Among the several hundred million film fans in 125 countries who watched the 90th Academy Awards on Sunday (this year a languid and low-energy ceremony, if you ask me), there were no doubt many overly enthusiastic Arab viewers. And these Arabs’ ardour was not just anchored in their condition as movie buffs who take cinematic art seriously, but also in national pride — two nominated films, for Best Documentary and Best Foreign Language Film, directed by Arab filmmakers, vied for Academy honours. And both were clearly Oscar-worthy. Sadly, neither won, but that’s not the be all and end all of things.
First there’s the gut-wrenching Last Men in Aleppo, the documentary by the Syrian director Feras Fayyad, about the mayhem in Aleppo, as seen from the viewpoint of the White Helmets, that heroic band of volunteer first responders, individuals from all walks of life whose job was to provide relief to survivors, and extract bodies from under the rubble, following the relentless bombing directed at civilians by government planes.
Fayyad, along with his two cinematographers, was there for three years, filming cinema-verite — there to “witness what they witness”, as he put it. Before the film was nominated, it had won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and was aired as an episode on PBS’s series Point of View (POV).
Watch it and see how it stands out for its richly crafted pathos. In a review, Variety, the influential weekly entertainment magazine, wrote: “[Last Men in Aleppo is] a viscerally immediate, exquisitely realised portrait of the White Helmets volunteers... one that provides viewers with the most vivid and empathetic sense yet of how it feels to live [and die] through the carnage”. Fayyad’s previous film, The Other Side (2012), about a Syrian poet exiled to the Czech Republic, earned him 15 months of incarceration in a Damascus jail, during which he was tortured mercilessly. But artists will pay any price, and endure so much pain, in pursuit of their art, won’t they?
Ziad Doueiri, the Lebanese director of The Insult, may not have had to pay a similar price or endure similar pain, but his art is not diminished for it.
At first blush, The Insult may seem thematically inane: A feature film about a petty dispute between Tony, a Beiruti who adheres to his country’s right-wing Phalangist politics, and Yasser, an older Palestinian refugee working (illegally, since as “aliens” Palestinians in Lebanon are barred from seeking employment of any kind, “whether paid or unpaid”) as foreman on a neighbourhood construction project. Since neither man will give in or admit guilt, the case ends up in court.
But look beneath the film’s finely textured narrative, and you see an allegory about inter-Arab feuding, social contradictions and class enmity. Ty Burr, the Boston Globe’s movie critic, wrote in his review: “If Tony is a blow-hard and a racist, there are hints that he’s badly damaged goods, [and] while Yasser maintains a veneer of affronted dignity, his hands may not always have been clean... The Insult is optimistic enough to leave the door open to hope, but it’s also realistic enough to only leave it ajar”.
Doueri had done time in Hollywood, serving as first assistant cameraman in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and other movies before returning to Lebanon to shoot his own films.
Cinematic art is so ingrained in the cultural habits of our “global village”, as Marshall McLuhan called the shrinking world we inhabit today, that we forget what a strange idea it is that the private anguish of one people can be re-enacted on a public stage, on a large screen in this case, and another people — a continent, a sea, an ocean away — can watch it and see in it a communal sense of reference, a common humanity.
At the very least, as Haifa Al Mansour, the Saudi director of the feature-length film, Wadja (2012) — submitted but not nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards — said simply, but cogently, in a presentation she gave at the World Economic Forum in 2016, “Art can touch people and make them open up”. It is pointless to repeat the truism here, recognised universally by cineastes, that cinematic art can — and does — not only provoke the public debate and shift the national mood, but indeed it can, and has been known to, thrust society beyond its fixed meaning.
Yet few countries in the Arab world promote this art form. And indeed may fear it. Modern Egyptian cinema has been around, true, since the 1940s, but it has shown itself to be way too mimetic and frivolous to be taken seriously. And since 1968, when the government nationalised the film industry, any actual or potential innovation in the genre there was stifled.
Art-house films were produced, yes, but while they attracted wide attention abroad, they attracted scant attention at home — or feared and thus banned. (Iranian filmmakers, those who created the New Wave in Iranian cinema beginning in the late 1980s, are virtually all diaspora Iranians.)
Fear of the power of film could reach even a country like the United States, where, in a moment of crisis or a wave of mass hysteria, the First Amendment could be thrown out the window with impressive ease.
Consider in this regard what happened when, in 1952, the right of Charlie Chaplin (a British citizen) to live in the United States was revoked by the US attorney-general because of the actor’s pro-labour performances, which were seen, during the Red Scare that followed the Second World War, as pro-communist.
You don’t have to be a subscriber to, or an avid reader of articles in Cahiers du Cinema to appreciate what Martin Scorsese meant when he said, “Cinema is in what’s in the frame, and what’s out”. Cinema translates our ideas for us, thus as we watch a film, we do not think, we are thought — we are, as it were, phrased in images.
And to promote that art form in the Middle East is to become enriched by the potentialities in our future, even while we become impoverished by the brutalities of our present. And both Last Men in Aleppo and The Insult attest to that.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.