Disclaimer: In this piece, I reflect on my professional experience in the Arab cinema world in Paris. I am interested in sharing my thoughts and starting a conversation about making the Arab cinema scene in France more inclusive.
A cinephile becomes a professional
I am what they call a “cinephile.” I am highly neurotic and anxious and like all millennials, hooked to my phone. Only cinema and sports help me unwind. I remember the first time I felt this way, I call it my “cinematic baptism”. In 2014, our French literature teacher took us to see “Cycling with Molière” by Philippe Le Guay, which was screened in Cairo by the Panorama of the European film. I truly believe that this cinematic experience altered me. I entered this cinema hall one person and came out a completely different one.
Since then, I have been drawn to cinema. Although I decided to study political science at Cairo University, in my sophomore year, I started volunteering in film festivals like the Panorama of the European film and in film schools. I was ready to take any job just to be able to watch more films.
In September 2019, I went to Paris on a scholarship for my master’s degree in political sociology. It was not just a degree, I had decided to migrate. It was not an unusual thing in my family: everyone on my mom’s side of the family lives abroad except for my mom. While in France, I was involved with different festivals and organizations in the Arab cinema scene in Paris. This experience allowed me to land a contract as a volunteer in 2021 and later on as an intern in one of the most important film festivals concerned with the MENA region in Paris. A year later, I was hired by another organization, also working in their cinema department.
Setting the scene
Despite an important Arab migrant population, Arab cultural activities were few and far between in Paris. The organizations offering these activities did not satisfy the big demand. In the Parisian region (Paris and its suburbs), the most important organization offering Arab cultural activities was Institut du monde Arabe, which hosted its own cinema department. Furthermore, a handful of festivals that were concerned with the Arab world or MENA region existed such as PCMMO-Panorama des cinémas du Maghreb et du Moyen-Orient. There were even festivals dedicated to certain countries such as the Le Festival Cinéma(s) d’Iran, the FCP Festival Ciné-Palestine or the more recent Festival du Film Libanais de France. Other organizations in the Parisian region were the ICI-Institut des Cultures d’Islam In some other cities with an important Arab population or French people of Arab origins, there were festivals such as Aflam in Marseille or Cinemed in Montpellier. I worked with two of these organizations in the Parisian region.
There is no easier definition for democracy than the quote by Abraham Lincoln: “Democracy is government of, by and for the people.” If so, then democratic cinema is cinema of, by and for the people. Embedding my reflections in this quote, I consider the possible features and interventions of cinema. I am concerned with cinema “of the people” to denote who is represented in the films; “by the people” to explore filmmakers and professionals involved in the act of production; and “for the people” as a form of questioning the imagined “Arab audience” in France.
- Of the people: Ahmed El Sakka who?
In most countries, there is a discrepancy between commercial cinema and “festival” cinema, the latter seen as targeting the intellectual elite. Connoting high Culture (with a capital C) and assumed to be far removed from ‘the public taste’, festival cinema in the Middle East has sometimes been accused of being completely disconnected from the local in favor of appeasing the “European gaze” to secure awards in international film festivals such as Cannes. One incident clearly demonstrates this perspective. During the 5th edition of the GFF El Gouna Film Festival in 2021, stars of Egyptian cinema and TV stormed out of the screening of Feathers by Omar El Zohairy, which was awarded the Critics’ Week Grand Prize as well as the FIPRESCI Prize at the 74th edition of Cannes Film Festival. Actor Sherif Mounir found that the film exaggerated poverty in Egypt and represented it “poorly”.
The discrepancy in the reception of Feathers in Cannes and in Gouna invites us to reconsider film festivals as an arena of power struggle. That is not to say that one taste is more legitimate than the other. It is merely an observation of the fragmentation of the cinema world. Even if there is no one type of film that is representative of “the people,” Arab films in European festivals aren’t truly representative of the tastes or expressions contained within ‘popular’ films in the home country – in the case of Egypt, the Egyptian super star Ahmed El Sakka is a prime example.
Furthermore, some astonishing films produced in the home country never make it to international festivals. One obvious factor is the lack of means to provide subtitles or find a distributor. Another, is access; film festivals concerned with the cinema of the Arab world or films concerning the region will often screen productions by non-Arab filmmakers. This is not a necessarily problematic, as art can be deeply personal and reflective, though it is common to find politics get entangled and lives of real people (through representation) are at stake.
- By the people: Let me hold my prize while you rot in prison
When I started working in a festival in Paris, I was the only employee who spoke Arabic. The festival dealt with the MENA region, which is astonishing since there was little understanding or representation for other MENA spaces – none spoke Tamazight, Turkish, or Persian. This is not intended to disparage the festival, an inviting and encouraging space that, as a volunteer, I found welcomed my presence in film selection discussions. I was also responsible for bringing more films from Egypt, which I did. We needed an original documentary about the revolution. Even if at the time, there were very few, I did my research and started watching the films.
During my screening, one documentary by a European filmmaker traced the trajectories of different individuals whose lives had been transformed by the revolution. Two of these were a couple of journalists and their newborn. Somehow the couple seemed familiar even if I did not know them personally. I Googled their names and discovered instantly that I knew about them because they are both political detainees. It seemed that the distributor and the filmmaker had no issue with screening a film in which two of its protagonists were actual political detainees in Egypt and whose incarceration conditions could be seriously influenced by that screening. After containing my anxiety, I decided to share this information with the festival administration and they agreed to not screen this film.
I was very happy with the festival directors’ decision, but left perturbed by the filmmakers thought process. I could not help but wonder what would have happened if no Arab or Egyptian was part of the team. I found it unethical that no policies or safeguards existed for including Arabs or other MENA folk in the organizing team. It should be noted here that this need for inclusion is not merely for representative purposes (which are already important) but for actual cases where people’s lives can be placed in real and direct harm.
- For the people: for all our Sarah Hegazis
There is no official data in France on the population of different ethnic and religious groups. Hence, it is hard to have an idea of the size of the Arab population that “could” be interested in screenings for a MENA audience. However, a study by Brookings in 2015 concluded that Muslims (and not Arabs) account for almost 5 million of the French population.
When it comes to the question of audience, I noticed that in one Arab institute, the vast majority of the audience were white French people who were interested in the region and professionals and friends of the institution. Therefore, this cultural space found it more fruitful and lucrative to appeal to this segment, prioritizing them above Arabic speakers and planners would issue advanced invites prior to public screenings. As an Arab student in Paris, I felt ecstatic when I got tickets to watch an Arab independent film. I could not help but think about other Arab students who were not able to watch the best of Arab cinema whilst professionals were getting their tickets so easily. I wondered, ‘do these institutions even consider the Arab population in France as their target audience?’
The Arab migrant community in France is or should be the obvious target audience of the Arab cinema scene in Paris. However, since very few Arab people are involved in the industry, it is an audience that remains distant from the act of production and the patterns of representation. Perhaps, and I am making an inference based on personal experience here, that for festival staff the prospect of determining what can cause offense in film selections is a daunting prospect. With little input from Arab professionals, for example, a short film which included a non-obscene love scene between two men was deemed too explicit by some non-Arab members of the institute’s selection committee. Assumptions were made based on supposed knowledge of the region and its peoples to restrict what is deemed appropriate representation of the region and its peoples. An odd though familiar refrain whenever we reflect on the “European gaze”. But we must question: How does the industry make this decision in the Arab population’s stead? Who is gauging their interests, especially when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues?
On another occasion, a short film depicting a lesbian couple in Egypt was also eliminated for its poor aestheticism: poor acting and a weak storyline. I was completely against the elimination of both films. This festival took place in 2021 and it was only in June 2020 that Sarah Hegazi, the Egyptian LGBTQ+ and Marxist activist had committed suicide in Canada after suffering torture in prison in Egypt. Sarah was arrested after proudly waving the pride flag at Mashrou Leila’s concert in Cairo in 2017. I was there that night. I had the biggest smile on my face seeing the pride flag waving in public in Cairo. I took that video and tweeted it.
It seemed to me then, and does so to this day, that concerns about obscenity as well as aesthetic aside, we should have screened films depicting members of the LGBTQ+ Arab community for the sake of representation and challenging assumptions about the region and its peoples. Persecuted in most Arab countries, the LGBTQ+ community hardly finds recognition in festivals in and beyond the Arab world. The least we could do, as an industry, is to honor Sarah and others by screening and engaging. And the audience is there. I participated in a march mourning Sarah in Paris and saw hundreds of Arabs grieving and hoping for a better future. Where is their voice in the selection process? Why have we failed them? And for whom are these festivals created if there’s such a disconnect with what should be their target audience?
I close with this final reflection: the “Arab audience” is not real. The “Arab audience” remains a construct of non-Arab administrators. As with any imagined community, there is no monolithic and static audience with aligned ideas and opinions who must be appeased. When we escape this essentializing trap, we can begin to ask how far grassroots engagement and outreach can go toward reforming the modes of production and representation in cultural institutions (lower case c very much intended).
Egypt Migrations is always looking for people to contribute to our digital initiatives. Please contact email@example.com if you would like to join or support the organization.
Stephanie Amin was a Summer Intern with Egypt Migrations and an Egyptian researcher and aspiring filmmaker. She holds a master’s degree in political sociology from Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Her research interests focus on gender and its intersection with religion and class in contemporary Egypt.