Reflections on life and death in Arab cinema on the steps of London’s ICA
The ICA’s first-ever Cinema on the Steps, which was this year dedicated to Arab cinema, featured an incredibly disturbing series of films that reflected, in varying ways, on the subject of ephemerality. The films, all uniquely beautiful, seemed to collectively represent the natural life cycle: the opening night dealt with the theme of revolution, a word indicating a return to a starting point; during the second night, the cinematic life and tragic suicide of Egyptian belle Soad Hosni was explored, as well as the lost glory of Egyptian cinema itself, and the third evening focused on the long, desolate reality of after-death – a bathetic nothingness following the events and trivialities of life. Altogether, decay, destruction, and the fleetingness of life pervaded each film selected for the festival – not shocking in the least, for behind each act in life is the looming inevitability of death.
The film series opened with Ala Eddine Slim and Ismael and Youssef Chebbi’s incredibly intense, totally pared-down depeiction of the Arab Spring, Babylon. This was a documentary that refused to be translated for a Western audience, both linguistically and visually. In the beginning, it was stated that the filmmakers had resisted ‘reducing the film to subtitles’, at which point commenced the 121 minute-long film about the recent Arab revolutions. Unlike in Western media, however, the film’s focus was not on the continuous bombings in the region, and the neo-Orientalist trope, ‘long-standing sectarian violence’; rather, it showed the quotidian occurrences of life in refugee camps, such as daily prayers or the cooking of basic meals. There were protests, of course – but they did not dominate the film; instead, they almost became part of a daily ritual themselves.
The second night, curated by Alia Al-Senussi and Abdullah Al-Turki, showed an entirely different aspect of contemporary Middle Eastern culture – the cinema industry itself, which, naturally focused on Egypt, the dominant centre of the MENA film industry between the 50s and 90s. First, there was Saudi artist Manal Al Dowayan’s The Legends, a one-hour sequence of bellydance scenes from Arabic movies. Rania Stephan’s The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni, similarly presented a montage of scenes featuring the Egyptian starlet, who was considered the ‘golden girl’ of the Egyptian film industry during its heyday – of course, until her fame declined, and she was found dead in her apartment on London’s Edgware Road in 2001. There is still a cloud of mystery surrounding her death – it was officially deemed a suicide case, although some claim that the Egyptian secret service was responsible; and although Stephan does not directly deal with the matter, Hosni’s death looms over the film in a way that is truly haunting.
The final evening of Cinema on the Steps showcased the recently-restored 1969 Egyptian classic, The Night of Counting the Years (Al Momia). Based on a true story, the film is set in 1881 and follows two brothers in an Egyptian clan, and their involvement in the looting of a newly-discovered tomb. On another level, however, the film explores the subjects of desolation, loneliness, and the inexorability of fate. Though it is beautiful, the barren shots of empty desert landscapes combined with Mario Nascimbene’s haunting original score and the archaic, yet dulcet tones of classical Arabic speech combine for a strikingly affecting work that retrospectively cast a shadow over the more contemporary films shown during the preceding days. Even death is not a tragedy here, but rather wholly inevitable; the tenants of the tombs lie forgotten, raided, and reduced to crumbling masses of dust.
I recently spoke with two of the festival’s curators, Alia Al-Senussi and Abdullah Al-Turki about the idea behind Cinema on the Steps, the films they selected, and the promotion of Middle Eastern arts & culture in London, among other things.
Could you tell me a bit about how you selected these films?
We had seen Manal Al Dowayan’s film [The Legends] while at her home during Art Dubai. It was meant to be a folly, an amusement … but in it, we saw hope and something different to be expressed to audiences: a peephole look at an Egypt entirely removed from the current one; and, to be honest, it was a choice of utter nostalgia. Ziad Antar is one of our favourite young artists, and we have spent time with him around the world, and [have] actually taken him around London for one of his previous bodies of work, so it only seemed fitting that we should show [his] haunting videos. And finally, for the feature, The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni by Rania Stephan – it was a selfish decision to show a film that we had always wanted to share with our friends, but couldn’t somehow locate. The ICA did an incredible job in tracking down and formatting these films, most importantly (and most difficult of all) The Night of Counting the Years, a 1969 production by Shadi Abdel Salam, which was the feature film for Ahmed Mater’s evening.
I understand this was the first of a now-annual outdoor cinema event, which will focus on cinema from a different region or theme each year. Why do you think that Middle Eastern film was so appropriate for the inaugural screening?
Everything just fit together [so] perfectly. We have been involved with the ICA since Gregor Muir came on board, and have been astonished by what he and his team have done at this institution – breathing life into it in a shockingly quick way! We were sitting with Gregor brainstorming about how he could engage new audiences, such as the Middle Eastern one that flocks to London in the summers, and at the same time, he received permission for this outdoor screening facility – the combination couldn’t have been any better. We quickly set about engaging our friends – artists and fellow curators – and were lucky that Qatar was enthusiastic about supporting it, as we wanted a partner that fit in with the ethos of the event.
We hope to see a return to the Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema, when film in the Arabic-speaking world was socially aware but not restricted by prejudices or misinterpretations of culture or religion. Artists are at the forefront of this movement, and slowly but surely are making their voices heard
This year is the Qatar-UK Year of Culture. Do you think it has successfully raised the profile of Middle Eastern art in the UK so far?
London has been an essential catalyst in raising the profile of Middle Eastern arts around the world – it is a nexus of so many cultures, and so much of the diaspora who then help disseminate this information far and wide.
It is interesting that you [Abdullah] curated the third night along with Ahmed Mater, a Saudi artist. What kind of difference do you think having a practicing artist’s input makes?
We immediately thought of Ahmed, another close friend and frequent collaborator, as we wanted an artist with an intellectual sensibility, as well as someone who would understand what we were trying to accomplish in [those] three days. He was in the process of making his film, Leaves Fall in All Seasons, which spoke directly about what is happening in Mecca, so what better artist and what better work to show at the end of the holy month of Ramadan? An artist is able to express him or herself in a way that most of us can’t, and get to the beating heart of issues while still making them beautiful. Ahmed presented his work, as well as took the audience on a tour of Mecca, and then confronted us with one of the most important Arabic films ever made, yet rarely seen – Al Momia.
There was a clear disconnect between the cinematic glamour of the second evening, and the desolation of the third – particularly with Al Momia. What was the thought process behind this disparity?
We wanted to captivate audiences but also make them think. The current situation in the Middle East is a tenuous one, so [we thought that] if we [could] juxtapose the glamour and pure joy in a film like Manal Al Dowayan’s with the desolation of Al Momia, and still amuse the audiences, we [would be] doing our jobs [well]. Film (and art) should reflect reality after all – the triumphs as well as the sadness.
How do you think these screenings fit in with what has been a busy summer for contemporary Middle Eastern culture in London, for example, with the Shubbak Festival?
The Middle Eastern art [scene] is a close-knit family, and all of these events and festivals have various overlapping layers of friends, supporters and participants. We are all trying to do as much as we can to help with the development of [the] arts in the Middle East, as well as draw attention to and explain them to new audiences outside the region. These screenings aren’t just about the Middle East for us – they are about what is happening in London in general, and bringing art (in all its forms) to a new audience at the ICA … it is about culture in London and how this city is a breeding ground for dynamic creativity. Cinema on the Steps is a part of that culture for London as well as the Middle East.
What do you see for the future of Arabic cinema?
We suppose that we hope to see a return to the Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema, when film in the Arabic-speaking world was socially aware but not restricted by prejudices or misinterpretations of culture or religion. Artists are at the forefront of this movement, and slowly but surely are making their voices heard. Sometimes [they] have to be [from] outside first, but [these voices] eventually find their way home.