Letting viewers see ‘unconventional’ films: Q&A on the AFAC Film Week
Courtesy: AFAC Film Week/Zawya

The most pressing problem the region’s filmmakers face today is arguably the absence of good distribution strategies.

The issue, as Rima Mismar explains it, is a question of market value and seeing beyond the tired argument against “experimentalism” in recent Arab films on the basis that it does not appeal to local audiences. If we don’t attempt to show viewers “unconventional” films, how can we test if they like them? 

Mismar, who came to know cinema through writing, is the founder of AFAC Film Week, which saw the light at Beirut’s Metropolis Cinema in 2014. This year, it landed in Egypt’s Zawya with a selection of 14 films screened for the first time in Cairo, Tanta and Minya.

The film week can be seen as one of a few initiatives working to bridge the gap between audiences and filmmakers, shedding light on some of the region’s most daring films.

Mismar’s approach as the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture’s film program manager is to support both young and established Arab filmmakers and create a platform to screen their films, usually for the first time, at local cinemas. AFAC Film Week was started as a fund to support the development and production of films from the region.

We sat with her during the film week at Zawya, which ends today, for an in-depth view of the project, the films and the future of Arab cinema.

What was the criteria for selecting the film week’s 14 films out of the 100-plus films AFAC is funding?

I actually looked at the films we had completed and tried not to include so many recent films — in some cases, the screening of a film may not be in line with its distribution plan, as some festivals ask for the premiere.

There were a few factors I was keen on. First, since we have a whole program for documentary production and they usually take less time to produce, we have more documentaries than fiction completed. But it was important to include fiction films in the selection to support different genres.

Another factor was that, among the fiction films that we have, some had already been shown in Cairo many times, such as Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains (2009), a very widely seen film. [Nadine Khan’s] Harag W Marag, [Hala Lotfy’s] Coming Forth by Day and [Ahmad Abdalla’s] Rags and Tatters were all produced in Cairo. So that’s how we ended up with [Hisham Lasri’s] The Sea is Behind and [Ghassan Salhab’s] The Valley

The main parameter was films that had not been screened in Cairo, and making sure that for recent films, the screening would not clash with plans distributors have for festivals. I was keen on including shorts as well.

Among the documentaries, it was important to demonstrate the films’ diversity, not only in terms of subject but also in visual language. Hence [Wiam Simav Bedirxan and Usama Muhammad’s] Silvered Water and [Akram Zaatari’s] Twenty-eight Nights and a Poem. They have a specific visual language that’s edgier, heading toward experimentation with the image.

But there are also films that are unique in other ways, like [Paul Cowan and Amer Shomali’s] The Wanted 18, and films that are essential to show, like [Talal Derki’s] Return to Homs.

How do you see this edition of the Film Week so far? Is it a success?

It’s very hard for me to judge because I don’t live here. I don’t know what the crowd would look like normally. But it seems there are people that are interested in watching, staying till the end, taking part in and listening to the Q&A sessions. I’m particularly happy about the screenings outside Cairo, in Tanta and Minya.

How did they go?

They went very well, according to the judgment of the people there — attendance was very good, and people were very interested in discussing the films. We screened two Egyptian films that were not in the Cairo program: Underground/On the surface by Salma El Tarzy and Harag we Marag.

And in terms of ticket sales?

I haven’t checked with Zawya, but we had two-thirds of the theater full every day, which I think is a good turnout. 

In terms of subject matter, is there a special focus on conflict zones, or topics relating to conflict?

Even if we are showing some films that come out of conflict zones, it’s because they are looking at the conflict in a very specific way, so it’s not the cause that’s the main thing — it’s more about how the filmmakers are trying to see what’s happening.

The Wanted 18, for instance, has a humorous, satirical side and an animation part, so it’s not your classic “Palestinian film.” For the two Syrian films, Return to Homs and Silvered Water, they’re very different when compared to each other.

And each has a very specific point of view: Return to Homs’ take on what was happening in the Syrian revolution was a cinematic approach, because the important thing for them was not to just portray what’s happening, but to come out with a document that would survive and not become an old story with the flow of images that we see. That’s why it’s a character-driven film. So this is also not a conventional film about war, it’s also a specific take on the matter.

Silvered Water speaks for itself. It’s a very unique film that deals with what’s happening with a very open mind, and is very responsive in trying to discover what film can do in the face of war and explore the visual language that would best express the filmmakers’ point of view. It’s a very constructed film. It has so many levels of narratives, and in that sense it’s not a film that’s reactionary, but one that really reflects on what is happening.

More than one film takes historical events as a starting point. What do you think about the relationship between cinema and history?

I think that this is something we’ve been witnessing after the regional revolutions in a more systematic way. That’s mainly because for many decades we were so much into our present, and unsure what would happen and what has happened, that we did not have the critical point of view and the distance to ask questions about the past.

Suddenly, things happened after the revolutions, and filmmakers felt some sort of connection was missing. What had led us to this? Whether they see the present positively or negatively, questions started to come out — they wanted to go back to the past and ask questions to be able to understand the present and think about the future. This is a normal connection that should be made.

I wouldn’t say this is something totally new, because so many other films have done it, but it has become a collective conscience after the revolutions.

Do you feel that cinema as a means to tell a story gives a certain edge to the telling of history?

As an art form, film tells a subjective history. Unless you’re doing a very informative film about a specific era, any film about history is a film about history as seen by its maker.

I think this is a much-needed approach, because there isn’t one story or one history, especially in our part of the world, where conflicts have happened and there’s always something obscure about the past, about who wrote this past, in light of the dictatorships that have been ruling the region. We always had a big question mark about history. What really happened? Who wrote this history?

Certain things we are not able to question, so to be able to do that we need multiple point of views. Going back into history and telling stories is a very healthy practice, because it does mean that we are trying to get over what happened and have a critical distance from it. It means that this past belongs to you, to the filmmaker, to the people. And the more point of views we get about this past, the more we are able to understand and analyze it.

What do you think of the conversations after the films, during the Q&As?

I was expecting more interaction, to be honest. Except for one or two films, The Wanted 18 and 74, it was obvious that people were interested in listening, they wanted to know more about the filmmaker and the project, but they didn’t ask many questions. I think some of the films are very difficult, and one might need some air to be able to reflect on them. This is totally understandable. Others are more an experience of the senses, so it’s not something you make sense of but something you feel, and it takes time to settle down.

I don’t know much about the culture here, but in Beirut it’s also the case, people are not very upfront in saying what they think for many reasons. Our culture is not one for debates and criticism, it’s much more tame, I would say.

But also, film or art in general could be the best place for people to start this practice of debating and criticizing.

How does AFAC Film Week respond to the problem of distribution in the region?

It’s more of an initiative to bridge this gap, it’s not of course a solution. I’d say it is more about circulating films, reaching different audiences, and that’s why I’m particularly happy about the screenings outside Cairo.

For recent films, you might wish of course that they’ll have distributors to be seen, but there are hundreds of films in the history of Arab cinema that no one has had the chance to see, because we don’t know where the copies are or who the rightful owners are.

AFAC Film Week is one of many initiatives trying make this circulation happen. There are others trying to make this content available through Cinematheques, online platforms. Many people are thinking right now about the question of distribution in the region.

Also, at AFAC we fund these films, and believe that it is natural to take them a step further for them to be seen. It’s a statement rather than a solution.

How is the film week integrating in the current mainstream market?

The goal is to hold a one-week event in a different Arab country every year. So the idea of building an audience base year after year doesn’t exist. We are here this year and will be somewhere else the next.

In relation to the mainstream, it gives people another choice, an opportunity to see things they would not be able to watch anywhere else. It’s not taking on a role to counter mainstream cinema. It says that Arab cinema is about so much more than what is available to see, in the hopes that people will start to see something in these films that represents them, that talks to them, and start looking into different forms of visual expression that we don’t see normally in television or big theaters.

Do you see a different language being born in the films you’ve funded? And do you think foreign funding has an effect on the aesthetics of the films?

I’m not in favor of the conspiracy theory on foreign funding tainting filmmakers in what they do and say. It depends on the filmmaker and his or her position, and if he or she is established or emerging.

I’d say that AFAC is a great support for emerging filmmakers. It gives them the confidence in their voice, the fact that there’s someone from this part in the world that believes in what they are doing. And this creates a balance in their choices, even if it’s not necessarily big money. It provides a quality label that’s supporting them financially and morally, and that gives European or non-Arab funders the idea that a project is being well supported from where it ‘s coming from.

To talk about how foreign funding affects projects, I’d rather talk about the structure itself of production and distribution. Budget is of course a big element that comes into play, and when there’s funding from outside it automatically raises the budget a lot. Having production from Europe means staff and crew from Europe. I believe this isn’t healthy, because the money being spent is not benefiting the region, the economy or the filmmakers themselves. A big part of the production and post-production budget is being spent outside. I’m not saying this should change drastically. I’m saying that a balance would benefit the status of Arab cinema and create an organic economic cycle here.

Given that grants come with certain conditions, such as selecting a director of photography from the funder’s country, how does this affect the artistic content?

Some funders have such conditions, others don’t. The money coming from Europe has been cut drastically since the economic crisis, so films are now being supported by many different parties. This has diluted the potential for one main entity to have great power over a film. With the emergence of funds in the Arab world, such as AFAC and from the Gulf, there is a sort of balance.

Does it affect the visual language? It totally depends on the filmmaker. Sometimes the point of view of filmmaker and funder intersect, it’s a matter of common interest, and some filmmakers have no problem catering to the West’s image of the region. Others do, they want to say what they want to say, the way they want to say it. So it depends. But a healthy relationship between filmmaker and producer protects the project from going in ways the filmmaker doesn’t want it to.

Yesterday Usama Muhammad was talking about the filmmaker’s changing hierarchy, that the hundreds of thousands of cameras of non-professional photographers and the visual material they produce have become the main provider of valuable visual content, more than professional filmmakers. Do you agree?

What Usama said is specific to Syrian filmmakers and cinema. It’s not a trend everyone must follow, but I do appreciate and admire his point of view. It’s basically his way of saying that what we used to do before can’t be done anymore in the same way. It’s more an allegorical point of view. I wouldn’t say that everything being put on YouTube is cinematic, but the way he used it and the abundance of these images is something to think about, to incorporate into films and images coming out of the region. They will remain raw images unless responsibility is taken by someone willing to make something out of them.

Do you feel that independent funders like AFAC have a role in supporting this change in hierarchy, the trend toward non-professional filmmaking and amateur visual material?

I think we’ve been doing this in the way that Usama spoke about, but from another point of view, by supporting emerging talents. By believing in newcomers and taking that risk, we are looking at cinema not only a sacred sanctum for established filmmakers, but as a field of research and experimentation. In this way we’re contributing to new voices, new filmmakers, and of course the possibility of a “new cinema.”

Where is Arab cinema heading?

[Chuckles] That’s an existential question!

I am hopeful with what’s being done in Arab cinema. There’s a great energy, people are working, and barriers have been broken in relation to production. A large portion of young people are finding ways to produce their projects. There is an openness to experiments in visual language, in documentaries especially.

Distribution remains an issue, because it does create some sort of bitterness for filmmakers whose films are not able to be viewed by audiences. It’s something that we need to continue working on.

Ahmed Refaat 

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