Revolution and Desire

Rasha Salti on the Middle Eastern highlights of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival

Since 2011, Beirut-based film and art curator Rasha Salti has been journeying across the Arab Middle East and Africa to bring a selection of some of the finest films from the region to the Toronto International Film Festival. I met with her last week at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Toronto’s vibrant King St. to talk about some of this year’s handpicked Middle Eastern attractions.


What, as the festival’s programmer of Middle Eastern films, are your selection criteria? On what basis are the films chosen, and what do you usually look for in the films you select?

The most obvious thing is quality,artistic excellence is key … there are a lot of excellent films coming from the region. Furthermore, there’s invariably the subjectivity of the programmer, which is basically [about] falling in love, [being] completely charmed … And then, there are the other considerations that are very important. I am asked to select a maximum of seven, sometimes eight films from the Middle East … I don’t care where the films come from, but I care about style, genre, the scope or ambition of the production,so, there has to be space for a ‘first’ film, a very small, independent, ‘underdog’ kind of film, a big film – maybe with stars, the work of a master filmmaker … I try to strike a balance between fiction, auteur, mainstream, and documentary.

So this year’s ‘mainstream’ film would be Rock the Casbah?

Yes – it’s definitely not an auteur film, and the filmmaker did not intend it to be so. The cast includes [big] names … Hiam Abass, Omar Sharif, Nadine Labaki, Lubna Azabbal, Morjane Alaoui …

A lot of what you do involves actually travelling within the region. Where, in your opinion, are some of the best films in the Arab world being produced these days? I was talking to a friend of mine last year, and she noted how Egypt’s status as the industry giant is being ‘challenged’ – would you agree?

If I were to ask you about North America, [and] where the best films are coming from … considering [that] there are so many amazing Canadian films coming from Quebec – does this mean that Hollywood is no longer relevant? In the Arab world, Egypt is our ‘Hollywood’; it is the big ‘factory’ or conglomeration of factories/studios  … that role has yet to be challenged – nobody has come near to subverting Egyptian mainstream production. To answer your question though, I don’t know if there is one place that is more interesting than the other … there are three interesting phenomena:

1. The Arab Spring has certainly had an impact on film production on many levels, but for me, the most important and tangible is that the ‘veil’ of self-censorship has been lifted. So, whether the Muslim Brotherhood is in power or now or not, what is important is the relationship of filmmakers to narratives, representation, embodiment, their notions of the sayable and unsayable, and what should remain ‘unseen’. By self-censorship, I also mean inhibition. Arthouse films have been a lot more daring, adventurous, experimental … nowadays, by the way, a lot fewer are afraid of saying ‘experimental’, whereas five or six years ago, it [implied] ‘video artist’ or ‘odd’.

In Egypt, or in Tunisia, everything is still loose, contested, subject to change … it’s as if we’re in [the Iran of] 1980. No political force has been able to take over and really establish new precepts

2. The nature of co-productions is changing – they are becoming more about artistic kinship and shared vision, where protagonists couple efforts for the pleasure of working together. This, interestingly, is happening on an intra-regional scale, and is a relatively notable change from a decade ago, in the universe of auteur, arthouse, and non-mainstream film production. With regards to co-productions with Europe, it is a noteworthy change, because it means a radical difference in the mode of interaction and power relations within a production team. I am being comical with what I am about to say, but it’s no longer about the grey-haired, seasoned producer with a ‘heartfelt’ affinity for the ‘South’ who magnanimously ‘supports’ or rescues an underrated film talent from the South. Rather, it is about a collective endeavor, where a team is bound by a desire to collaborate and make a film, from across the ‘North-South’ divide, and who know how best to capitalise on resources from either side.

3. The third phenomenon – and maybe this is the most immediately thrilling one – is the fact that women have become remarkably more energised to engage in political action across social classes, generations, and political affiliations. They are aware of their subjectivity, place in society, voice, diversity, plurality – and in film, it shows. So, what is the most interesting thing to observe now? Place? I would say women’s cinema, [and] women filmmakers.

It’s interesting what you said about the situation in Egypt, about how we’re seeing more experimental films as a result of the political upheaval in the region. Do you think you could compare this with the situation in Iran after the Revolution? During the Shah’s era, artistic films were being made, but it was really only after the Revolution that we started to witness this influx of avant-garde films.

The Islamic Revolution – or the revolution that first took place in 1979 and then the establishment of the Islamic Republic, a couple of years later – was perhaps as bloody, momentous and turbulent as what we are witnessing today in the countries where dictators were unseated. There is a real fight (or several) – a contestation. Different political protagonists are claiming a stake in having overthrown a dictatorship. In Iran, the generation of filmmakers and artists from the 1960s that was really outstanding – Forough Farrokhzad, Bahram Beyzai – was foundational. These individuals ‘cleared’ the path, and are [still] a reference [for today’s] generation of filmmakers.

In Iran, after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the challenge was: how do you forge your artistic voice, and pursue innovation within a new set of parameters? That has not yet happened [in the Arab world]. In Egypt, or in Tunisia, everything is still loose, contested, subject to change … it’s as if we’re in [the Iran of] 1980. No political force has been able to take over and really establish new precepts.

Your lineup for this year looks incredibly interesting – you’ve got films from Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco – what are some of your favorites, and what should we be looking out for in particular?

I can’t name a favorite … I have one every day, depending on how my mood is … the selection process is extremely painful, because you have to say ‘no’ to projects that you absolutely adore … and … I know all too well how much [the filmmakers] have suffered and sacrificed to make them – and to make them so beautiful. For the readership of your publication – I am guessing – I would point out three films:

1. Bastardo, a Tunisian film directed by Néjib Belkadhi. Very singular. The filmmaker was able to create a unique cinematic universe, with its own logic of relationships and aesthetics, very convincingly. There are elements of neorealism and magic realism that are woven together seamlessly, and the acting is absolutely astounding.

2. My Love Awaits Me by the Sea, a first-person documentary. The filmmaker was born and raised in Jordan but she hails from Palestinian origins. One day she [comes across] a book by a Palestinian artist – Hassan Hourani … She felt a rapture, as if she had founded an intensely kindred soul. After doing some research, she realised, very sadly, that he had … drowned in Jaffa a short time before. She had never been to Palestine … So she undertakes a journey, as if retracing his steps, guided by his poetry … to discover a country she’s only had imaginary relationships with … it’s a journey of self-discovery … [and] a film about love lost. It’s beautiful.

Women have become remarkably more energised to engage in political action across social classes, generations, and political affiliations. They are aware of their subjectivity, place in society, voice, diversity, plurality – and in film, it shows

3. Salvation Army, directed by Abdellah Taïa, a Moroccan novelist. It’s an adaptation of one of his autobiographical novels of the same title. Taïa hails from a working-class background in Casablanca … he’s also openly gay, and he’s one of the very few [Moroccan authors] to write about that with extreme intelligence. [The film] is a coming-of-age story. Taïa was able to achieve something wondrous and totally unimaginable, by [combining the styles of] classic Egyptian neo-realism (which he grew up on), and [Robert] Bresson … I never thought the two could meet so eloquently, [but] they do. 

Some of the films are coming from countries that have witnessed or are witnessing the ‘Arab Spring’ – Egypt, Tunisia, Syria – what political messages, if any, do you think the films from these countries have for Toronto audiences?

Interestingly, the two films that deal directly with the Arab Spring, Rags and Tatters and Ladder to Damascus deal withthe political event from a remove. Rags and Tatters tells the story of a fugitive who breaks from prison in the early days of the insurgency in 2011. He roams around the city, looking for a warm and safe shelter, all the while watching the uprising on television screens. And so there is a physical remove … wherever he goes, there’s a TV somewhere showing what’s going on in Tahrir, always at a distance. In the film, there is a confrontation of two extreme sentiments – the extreme violence of the political event, and the compassionate clemency of strangers who take him in. It’s a beautiful philosophical reflection on the Arab Spring, very different from what you see in the media.

In Ladder to Damascus you have the exact opposite: the insurgency is happening on the street, but the film is entirely set inside a house. The film is visually stunning. There are 12 characters, everyday twenty-something men and women, who rent rooms in this gorgeous house in the heart of old Damascus. As the call of revolution comes closer and each one has to take his or her time to decide to join, they come to terms with the fact that revolution is, first and foremost, desire. That, I think, is one of the most insightful, important, and powerful observations about the Arab Spring.

I never would have made the connection otherwise …

I mean, when you see the film, you’ll realise that I’m not projecting! 

In the two years since you’ve been curating films at TIFF, how, (if at all) has the response to Middle Eastern films by non-Middle Eastern audiences changed? In terms of visual art, I think Toronto still has a long way to go … would you say the case is different in terms of Middle Eastern cinema here?

That’s what I like about working for this festival … when I show Egyptian films, there are also Koreans in the room –

- Koreans?

Yeah, or Portuguese … Egyptians are not a majority, and that is a pure joy, because TIFF is a festival of cinephiles, and you cannot categorise them in geo-cultural terms … Obviously, I would never be able to stand on my feet if it weren’t for the support of community groups, because the way social groups integrate into a social fabric is complex, and so the strategy of outreach has to be lucidly multi-pronged, complex, respectful, and run against the trappings of identity politics.

Lastly, what – in any particular order – are your top five Middle Eastern films?

  1. I’m going to start with The Dupes, as an homage to the filmmaker (Tawfiq Saleh). He died recently, and I’m very sad that we lost him …
  2. Stars in Broad Daylight (Usama Muhammad)
  3. Dreams of the City (Mohammad Malas)
  4. The City (Yousry Nasrallah)
  5. Lebanese Rocket Society (Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige)
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About the Author

Joobin Bekhrad
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An award-winning writer, Joobin Bekhrad (BBA, MSc.) is the founder and Editor of REORIENT. He has contributed to such publications as The Guardian, The Economist, the BBC, Forbes, i-D/Vice, Frieze, The Columbia Journal (whose Guest Editor he served as in 2016), The British Library's Untold Lives, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Aesthetica, Artsy, and Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia, been interviewed by news outlets including Newsweek, The Art Newspaper, and the CBC, and seen his writings republished and translated into a variety of languages. He is the author of a translation of Omar Khayyam’s Robaiyat, a novella (Coming Down Again), a collection of stories (With My Head in the Clouds and Stars in My Eyes), and a volume of poetry (Lovers of Light).