East Meets West

East Meets West

Bridging the Culture Gap Through Film Distribution

By Sa’ida

As ethnic dancers it is important for us to have a thorough understanding of the cultures from which our dances originate. Although mass communication is improving, it is still very difficult for American dancers to receive accurate information about the Middle East. Film is a powerful medium, and has incredible potential to educate and promote cross-cultural exchange. As we process the audio/visual information in film, our world view and opinions are shaped, whether consciously or unconsciously. Our perceptions of the Middle East have been distorted by western film, especially Hollywood harem fantasy films which have only added confusion to our understanding of the true nature of Middle Eastern dance. Recently there has been a growing realization of the positive impact which film, especially Arab film, can have on western perceptions of the Arab world. When an Arabic film is imported to the West, however, the reproduction is usually of poor quality, and the lack of English subtitles makes it difficult for non-Arabic speakers to understand the cultural context.

Omar Sharif in The Puppeteer

One company which is endeavoring to present a wider picture of the Arab culture than that presented by Hollywood is Arab Film Distribution, located in Seattle, Washington. It was started in 1990 by Rita Zawaideh and Adlil Qudsi. Ms. Zawaideh had organized the Goodwill Arts Games in Seattle that year, which included an Arab Film Festival. Determined to keep the films in the U.S., she made agreements with some filmmakers who had participated in the festival and decided to form a small distribution company based on their films. The company, Arab Film Distribution, was able to acquire five titles at that time. The founders of the company wanted to bridge the cultural gap by providing North America with good copies of multi-cultural films. The current president of the company, John Sinno, originally from Lebanon, had found that most people in the Middle East did not take their cinema very seriously, and equated Egyptian commercial cinema with Arab cinema. It was not until he came to the U.S. in 1984 to major in film production that he started to become aware of the amazing array of works available from various areas of the world. When he started investigating Arab cinema at that time, all he could find were very bad quality pirated videotapes at Middle Eastern grocery stores. He joined the company in 1994 when they had eight titles, and became the owner two years ago.

When the company first began showing the films, their charm seduced the audience and highlighted a profound enthusiasm for Arab Cinema. The distribution project began soon after that as an effort to maintain a permanent flow of Arab films—their version of a year-round “Arab Film Festival.” Since then, AFD has provided American and Canadian theaters, universities, colleges, museums and media centers with many Arab films of high artistic and educational value. The business grew slowly at first, but has accelerated in recent years (they now have over sixty films in their collection). Along with the growth of the company there has been a steady increase in appreciation for Arab films. This year, the company’s commitment to providing documentary films has increased, with the intention of turning their documentary library into a powerful educational tool in order to make the “Arab point of view” as accessible as possible. AFD offers a wide range of narrative films, documentaries, visual essays and ethnographic films, all of which are subtitled in English. Most of the films are for institutional use (e.g. universities), but they also carry many videos which are available for direct sale to the general public. They hope that their films will entertain as well as bring into focus the issues that concern the status and future of the Arab world.

Mr. Sinno hopes that increased information and understand will lead to more peaceful coexistence:

The more Americans are informed the better off they are. We can no longer pretend that the US exists in a world all its own. The world is shrinking faster than we thought and all the countries and cultures are getting to be more interconnected. Having said that, the flow of information in the world today is mostly one directional. Arab audiences, for example, experience American culture and entertainment on a daily basis, while American audiences are rarely exposed to any programing emanating from the Middle East. I believe in the power of culture, arts, and communication in general to entertain, educate and break down cultural barriers. When we have more understanding between cultures the use of violence as a way to settle intercultural disputes diminishes.

Mr. Sinno points to the powerful impact of negative stereotypes of Arabs in western cinema.

The American obsession with always being the good guys (the hero myth) necessitates the existence of villains in story telling (the bad guys). Unfortunately, Arabs have been cast to fulfill that evil role for a long time. Many of the misconceptions that Americans have about the area can be traced back to the flat, one dimensional, characters that are constantly presented in mainstream films and television programs.

For many, the first image of an “Arab” that comes to mind is the “Arab terrorist”:

…the angry, unshaven Arab-looking man with a gun in his hand, screaming obscenities in a language that sounds like Arabic and spitting at all of the innocent victims in his way…Last year, a representative of a company hired to do casting work for an HBO feature called AFD because she was having a hard time finding actors that look like the “Iraqi Type”. Most Americans have never met an Arab, and are unlikely to realize that some of the people that they know are actually of Arab ancestry. Because real information is scarce, stereotypes are allowed to flourish.

Mr. Sinno believes that it is the responsibility of Arabs to counteract these stereotypes and take control of how they are seen and heard. He is doing this by promoting films made by Arabs, about Arabs, from the point of view of Arabs.

When I asked Mr. Sinno which films he would recommend for people interested in Egyptian culture, especially music and dance, he immediately mentioned Umm Kulthum, A Voice Like Egypt, a documentary about the great Egyptian diva. He also recommends The Puppeteer, a typical Egyptian melodrama interspersed with joyous moments of song and dance. Omar Sharif sings and dances in the film, the first time that he has appeared in Egyptian film. He was also enthusiastic about two short films by Egypt’s best documentarian, Eteyyat El Abnoudy: The Mud Horse, and The Sad Song of Touha. The Sad Song of Touha is a twelve-minute celebration of a Cairo street scene full of trapeze artists, acrobats and “the wonder that is called Egypt.”

Some of the films in AFD’s collection were very popular when they were released in the Middle East, and many others were hardly shown. Mr. Sinno attributes this to the upheaval that the Arab world has experienced in this century. Artistic expression and the free flow of ideas have been at the mercy of regimes most interested in maintaining power.

Cultural attitudes towards sex and gender sometimes color Arab films. Mr. Sinno points out that the Arab culture in general tends to equate performance (especially by women) with exhibitionism and low morals. “For example, many view belly dancing strictly as a form of erotic dance,” says Mr. Sinno. “Girls from a morally grounded family are not supposed to engage in this type of activity. This makes it harder for Arabs to see it as a form of self expression, i.e. an art form. Some performers, because of their exceptional talents, somehow manage to force people to take their work seriously. But the culture as a whole has a long way to go in terms of its overt acceptance of human sexuality as a natural and legitimate form of expression. Unfortunately, the current religious wave in the region has the sensual elements of the culture as one of its main targets.” Although filmmakers don’t usually have to deal with issues of condemnation and shame because they don’t usually appear on camera, the films and performers themselves can become targets. A film which Mr. Sinno highly recommends, Wedding in Galilee, directed by Michel Khleifi, was criticized within Arab circles because of its sexual content.

AFD is planning to acquire some of the older films, which tend to contain more singing and dancing scenes, but they are difficult to find with English subtitles. Singing and dancing is not as common in more recent Arab films because the current movement in Egyptian cinema is toward realism, which necessitates the elimination of musical numbers. However, there are notable exceptions, such as the last two films of the Egyptian director Yousef Chahine, which had major singing and dancing sequences in them (see review of Destiny in this issue). Mr. Sinno points out that AFD came into existence and continues to operate out of a genuine desire to promote all Arab films, and in addition to making their own collection of films available, they are also eager to assist customers in searching among other distributors for films which are difficult to locate.

Arab Film Distribution can be contacted through their website at www.arabfilm.com, or write to 2417 10th Ave. E., Seattle, WA 98102; Tel. (206)322-0882; Fax. (206)322-4586; email: info@arabfilm.com.

An English company, Sindibad Films, has a catolog on the internet (www.sindibad.co.uk/films/catalog.html) containing nine film titles. They are located at 5 Princes Gate, London, SW7 1QJ; Tel. 44 171 823 74 88; Fax. 44 171 823 91 37; email: sindibad@lineone.net.

The annual Bay Area Arab Film Festival has been held in September for three years now. Films are shown in San Francisco, San Jose and Berkeley, California. The festival is sponsored by the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association. Their website (www.aff.org) includes a list of films shown in 1997, 1998, and 1999. They can be contacted by mail at 416 Park Avenue, San Jose, CA 95110, or 2 Plaza Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94116; Tel. (415) 564-1100; Fax: (415) 564-2203; e-mail: info@aff.org.

The increased availability of Arab film through festivals and distribution companies is a rich resource for information about Arab culture, including music and dance. The knowlege available in these films is an invaluable aid to the western dancer who interprets and recreates Arab culture.

Sa’ida has been an addict of Middle Eastern dance since she was five years old, creating costumes since she was ten years old, and attending Southern California Renaissance Faires since 1978. She has re-created historical costumes for Renaissance Faires, the Society for Creative Anachronism, and numerous other multi-cultural or historically influenced events. She took first place in the Medusa Category (specialty/props) at the 1999 Double Crown Belly Dance Competition in Vancouver. She currently lives in Bremerton, Washington, where she is director of the troupe Ouled Sahara, the Children of the Desert. saidadance.homestead.com

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