Arab Cinema Week
Regional governments should prioritise regulatory reforms to protect filmmakers’ creative works Image Credit: Supplied

The advent of Ramadan brings with it a warm, convivial ambience where families and friends gather together, with the best of Arab cinema playing in the backdrop. Known for its unique panache for storytelling and artistic expressions that celebrates the sheer beauty of the region’s culture, Arab cinema is now a shining star in the constellation of the cinema world. From intimate human dramas to historical sagas, and from social commentaries to enduring love stories, its artistic exploration transcends borders and cultures.

Shortly after the Lumière brothers’ historic public screening in Paris in 1895, screenings spread to Alexandria in 1896 and consequently to Cairo, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. This sparked the imagination of budding Arab creatives, leading to the advancement of the region’s film industry.

The establishment of “Studio Misr” marked the beginning of a still-flourishing Egyptian film industry, with numerous studios opening thereafter. By 1948, 345 full-length feature films had been produced, captivating Arab audiences and solidifying the industry’s prominence.

This golden era introduced iconic stars like Omar Sharif, Faten Hamama, Soad Hosny, and Umm Kulthum, whose exceptional performances established them as cherished household icons and shaped the Arab film landscape regionally and globally.

Read more by Sara Al Mulla

Inspiring trends

Today, the Arab film industry has evolved for the modern era, weaving narratives that resonate globally. State-of-the-art studios and production facilities have further advanced the industry, providing filmmakers with the tools to create high-quality films.

Moreover, the region’s unique blend of fashion, food, lifestyle, architecture, and filming locations gives rise to a glorious filmography, offering timeless vignettes with nods to nostalgia and period fashion, convivial gatherings, romantic narratives, and the dissolution of stereotypes. Meanwhile, Arab culture is also inspiring trends in various aspects of life, with film and TV soundtracks showcasing talented musicians.

Highlighting the region’s picturesque locales has long attracted global film production companies seeking memorable settings. Egypt, with its rich history and breathtaking beauty, stands out as one such picturesque filming location.

For instance, the Egyptian TV show “Secret of The Nile,” set in the scenic city of Aswan against the historic backdrop of the Old Cataract Hotel, captivates viewers with its local charm and historical resonance. The series, a Netflix hit, unfolds in the 1950s as Ali investigates his sister’s disappearance at the Grand Hotel, uncovering hidden secrets amid an unexpected romance.

Entertainment leaders like MBC’s Shahid, Starzplay Arabia, and Netflix are expanding their local content to meet the growing demand from new subscribers and increased viewership. The Egyptian TV series “Once Upon a Time” stars Ruby, Sawsan Badr, Ahmed Dawood, and Mohamed Farraag, weaving a tale spanning a century.

In 2018, journalist Salma plans to expose the demolition of an Alexandrian palace but encounters Youssef the 3rd, who claims rightful ownership of the palace as his ancestral home. Through thirty episodes, the show intertwines present and past, delving into cultural, social, and political complexities while navigating the lives of two lovers caught between the turmoil.

Emotional growth and connection

The Netflix production “Finding Ola,” a sequel to “I Want to Get Married,” explores a woman’s journey after divorce, touching on themes of depression, confusion, and renewal, offering insights into Arab women’s experiences and new opportunities for emotional growth and connection. On the other hand, numerous Arabic TV shows have portrayed women’s career progress and self-discovery beyond traditional roles.

In Netflix’s “The Exchange,” set in 1980s Kuwait amid a stock market crash, two female protagonists challenge a male-dominated workplace. The series evokes nostalgia as it showcases women breaking barriers and embracing freedom, alongside iconic fashion and Arabian jewellery. Similarly, “Cairo Class” follows Kuwaiti women in 1956 Egypt as they pursue education and personal growth.

Many cities are aspiring to become flourishing hubs for the Arab film industry. The UAE leads with robust support, evident through initiatives and investments. Entities like the Abu Dhabi Film Commission and Dubai Film and TV Commission offer comprehensive aid to productions, including financial incentives, grants, and top-tier infrastructure.

Talent development is prioritised through film schools and workshops, fostering creativity and a skilled workforce. This commitment has elevated the UAE as a vibrant center for cinematic excellence and cultural exchange.

Reaching global audiences

For instance, Image Nation Abu Dhabi, a renowned film and entertainment company, is lauded for its innovative approach and global reach. As the first UAE company with multiple productions on Netflix, its content has reached audiences worldwide.

With over 400 international film festival appearances, Image Nation Abu Dhabi has garnered industry recognition, including two Academy Awards, a BAFTA, and an Emmy. The company was involved in notable productions, including “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011), “The Double” (2011), and “The Hundred Foot Journey” (2014).

Amid these trends, regional governments can seize the growing demand for films and TV productions by implementing a suite of effective policies. Priority should be to scout and nurture diverse talents through avenues like arts education programmes, specialised workshops, online courses, academic programs, story labs, and apprenticeships.

By providing funding, grants, and subsidies to emerging film enterprises, the region can establish itself as a global entertainment contender. Investing in top-notch entertainment infrastructure, including film studios and technology, is crucial.

Upgrading digital infrastructure, especially in rural areas, enhances consumer access to digital content and expands geographical reach. Additionally, investing in film preservation and restoration protects classic and historical films, ensuring their cultural value endures.

Additionally, regional governments should prioritise regulatory reforms to protect filmmakers’ creative works, addressing issues such as intellectual property, data privacy, artistic expression boundaries, piracy prevention, equal pay, and labour policies. Promoting film tourism by showcasing exotic locations from Arab films can serve as a distinctive selling point for global production companies seeking memorable settings for their scripts.

Certainly, Arab cinematic content and production offers a unique vignette into the region’s culture and artistic expressions.

Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and literature