New Voices in Arab Cinema: Book Review

new-voices-arab-cinemaNew Voices in Arab Cinema. By Roy Armes. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2015. Pp. 333, with bibliography and index. $85.00 (hardcover)/$35.00 (paperback). ISBN: 978025-015280.

A catalog search in an academic library for Roy Armes typically results in twenty-two matching items, three of which are available online. The subjects are North African film, video, the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet, dramatic structure in cinema, Third World filmmaking and the West, Arab and African filmmaking, the cinema of North Africa and the Middle East, a critical history of the British cinema, narrative style in modern European cinema, African filmmaking north and south of the Sahara, various dictionaries of Arab and African filmmakers, and an assortment of works on European films and filmmakers. Roy Armes is Professor Emeritus of Film at Middlesex University and with such vast knowledge of film at his disposal his New Voices in Arab Cinema monograph is a well-researched addition to this field of academic literature.

This work is suitable for undergraduates, graduates, and faculty, and should be housed in the reference section. Included is a list of abbreviations with their spelled-out complete names, such as ACCT (Agence de Cooperation Culturelle et Technique [France]). The introduction is rich with bits of information and opinions that show how the author intends to discuss the topic but also to show the complexity of the subject matter. His first challenge is to dispel a provocative claim that the films he writes about are cookie cutter works of neo-Orientalism. Once he explains away this criticism he begins an intricate explanation about contemporary Arab filmmaking post year 2000. He begins with the Filmmakers, then discusses Documentary and Feature Filmmaking. His work concludes with a Note section, Bibliography, and Index.

The author’s intent is to tease out the new, independent Arab filmmakers who operate outside of Egypt and the Gulf States—not an easy task given the multiple, often conflicting identities in the Middle East. For this reason this book is not to be read casually because the author, in an effort to be clear, constantly evaluates and explains each of his statements. For example, he avoids the Egyptian Film scene because it is too established and formulaic. The same holds true of the Gulf films—they are too well financed and do not represent the way most independent Arab filmmakers do their work.

Roy Armes goes to great lengths to provide background information about the circumstances in which his subjects operate. While the Egyptians and Gulf filmmakers are heavily subsidized, the filmmakers the author wishes to describe, those mainly from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Syria, set about their film careers in a different way. Most are trained in Europe or the United States and require funding from European sources or enter into co-production arrangements. Armes wishes to make clear that despite the appearance of a conflict of interest, these filmmakers produce talented films offering unique perspectives only those who straddle two cultures simultaneously could make.

New Voices in Arab Cinema focuses on those filmmakers who direct films for a global audience—what one might call Art House Films. These films are normally sub-titled and accessible to a Western audience. The other body of work, which Armes does not deal with, are those made strictly for an Arab audience with strictly Arab themes. Examples of formulaic films he ignores are those produced in Egypt and the Gulf region.

One of the features of these new films is that they are born from disenchantment with the filmmaker’s country of origin, which usually means a repressive regime. The themes are critical interpretations from someone with an insider-outsider view. Their voices are strong and clear precisely because they have experienced life outside their country and they have experienced democracy and freedom of expression. Their Western education has liberated their thinking and empowered them with confidence and courage to tackle the most obvious problems back home.

The author is careful to point out that many of the new filmmakers come from very educated backgrounds where several languages are spoken at home. This elevated status allows the new filmmakers to explore new themes in a different manner and to experiment with different genres. Being a cosmopolitan group, they are not afraid to dabble with new formats such as horror or pornography. They have studied European and American filmmakers and see the film as a means of greater expression. In contrast, traditionally Arab films, especially coming out of Egypt, are comedies where sexual themes are not explored. The remainder of the output typically touches on the themes of the poor, downtrodden women, or repressed sexuality.

I would like to conclude this review by giving this work a “thumbs up” for its thoroughness and excellent research. The author manages to reveal many fascinating behind-the-scene stories about the filmmakers and films he writes about.

Richard Saltzburg
University of Florida