SAFAR 2016 was a huge success in 2016. We look back at the festival with an exclusive video looking at Arab cinema after the Spring. Watch below!
The Arab British Centre’s Safar film festival – the only festival in the UK focused solely on Arab cinema – returned to the ICA in London from 14-18 September for a third edition under the stewardship of leading curator Rasha Salti and supported by the British Council.
What a year it has been for the Arab British Centre! Between our cultural programming, receiving awards, introducing new courses and welcoming new residents, 2016 has gone by in the blink of an eye.
Here’s a quick recap of all the great things that took place throughout the year:
Back in February we partnered with Beirut-based Starch Foundation to present ‘Blueprint Beirut’ at the British Council and British Fashion Council’s International Fashion Showcase at Somerset House. Curated by Tala Hajjar, Starch Co-Founder and Fashion Entrepreneur, and designed by Starch Architect Elie Metni, the exhibition unveiled new pieces by eight Lebanese designers under Metni’s interpretation of a deconstructed architectural blueprint of a traditional Lebanese home. The exhibition received the CURATION AWARD, the first of its kind ever awarded to an Arab country.
As part of Refugee Week in June, we joined forces with our resident organisation Banipal and presented the Welcome Literary Salon. The programme brought together Hassan Abdulrazzak, Ahmed Masoud, Taghrid Choucair-Vizoso, Juan Delgado, Dima Mekdad, Stephen Watts and Giovanna Stopponi for a delightful evening of poetry, readings, performance and a film screening. Read all about it here.
July brought the heat and with it ‘Semper Idem – Forever Unchanged’, an art & fashion sale by Palestinian artist Omar Joseph Nasser-Khoury. We were enchanted by Omar’s Ceremonial Vniform pieces, the long capes, shawls, talismans, totes and of course, photography. We supported the first ever Palestine Youth Orchestra UK Tour organised by our resident The Friends of Edward Said Conservatory (Palmusic UK). Eighty five, talented musicians from Palestine and its diaspora performed a series of 6 concerts across the UK, under the baton of Sian Edwards and accompanied by rising star of Arabic music, Nai Barghouti, whose vocal talents blew us all away.
In August we successfully raised £10,000 with contributions from 154 backers through a Kickstarter Campaign to help raise funds for our third edition of the SAFAR Film Festival, in partnership with the ICA. This year’s festival, curated by Rasha Salti, celebrated contemporary Arab cinema with an impressive selection of films ranging from Morocco all the way to Kuwait. SAFAR will be making its own journey in 2017 and will be travelling to Leicester and Liverpool, so stay tuned for more updates on this next year.
The Arab Puppet Theatre Foundation (APTF) made its way to London from Beirut and captivated audiences with their extraordinary UK premiere of ‘Performance Desperately in Need of an Audience’ as part of the Nour Festival. This silent performance, where stage props and settings become puppets themselves, told us a tale of exile in the most simple and powerful way. You can read an interview with APTF Director Mahmoud Hourani here and watch AJ+’s video here.
As the days got shorter and darker in November, artist Abdallah Khaled filled the centre with the lights and colours of his Algerian homeland with ‘Paths of Light’, an exhibition depicting the rich and varied indigenous cultures of North Africa. We ended the year on a creative note with a festive card workshop led by calligraphy artist and teacher Joumana Medlej. If you missed it, you can sign up to the Kufic Creative Calligraphy Course starting next March here.
Last but not least, our grant scheme supported six cultural projects this year: At Home in London and Gaza, Baqoun, Out of Place, Chapter 31, Spring Reign and Sudan: Emergence of Singularities.
Beyond our cultural programme, the Arab British Centre was invited to take part in various panels and conferences around the world, including the Thinkers and Doers Conference in Bahrain, the Women of the World Festival at Southbank Centre, Soft Power in a Hard Power World at Kings College and the Hammamet Conference in Tunisia.
We would like to thank all our partners, residents (Ashtar Al Khirsan, Caabu, CTDC, Ibraaz, Palmusic UK, Shubbak and Zaytoun) and all of you, our loyal followers, for your support, energy and recognition without which our work wouldn’t exist. We look forward to bringing you lots more unique and exciting programmes as we celebrate our 40th anniversary with all of you next year.
Wishing everyone happy holidays and a wonderful start to 2017,
The Arab British Centre Team
The Arab British Centre will be closed from 24 December 2016 until 08 January 2017.
Tell us a bit about Project 51. How did you come up with the idea?
The idea came to me after seeing the way the media reports on news coming from the Middle East -particularly Palestine – compared to the news coming from Europe or the West in general. The narrative and focus of the Western media sparked me to create Project 51. Having followed the Western media very closely during its coverage of the last war on Gaza (2014), its imbalanced reporting became very clear to me, especially if measured against incidents that attracted all the attention of Western media such as Charlie Hebdo.
Can you tell us a bit about your ‘Dabke journey’ if we may call it like that?
Dabke is widely popular in Palestine. We dance it at every wedding and even when we are walking in the street and if we feel like cheering the mood up, we dance dabke. It is infectious and everybody loves it. I started doing dabke as a child back home in Palestine, dancing at every wedding I came across in the neighbourhood. In London, I was one of the co-founders of a dabke group called Al Zaytouna. We started it as a means to express our identity and history, share it with people in Europe and change their perception of Palestine, distorted by the Western media. Our challenge was, and still is, to change this image and tell the true story of Palestine.
How would you describe the artistic process behind Project 51?
Tough and challenging, as in this play, I am stepping out of my comfort zone. Choosing the music was a long and enjoyable process of listening to many different tunes; some of them have never been used for dabke before. We settled on some mixed tracks, but the base is dabke. The fact that I have been working with two troupes, based in two different countries, in London (UK) and Ljubljana (Slovenia), has proved challenging and very enriching at the same time. I am very grateful to both of them. Special thanks go to the Slovenian peeps, Hava Dabke Troupe, who have worked tirelessly on some of the choreographies, which include many different styles not just dabke. We wanted to show the many directions in which dabke evolved through time. This allowed us to explore and has helped us to mix and diversify the dances.
Why ‘Project 51’?
I got the inspiration from the 51-day-long war on Gaza by Israel in the summer of 2014.
Can you reveal some of the music that will be featured in the play?
We already revealed some of it in the trailer, You can see it here. The music we used is by Acid Arab, they are an excellent group with some of the most amazing tracks.
Will London audiences see traditional dabke dance on stage?
Yes, there are some traditional dabke dances and some street dabke, but we also have some unique choreographies that merge different styles in one dance, which in my opinion have resulted in exceptionally beautiful pieces.
Are there any other Palestinian cultural references that have inspired you for ‘Project 51’?
Inspiration has come from different parts of the Palestinian culture, particularly the street music and the determination of the Palestinians to keep smiling in spite of the hardship that is imposed on them by the Israeli occupation. I was also inspired by Naji Al Ali, the Palestinian cartoonist with his most renowned drawing, Handala, which represents the determination of living with dignity. As I mentioned earlier, I was also rather stroked by how the Western media covers the news differently according to its agenda. This really pushed me to have the media hypocrisy as one of the main focuses of the play.
Project 51 premiered in Slovenia on 6 November. How was it received?
We received very positive feedback from many people after our performance in Slovenia, but we were also criticised on the style. What I gathered from all the comments we received is that, either way, people felt very strongly about it. This shows that ‘Project 51’ had a strong impact on the audience and I am very pleased about that.
Are you excited to bring Project 51 to London? What do you want people to take home after watching the play?
Yes, I am very excited to bring ‘Project 51’ to London, of course. Let’s see what London audiences take out of it on Saturday. The message that we are trying to convey is that no matter what the media and the politicians try to make one believe, Palestinians exist and will keep dancing.
Any future projects?
There are some projects in the horizon but cannot say much at the moment since they haven’t materialised yet. Stay tuned!
Interview with Mahmoud Hourani Founder and Director of the Arab Puppet Theatre Foundation by Rosa Pérez
What would you like people to take home after watching the play?
First of all we want them to enjoy very much. It is a silent, very playful show, it feels like kids playing, or at least, that is the mood we hope to have achieved. We want to introduce audiences to the style of the Arab Puppet Theatre Foundation and share with them the techniques we use, how we see theatre and how we express issues that matter to us. In ‘Performance Desperately in Need of an Audience’ we tackle the fact that in the last four years thousands of our boys and girls have jumped on boats and crossed the sea to run away from conflict and war. But mostly we would like audiences to see the play with their hearts open. Sit, relax, enjoy the visuals, the music, us playing and we really hope you like the way we tackle this very complicated and sensitive issue.
How do you feel about performing in London?
Personally I feel very excited because I studied theatre and puppetry at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London and lived there for 11 years. We are very thrilled to try our performance there, meet London audiences and show them our new skills and techniques. It is very exciting to perform among the richness of the mix of London; people from all over the world with an appetite for theatre. The audiences of London see a lot of theatre and this is a challenge for us but very encouraging at the same time.
How and why the APTF was founded?
I studied theatre in the UK in the school of theatre and drama and I wanted to set up a puppetry school, like an umbrella body for puppeteers in the Arab world. There is a rich history of puppeteers in the Arab world and they are very talented but we have never had a physical place, an ‘address’ where new puppeteers can go to do their puppetry and practice their storytelling in a very professional way, not just from father to son. We wanted to build something solid that stayed through time, that was accessible to everyone and that could tour. We as puppeteers have this dream of reaching out to as many people as possible with our theatre and puppets. In our region it is only the artists and intellectuals who go to the theatre; but we want to reach out to everyone.
The Arab Puppet Theatre Foundation (APTF) was founded in Lebanon in 2008 as a non-profit organization with the aim of reviving interest in the rich heritage of Arab puppetry and serving as a puppetry school for novice and veteran artists in the field, while encouraging new practices in puppetry across the region.
Any reason why APTF started in Lebanon?
We thought of Cairo and we thought of Beirut. These two capitals have a long tradition of theatre and they have both been historically cultural references for the rest of the Arab countries. We ended up coming to Beirut because it has a great mix of people; the Palestinian community, Syrian, Egyptian…and this was good for us.
Tell us about the activities of APTF:
We have an art residence scheme and we have done twelve so far in different countries of the Arab world. The art residencies last around a month, they include a curriculum of theatre and puppetry, students receive a certificate and artists from all over the world are invited.
Residences are one of the main things we do but we also work with a broad variety of individuals and organisations, including Arab youth, social workers, educators and human rights organizations who want to learn puppetry to apply it in their work at schools, libraries and centres. They don’t have to be artists they just need to have the appetite for puppetry and theatre. We have met and trained wonderful people. There are around 10 puppeteers in Lebanon and 2 million refugees. We strongly believe in the power of training others and reaching out to more people.
We also do theatre production. We create our own shows and tour them in Lebanon, in other Arab countries and around the world. A lot of the performers are former students of the Arab Puppet Theatre who are now working with us full time as performers. You will see that in London.
Other theatre productions:
Our latest production is ‘The Gift’ a shadow theatre show, a play for adults, not for kids unfortunately. It is based on a true story that tells the journey of an elephant that was sent as a present from Baghdad to the king Charlemagne in Europe. It was produced in 2016 and we just performed it last week.
What are your target audiences?
Our audiences are children and adults. There is an old ‘stereotype’ that puppetry is just for kids. We work with both. We use puppetry a lot with UNWRA schools, with Syrian refugees, in refugee camps…
The Arab Puppet Theatre Foundation from Beirut in partnership with The Arab British Centre presents ‘Performance Desperately in Need of an Audience’ at Nour Festival 2016 on 22 and 23 October, 7 pm at Chelsea Theatre, 7 World’s End Place, King’s Road, London SW10 0DR. BUY TICKETS HERE
The Arab Puppet Theatre Foundation is also giving a Shadow Puppet Workshop on 24 October from 2 – 4 pm at Chelsea Theatre. Tickets: £5 for 1 adult and 1 child | £7 for 1 adult and 2 children. You can find all the information here
The third edition of our film festival SAFAR was a success! We cannot thank enough to all the people who supported and attended it. Safar 2016 came to an end on 18 September but we are still on a high and we want to keep celebrating Contemporary Arab Cinema. This time we are doing it through music. Rosa has compiled a list of tunes that appear in contemporary Arab films for you to discover new titles and…groove! These are just a few. We would love to discover new songs and film titles too, so please, feel free to send your suggestions over and keep the fun going!
Scroll down to find the list of songs and films. ENJOY!
We speak to the course leader Roberta Marin, to find out more about her interest in Islamic art and what students can expect from the course.
Roberta, could you tell us how you became interested in Islamic Art and Architecture and how your career developed from there?
After my BA, I had the opportunity to travel extensively in the Middle East and I became fascinated by the rich culture of the countries I visited. I enjoyed losing myself in the souks, wandering inside the major mosques and madrasas in Cairo, Istanbul, Marrakesh and absorbing a new vocabulary of patterns and motifs. I was inspired to do an MA in Art and Archaeology with a focus on Islamic Art and Architecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). It was an exciting year! I met excellent lecturers who were a source of inspiration and thanks to a scholarship by Ralph Pinder-Wilson, I had the financial support to do fieldwork for my MA thesis in Cairo. Following my MA, I worked at the Asian Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, collaborated with the Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, and I taught at various public institutions, such as the Birkbeck College, the London College of Communication, SOAS, Asia House and the University of York. The interest I developed in Islamic art and architecture during my travels and the year as MA student at SOAS have changed my life and I have to admit that they have been the best things that could have ever happened to me!
What will students learn if they join the Islamic art and architecture in Central Asia and Iraq: a journey to the legendary cities of Baghdad, Samarqand and Isfahan? What materials will you be using in class? (Methodology)
The course is purposely designed to allow students to become familiar with the artistic production of Central Asia in the period comprised between the advent of Islam and the beginning of the 18th century. The aim of the course is to enable students to identify the objects and buildings produced in this span of time, and recognise the different techniques employed to embellish them. Teaching in the classroom will be supported by richly illustrated PowerPoint presentations and the course will be integrated with a visit to the Islamic gallery of the British Museum.
What is your favourite piece of Islamic Art or Architecture and why?
Choosing a single object or a building between the many interesting artworks produced in this area is quite a challenging task. I have to admit, however, than I am equally fascinated by the beautiful domes decorated with tiles of the Timurid period (ca.1370-1507), the animated miniature painting of the 15th-century Herat School and the colourful carpets with a large array of ancient symbols woven by the nomadic tribes that inhabited the steppes of Central Asia.
‘Starve your Dog’ is screening on 18 September 2016 at 6 pm at ICA, London, as part of Safar Film Festival. You can read more information and buy your tickets here
‘Starve your Dog’, Morocco, 2015, directed by Hicham Lasri.
Review by Yamina Mechri
Reconciliation and forgiveness seem to be the first questions raised in ‘Starve your dog’ by, Moroccan director, Hicham Lasri. The movie, however, touches upon many other subjects. ‘Starve your dog’, which is the second part of a trilogy that started with “They are the dogs”, draws a parallel from the ambiguity between the present and the future. The movie is about a painful episode in the history of Morocco that is revealed through an interview with the former interior minister during the reign of Hassan II, Driss Basri.
In an experimental essay film, shifting between documentary, visual staging and socio-political poetry, Hicham Lasri uses the lost “souls” of a Morocco, that seems superficially healed from its wounds, but is in reality in an even greater suffering.
Working as usual without any compromise, Lasri draws, through this docudrama, a portrait of one of the most prominent characters in Morocco during the Years of Lead, which were marked by state violence against dissidence. .
The film opens with images of a woman, with a fierce gaze, reflecting a state of desperation in Morocco. As survival had become difficult, sentiments fluctuated between great despair and a desire for complete destruction to end the suffering in the country. This image in the film equally reflects suffering and a desire for survival. It is this same duality that we can trace throughout the movie, when we understand, finally, that the only way to move forward is to heal the wounds that were buried.
‘Starve your dog’, is the history of a televised scoop, lived by the team filming the exclusive interview of the former Minister of Interior in Morocco. King Hassan II’s right-hand man, Driss Basri symbolises the oppression and abuse of a whole nation in the 1980s. He was discharged from his functions, denied the right to a fair trial and ended up in exile, where he passed away. Through his film, Hicham Lasri allows Moroccan viewers to judge the discharged minister. What if Basri was not dead? And what if we could today make him confess?
The film is somewhere between a docudrama, a surreal drama and a visual performance. Interspersed with excerpts and images from the events of September 11, 2001 in the US. It may seem, at a first glance, hermetic, but as it progresses reveals an implacable logic. The entire anachronism in it aims to reconstruct history.
In an old studio of the Moroccan television, a team of reporters and cameramen were waiting for what had been portrayed to them as an opportunity of a lifetime. Never before had they been given the opportunity to question a high profile government official, such as Basri. The anticipation for the interview reminds us of Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, with all of the expectations, all the doubts and uncertainty with regards to being able to get something out of him or not.
The fear of facing history is palpable throughout the movie, and it is for this purpose that Hicham Lasri opted for the bold assemblage of old news images accompanied by psychedelic musical canvas, dividing the film into episodes or chapters that develop with the development of Basri’s story. Between the poor woman wishing for an earthquake in her country, the strolling of the female character in the city, and the unbearable time journalists’ spent waiting in the studio, the film is broken into sequences that run in parallel. At a first glance, it may seem difficult to interlink the different sequences, but by the end all pieces merge together in a relentlessly logical manner.
The Canine metaphor, and the quotations from Shakespeare, Daft Punk or John Wayne, serve as punctuation in the succession of images, giving the viewer the impression of witnessing first hand an interesting human life.
The artistic quality, the original aesthetic side and the depth with which the topic is treated only confirm the prestigious place Hisham Lasri has earned himself as a director over the last few years.
On a personal level, when I watched ‘They are the dogs’ and ‘Starve your dog’, I was moved and impressed, I felt an urge, after the last scene, to immediately watch the third chapter of the trilogy. I found it to be a total success on a cinematic scale, and I hope it will touch the viewers of the Safar Film Festival the same way it touched me.
About Yamina Mechri:
Yamina Mechri is a Tunisian art director, cultural manager, writer and a media consultant with a degree in French Modern Arts Literature and Cinema. @May_Mouna
Safar: Maverick from Kuwait: Close Encounter with Monira Al Qadiri is on view at the ICA on 17 September at 2 pm as part of Safar Film Festival. A selection of Monira’s shorts will be screened and a conversation with the artist and a curator of the festival Rasha Salti will follow. You can read more info and buy your tickets HERE.
By Aliya Say
“Born in Senegal, raised in Kuwait, educated in Japan” – most of writing on Monira Al Qadiri’s work commonly starts by describing a multicultural, intercontinental background of this young and energetic artist and film-maker. No mere geo-tagging, the validity of this mapping exercise becomes immediately apparent as one starts watching Monira’s video work, with its cross-cultural references and fleeting quotes from here and there (or Here and Elsewhere – borrowing from the title of a major exhibition of the art from the Arab world at the New Museum, in which Monira took place in 2014, as part of the GCC collective).
A cultural hybrid, Monira is an artist with eyes wide open and a willingness to experiment and have fun – from the age of seven she would dress like a mustached dude, because men in Kuwait appeared to lead more exciting lives amidst the Gulf War of 1990-91 than their homebound mothers and wives. Today she dresses up for her videos, which feature drag, trashy makeup and outfits, and lip-syncing. Wa Waila (2008) – one of the works screened at the ICA as part of the Safar Film Festival, takes a form of a music video for an old Kuwaiti folk song. The men and women in the film are cast in opposite gendered roles, with the artist playing the part of the principal male singer. “If I label myself as a “cross-dresser” in my country I go to prison, whereas if I explore unnamable forms of drag in my art people find it somehow strange and comedic and it doesn’t get me in trouble”, she once said in an earlier interview. The repeating music and verses have a trance-like quality, mixing kitsch and humour with explorations of mourning, tragedy and self-pity.
The blue feelings were a topic of Monira’s PhD at the Tokyo University of the Arts, where her research was focused on the aesthetics of sadness in the Middle East stemming from poetry, music, art and religious practices. The Western world today is obsessed with happiness and escapism, as the entire economies are built around a pursuit of the blissful oblivion: Christmas presents, the obligatory cinematic happy ends, antidepressant pills, “happify” apps are all meant to bring a state of everlasting joy here and now, rather than in some remote and inconceivable afterlife. In the Middle East and Asia, there is a long-standing history and tradition that takes a rather different approach, as sadness is seen as a natural state that can be enlightening and noble. BothWa Waila and Abu Athiyya (2013), another video in the festival programme, zoom in on sadness and lament as a cultural form that has been popular in the region for centuries, but is rapidly dying away now – just as a Christian tradition of lamentation has died out in the West.
Visually, the highly stylized videos invoke the traditional cultures of the Gulf, as well as paying homage to Monira’s long time spent in Japan, where cross-dressing, dance and music, elaborated outfits and makeup are all parts of traditional theatre forms, such as kabuki and kyogen.
Other videos on view are more overtly political, displaying the artist’s preoccupations with the current social issues and major events, from state corruption, credit economy abuses and the collapse of the informal Kuwaiti stock market known as the Souk al-Manakh in 1982, to the burning of the oil fields in 1991, and invisibility of labour in the Gulf today.
In Soap (2014), Monira comments on the precarious state of migrant workers in the Gulf, highlighting the total absence of servants in mainstream TV series and soap operas. By imposing the imagery of South Asian maids upon the daily life scenes in the lavishly decorated houses and marble-floor villas, she pushes the labour back into the everyday fabric from which it has been so bluntly and thoroughly erased. It’s a simple yet powerful exercise, allowing the artist to produce an amplified simulation of reality and expose its contradictions – while achieving this with a lightness and humour that are inherent to much of Monira’s work.
About Aliya Say:
Aliya Say is an art writer and critic, currently busy developing Frieze Academy. Aliya is passionate about Contemporary Art from the MENA region, and particularly interested in the intersections between politics and aesthetics, global food systems and sustainability. She tweets occasionally at @SayAliya
Screening on 16 September at 6:15 followed by Q&A with director Salem Brahimi at ICA, London as part of Safar Film Festival. You can buy your tickets HERE
‘Let them Come’, France/Algeria, 2015, directed by Salem Brahimi
Review by Martin Daltry
The Safar Film Festival running at the ICA in London this week is a celebration of contemporary Arab cinema and provides an all too rare chance to watch a powerful new Algerian film in the UK.
‘Let Them Come’ is a first feature by Salem Brahimi, set during Algeria’s dark decade in the 1990s and based on Arezki Mellal’s novel. It is a period not often discussed nor portrayed when 200,000 people were killed in a devastating and opaque conflict which targeted everyone, young and old, secular and religious. You could just as easily die for wearing or not wearing a veil.
The story focuses on a secular young couple, Noureddine and Yasmina, caught up in personal, economic and social crises, increasing tension as Islamic militancy grows and then real fear as terrorism takes hold. It is a fascinating snapshot of Algeria’s diverse culture and society, urban and country life in this time of extreme duress. There are strong lead performances from Amazigh Kateb and Rachida Brakni and the direction is clean and unsparing.
Actress Rachida Brakni will join a Q&A with the Director Salem Brahimi and Festival Curator Rasha Salti for the audience following the film on Friday 16 September at 6:15 at ICA, London. You can book your tickets and check Safar’s full programme here.
The Safar Film Festival is organised by the Arab British Centre in partnership with ICA, London and supported by the British Council, Corinthia Hotel and Zaytoun.
About Martin Daltry:
Martin Daltry is the Regional Manager East Asia & Americas at British Council and Ex-Director of British Council Algeria. He has worked for 18 years in cultural relations in Algeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Turkey, Egypt & UK. @MartinDaltry
Opening night film for Safar Film Festival 2016 as a tribute to late Egyptian director Mohamed Khan, 14 September at 8:30 pm at Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London. You can see more information and buy tickets HERE
Before the Summer Crowds, Egypt, 2015, directed by Mohamed Khan
Reviewed by Professor Robert Abrams, Professor of Old Age Psychiatry, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York. Originally published on Medical Humanities BMJ Blogs.
The first thing one can say about Mohamed Khan’s acidly satiric film Before the Summer Crowds is that, notwithstanding its title, it is uncommon summer fare. It is neither light nor breezy, and there’s not much of a plot. The principal characters comprise a trio of clueless, seemingly harmless upper-class individuals who have moved into their “chateaux” in the Egyptian beach vacation community of ‘Blue Beach’ before the regular season has begun. But the viewer is not allowed to retain this initial impression of their harmless existence for long; we are soon let in on the shockingly extensive roster of evils that lies beneath their casual banality: Infidelity, gluttony, corruption, spiritual emptiness, indifference to life, and even a taste for carnage.
First, there’s the pudgy Dr. Yehia (Maged El Kedwany), a man preoccupied with food and sex, whose private hospital scandalously reaps profits by understaffing its medical ranks and hiring inexperienced physicians. Even when he performs a supposedly life-saving cardiopulmonary resuscitation on a beautiful young woman, it is clear that his own sexual gratification is being addressed simultaneously. Yehia’s wife Magda (Lana Mushtaq) is the very personification of emptiness, attempting to sate that void by gorging herself on peanut butter. Magda owns an inherited chateau—a facetiously pretentious name for a beach cottage–in the ‘first row’ of the seaside community, a distinction of which she is inordinately proud and one that she believes places her apart from the ordinary parvenus who arrived at ‘Blue Beach’ more recently. Magda tolerates Yehia, but there is no sense of love between them, not even lust. We see Magda meditating, but there’s nothing spiritually meaningful about what she does—her mind is already empty.
In the course of the film, Yehia becomes involved in a mutual attraction with Hala (Hana Shiha), a young mother who is uninterested in her children and uses her chateau as a trysting place for a rendezvous with Hesham (Hani El Metennawy), her narcissistic B-movie actor-lover. (This fact gives a rather smarmy double meaning to the name ‘Blue Beach’). When Hala learns that Hesham has been unfaithful—no great surprise—she finds common ground, albeit on very shallow soil, with Yehia. They flirt with the idea of having an affair unbound by any conscience or moral codes.
Yehia is at once grotesque and immature, but one is gradually made to understand that his immaturity is far from victimless. His patients are cheated, a court case of medical negligence case is underway; his wife is cheated on; and he sleeps drunkenly as Magda’s pet parrot—the only creature she seems to love—is set upon by cats. It is not the feline hunting instinct that is highlighted in that scene of carnage but Yehia’s indifference. Even Yehia’s preparations for a festive dinner with freshly caught fish seem more like a bloody massacre and an extravagant waste of marine life than a demonstration of his culinary skills.
The working-class young man, Gom’aa (Ahmed Dawood), the resort bell-boy, is seen by Yehia, Magda and Hala as a dispensable entity to be treated with barely hidden condescension. Gom’aa is mainly useful for errands, watering the garden when Yehia doesn’t feel like doing it himself, and fetching things for Hala.
Not a great deal happens in Before the Summer Crowds; but it somehow leaves the viewer with a surprisingly strong impression of sadness and regret. All of the characters are presented as prisoners in different ways of this gated community, unable to move beyond its strictures. The only exception is Gom’aa, a young man who comes from another world looking for his ‘Shangri-La’ in ‘Blue Beach’. Yehia, Magda and Hala have material abundance, sex and food, but are utterly bereft of passion or purpose. The lives of these principals—again save for Gom’aa—are so pathetically empty and loveless that the compassion of the viewer for these otherwise contemptible individuals is paradoxically elicited. How? The key is in the extraordinary acting, where we are unwittingly induced to experience emotions that should belong to the characters but do not; in a way, it might be said that this is the hallmark of all excellent acting. Here, in the subtly played role of Dr. Yehia, Maged El Kedwany, demonstrates why he is considered one of the finest contemporary character actors in the Arab world. Although I have been told that Before the Summer Crowds is not typical of the films of the late Mohamed Khan, this deceptively non-action film skillfully not only skewers the bourgeois vacationers of Blue Beach for their corruption and emptiness, but it also lets us feel the sadness of their lives.
Dr. Robert C. Abrams is Professor of Psychiatry and Professor of Psychiatry in Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Dr. Abrams has coupled his professional focus on affective disorders in the elderly with a lifelong interest in history and the humanities, having published studies on the final depression of Queen Victoria and her relationship with her physician, Sir James Reid, as well as an analysis of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.” He was first introduced to contemporary Arab cinema by Dr. Khalid Ali, the Screening Room Editor of the journal Medical Humanities, and has since written reviews for films featuring behavioral and aging issues.