REVIEW: Book Release: Film In The Middle East And North Africa: Creative Dissidence

Book: Film In The Middle East And North Africa: Creative Dissidence
Release date: 5th April 2011
Publisher: University Of Texas Press

If the question of how much do you know about the cinema of the Middle East and Africa was posed to most people in the Western side of the world, the likelihood is that they could at best name a couple of films, or perhaps would have seen one of the more successful award-winning creations, such as Days Of Glory or Paradise Now, but the chances of them having a detailed knowledge would be slim. Little has been broadcast or written in the West about this part of the world’s cinema, which is surprising given the wide range of themes that have been covered, and the colourful history and geographical variety of the countries which are discussed in this book. Film In The Middle East And North Africa sets out to change this by providing an educational tour around the cinema of countries ranging from Iraq and Iran to Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco.

This book is introduced by Joseph Gugler, who is both a contributor and editor, as he discusses the different aims of compiling the series of essays which make up the collection. The essays which follow have a range of contributors of different nationalities, and they discuss both the cinematic industry in a general sense in the countries covered, as well as focusing in on specific films produced and the work of the most well known directors.

There are twenty seven essays in total and many different themes are discussed, including the barriers that directors have come across with funding and censorship, the role of women, fundamentalism vs. liberalism, the development of cinema historically, the use of fantasy and musicality, the use of language and camera techniques, as well as the production and distribution of the films themselves. The essays are grouped into nine sections according to the country under discussion, or if they have a strong thematic link (for example, the conflict between Israel and Palestine).

A detailed index is provided, alongside the essays themselves being well referenced, and some photographs of the directors or cast are included, as well as some of the movie posters in black-and-white. There is also a section at the end of the book which gives detailed information about the contributors...

One of the main achievements of Film In The Middle East And North Africa is the contributors’ ability to comment on films that the reader will perhaps not have seen while effectively conveying the importance of cinema to the countries discussed. The impression given is that cinema, as cultural entertainment, has also been intrinsically linked to the history of these countries - at times, it is even suggested that it may have helped in putting pressure on governments to change, (Iran) while in other instances government has intervened directly and made the production of films a matter of the promotion of nationalism (Tunisia). By describing the movement of cinema chronologically, while providing dates of important wars and changes of government, the opportunity to learn a lot about the history of the Middle East and North Africa as well as cinema is given, providing a more in-depth basis to the arguments put forward on the importance of this industry.

Most of the themes discussed such as the role of women and the influence of Islam could have easily lent themselves to controversy, not to mention the fact that countries which historically do not get along, such as Egypt and Lebanon or Israel and Palestine, are being discussed in the same book. The opportunities for conflicting and argumentative views are plentiful. However, the contributors to the book have, by and large, given an objective and well balanced view. Both the films which argue an Israeli point of view and the films which argue on Palestine’s side are discussed with equal merit. When discussing Liberalism vs. Fundamentalism (Destiny – Joseph Gugler, or Closed Doors – Gugler and Kim Jensen), the writers point out that there are benefits to both the political standpoints, going as far (in Closed Doors) to say that by showing the attractions of fundamentalism, a better understanding and therefore a move forward politically and intellectually can be reached.

Likewise, by the discussion of the problems of censorship that the directors have faced in all of the countries covered, albeit some more than others, as well as the fact some directors have created films to have them completely edited or in some cases the distribution refused, will highlight to the reader the plight of a lack of free speech for many people. This book can almost be seen as a political statement in itself by its aim to educate people who have perhaps not looked into the detail of the problems in the Middle East and North Africa, as by getting this information out there, the chances of more international pressure being placed on these governments to reduce the severity of the laws of censorship is made greater.

The variety of themes discussed, and the fact that the essays are not grouped by contributor but by country, leads to a more flowing and easy to read collection. Some original and valid points are raised and the passion of the essay writers about the cinema they talk of, as well their support for the directors in trying to move things forward politically and bring important issues of government into the open, is plain to see. The problem of the divisions between the countries of the Middle East and North Africa is often highlighted as a topic, yet despite the countries covered by these essays being kept separate, many themes re-occur in each of the essays, and this serves to show that despite the geographical and historical differences, the countries discussed are all linked to a certain extent. This underlines the ability of film and cinema as an art form to connect humanity on a deeper level, as a director from Lebanon may have the same problems to work on in film production as someone in Israel, despite the historical conflict.

The discussion of globalisation and colonialism are important issues both for a reader in the West or reader in the Middle East and North Africa, and by showing how, for example, the funding of film in Europe can be for political gain, such as funding from France being more likely if the film has French-language subtitles or audio, serves to bring to the attention of the reader how film and politics are often linked more than is obvious. Film In The Middle East And North Africa makes many subtle points which raise important philosophical questions, such as how much the Western world has influenced their history, without giving the impression of having an aggressive standpoint in any sense, which although difficult to do, has been done successfully.

Film In The Middle East And North Africa succeeds in providing a balanced and detailed guide to the film industry and issues which directors of film still face today. With the recent turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa, this book has even more relevance in showing how film can be a voice for the people, and lead to the shaping of politics in subtle ways, as the directors continue to try to push barriers in censorship in the cause of artistic expression. Well written and referenced, Film In The Middle East And North Africa offers a fascinating insight into the films which have already been created, as well as the common barriers which still remain for those trying to work in these countries today. AT

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