Safar Film Festival: Arab revolution from streets to screens

Still from YOU WILL DIE AT TWENTY.jpg
6 min read
08 July, 2021
Now in its sixth edition, this year's Safar Film Festival explores the theme of 'generational encounters in Arab cinema' as it welcomes a wealth of MENA films.

London’s SAFAR Film Festival, the only film festival dedicated exclusively to Arab cinema in the UK, makes a triumphant return for its sixth edition with the theme of Generational Encounters in Arab Cinema. Thanks to the festival’s hybrid programme, screenings are taking place across the city of London and online (1–17 July 2021).

This sixth edition is the largest one of the SAFAR Film Festival to date.  The festival features 20 films and presents three UK premieres of the Egyptian film Souad (2021), the Algerian film Their Algeria (2020) and the Syrian documentary We Are From There (2021)

This year’s hybrid programme also offers a grippingly interesting selection of films for the audience to watch for free and from the comfort of their own homes.

The festival’s programme presents a variety of sub-themes all revolving around the intriguing intersection between the individual day to day revolutions and the national ones

For the first time, SAFAR is presented in partnership with the Shubbak Festival of Contemporary Arab Culture, which is simultaneously showcasing its multi-artform programme (20 June to 17 July). This year’s edition is also supported by the Barjeel Art Foundation and Film Hub London.

“I want this to be an expression of freedom,” said the festival’s curator Rabih El-Khoury in a conversation with The New Arab. El-Khoury has organised over 20 Arab film weeks in the Arab World and Europe. He is also the curator of the Film Prize of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, and the programmer for the Beirut Cinema Days and Alfilm, the Arab Film Festival of Berlin. El-Khoury is also the Diversity Manager DDF – Deutsches Filmmuseum & Filminstitut in Frankfurt.

The festival’s programme presents a variety of sub-themes all revolving around the intriguing intersection between the individual day to day revolutions and the national ones. The fight against patriarchy, against conservatism and the inter-generational clash all form the impetus of this year’s theme.

Reflecting on ten years of revolutions in the Arab world, the festival’s curator Rabih El-Khoury told The New Arab: “This past decade was full of movements with a new generation emerging with a particular voice. People are requesting to just have the freedom to dream, to think, to be able to do things and have a different life. Every person and every artist is having an internal revolution.” El Khoury accurately describes the current state of the Arab world as a state “boiling with ideas”.

The festival’s programme does not shun away from exposing the harsh and heart-wrenching struggles that people, especially the new generations, face in the Arab world. However, it also offers us moments of respite as some film characters and filmmakers have moments of triumph that sometimes bring down age-old traditions of injustice.

Still from Lift Like a Girl
A still from Mayye Zayed’s documentary Lift Like a Girl (2020)
Still from Their Algeria including director Lina Soualem
A still from Their Algeria including director Lina Soualem [© Thomas Brémond]

While Mayye Zayed’s documentary Lift Like a Girl (2020) follows emerging athlete Zebiba as she trains to become a professional weightlifter, Sofia Djama’s The Blessed (2017) daringly juxtaposes the generation of Algerian millennials with that of their parents in a beautifully courageous exploration of the clash of generational traumas and aspirations.

“The true joy of doing a programme like this is selecting every film as a special entity,” El-Khoury told The New Arab.

The programme highlights the beautiful cultural diversity of the Arab world. Ethnic, religious, linguistic, and sub-cultural diversities are all superbly celebrated through the selection of films from different regions. The films reflect distinct yet interacted realities that are narrated from different vantage points, a true manifestation of coexistence in Arab cinema. El Khoury told The New Arab that “this diversity is the Arab world”.

As the world’s eyes turn to Palestine, the festival presents Ameen Nayfeh’s feature debut 200 Meters (2020) which takes us on an immersive journey to witness how Palestinian life is disrupted on a day-to-day basis.

As we follow the journey of Mustafa (Ali Suliman) who attempts to cross from the West Bank to join his family, we discover how the 200 metres of distance between them is excruciatingly elongated because of the separating wall, the countless heavily policed checkpoints, and bureaucracy. Palestinian actor Ali Suliman is also participating in an online live discussion with the film critic Jay Weissberg.

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The festival’s theme is also expanded to represent the generational encounter of different schools and different movements of the Arab cinema and Arab Art in general.

Amjad Abu Alala’s film You Will Die at Twenty (2019), which made history as the first film from Sudan to be submitted to the Academy Awards features, is a coming-of-age tale that follows Muzamil (Moatasem Rashid). The film, which centres on the clash between traditions and modernity, pays tribute to the Egyptian director Youssef Chahine by showing clips from his film Bab EL-Hadid [Cairo Station] (1958).

The Palestinian film 200 Meters (2020) also has a poignant scene of Palestinian men gasping for air in the trunk of a human smuggler’s car which takes us back to Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun (1963).

Still from 200 Metres
A still from Ameen Nayfeh’s feature debut 200 Meters (2020) [©Alaa Aliabdallah]

Marianne Khoury’s Let’s Talk (2019) features the director and her daughter as they invite us to explore their cinematic family and four different generations of women in the family of the late Egyptian director Youssef Chahine who was Khoury’s uncle.

With the ongoing process of rebirth and rejuvenation during and after various Arab revolutions, Arab cinema is unlocking new doors and mapping new paths of exploring the complex relationship between individuals and their homelands

These generational encounters do not only happen in the selected films but are expected to happen in cinema theatres where the festival’s diverse audience will gather to share the experience of watching the films and attending the Q&As with the filmmakers who will join them from all over the world via zoom.

With the ongoing process of rebirth and rejuvenation during and after various Arab revolutions, Arab cinema is unlocking new doors and mapping new paths of exploring the complex relationship between individuals and their homelands, “There are new flowers blooming on every single day,” comments El-Khoury about the artistic renaissance following Arab revolutions. 

The festival’s curator expressed his joy for being able to organise the festival despite the ongoing challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, and he eagerly awaits to meet a diverse audience that will hopefully have the chance to “see the diversity of the Arab world and embrace it”.

Ouissal Harize is a UK based researcher, cultural essayist, and freelance journalist.

Follow her on Twitter: @OuissalHarize