BBC Arabic Festival 2015
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 20th October, 2015
Arab cinema is remarkably little known in the United Kingdom, disgracefully given Britain’s long involvement in the Arab world and — even more importantly — given the high quality of much of the current output, both fiction and non-fiction, across North Africa and the Middle East. Arab film has come on a long way since the black-and-white Egyptian comedies that still feature on so many Arab TV channels. The so-called Arab Spring (a misnomer, if ever there was one) unsurprisingly has been the catalyst for a number of really powerful new movies both from and about various Arab lands. Last autumn, the BBC ran an Arabic film festival over a weekend, with free showings at the Radio Theatre in New Broadcasting House. The most striking, for me was some of the work out of Syria, made in the most difficult of conditions. This year, there is another BBC Arabic Festival to be held over the last weekend in October (i.e., next week), which alas I shall miss as I will be at the Liberal International Congress in Mexico City.
However, last night I got a sneak preview of two of the highlighted films of the festival, of which 15-minute edits were shown at a launch event at the House of Commons. Abo Gabi’s Blue is a heart-rending documentary about Ayham, the young piano player who performed around the streets of the besieged Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Syria, bringing hope and sometimes joy in the middle of suffering and the barbarism of war. Abo Gabi is himself a Syrian-Palestinian musician and singer and much of his film was captured through an intermittent skype connection, making this an intense and dramatic experience. Of an entirely different nature is Pregnant and in Chains, a documentary directed by Christine Garabedian about the fate of female migrant workers in the UAE who get illegally pregnant, in other words outside marriage. Immigration officials at Dubai’s international airport are always on the lookout for any Filipinas, Bangladeshis and other female domestic workers showing signs of pregnancy and also trying to leave the country; if caught, they are liable to imprisonment, even when their pregnancy is the result of rape, sometimes at the hands of their Emirati employer. Behind the UAE’s benevolent and modern facade is the reality of a very conservative society, in which there is a very different concept of human rights from those prevalent in the West. In their different ways, these two films give much food for thought. The Festival as a whole promises to be a feast.