What is Arab cinema? The distinguished documentarian Omar Amiralay, speaking in a French as suave as his slicked-back hair, rolled the question around his mouth for a moment. He was at New York’s Walter Reade Theater for a panel discussion on the series “The Road to Damascus: Discovering Syrian Cinema,” organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and ArteEast; and yet, despite his being a guest of honor there, someone wanted to know if this spare, erect, professorial figure might willingly lump together his own work with the films of other directors, on the basis of a common language and geography.
What is Arab cinema? “A term that I don’t really mind,” Amiralay ventured dryly. But when you think of the films of Ingmar Bergman, he continued, do you immediately resolve them into something called Scandinavian cinema? Let individual filmmakers develop their art, he said, and then Arab cinema will come into being, defined by what its authors have done.
For many film academics in Europe and America, this response would be mildly heretical, the auteur having supposedly died years ago. But within the startlingly vibrant and utterly distinctive realm of Syrian cinema–a category that Amiralay does not resist, despite his French training and early Soviet affinities–authorship remains not only conceivable but necessary.
In Syria, all scripts must be approved in advance by the state censorship board–a process that can take years, during which maddening rumors may alternate with ringing silence. If approved, the script must then be produced by the National Film Organization, which manages at best only four or five features a year, since nothing resembling a production apparatus exists in Syria. Because exhibition, too, is under state control, any film that somehow gets through this grind may then be banned from the theaters, either officially or tacitly, if it arouses suspicion of being politically provocative. The “paradox” of Syrian cinema (to use Amiralay’s word) is that so many of these state-financed pictures really are provocations–beautiful, strange, uncanny provocations. According to Rasha Salti of ArteEast, 80 percent of Syrian films are political in nature, and are “the only cultural expression that raises questions or is in opposition to the regime.” At the same time, these films are works of flaming aestheticism, pushed through the system by people who have no choice except to act as individuals, and who find their principal audience not in Damascus but in Cannes.
In short, we are looking at the work of a classic avant-garde: a congeries of artists living in internal exile, thrown back on their own resources and determined to stay true to their personal visions. To quote another guest of honor on the Lincoln Center panel, the fiction filmmaker Oussama Mohammad, Syrian film is “a cinema free of its audience.” As his reply to the question of Arab cinema, Mohammad observed that Egyptian directors have a public and therefore suffer the misfortune of pleasing other people. They need to throw in a little romance, a little violence, a little song and dance. In Syria, by contrast, “you make your own film.” During the fifteen years that passed after his first feature was produced and banned, Mohammad said, he repeatedly told the censorship committee that he would make exactly the film he was proposing and no other, and nobody was going to make him change a single frame.
The fierceness of this boast was mollified somewhat by the absurdity of Mohammad’s situation–he is an employee of the same National Film Organization that wouldn’t produce his second feature–and also by his appearance. He seemed like an aging Arlo Guthrie to Amiralay’s professor: round, frizzy-haired, sprawling, quick to smile and quick to answer questions in Arabic, sometimes interspersed with a fluent and relaxed English. But, for all that, Mohammad’s refusal to compromise could not be questioned, if you had spent time at “The Road to Damascus” and seen his films.