Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Foreign Movies?


While walking downtown yesterday I found a copy of the movie "Nasser 56" on sale on the street for only 2$. I'd only seen this movie once before as part of a class on Middle Eastern history. When I got it home, it didn't work on my laptop. I found out that this was not a DVD, but a Video CD, something that doesn't exist in the US or Canada. Eventually I figured out how to get it to work, but it had none of the subtitles promised by the guy who sold it.

The movie itself was very popular in Egypt, breaking all box-office records when it was released in 1996. Highly patriotic and not necessarily historically accurate, the film portrays a brief moment in Egyptian history when things looked brighter than they had for some time, or would again for the foreseeable future. This movie is now available on amazon.com (on VHS, only 4 copies left as of today), but I've never seen it in a rental store (it's not on Netflix either). Nor have I ever seen "al-Ard," which many say is the best Egyptian movie ever made.

So why is it so hard to find these movies outside the Arab world? I thought we liked foreign films in North America. We might shed some light on this by first asking another question - just how foreign are the movies we get from the Middle East? Let's look at a few recent examples:

"Osama", number one on Amazon's "Best of Middle Eastern Cinema" was filmed in Afghanistan (maybe not quite the Middle East, but close enough) and written and directed by Siddiq Barmak. From the list of countries involved, though, it seems that the film received funding from the Netherlands, Ireland, Japan and Iran. Similarly, "Secret Ballot" was first released in Italy and IMDB lists it as an Iranian/Italian/Canadian/Swiss movie. This is the story of a well-meaning woman who comes face to face with a harsh reality - rural Iran isn't ready for Western style democratic elections - Take that Bush! Also recall the famous Algerian/Italian movie "The Battle of Algiers." In fact, very few of these movies are entirely domestic. This makes sense for many reasons - less affluent nations can't necessarily devote much money to supporting movie production, and there are obvious political reasons why some of these movies may need outside funding. A recent review makes this point about European support for Palestinian film.

I'm not a film expert, but it seems to me that there is often an important difference between domestically made Middle Eastern movies and those that attract European funding. The latter often focus on the most negative aspects of Middle Eastern countries, have a specifically Western political bent and thus mirror Western concerns and assumptions - anyone who would be interested in watching "The Circle" probably already knows that Iranian women are oppressed. Domestically made movies, by contrast, while often critical politically (and frequently banned - see "The Lizard" - if you can find it), approach their subject matter in a refreshingly non-Western way. Nasser 56, for example, with its praise of a strong autocratic leader, is driven by intense national pride at standing up to the West both politically and militarily. There is a deep loathing for England, France, the US and the World Bank - from the music we hear when the crooked English politicians at 10 Downing street are shown, we might expect Darth Vader to appear on the screen. Nasser's children show him absolute respect and his wife knows her place is standing behind her man. So, although many of these European-backed movies are very good, it's important to keep in mind that they might not be the sources of deep cultural insight many take them for.

Chris McClure

1 comment:

Erica said...

"So, although many of these European-backed movies are very good, it's important to keep in mind that they might not be the sources of deep cultural insight many take them for."
And this goes a long way in explaining why globalization does not tear down cultural barriers and why foreign correspondents can often mis-represent public opinion in the places where they report from.