Theeb and the Renaissance of Arab Cinema

Despite its precarious geopolitical situation, Jordan has become something of a go-to location for Western filmmakers whose stories take place in the Middle East, or some other arid region. It’s Arabia-lite: There’s enough sand and desert terrain to fit scripts calling for exotic settings, but little danger posed to cast and crew. In the past, films shot in Jordan have received extensive Oscar attention—Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, for example—but this is the first year that a Jordanian film, Theeb, has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Theeb is a simple story about a young Bedouin boy and his older brother, who serve as guides to a British soldier during the Arab Revolts. In some ways it feels almost like a postcolonial retelling of Lawrence of Arabia, but from the Arab perspective. Variety called it “a classic adventure film of the best kind, and one that’s rarely seen these days,’ while The New York Times commended the acting, which was done almost entirely by locals.” When Theeb, which was directed by the British Jordanian Naji Abu Nowar, received the Oscar nomination, it sent an online rumble through Jordan and the rest of the region. Jordan’s film industry is still in a stage of reemergence; in fact, Captain Abu Raed (2007) was the nation’s first independent feature film in 50 years. Theeb was the tiny-film-that-could, shot on a shoestring budget and starring actual Bedouins ad-libbing on screen in possibly the most authentically Jordanian movie ever made.   

The Missing Piece of the Oscars’ Diversity Conversation


Yet, Theeb is just the latest in a spate of complex and artful films that have originated in the Middle East and North Africa within the past decade. The accessibility of production tools and advent of digital distribution has helped spur what some scholars and filmmakers tentatively say is the start of a golden age in Arab cinema. The evolution of filmmaking styles and production methods from the region, the social movements that have been fomenting there in the past decade, and the role that film has historically played in constructing Arab identity have all played a part in Theeb’s current success. Though Arab cinema still faces plenty of challenges—including limited funding channels, a dearth of film schools, and few public screening opportunities—many independent directors are creating works that, like Theeb, reflect the region and its inhabitants in new, boundary-pushing ways.

Of course, the Middle East and North Africa isn’t monolithic—it contains a diversity of peoples, states, and cultures, and the Arabic language itself is split into many dialects—but for the purpose of assessing the Arabic-language film industry, it’s helpful to look at Arab identity as congruous.

The events of Theeb take place roughly after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire post-World War I, when nearly the whole Arab world was divided between Britain and France through the Sykes-Picot agreement. As a result, most Arab countries didn’t make movies before their respective independence from colonial rule in the 20th century. It was then, between the 1920s and 1960s, that filmmaking became a powerful way to create distinct national and cultural identities. In her book Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity, the film scholar Viola Shafik writes:

Getting into industrial film production was considered a national achievement in the former Arab colonies and protectorates. The acquisition of cinematic techniques was a sign of progress and offered a real opportunity to expand economically. On the political level, cinema was believed to create a platform for counter-representations, giving the formerly colonized a chance to challenge Western dominance, at least on the screen.

Egypt was at the helm of film production, and the period of time between the 1940s through the 1960s was especially fruitful. Many viewers and listeners outside of Egypt enjoyed Egyptian cinema, specifically the musicals and melodramas that were popular at the time.

Film industries in other Arab nations looked to Egypt for guidance, and productions were quick to adopt its funding model and replicate the popular styles and genres that were emblematic of Egyptian films. In the 1960s, however, the control over filmmaking shifted from the private sector largely to the government, which led to a decline in the quality and number of films being produced. Film production in the 1970s through the early 2000s was difficult across the Arab world, encumbered by a crisis in the public sector and hampered by increasing state censorship. “All Arab governments,” writes Shafik, “be they capitalist or socialist, have reduced the medium’s freedom of expression through legal restrictions.”

The Yacoubian Building stirred up trouble for depicting an openly homosexual character—the Egyptian parliament demanded that the sex scenes be cut, and criticized the film for “spreading obscenity and debauchery.” In 2007, there was the Lebanese film Caramel, which also touched on themes of same-sex attraction in one of the primary female characters. But beyond challenging social mores, films have become politically daring: The 2015 Moroccan experimental film Starve Your Dog explored the former Interior Minister Driss Basri’s crackdown on freedom of speech in the 1970s and 1980s. Salti notes how remarkable this kind of representation is. “If you look at Arab cinema in the ’80s, ’90, 2000s, we did not dare to put the people who have tormented us on trial in this way,” she says. “To give [Basri] a voice, to have somebody incarnate him is incredible. It’s breaking a taboo, challenging a silence and a complacency that still plagues a certain generation in Morocco.”

Beginning in the early 2000s, there was a marked shift toward more provocative filmmaking, and a deliberate desire to grapple with the conflicts within the culture of the Middle East and North Africa. It’s a debate that transcends film, and its presence in movies only intensified before, during, and after the Arab Spring, when the region’s painful identity crisis played out on the global stage. In many ways, Arab cinema reflects this complex question of what it means to be Arab. It can feel like a pretty capricious ideological state, one that toggles between demands for cultural revolution and reinforcing conservative values. Nasser Kalaji, Theeb’s co-producer, echoed this sentiment.

“Before we explain our culture to the West we need to explain it to each other,” he said. “What are we? Are we progressive Arabs who want to live in civil society and in a secular society and in one that promotes art and music and culture? Or are we in a society that wants to be religious and apply Islamic Sharia and religious doctrine?”

Like other forms of art, filmmaking functions as a tool to navigate identity, to either reinforce or tear down cultural markers. Theeb’s executive producer is Nadine Toukan, who has been a force in funding and creating Arab films in the past two decades. She describes the recent boom in complex storytelling as “a beautiful opportunity for a whole generation of Arabs to reengineer a pan-Arab environment to collaborate on the arts. There’s a generation of Arab storytellers who are absolutely fed up by being not represented or misrepresented by the other.”

Despite the buzz surrounding Theeb and other Arab films, huge challenges remain. The landscape for distribution in the Middle East and North Africa is bleak: There are few cinemas in the region, and many of the films that have found acclaim overseas will not be seen by an Arab audience. Most television stations are run by the state, and unconventional films are either rejected or heavily censored. Video on demand offers some hope, as does the prolific illegal DVD trade in the Middle East and North Africa—which is not profitable, but at least accessible. In a progressive and exciting move, Theeb is getting an unprecedented theatrical re-release in the region.

closed its doors in 2013. Censorship is vigorous, and the consequences for creating counter-cultural films are high (the director and actors in the 2015 Moroccan film Much Loved received death threats, and the film was banned in Morocco). Just as the levels of innovation and risk-taking creativity remain high, so are the barriers to entry.

It’s unclear if Theeb will go on to win the Oscar; although Abu Nawar recently won a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut for directing the film, the field has some heavy favorites. But its presence among the nominees, and the fact that it’s representing Jordan, which had almost no original film production to speak of until 10 years ago, is significant. It speaks to an increased interest and investment in the arts, and a bold desire to upend the narratives projected onto the modern Middle East.

Most of these stories aren’t framed as a response to any Western dogma: They exist wholly unto themselves as indigenous works. The through line of this movement has mirrored that of the excited beginnings of the Arab Spring a few years ago—a glow of optimism and the world paying attention—but this time, the outcome is unclear. At the very least, the forward momentum and the figurative drum roll are undeniable to many filmmakers. “The ideal situation is not going to present itself for Arab cinematic arts,” Toukan told me. “So we are just going to have to will it into existence.”

Mosquitoes and Migration: The Week in Global-Affairs Writing

The Middle of Everywhere
Samia Madwar | Up Here
“When Alestine Andrew flies from Norman Wells to Inuvik, NWT [Northwest Territories], she looks out the window to watch the hills, valleys, rivers and lakes below her. To most passengers, the features appear as little more than a sprawling, natural canvas. To Andre, it’s like looking at a familiar cityscape from above. She can point out specific spots and tell stories about each of them.

‘I know exactly where those places are,’ she says. ‘I’ll remember crossing a creek there and having to cut down 10 trees so we could make a bridge to cross.’ And that might be a 20-year-old memory.”

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Meet the Brazilian Woman Fighting Zika By Dumping Thousands of Mutant Mosquitoes Out of a Van
Dan Vergano | Buzzfeed
“As [Cecilia] Kosmann, a field trial supervisor with Oxitec, put it: ‘We’re fighting mosquitoes with more mosquitoes.’”

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Where the Dead Don’t Count
Selam Gebrekidan and Allison Martell | Reuters
“Lucky sat atop a pile of supplies, hanging onto a post with his feet dangling over the side. He knew the driver would not stop if anyone fell off. He was parched and hungry. The sand that sprayed up from under the truck’s tyres stung his eyes. For three days they drove, stopping occasionally to refuel and drink their water.

On the fourth day, the driver lost his way. His compass had stopped working. Some in the group would never make it out of the desert.”

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How Islamic State’s Secret Banking Network Prospers
Margaret Coker | The Wall Street Journal
“‘I don’t ask questions,’ said Abu Omar, whose money-exchange offices in the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Sulimaniyah, Erbil and Hit charge as much as 10% to transfer cash in and out of militant territory—twice normal rates. ‘Islamic State is good for business.’”

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How to Spend One Day in Tokyo
Justine Wong | Lucky Peach
“It is a fading tradition, but a long soak at the local sento is one of my favorite things to do after a good meal. Unlike an onsen or a spa, the sento isn’t particularly luxurious and at 500 yen, is exceptionally affordable. You can stay for as long as you like, and will go in naked and scrub yourself clean before you take a dip in their many tubs—each with its unique health properties. The best part is the glass of cold milk at the very end, but I would also sometimes opt for a cold beer, or some sake, or even a late-night dessert in the city to end a long day.”

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Afghan Idol Throws Off Her Burqa and Belts Out Domestic Violence Protest Song
Danielle Moylan | Newsweek
“In late January, millions of Afghans watched Arian’s performance on Afghan Star, a wildly popular singing contest modeled on American Idol. As the lights illuminated the 23-year-old singer, one of only two female contestants, it became apparent this wasn’t an ordinary performance. It was a protest. Cloaked in a blue burqa, pulled back to show her face, Arian had smeared on dramatic makeup to simulate a beating. Thick streaks of bloody red paint ran underneath her nose, staining her lips and chin. Black smudges around her eyes resembled swollen bruises.”

Traveling While American During the Iraq Invasion

When I was in high school, my family lived in Scotland for a semester while my father, a professor, was on sabbatical. Over spring break, we decided to go to Spain, taking trains to London, then Paris, and then a sleeper train from Paris to Madrid.

This was in early April 2003, in the early weeks of the invasion of Iraq, and anger at the U.S. was running high in Europe. In St. Andrews, where we were staying, there were demonstrations in the streets against the war and against British involvement, and we figured it’d be worse when we got into continental Europe. My parents talked with my siblings and I about possible anti-American sentiment and told us to be careful about advertising our nationality—to use common sense, basically. I think we talked about identifying ourselves as Canadian, but no one seemed eager to lie.

When we board the sleeper in Paris, the compartments were divided by gender, four people to a compartment. My father, my little brother, and I got found ours and made ourselves comfortable, and my mother and sister went to theirs. Just as we were thinking we might have the compartment to ourselves, another guy showed up with a friend, both speaking Arabic, dropped his stuff, and left. A little later, as the train got underway, he came back and introduced himself in halting, accented English. His name was Hassan, and he was Egyptian. He asked where we were from. My dad, thinking quickly, said we were living in Scotland, which had the virtue of being true without identifying us as Americans. Smooth, right?

About five minutes later, the conductor came around and asked for tickets and passports, at which point the three of us had to hand over our (very obviously) American passports.

Oops.

Hassan didn’t call us out on the half-truth, but he was curious to know what we thought of the war. He was opposed, and he insisted that all Iraqis loved Saddam Hussein; my father replied that he was not a fan of President Bush and had not voted for him. That defused some, but not all, of the tension for everyone. I can imagine Hassan was nervous, too. Here he was in a tiny compartment with three Americans, who thought God knows what about the war and Arabs in general.

It was my 7-year-old brother who brought everyone together. Blissfully unaware of geopolitics (or, at that age, much else) he heard “Egypt” and immediately thought of the book on King Tut he had in his bag, which he proudly showed off to an amused Hassan. Then he pulled out a magnetic chess set, and soon my dad and Hassan were playing a friendly match. One great thing about an ancient, international game is that is easily translates across cultures. (The only difference, we learned, was that in Egypt “bishops” are “elephants.”) I can’t remember who won the game; as in the Iraq war, the winner is sometimes unclear.

The war didn’t cast a pall over the rest of the week, but it was a constant, strange presence. There were sporadic demonstrations in Spain. We watched the famous demolition of the Saddam statue in Firdos Square on Spanish TV while eating lunch in Santiago de Compostela, as I struggled to translate for the family. People expressed disgust and horror at the war everywhere we went, but they were uniformly kind and polite to us—they didn’t hold the U.S. government’s policies against its citizens.

Still, we were painfully aware of our Americanness. On the way home to the UK we made a brief stop in Paris and went to Palm Sunday mass at Notre Dame, where a woman turned to my father and asked, in French, where we were from. “L’Écosse,” he replied.

A Decision on the ‘Jungle’ in Calais

A French court has ruled that authorities can evacuate and demolish part of the so-called “Jungle,” the makeshift encampment outside the port city of Calais that is home to thousands of refugees and migrants from Syria and other restive parts of the world.

The decision affects about 1,000 migrants who must now leave the southern part of the camp. The operation won’t touch public places in the camp such as places of worship and schools.

French authorities had originally told migrants to evacuate the 17.5-acre southern half of the camp last week. The evictions were postponed after two humanitarian groups working in Calais, Help Refugees and L’Auberge des Migrants, reported that 3,455 people live in the section of the camp slated to be demolished—over three times the number French officials had estimated. The unofficial census counted more than 300 unaccompanied minors, the youngest of whom is 10. In response, British and French NGOs, along with more than 200 migrants living in Calais, filed an appeal requesting that the court delay demolition until adequate living situations were found for all of the evacuees.

Perhaps the most infamous refugee camp in the EU, the Calais Jungle has become a source of frustration for the French government and tension with local residents. The camp held 6,000 migrants at its peak this summer; French authorities estimated it now holds around 3,800, though the census released this week puts the number at 5,497. As Simon Cottee noted in The Atlantic last August, the proximity of Calais to the English Channel has made it an unofficial destination for migrants looking to illegally enter the U.K. Most of them arrive in Calais through Greece, crossing through Eastern Europe by bus, by train, or on foot.

Few migrants make it to the U.K., especially now that police presence has increased. Barbed-wire fence surrounds the camp and police have used tear gas to combat the near constant attempts by Calais residents to cross the Channel Tunnel into England, often by attempting to jump aboard trucks on the nearby highway. But the U.K. and France have an agreement under which Britain conducts all border controls on the French side of the border. This makes it difficult for migrants to enter the U.K. illegally.  

For migrants in Calais, the U.K. is their best chance to rebuild a normal life. Many of them speak at least a little English, and some have relatives in Britain. Others believe their chances of finding employment are better in the U.K. than in France, and that the environment is generally more welcoming to refugees.

As an unofficial refugee camp, the Calais Jungle has been largely neglected by the French government—though similar camps in other locations in the city have previously been closed by French authorities. Media reports and volunteers have described slum-like conditions: piles of garbage and raw sewage, overcrowded tents, infestations of rats, contaminated food and water, and infections and injuries that go untreated. Many migrants live in homemade shelters of wood and tarp that offer little protection from rain or the near freezing temperatures this winter.

A September 2015 report by researchers from the University of Birmingham and Doctors of the World called conditions in the camp “perilous,” adding that “the shortcomings in shelter, food and water safety, personal hygiene, sanitation and security are likely to have detrimental long-term health consequences.”

But conditions have improved somewhat in recent months, as a flow of volunteers organized systems of delivering aid. Several NGOs, including Medecins Sans Frontieres, have dug latrines, distributed tents and sleeping bags, and provided other services. Though the camp remains squalid, it has also grown into a makeshift city, with small stores, restaurants, and bars, as well as mosques and churches.

During the preliminary hearing Tuesday, the lawyer for the appeal argued that the camp offered its residents “psychological support, medical care, places of worship, a school, a legal advice centre … Nobody wanted this shanty town, but it is there now and we cannot simply remove it. Shelter alone—a bed—is not enough. These are people who are already very vulnerable; we must now take the time to offer proper, serious alternatives.”

Evacuees would either move into shipping containers nearby or be relocated to migrant shelters elsewhere in France. French officials have called these accommodations more humane than the current living situation in Calais. Humanitarian groups believe these plans are insufficient, arguing that the government has underestimated the number of people who will require new housing.

The Myth of a Meaningful Vote in Iran

Iranians will go to the polls on February 26 to elect members of the 290-seat parliament and the 88-seat Assembly of Experts. A parliament that will continue to be dominated by hardliners is thought to be an obstacle to President Hassan Rouhani’s reforms. Elections to the Assembly of Experts will be closely watched because the body will likely select a successor to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. The 76-year-old Khamenei is persistently rumored to be in poor health.

Yet a closer look at both institutions reveals that neither election will be as meaningful as they are often portrayed in the international press. In the aftermath of elections, the parliament is unlikely to act with much decisiveness and the Assembly of Experts probably will not in fact choose the next leader, but rather, rubber stamp a selection made by unelected others.

Council on Foreign Relations


The dichotomy often made by foreign observers of an Iranian polity divided between hardliners and reformers is an oversimplification. Rouhani has never been part of the reform faction as the term is properly understood in its Iranian context. The reform movement evolved in the early 1990s by calling for accountability and pluralism. The descendants of that movement were the participants in the Green Revolution of 2009, which was brutally repressed with Rouhani’s blessing. (He served in the Supreme National Security Council at the time.) Since the purges of 2009, Iranian politics have been reduced to a coalition of hardliners and centrists who agree far more than they disagree. On crucial foreign-policy issues, such as projection of power in the Middle East and aiding the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, there is a rough consensus across the political spectrum. As such, elections are unlikely to usher in a new direction in Iran’s international relations.

The parliament has proven a boisterous but largely inconsequential debating chamber. In the complex Iranian system, the parliament’s laws can be overwritten by various institutions, such as the unelected Guardian Council, whose job is to vet legislation to make sure it conforms to religious standards. This function has regularly been abused by the Guardian Council, which has vetoed bills that have little to do with religious matters. It routinely sends budgets back to the parliament for greater deliberation even though it is unclear how they violate Islamic law.

Rouhani has faced little opposition from the parliament due to his close collaboration with the powerful speaker, Ali Larijani. Although a conservative himself, Larijani is very much a man of the system who is interested in the government functioning smoothly. The Rouhani-Larijani partnership has ensured that the firebrands in the parliament do not interfere with the executive branch’s agenda.

The Democracy Report

The Assembly of Experts is another institution that looms larger on paper than in real life. An elderly clerical body dominated by conservatives, it meets periodically to listen to briefings by various officials. Its membership is controlled with as much zealousness as other elected offices.

The Guardian Council has been even more rigorous in its vetting process for the assembly than for the parliament, even denying the candidacy of Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Guardian Council’s moves signaled that a qualified candidate must possess both theological erudition and political reliability.

the Council on Foreign Relations.