The politics of film-haters in the MENA

Why is it that when an Arab film causes people to think, it's immediately subjected to an insidious mechanism of cancel culture?
The politics of film-haters in the MENA

If you haven't watched the films Amira or Feathers, please note that this article contains **major spoilers** so read on only if you've viewed the films. Which is more than can be said for the films' critics!

On any given day, scrolling down my Twitter timeline, I'll find some controversy about a Marvel film, some superhero fare, or a movie franchise -- fill in your own favourite here. The fans troll the critics, the critics attack the fans and all this back and forth only creates more buzz about the project itself. That ends up helping those who are undecided about viewing it to go to the theatre, or, these days more likely, stream it online.

But when an Arab film creates any kind of buzz, world premieres at an international film festival, is perhaps submitted to the Oscar race and gives its audience reasons to think, this is how things usually turn out. Some has-been star from the Region, followed by a publication looking for clickbait content scream a collective "bloody murder" and threaten to cut the film's path in its tracks. And the film's producers, or in a recent case, a country's film commission go silent, retract the film's future screenings and submissions and pull the film in the midst of its success.

This was in part the case in El Gouna with Feathers, which was saved by its filmmaker Omar El Zohairy receiving a coveted award handed out by a Western publication -- Variety's MENA Talent of the Year Award 2021 -- and is now the unfortunate case with Mohamed Diab's Amira. A film which is co-produced by Hany Abu Assad, one of the top Palestinian filmmakers and one who tackles difficult socio-political issues in his native land on a regular basis.

So, you may have all the technical and narrative problems in the world with Amira. It's everyone and anyone's prerogative to find fault with a film. But unfortunately, by asking for Diab's film to be cancelled, by refusing to watch it and spewing venom upon it you actually end up proving the content, story and theme of the film. Amira, the protagonist played by Tara Abboud, is driven to her unfortunate fate by what she believes her Palestinian family will think of her once they discover her tragic truth. And had she been related to the Jordanian actress Juliet Awwad who is quoted as saying that the "film was written with a purely Israeli script" and "the actors and producers of Amira should be hit with shoes" she would have every reason to worry. I mean, judged by such a miserable woman, Amira's destiny would be sealed.

I reviewed the film back in September when it world premiered at the Venice Film Festival and the story deals with a young woman whose father is a Palestinian freedom fighter, in an Israeli jail for life. Amira was conceived with his smuggled sperm but when he's proven sterile, she suddenly finds her world thrown upside down. There is no lighthearted approach to the story, and during the ending credits, the filmmakers show a statistic of how many children are fathered by smuggling the sperm of Palestinian prisoners. Amira has its heart in the right place and those criticising it don't seem to have watched the film.

As a personal aside, I remember watching Mohamed Diab's debut feature Cairo 678 back in 2011 and then writing about it for the HuffPost, when I was contacted by an Egyptian colleague. "He's a fundamentalist, you know," the man said, continuing, "he won't even shake hands with you because you're a woman." Needless to say, that was all made up. Not only did Diab and I shake hands at a recent film festival in Egypt, he's now working on the Marvel series Moon Knight with his very non-fundamentalist wife Sarah Goher. It's baffling to hear words like "Muslim Brotherhood" and "Zionist" thrown at filmmakers and yet, if you feel like you want to destroy an artist's career, in Egypt, that is exactly what you say.

A still from 'Feathers'

Back in October when it was the case of Omar El Zohairy being under attack, I was devastated to see the Cannes-awarded filmmaker actually cry, the sort of tears that come when your work, your artistic vision and years of dedication and discipline are misinterpreted, dismissed by a sixty-something actor with an obvious need for attention. When Sherif Mounir walked out of the film's screening in El Gouna, loudly declaring it was depicting a poor and filthy Egypt to the world, he not only completely missed the point, and failed to watch the film to its ending, but also undermined the creativity of a much younger filmmaker, one who cites among his inspirations the great Youssef Chahine.

In the days that followed, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi created a fund to end poverty in Egypt, and he dedicated it to the film Feathers. How's that for cinema helping to change the world!

Now back to Amira. "We do believe in the artistic value of the film, and that its message doesn't harm in any way the Palestinian cause nor that of the prisoners; on the contrary, it highlights their plight, their resilience," its Royal Film Commission said, yet regardless, withdrew the film "in light of the recent huge controversy that the film has triggered and the perception by some that it is detrimental to the Palestinian cause and out of respect to the feelings of the prisoners and their families".

Earlier this week, Amira's screening at the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah was also cancelled and the film's stars were told not to go back home to Jordan or they would be targeted.

The film shares one producer with Feathers and on both occasion, for either of these controversies, this Egyptian producer has stayed quiet. He should have stood up for the filmmakers he gladly walked the red carpets with in Venice and Cannes, but instead, not a word of support for either El Zohairy or Diab.

Amira's other producer, the Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu Assad, has instead gone on the record in the Arabic media to explain. In an interview for Cinematograph Mag, Abu Assad said "this was a fictional film, and we did not expect this reaction. The Palestinian prisoners' issue is a holy issue for me and for the Palestinians, so it is understood the sensitivity of the topic has caused heated tempers." He continued, "I support halting all screenings of the film, which was also the decision of the filmmakers, so we can open a dialogue with the organisations representing Palestinian prisoners and explain the POV of the filmmakers on this sensitive issue -- we cannot deny that due to the current realities, this issue has received such attention and that the Arab street still supports the Palestinian cause."

Of course, the article's headline only focused on the last, clickbait part of Abu Assad's statement but that's another issue -- a problem with media today and how much more readership is acquired by selling out on a sensational headline.

Ultimately, one has to wonder if this isn't about envy, because this kind of boycott only affects films that are successful and on an international circuit. And those raising issues with them aren't getting any more attention at the moment. Until they start some sort of controversy and then, magically, their names are back on everyone's lips.

As an Oscar-nominated Palestinian filmmaker friend wrote to me about the underlying consequences of this controversy "it makes one question whether a film's submission is ever safe from public hysteria..."

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