Culture Trips

How the Arab Spring changed cinema

But nevertheless Tunisian moviemakers have managed to develop their industry by introducing new genres, technologies and ideas. Two prime examples of the invention and innovation occurring in the country’s cinema are Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s Dachra (2018) and Ala Eddine Slim’s Tlamess (2019). Dachra is the country’s first horror film and has ushered in a forthcoming wave of genre filmmaking in the country, with its employment of horror tropes to criticise the dominance of religion showing off a new means of expression for filmmakers to get around censorship. Meanwhile, using a highly distinctive form of surrealism, Tlamess touches upon militarism, ascribed gender roles and existential ennui while giving Arab cinema its very first scene of full-frontal nudity.

Elsewhere, in Yemen, Libya and Syria, the key filmmaking focus has been on depicting the deteriorating conditions in these countries, as traced in various documentaries by filmmakers now living in exile such as London-based Libyan director Naziha Arebi’s Freedom Fields (2018); Copenhagen-residing Syrian director Feras Fayyad’s The Cave (2019); fellow Syrian Waad Al-Kateab’s co-directed For Sama, documenting her way out of her war-torn homeland; and Los-Angeles-based Sufian Abulohom’s Yemen: The Silent War (2018).

The future of Arab cinema

A decade later, the revolutionary energy of the Arab Spring is still in evidence, in life and on the big screen. The popular uprisings in Algeria and Lebanon in 2019 and 2020 have spawned pictures that adopt narratives similar to those of the early Arab Spring films – from Karim Aïnouz’s colourful portrait of the Algerian revolutionary youth, Nardjes A. (2020), to several Lebanese projects in the pipeline that now could be scrapped after the explosion in Beirut last summer dented hopes of a happy ending for protestors.

In Sudan, meanwhile, a revolution occurred nine yearsafter the first wave of the Arab Spring began that has also led to the rise of cinema in the country. However as Sudanese filmmakers reflect on events, it is clear from their films that they have learned the precious lesson that revolutions could fail at any moment and that the road to democracy is long and arduous. Two documentaries from 2019 capture the essence of a country on the cusp of change yet cast doubt over the tangible possibility of extensive institutional overhaul. In Suhaib Gasmelbari’s Talking About Trees, a group of veteran filmmakers attempt to resurrect an old cinema outside Khartoum only to be confronted by stifling red tape that is not expected to dissolve in the near future. The same repressive rules are faced by a group of female athletes striving to assemble the country’s first women football squad in Marwa Zein’s Khartoum Offside, which stresses that the country’s overriding patriarchy will continue to challenge the reformist efforts.

As for the original uprisings? The legacy and aftermath of the Arab Spring continues to haunt the region’s cinema, and yet a complete account of what happened in 2010 and the years afterwards is yet to be told. The most popular hits about the uprisings – Jehane Noujaim’s The Square (2013) from Egypt; the aforementioned Beauty and the Dogs from Tunisia; the countless Syrian documentaries – offer straightforward, digestible narratives catering to a largely Western audience unaware of the nuances and complexities of the region and its history. And since nearly all independent Arab films rely on European capital for finance, productions are usually shaped by what the west expects the Arab world to be, and are ultimately evaluated by western critics with little to no knowledge of the region.

The rise of Sudanese cinema and the remarkable evolution of Tunisian films will ensure that the spirit of the Arab Spring remains alight on the big-screen. The real story of the rise and fall of the Arab uprisings, on the other hand, is still waiting to be told.    

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