Ten Arab Filmmakers: Political Dissent and Social Critique

Ten Arab Filmmakers: Political Dissent and Social Critique

by Josef Gugler (Editor)


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Ten Arab Filmmakers provides an up-to-date overview of the best of Arab cinema, offering studies of leading directors and in-depth analyses of their most important films. The filmmakers profiled here represent principal national cinemas of the Arab world—Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, and Syria. Although they have produced many of the region’s most-renowned films and gained recognition at major international festivals, with few exceptions these filmmakers have received little critical attention. All ten share a concern with giving image and voice to people struggling against authoritarian regimes, patriarchal traditions, or religious fundamentalism—theirs is a cinéma engagé.

The featured directors are Daoud Abd El-Sayed, Merzak Allouache, Nabil Ayouch, Youssef Chahine, Mohamed Chouikh, Michel Khleifi, Nabil Maleh, Yousry Nasrallah, Jocelyne Saab, and Elia Suleiman.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253016522
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 06/29/2015
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Josef Gugler is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of African Film: Re-Imagining a Continent (IUP, 2003) and editor of Film in the Middle East and North Africa: Creative Dissidence.

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Ten Arab Filmmakers

Political Dissent and Social Critique

By Josef Gugler

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01658-4


Nabil Maleh


Christa Salamandra

The anti-regime uprising that began in Syria in 2011 lends a particular poignancy and urgency to a discussion of filmmaker Nabil Maleh's life and work. The eminent director epitomizes the figure of the artist-activist, the socially committed and politically engaged cultural producer. Over decades of production and across genres, his work has challenged artistic, cultural, and political regimes. Maleh often cites a defining moment of childhood resistance: the seven-year-old Nabil confronted a soldier who tried to keep him off a public park swing so that military officers' children could have free rein. In return for his defiance, the boy received a slap which, as Maleh puts it, echoed throughout his life.

Aesthetics and ethics merged early in the director's life. Born in 1936, the son of a high ranking army physician, and eldest of four siblings in an elite Damascene family, Maleh credits his mother for shaping his artistic and political sensibilities. Samiha al-Ghazi, an educated woman from a family of high-ranking nationalist activists and politicians, encouraged her son's creative pursuits from an early age and instilled an enduring resistance to authority. At nine Maleh attended his first political protest, for the Palestinian cause; at fourteen he had a poem about Vietnam published in a Beirut newspaper. Soon afterward he became a political cartoonist and columnist for the Syrian daily Alif Baa, writing of the 1950s tumult: multiple coups d'état in Syria, the Suez Canal Crisis, and the Baghdad Pact. Upon completing secondary school Maleh worked as a substitute teacher in Syria's rural northeast, experiencing firsthand "a world of barefoot children, unjust labor, and the wasted future of generations."

Returning to Damascus and enrolling in law school, Maleh harbored an interest in science and a passion for writing and painting. By chance, at a party, he met the Czech cultural attaché, who encouraged him to follow his dream of studying physics in Prague. With no funding available, the seventeen-year-old sold one of his paintings to UNWRA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency), earning enough for his first few months in Czechoslovakia. There he became the communist country's first student from a Western country, as Czechs considered Syria at the time. To support himself he worked as a journalist, host, translator, and editor for Prague Arabic Radio. An odd job as a film extra proved an epiphany, and Maleh transferred from nuclear physics to the Prague Film School, joining a cohort that included Jiri Menzel and Milos Forman. While still in Czechoslovakia, his criticism of the Nasser regime controlling Syria under the United Arab Republic (1958–1961) attracted attention from the Syrian intelligence services and earned him a reputation as a dissident that has remained a source of hardship and inspiration.

Returning to Syria upon graduation in 1964 as the country's first European film school graduate, Maleh made experimental shorts and continued to paint, holding his first art exhibitions. The state's newly established National Film Organization invited him to direct Crown of Thorns, a forty-five-minute experimental docudrama. Maleh next wrote a screenplay based on Syrian author Haydar Haydar's novel The Leopard (al-Fahd), a fictional depiction of Abu 'Ali al-Shahin, legendary rebel of the 1940s. Maleh cast newcomer Adib Qaddura, a waiter he discovered on location after failing to find a professional actor able to embody the fabled Robin Hood figure. A week before shooting was scheduled to begin, the Ministry of Interior revoked permission, arguing that the film glorified a thug. In 1971 The Leopard was given official clearance, and this evocation of rural resistance became the NFO'S first Syrian feature-length film.

Released in 1972, The Leopard captivated Arab audiences and introduced Syrian cinema to the global stage. The film is set in 1946, as the French Mandate forces scaled back their presence, and local feudal landlords, aghas, took their place as oppressors. The Leopard opens with, and periodically returns to, a close-up of the protagonist's scowling face set against a raging sea. A haunting voiceover recites poetry, drawing on folk ballad forms, composed for the film by acclaimed Syrian writer Mamduh 'Adwan. Suhayl 'Arafa's drum-heavy score adds an element of menace. In the second scene, shot in silhouette, Abu 'Ali's wife, Shafiqa, asks why he has acquired a gun, now that the French have gone. Abu 'Ali avoids the question, but the answer quickly emerges: Syrian landlords, backed by soldiers, demand more tribute than the peasants can afford after a bad harvest. The hero resists, is arrested and beaten, but escapes to the hills, staging guerilla attacks against the new forces of tyranny. Comrades from his days fighting the French try to join him, but Abu 'Ali turns them away. This is his fight alone.

The soldiers attempt to coerce the rebel's surrender by harassing the villagers and stealing their food. After a gruesome military raid kills Abu 'Ali's nephew, the hero's sister cries for her brother's blood. His rebellion has led to this fierce retaliation. Shafiqa visits Abu 'Ali in hiding, and assures him of the villagers' support, despite the agha's brutality. Their passionate reunion against a craggy backdrop marks Arab cinema's first partial nude scene, as the camera caresses the length of unclothed actress Ighra' ("Seduction," née Nihad 'Ala al-Din) underneath the amorous rebel. Shafiqa later joins her husband in defending his position against a well-armed platoon. As Cécile Boëx notes, this depiction of female resistance subverts commercial cinema conventions, as Shafiqa is no longer merely an object of male desire, but a rifle-bearing rebel for a collective cause (2011, 135).

The peasants' conditions worsen, and 'Abd al-Rahim "the One-Armed" is murdered for feeding his fugitive friend. Outraged, a group of village men join Abu 'Ali's battle, and this time he does not refuse. They raid a group of soldiers dining on the agha's meat, steal their weapons, and set fire to the warlord's warehouse. Shafiqa and her son 'Ali are arrested in an attempt to lure the rebel out of hiding, but he surprises the guards and stages a rescue. He returns to his posse and tries to move them to safety, but they have grown battle-worn and are captured by the agha's soldiers, then released. Abu 'Ali is again alone. He takes brief refuge with a village elder, who questions Abu 'Ali's endeavor, arguing that violent tactics have created a bloody cycle of vengeance. "I couldn't keep quiet," Abu 'Ali argues. "But your gun didn't speak well for you," the sage counters, noting that the soldiers, poor men trying to feed their families, are themselves oppressed.

Abu 'Ali's exploits become legend, as peasants exchange tales of his deeds. The rebel hijacks a bus but steals only from the agha's cronies. "Is there no law in this country?" cries one of his victims. "If there was law, would I be here?" Abu 'Ali retorts. A former comrade complains that the rebel started out wanting a revolution but knew nothing more than how to kill soldiers, and has ended up suspicious of all around him. The peasants accuse Abu 'Ali of fighting an unwinnable battle, bringing the village to ruin. They exchange blows. Yet the villagers continue to evade the authorities' demands for the hero's whereabouts.

In the end, a weary Abu 'Ali is betrayed by his uncle, whom the rebel strangles before the arresting soldiers can pull him away. The hero is tied up and dragged through the village, then shackled in a web of chains and beaten. The seaside refrain shot widens to reveal the rebel's manacle-bound figure walking along the shore to the gallows, where the villagers, along with the agha and his henchmen, wait in glum silence. As Abu 'Ali hangs, an aerial shot scans the countryside, and a hazy silhouette of revolting peasants emerges on the horizon.

Maleh identifies with his protagonist, a lone and often lonely rebel fighting for true independence, "motivated by dignity, self-esteem and the will to go to the limit, carrying his own cross with no regret." He draws a parallel between Abu 'Ali's battle and the Palestinian resistance struggle. The Leopard, he argues, illustrates "the contradictory relationship between the external world and the internal world, the individual 'no' and the collective 'no.' In the film, my hero loses the battle against backwardness, stupidity, the absence of collective conscience, the fragmentation of the social order, individual opportunism and shortsighted selfishness" (Salti 2006, 89).

The Leopard represents Nabil's first sustained effort to explore, through narrative example, what has gone wrong in, and continues to plague, Syrians' revolutionary endeavors. Politics enhances rather than overwhelms the film's form. In telling Abu 'Ali's story, as in his other efforts, Maleh strives for a new cinematic language, and claims no affiliation to schools of cinematic style: "I've never felt that there is a school that I can follow, but rather try to find my own methods. Sometimes I'm successful; but an unfolding of what we don't know about ourselves seems to me more important than following a cinematic movement ... there are no forms to be resurrected, only forms to be created and discovered. I avoided pre-established schools and tendencies."

Yet The Leopard employs techniques of neorealism, including the theme of poverty and oppression, the use of non-professional actors, location filming, and black-and-white film. The film arguably set the stylistic tone for the following decades of Syrian visual cultural production. The Leopard reflects what I have termed—in the context of television drama—a "dark aesthetic" that has become the hallmark of a distinctive Syrian visual style (Salamandra 2012, unpublished manuscript). Syrian artists like Maleh manipulate a limited autonomy to produce a visual language of critique for both creators and audiences. The current uprising's dissident cultural producers draw, wittingly or not, on a gloomy aesthetic introduced in The Leopard.

Lovingly framed shots of the countryside and its traditional stone houses reflect careful attention to authenticity of décor and clothing. Maleh sees the film as part cultural documentation, a form of salvage anthropology, tracing what remained of "the real environment of the countryside." Scenes of rural harvest show everyday practice under the soldiers' threatening watch. Maleh describes the motivation behind his realist techniques:

The harsh environment demanded harsh solutions. I hated and still hate pretension. Color, for me at that time, felt like a false bleeding over the originality of things, characters and emotions. With The Leopard, I scouted for locations and people. The authenticity of both [in Syria's coastal region] amazed me and corresponded exactly to my conception of the film. I even rejected makeup. I told everyone that the sunrays were the best makeup artist. Working with people from those villages who had never been to a cinema brought me an ecstatic joy.

The film's rich local authenticity stops at language; dialogue is delivered in generic Syrian idiom. This, Maleh argues, reflects the political ethos of its era; films of the 1980s and television dramas of the 1990s onward employ local dialects—with their attendant sectarian and regional associations—often to controversial effect (Salamandra 1998, 2004). Yet the late 1970s still carried the hope of Arab unity: "I didn't give particular attention to the dialect, because for me The Leopard was a pan-Syrian or even a pan-Arab symbol. At that time, the dialect of the Syrian coast didn't have the same political or social connotations that it does today. I didn't predict the apparent transition from a dialect to a position."

The Leopard was awarded the Locarno International Film Festival's Special Leopard Prize in 1972. One of but a handful of Arab filmmakers to have achieved this level of European recognition, Maleh served on the festival's jury the following year. The film also enjoyed unusual local success. In the paradox-ridden Syrian film industry, most productions financed by the NFO are either banned from or simply fail to achieve distribution within country (Salti 2006). Yet the film screened in cinemas throughout Syria, despite its implicit message: foreign colonialism is dead, but oppression lives on. It occupies a privileged place in the collective memory of Syria's artistic community, inspiring generations of Syrian media makers. Cherif Kiwan, a member of the Abu Naddara collective of dissident filmmakers, cites Ighra"s love scene as formative: "Seeing the body of a woman on film was my first feeling of freedom, of having crossed boundaries. It influenced me more than anything directly political."

The film is remembered beyond the Middle East. In 2005, South Korea's Pusan International Film Festival chose The Leopard as one of the "immortal masterpieces of Asian cinema," although the NFO refused them a copy (Hatahet 2011). This forms but one of numerous instances revealing the state's ambivalence toward Maleh in particular, and art in general. The Assad regime's relationship with artists of both elite and popular forms involves an ongoing process of compromise, cooptation, and constraint.

Maleh embodies the Syrian cinema paradox: despite receiving NFO financing, the filmmaker is often treated as a dissident, a distinction he bears with honor. State funding has enabled him to forgo foreign sources, permitting, he believes, a greater local authenticity. A militant independent, Maleh is proudly among the few Syrian filmmakers to avoid serving as NFO employees. Yet his films are perhaps those most widely viewed within Syria. As Walter Armbrust has shown, Arab "art house" films produced for the international festival circuit offer didacticism in the guise of authenticity, giving foreign viewers culture and history lessons unnecessary for Arab audiences. Commercial Arab films, on the other hand, often employ implicit, ironic, intertextual references that render them much more reflective of their environment (Armbrust 2000). Unusually for an Arab film, The Leopard, like Maleh's other major work, The Extras, is both internationally acclaimed and locally popular. Screened in more than twenty Syrian theaters for over three months, the work established its creator's formidable reputation in the Arab world and beyond.

Despite sporadic interference from the state representatives who, as Maleh puts it "acted more like mukhabarat (intelligence) agents than owners and administrators of cultural projects," the 1970s proved a fruitful decade for a nascent Syrian industry. Cinema clubs in Damascus and Aleppo introduced filmmakers and intellectual audiences to global film classics, and helped forge a field of cultural production. In 1972, Damascus held its first annual international film festival, promoting an alternative Arab cinema. During this time Maleh produced numerous experimental shorts, including the ninety-second Napalm, linking the Vietnam War to the Israeli Occupation (Ginsberg and Lippard, 2010, 265), and Rocks (Sakhr) exposing the perilous labor conditions of Syrian quarry workers (ArteEast 2006). He also directed Labor (al-Makhad) the first third of Men under the Sun, a triptych exploring the Palestinian situation released in 1970. His privately financed spoof, Jealous James Bond, brought Durayd Lahham's comical television character to the big screen in 1974. Mr. Progressive (al-Sayyid al-Taqaddumi) of 1975 follows an investigative journalist's attempts to expose middle-class corruption. For its negative portrayal of a regime figure the film was banned in Syria.


Excerpted from Ten Arab Filmmakers by Josef Gugler. Copyright © 2015 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Auteur Directors, Political Dissent, and Social Critique Josef Gugler
1. Nabil Maleh: Syria’s Leopard (Syria) Christa Salamandra
2. Jocelyne Saab: A Lifetime Journey in Search of Freedom and Beauty (Lebanon) Dalia Said Mostafa
3. Michel Khleifi: Filmmaker of Memory (Palestine) Tim Kennedy
4. Elia Suleiman: Narrating Negative Space (Palestine) Refqa Abu-Remaileh
5. Youssef Chahine: Devouring Mimicries or Juggling with Self and Other (Egypt) Viola Shafik
6. Daoud Abd El-Sayed: Parody and Borderline Existence (Egypt) Viola Shafik
7. Yousry Nasrallah: The Pursuit of Autonomy in the Arab and European Film Markets (Egypt) Benjamin Geer
8. Mohamed Chouikh: From Anti-colonial Commemoration to a Cinema of Contestation (Algeria) Guy Austin
9. Merzak Allouache: (Self-)Censorship, Social Critique and the Limits of Political Engagement in Contemporary Algerian Cinema (Algeria) Will Higbee
10. Nabil Ayouch: Transgression, Identity, and Difference (Morocco) Jonathan Smolin

Film Index
Name Index

What People are Saying About This

University of North Carolina - Nadia Yaqub

[A] welcome addition to the scholarship on Arab film. . . . [I]ncludes a rich and well selected mix of important directors from across the region [and offers] an authoritative and comprehensive accounting of each director’s biography, his or her important works, and the political, social, and cultural contexts in which she or he has worked. Clearly written and accessible, Ten Arab Filmmakers will be a welcome addition to university courses on Arab cinema. It will inform students’ viewings of these filmmakers’ works and facilitate their understanding of the contexts from which they emerged and in which they circulate.

author of Beyond Casablanca: M. A. Tazi and the Adventure of Moroccan Cinema - Kevin Dwyer

This volume offers perceptive essays on ten filmmakers from the Arab world, covering a wide span of countries and representing older as well as younger generations. Free of academic jargon and notable for their general accessibility, the essays, by authors from a variety of disciplines, provide biographies of the directors, characterize their dominant interests, themes, and aesthetic concerns, and closely examine individual films. The collection greatly enriches our understanding of the strains and tensions within individual countries and across the region, helping us appreciate the complexity of the region’s filmmaking context and the region’s immense cultural vitality.

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