate freedom after years of confinement.

Since Ben Ali's fall, there have been hard times in Tunisia, according to El-Fani. "Right after Ben Ali's fall," she said, "filmmakers and amateurs could shoot movies without ending up in jail. Today, if you try to record a video with your mobile phone, you get beaten up by the police." The director also revealed that she has been subjected to a violent campaign of insults and threats organized by a group of Muslim fundamentalists because on May 1, she dared to declare on television: "I don't believe in God."

It is as if Tunisia was reborn. Everything must be rebuilt. The film industry started off by settling the score with those who too often rubbed shoulders with Ben Ali, the deposed dictator. During a February movie convention, Ali Labidi, the president of the Association of Tunisian filmmakers (ACT), who was also Ben Ali's friend, was forced to resign.

Freedom of expression now exists in Tunisia, but the film-industry is struggling. "Since the Tunisian uprising, film directors have stopped shooting movies, technicians have lost their jobs and they don't receive any unemployment benefits. Some of them have even opened up vegetable stores," said Amine Chiboub, who is both a young film director and ACT's vice-president.

There may be a glimmer of hope. For the past five years, Tunisian filmmakers have requested the government create a National Center of Cinema, based on the French model from the National Center of Cinematography (NCC). There's reason to believe that could finally happen. "We are going to impose a tax on telecommunications services and on access providers in order to finance movies," said Chiboub.

There are no plans, however, to impose a tax on ticket sales. "It is impossible to do that, because there is no centralized ticket machine. We never know how much money a movie will generate," said Khaled Barsaoui, a Tunisian filmmaker, producer and president of a newly founded association of filmmakers called (ARF).

Tunisa and Egypt must prepare for the future. Young filmmakers such as Ayten Amin from Egypt and Walid Tayaa from Tunisia have been invited to the House of World Cinema at the Cannes Film Festival to learn how to "pitch" their feature film projects in the hope of attracting funding.

There is also the question of how those art-house films can be exported abroad. Pacha Pictures, an international sales agency specialized in Arab art-house films, was launched just in time for the Cannes Film Festival. Pacha Pictures has six films at Cannes including 18 Jours ("18 Days') and Microphone, directed by Ahmed Abdallah from Egypt. The movie has been very well received by the critics.

The founder of Pacha Pictures, Frédéric Sichler, thinks that Arab filmmakers have everything to gain by staying the way they are. "Arab filmmakers need to take back control of Arab cinema," he said. "Almodovar is an international filmmaker because he retains his own unique vision of Spanish life."

Read the original article in French.

photo - Jonathan Rashad

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ