Robin Yassin-Kassab

Winds of Change: Cinema from Muslim Societies

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The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London is hosting a film festival starting tomorrow. The festival begins with the discussion – ‘Is there a Muslim world?’ Panelists include Hamid Dabashi, Ziauddin Sardar, and me. Of the films being shown, I strongly recommend Salt of this Sea, a Palestinian film starring Suheir Hammad and Salah Bakri, and Hatem Ali’s The Long Night, on Syrian political prisoners and their families. I’m introducing that one. The ICA blurb is below. I hope to see you there.

The Arab Spring is the starting point for films selected for a festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts from 21 September that, like this year’s mass demonstrations for democracy across Arab regions, is concerned with civic freedom; human rights; gender and social equality; the challenges of modernity; and the place of religion within social structures.

From the internationally acclaimed feminist film Les Silences du Palais (1994) by Tunisian director Moufida Tlatli, which contradicts prevalent Western views that Muslims are anti-feminist, to the UK premiere of The Green Wave, about the 2009 Iranian revolution in which demonstrators used Twitter and Facebook to mobilise and communicate between themselves and the outside world, Winds of Change: Cinema from Muslim Societies includes new and seminal films that are prophetic in their relationship to the Arab Spring and act as a springboard for in-depth discussion and debate. The release of Microphone (2010) coincided with the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt and sees its young protagonist return to Egypt from the US and join the youth movement for change.

Filmmaking, a quintessentially modern technology and art form, has a long and rich history in Muslim societies. The energy and urgency of these films and their filmmakers, some of whom, such as the renowned Jaffar Panahi, risk imprisonment for showing their work in their own countries, reflect the actions of those societies who have fought and continue to fight for democracy, despite the obvious dangers.

While the West continues to obsess about the “War on Terror” and Muslims are portrayed as either terrorists or refugees, ordinary people in the Arab world are concerned with civil rights, women’s rights, establishing democracy and overthrowing the brutal dictatorships that they have lived under for decades. Strong cinematic imagery and storytelling from and about Muslim societies can disrupt the highly distortive stereotypes often seen in Western news journalism while the medium itself is successful in communicating complex ideas and arguments to diverse and broad audiences.

The programme includes films that address the impact of colonialism and occupation, which is still felt throughout the Arab world. In Salt of This Sea, a young Palestinian makes a fatal return from exile in New York to her homeland. The film demonstrates that just as in South Africa, Palestinians need global support to effect change and, just as apartheid was not simply a problem for black South Africans so too Palestine is a global issue. And Ceddo (1977) by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, maps out the struggle of an African indigenous culture against the double onslaught of Christianity and Islam.

Wednesday 21 September, 6.45pm
‘Is There a Muslim World?’

This debate asks whether there is such a thing as a singular, homogeneous Muslim global phenomenon; is current international foreign policy and reporting on the recent ‘Arab Spring’
representative of the diversity of the Muslim world; and are Muslim filmmakers and artists understood outside of their home countries? The panel is representative of today’s multifaceted Muslim viewpoints and multicultural Islam. Merryl Wyn Davies is a writer, anthropologist, broadcaster and a Muslim Welsh woman. She worked in television production at the BBC and for TV3 in Malaysia. She has written extensively on Islam and contemporary Muslim issues as well as on stereotypes of Islam and Muslims in film. Currently she is the Director of the Muslim Institute in London. Ziauddin Sardar is a writer, broadcaster and cultural critic. His books include the widely acclaimed Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim and Balti Britain: A Provocative Journey Through Asian Britain. A former columnist on the New Statesman, and Commissioner on the Equality and
Human Rights Commission, he is the editor of Futures, the monthly journal of policy, planning and futures studies. His latest book is Reading the Qur’an. Hamid Dabashi – biog above. Robin Yassin-Kassab, born in London, raised in England and Scotland, has travelled widely as an English teacher and journalist around the Arab world and other Muslim countries. He is the author of widely acclaimed novel The Road from Damascus, maintains his blog site qunfuz and co-edits pulsemedia.org.

Friday 23 September, 6.15pm
Film: The Long Night + Intro by Robin Yassin-Kassab
Dir Hatem Ali Syria, 2009, 93 mins

Director Hatem Ali has crafted a debut film about political dissent, all the more topical in the light of the recent Arab Spring and the butchery of Syrian civil rights demonstrators by the Assad regime. The film tells the story of four political prisoners, freed after a long time in prison, who return to face the society they no longer recognise. Their family relationships have become painful and complex while in prison, and they find themselves alienated from life outside the prison cell. While The Long Night was screened widely outside Syria, and has won prizes in New Delhi and Cairo film festivals, it is still unseen in Syria, and less likely to be released now than at any time since it was made.

Friday 23 September, 8.45pm
Film: Salt of This Sea + Intro by Haim Bresheeth
Dir Annemarie Jacir, Palestine, 2008, 109 mins

Salt of This Sea, is a cinematic rendering of the pain of return to the lost homeland. It tells the story of Soraya, a young Palestinian born in New York to exiled parents who were ejected from their homeland during the Nakba in 1948. On her return to Palestine in order to claim her grandfather’s deposit before 1948, she finds much to make her bitter, but that is not her inclination. Both Israel’s brutal occupation and the Palestinian Authority’s empty gestures combine to move her and her newfound friend, Emad, to some unusual action – a return to the lost country, on the Israeli side – which will end up fatally. Almost two decades after the failed ‘peace-process’, the deep disenchantment in this film is typical of the new generation of filmmakers who are no longer prepared to wait for political machinations over their future. Haim Bresheeth is Professor of Film Studies, Chair of Media and Cultural Studies, university of East London, and co-editor of The Conflict and Contemporary Visual Culture in Palestine and Israel, Third Text, special double issue, Vol.20, 80 – 81, May-June 2006.

Saturday 24 September, 1.15pm
Film: Les Silences du Palais + Intro by Ros Gray
Dir Moufida Tlatli, Tunisia, 1994, 127 mins

In this beautiful film by director Moufida Tlatli (herself a film actress), set in a large labyrinthine country palace at the end of the colonial era, the young Alia realises, on her return to the palace where her mother Khedija has worked all her life, that the women working there, including her mother, have been exposed to the old code of droit du seigneur – and she is unable to affect any change in the situation. One of the most distinguished feminist films from the Arab world, the questions raised in Tlatli’s film have lost none of their potency or urgency in almost two decades since its release, and the Arab Spring has refocused the tension around the role of women in society, as Egyptian and Tunisian women were at the forefront of the revolutions still ongoing. Ros Gray is Lecturer in Art Practice in the Department of Art, Goldsmiths College, University of London, and Tutor for Research in the Department of Curating Contemporary Art, Royal College of Art. She has written extensively on African cinema and was co-editor with Kodwo Eshun of the Third Text special issue, The Militant Image: a Ciné-Geography, no. 108, January 2011.

Saturday 24 September, 4 – 5.45pm
Talk: ‘Winds of Change in the Arab Territories’
The arrival of the Arab Spring surprised everyone. Mass protests during the first months of 2011 succeeded to topple the autocratic regimes of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. These popular uprisings were spontaneous, swift and relatively peaceful, and promised sweeping democratic change across the Arab regions. But since February the ‘velvet revolution’ has met intractable military resistance from the regimes in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, and become vicious civil wars. And yet, despite mounting casualties, the people of Syria and elsewhere are still demonstrating in the streets. The lesson of the past six months is that peaceful protest must turn into armed struggle, an option which would depend on gaining foreign military intervention, as in Libya. Spring might be over but we haven’t heard the end of this story. ‘The Winds of Change in the Arab Territories’ is a panel and public discussion exploring the issues, history and longer term complexities of the Arab Spring. The Arab nations have endured ‘stable’ dictatorships for some 30 years or more. Why now this sudden and virtually simultaneous mass movement for democracy? Does it mean that authoritarian regimes can no longer rely on European
and especially US support? Patrick Cockburn in The Independent remarks that it was precisely this fear in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies “that panicked them into their violent onslaught on protesters in Bahrain”. What effects will change in North Africa have on the geo-politics of the Mediterranean, the EU and Turkey? What position will Iran manoeuvre? What unforeseen outcomes will civil unrest have in the Middle East, Israel and Palestine?
The panel includes Issandr El Amrani, a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest running blogs in the region, http://www.arabist.net. Haim Bresheeth – biog above. Nadje Al-Ali is Professor of Gender Studies at the Centre for Gender Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She is the author of What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq (University of California Press, 2009) co-authored with Nicola Pratt, and Iraqi Women: Untold Stories

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 20, 2011 at 1:24 am

Posted in Cinema

2 Responses

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  1. I will try to find some of these movies, perhaps on youtube.
    Something lighter somehow about Muslim society which I liked very much was “Seres Queridos” by Dominic Harari and Teresa Pelegri (English title “Only Human”, 2004).
    “The Infidel” by Josh Appignanesi (2010) was also funny.
    But I am not sure about the sense of humor of the Muslims, they may find such movies too vulgar (?)


    November 21, 2011 at 12:48 pm

  2. I thought the Infidel was good, but was better on Jews and a little stereotypical on Muslims. Four Lions is excellent – and popular with Muslims!

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    November 21, 2011 at 1:11 pm

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