The Cinema & I: Arabic Cinema, Sea of Changes Part 1

This week, we kick off an ongoing series by esteemed film writer and critic Mohammed Rouda, where he delves into an analysis of film & war and how cinema changes when a country, or a people, experience conflict. Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon!
The Cinema & I: Arabic Cinema, Sea of Changes Part 1

Samples of Critical Films Before and After the Wars- Part 1

"The short life of Alternative Cinema"

When the Lebanese Civil War began, cameras did not rush to record the events except in only a few occasions. That is because the Lebanese film industry was still growing, although during the 1960s it was on a steady keel, based on the work coming out of two studios, as well as joint productions with Egyptian and Syrian filmmakers. Also, there was plenty of talent available in every field of filmmaking and production and they were almost all busy working.

However, the percentage of productions between 1970 and 1975, when the war first exploded, was limited. 

Lebanese cinema, after reaching a production peak achieved by Egyptian and Syrian projects shot in Lebanon, desired to separate itself from the idea of having a public (conducted by the government) sector like in these two countries. The aim of the Lebanese filmmakers was, and still is today, to be free from official conduct and to make commercial films. An attempt that was to be folded as the commercial productions made with a mix of Egyptian and Syrian talents was doomed to fail.

Lebanese cinema, at that time, also wanted to break away from the serious mood that started to dominate some locally financed films. The first half of the 1970s was the birth of the Arabic “alternative cinema” trend which was advanced by young filmmakers who wanted to change the coda of the commercial cinema. Directors like Borhan Alawia (Lebanon), Randa Shahal (Lebanon), Ghaleb Shaath (Palestine), Nabil Elmaleh (Syria), Ridha Behi (Tunisia), among others met in Lebanon and Syrian for that reason and in a few months they started shooting films that carried the winds of a great change.

That the movement was against commercial cinema is understood. Similar changes took place from Brazil to France and from the U.K. to the U.S.A. back in the 60s. Yet the experience of the Syrian Film Organization and the Egyptian Film Organization (both reflected the two countries' government mandate to make good films -- though 'good' was a matter of opinion) did have brilliant results, along with bad ones. The reason the new Arab wave rejected the provided use of these outfits is a result of a total call to freedom and style.

It wasn't long before the alternative cinema realized how difficult it was to reach the public. Audiences, wherever the Egyptian films were distributed, were emotionally and traditionally linked to its stars and fables. Not unlike what Hollywood was about.

The start, for these filmmakers, was so difficult as they lacked not only the finances but, most essentially, the distribution. Someone who would take care of their product and gives it a life. As a result, the future of those who dreamed of a better, more free and serious film making was short lived. The directors dispersed and each either worked on his own or joined the winning club. Many were unable to work continually.

.... Then the Civil War in Lebanon started...

Top image of Borhane Alaouié provided by Mohammed Rouda, used with permission.

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