SAFAR is the only festival in the UK solely focused on programming Arabian Cinema. An event held by the award-winning cultural organisation The Arab British Centre, it seeks to expand the popularity of film culture from the Middle East and North Africa in the United Kingdom. Writer and independent film and visual arts curator Rasha Salti has for the festival’s third edition has created a focus on contemporary Arab Cinema; a testament to the unflinching vitality, versatility and creativity of Arab film culture, showcasing contemporary voices and the singular talents both from emerging filmmakers and master auteurs.
Overtly defying and transgressing social and political taboos, this year’s chosen films cross genres and borders, heralding the profound transformations that have taken place in Arab societies since 2011. The selection also celebrates the breadth of work from across the Arab world with films from Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria and Tunisia, mediating stories that challenge stereotypes and self-censorship.
In anticipation of the festival taking place at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) from 14 September to 18 September, Salti reflected on curating the 2016 programme with Aesthetica.
KB: Can you take us behind the scenes of how you sought to curate the programme for this, the third edition of the Safar Festival?RS: My selection was guided by a desire to foreground and celebrate the diversity in genre and cinematic style, in addition to artistic merit, obviously. In the past five years or so, I observed from up close how Arab filmmakers have ventured into exploring different genres, much more so than in previous years. I wanted to share that with audiences in London, especially because Arab films (as most non-English language international films) travel rarely to London. There is a surge of creativity in Arab cinema, and it beckons visibility, engagement and encouragement.
KB: Is compromise an inevitability, whereby you must accept that there are those films you cannot screen for the sake of the overall festival programme?
RS: The only compromise I adhered to is an “objective” or “factual” consideration, namely, if a film had already screened in London, I preferred to include another, that had not. I also did not consider films that were programmed in international film festivals in 2016 and that were likely to be in the London International Film Festival. That would have eliminated their chance at the festival. In other words, I purposefully wanted to select very different cinematic voices and approaches.
KB: From the films chosen to play, has a story taken shape that for you defines this edition of the festival, whether thematic or non-thematic?
RS: The real story is this surge in creativity, the admirable tenacity of filmmakers to forge their own voice and resist conforming to expectations and norms, the degree of accomplishment, which is most compelling in the first features. Film is a collective endeavour, when a film is accomplished, it also means that the script is sharply written, the acting consummate, the cinematography distinctive, the editing skilful, and the film’s soundscape complex. In other words, there are invisible teams of very talented people that were generous, committed and welded around, making together the best film possible. Film is still art and these independent and low-budget productions are not the alternative to news reports. But they are windows into the world – the world outside and the world within – where we forget ourselves and find ourselves.
KB: For those coming to the festival and discovering Arabian cinema for the first time what would you say, and for those familiar with Arabian cinema how would you introduce this year’s programme?
RS: I hope that those familiar with Arab cinema will be as moved, enchanted and provoked as I was when I first watched these films. The program unravels over a long week-end, and making time to watch the ensemble is really compelling. I hope people will come to see more than one film. It is worth the effort and trouble. As for those discovering Arab cinema, they could not have chosen a better time to do so. Non-English speaking, international films travel very rarely, London audiences are most unlikely to come across these films again in the foreseeable future, and I would not miss the opportunity to watch several films, or as many as possible!
The SAFAR Film Festival takes place at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) from 14 September – 18 September. Tickets are available at: http://www.ica.org.uk
1. Still from Before the Summer Crowds, Mohamed Kahn (2015). Courtesy of SAFAR film festival.