SAFAR Film Festival: Q+A with Nadia El-Sebai, Arab British Centre

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.

Nadia El-Sebai from the Arab British Centre reflected with Aesthetica on the importance of involving filmmakers in the festival, how SAFAR has influenced her own view of cinema, as well as the festival’s evolution and future plans outside of London.

KB: How important is it to you to have the filmmakers attend to speak directly to the festival audience? Does it offer a communication that can change the reception of a film?
NES: Of course the films are spectacular in their own right and audiences will enjoy them, and find them insightful. But understanding what happens behind the camera is also so valuable. Not only do many of the films selected reflect personal experiences and perceptions of current events, but they are created under some very unique circumstances that audiences in the UK understand largely through the news and media. Understanding the backdrop the film makers are working in, for example the social and political environment, budget constraints, difficulties of distribution, all adds another level to audiences’ understanding of contemporary Arab Cinema, and the significant contribution that these filmmakers are making to societies experiencing turbulent and rapid change.

KB: How has programming this year’s festival impacted your view of not only Arabian cinema, but cinema more broadly?NES: From the SAFAR audiences we have learned just how powerful cinema is and how important film festivals in the UK are. There is a general opinion that our collective view of other societies is impoverished by the edited and digested news and media that is presented to us. Year on year, there is a huge demand for SAFAR and film programmes from The Arab British Centre. A part of this is the desire to seek out stories from the region that we haven’t heard before. But of course another big part of this is that film is entertaining and fun!

I think this year’s festival will surprise even those of us who have consumed popular film and TV culture from the Middle East in the past. Rasha’s selection of film’s really show us how bold filmmakers in the region can be, portraying stories without censoring taboo or difficult subjects.

KB: How influential has the festival been in creating exposure for Arabian cinema in London and the U.K, and how do you view the evolution of the festival from its inception to now?
NES: When the festival was first established, our audiences told us it was “an education.” With a focus on Popular Arab Cinema, SAFAR sourced a range of classic and contemporary films. We learned so much about the achievements of Arab cinema across the decades, which was dominated by a successful industry in countries like Egypt and Lebanon.

The popularity and demand for SAFAR has grown as audiences want to know more about the region. This is why Rasha’s selection of purely contemporary films (most of which are UK premieres), is timely and more representative of current trends and a diverse film industry, with ground-breaking films coming from accomplished and emerging directors from across the region. It is notable to add that we get a lot of requests for showcasing Arab Cinema outside of London, and in response to this SAFAR will tour to Leicester and Liverpool in 2017.

Kasper Borges

The SAFAR Film Festival takes place at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) from 14 – 18 September. Tickets are available at:

1. Still from Leyla Bouzid’s As I Open My Eyes (2015)Courtesy of SAFAR and ICA, London.