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Arab filmmakers feel compelled to deal with the militant group and its effects – despite threats and intimidation. Emma Jones reports from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
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Cinema can’t keep pace with current affairs in the Middle East. The Sundance award-winning Syrian documentary, Return to Homs, which is showing at this year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival, now looks like last year’s history lesson.

Even its Damascus-born director Talal Derki admits it ruefully. His raw piece of docu-journalism, made between 2011 and 2013, traces the devastating arc of the Syrian conflict from optimistic uprising to chaos, through the eyes of champion goalkeeper Abdul Baset Al-Sarout. The politics seem simpler – Assad v the Free Syria army. The emergence of Islamic State (IS), says Derki, has “made the situation even worse. There are ten to fifteen million Syrians, caught between Assad and IS, unable to live their lives.”

IS, the extremist group now controlling large swathes of Iraq and Syria, is also making story-telling in the region even more logistically difficult – as well as giving filmmakers tales they say they never wanted to tell. In the politically stable, cultural hub of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, IS is the name on everyone’s, but no one’s lips. Unlike the Arab Spring – the last big news event in the region that excited filmmakers with its promise of free speech, and resulted in international film successes like Jehane Noujaim’s The Square – directors attending the festival may admit to working on projects linked to the influence of the group, but ask for anonymity. Some, they add, have received death threats.

Talal Derki’s 2013 documentary Return to Homs was garlanded at Sundance – but the situation in the region has since moved on (Abu Dhabi Film Festival)

Talal Derki’s 2013 documentary Return to Homs was garlanded at Sundance – but the situation in the region has since moved on (Abu Dhabi Film Festival)

Indirectly skirting around this new global threat feels safer for others. The noted Egyptian director Marwan Hamed has plans to make a film called Assassins, about 11th century leader Hassan-i-Sabbah, whose sect were suicide killers. Anyone, he announced at the festival, who wanted to know more about IS, should read up on Hassan, who was a forerunner of today’s extremists. Talal Derki, exiled now in Berlin but still smuggling himself in and out of Syria, says he next plans to investigate “the psychology of a new generation growing up with only a legacy of war in their experience. It’s like a sickness, an Ebola.”

‘Propaganda machine’

Arab cinema needs to deal with IS in a uniquely local way, says Saudi-born producer Mohammed Al-Turki, who made the critically-lauded 99 Homes with Spiderman’s Andrew Garfield last year. “Hollywood will respond in its own way to this group,” predicts Al Turki, “and with its own stereotypes of the situation. Arab cinema needs to make its own comments.”

But how do you respond effectively to IS’s efficient YouTube propaganda machine? Having stolen snippets of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and the video game Grand Theft Auto and used them in their promotional trailers, they could be accused of beating Hollywood at its own game, so much so that the Guardian declared that, “the regime may have outlawed music, singing, smoking and drinking, but it clearly embraces Final Cut Pro.”

A still from an IS propaganda video from March 2014 (AFP Photo/Al-Furqan Media)

A still from an IS propaganda video from March 2014 (AFP Photo/Al-Furqan Media)

“Arab cinema needs to fight back using the same kind of weapons,” suggests Nadine Kirresh of Al-Arabiya’s The Big Screen Show. “Visuals are key in today’s media, and local artists should look at short, sharp film-making, rather than too many features, which take months to finance. The Arab Spring showed us that it could be done quickly and cheaply and that we’re all eyewitness filmmakers now.”

The US State Department’s own ‘short, sharp’ response to IS – a video called WARNING: Welcome to the ‘Islamic State’ land – failed to deliver the same shock impact however: its government sponsorship made its intended audience suspicious. Things have moved on since the 1940s, when the director Frank Capra produced a series of films at President Roosevelt’s request that replied to Leni Riefenstahl’s masterpiece of Nazi propaganda, Triumph of the Will. Film, argues Michael Garin, head of leading Abu Dhabi production house Image Nation, can no longer be twisted into propaganda, however well-meaning the motive. “We have to make films people want to see, not films we want people to see,” he says. “You can’t make a movie just because of the message – Hollywood tried that after the Iraq war. It was boring and no one wanted to see them.”

Sanad, the highly respected funding arm of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, confirms that it will only make decisions based upon artistic merit, not political motivation. Its director, Intishal Al Timimi, believes that “this latest political episode needs to percolate a little before it’s seen on film. It takes three years on average for a film to be made from development stage. We are still seeing movies about the Arab Spring that we funded in 2011. I don’t expect to see a serious reflection of this crisis until 2017, by which time the situation will have changed again.”

Human touch

“Filmmakers need the freedom to create their own visions, even of terrorism,” comments Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, the maker of Timbuktu, a film lauded at Cannes earlier this year. It chronicles events in a North African village after Islamic extremists take over.

Timbuktu by Abderrahmane Sissako chronicles the brief occupation of the city by the militant group Ansar Dine (Cohen Media Group)

Timbuktu by Abderrahmane Sissako chronicles the brief occupation of the city by the militant group Ansar Dine (Cohen Media Group)

“We must not shy away from showing humanity, even in terrorists,” he insists. “I don’t believe that a young man who does terrible things doesn’t think about them in the dark afterwards. ”

And the emphasis on a shared humanity is the missing link in so many films, adds Palestinian debut director Amer Shomali, who has made a part-animation, part-docudrama called The Most Wanted 18, about a herd of cows who became the symbol of the first Palestinian Intifada in 1989.

“Film does affect human decision-making,” the 33 year old says.” It’s very important that we break stereotypes within the Arab world, not just internationally. By portraying Arabs as either victims or terrorists, we are missing out the entire spectrum in between – in other words, entirely what it means to be human.”

“Many of us are alienated from our own history and the young generation believes it has two choices – to become a victim and martyr, or join ISIS and become a murderer. Films can show a third option – that you can be an active member of a community and responsible for your present and future. We need to reclaim this, and stop them from running off to join the radicals.”

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