CANNES: A boy who takes his parents to court for having him is one of a wave of Arab films making people sit up and take notice at the Cannes film festival.
Not since 1970 have two Arab films been in the running for the Palme d’Or top prize and female Arab directors are particularly making a splash this year.
Lebanese film-maker Nadine Labaki’s highly-anticipated third film “Capernaum” — about a 12-year-old boy with an axe to grind about being born into a miserable, loveless existence — has racked up a string of distribution deals ahead of its premiere late Thursday.
And two first-time female directors made impressive debuts with films about suffocating social conventions in Syria and Morocco.
But while the #MeToo movement continued to make waves, with several Hollywood actresses ditching frilly frocks for pants for their photo shoots, Arab film-makers appeared more concerned with social alienation.
Labaki, who set her first film “Caramel” in a Beirut beauty parlour, zooms in on neglected children and migrants in “Capernaum,” which has drawn comparisons with Charlie Chaplin’s story of a street boy, “The Kid.”
Labaki said she found the idea staring her in the face one night when she was driving home from a party.
“I stopped at a traffic light and saw a child half-asleep in the arms of his mother, who was sitting on the tarmac begging.”
The encounter spurred her to use a mostly hard-up, amateur cast including a Syrian refugee child for the lead role.
Going toe-to-toe with her and the likes of Spike Lee for the Palme d’Or — won only twice in 70 years by Arab directors — is A.B. Shawky, with his feel-good first feature about an Egyptian leper and his orphan friend, also played by amateurs.
A year after the award-winning “The Nile Hilton Incident,” a noirish tale of murder and corruption set during the 2011 revolution in Cairo, “Yomeddine” serves up less political fare.
“What I really want to do is highlight marginalized groups. I wanted to give a voice to people who don’t necessarily have anybody to speak for them,” said Austrian-Egyptian writer-director Shakwy.
Similarly, the Moroccan entry about an unmarried woman threatened with jail for falling pregnant is actually more preoccupied with class divisions.
The film shows a middle-class, 20-year-old from a Casablanca family scrambling to avoid bringing shame on her family after an unwanted pregnancy.
The real victim in the affair, however, is not the one left holding the baby.
“I found that the debate about the condition of women in the Arab world was being reduced to the issue of patriarchy and chauvinism, which to me falls short of the mark,” director Meryem Benm’Barek told AFP.
“Whether you are a man or a woman, what determines whether or not you are a victim is your social status,” she said.
Tunisia director Mohamed Ben Attia’s “Dear Son,” about a father trying to trace his son who has run away to join the Daesh group, is also more family drama than a political broadside.
The birthplace of the Arab Spring, which has been mired in economic crisis ever since, is estimated to have supplied more militants in Syria than any other country.
Ben Attia, who won acclaim with “Hedi,” about a young man torn between duty and passion in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution, tries to tease out the malaise behind the lure of Daesh for disaffected Muslim youths.
Like Labaki, Shawky and Benm’Barek, he believes the story could be transposed to many parts of the globe.
“There is a sort of misery, not only spiritual but emotional, not so much a thirst for ideology as a desire to walk away from this lifestyle... and all the values that are foisted on us.
“They could be living in Paris or elsewhere, it’s the same,” Ben Attia added.
War and unfulfilled desires also collide in the Syrian film, “My Favourite Fabric,” the first film of Paris-based Syrian director Gaya Jiji.
French-Lebanese actress Manal Issa puts in a standout performance as a sullen young Syrian fantasising about sexual abandon and escaping to the West as the war drums begin to beat in early 2011.
She carried her protest over onto the red carpet at Cannes, where she held up a placard reading “Stop the Attack on Gaza.”
Gaza also made it onto the big screen, in a documentary by Italian filmmaker Stefano Savona about the massacre of an extended Palestinian family in 2009 that received rave reviews.
With Saudi Arabia also unveiling big tax breaks for filmmakers at Cannes — Arab cinema may be entering a new era.
Arab cinema back with a bang; bringing lepers, lust and class conflict to Cannes
Arab cinema back with a bang; bringing lepers, lust and class conflict to Cannes
- Not since 1970 have two Arab films been in the running for the Palme d’Or top prize and female Arab directors are particularly making a splash this year.
- Nadine Labaki, who set her first film ‘Caramel’ in a Beirut beauty parlour, zooms in on neglected children and migrants in ‘Capernaum.’
CANNES: A boy who takes his parents to court for having him is one of a wave of Arab films making people sit up and take notice at the Cannes film festival.
How heritage sites will make Saudi Arabia a magnet for cultural tourists
- Each of the six World Heritage sites shows that Saudi roots run far deeper than many might have imagined
- Carefully preserved and protected, Diriyah is the jewel in the crown of one of Saudi Arabia’s largest giga-projects
LONDON: Even as Saudi Arabia writes the next chapter in its story, defined by the ambition of its Vision 2030 blueprint for the future, it is rediscovering and embracing a past destined to play a central role as it opens up to the outside world.
Since 2008, Saudi Arabia has had no fewer major six sites of “outstanding universal value” inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
There are 10 more on its Tentative List — properties being considered for nomination — including the Hejaz railway, three historic pilgrimage routes and the Al-Faw archaeological area at the northwestern edge of the Empty Quarter, a site of human occupation from prehistoric nomadic times to the growth of a thriving ancient caravan city in the second half of the first millennium B.C.
Certainly, there is no shortage of locations from which to choose for future nominations; there are more than 10,000 historical sites on Saudi Arabia’s National Antiquities Register.
Each of the six World Heritage sites is one piece of a fascinating mosaic that shows not only that Saudi roots run far deeper than many might have imagined, but also that Saudi heritage is a vital component in the broad sweep of human history.
And this is living history. Each site will play — and in some cases is already playing — a crucial role in the opening up of the Kingdom as a destination for cultural tourists from around the world.
One of the most breathtaking of the UNESCO properties is the Hegra archaeological site, centerpiece of plans by the Royal Commission for AlUla to develop sensitively as a major destination more than 22,000 square kilometers of the spectacular landscape of the AlUla region, with its lush oasis valley and towering mountains.
The jewel in AlUla’s crown is the ancient city of Hegra, the southern capital of the Nabataeans, who also built Petra in modern-day Jordan.
Yet the astonishing collection of over 100 hand-carved tombs, many with elaborate facades and inscriptions, cut into sandstone outcrops, is merely the tip of an archaeological iceberg.
There are currently a dozen international archaeology teams exploring the past cultures of AlUla and the nearby Harrat Khaybar volcanic field, from prehistory to the early 20th century. The astonishing volume of the finds they have already documented is prompting a radical rethinking of the prehistory of the Arabian Peninsula.
One team, from the University of Western Australia, has spent the past four years identifying and cataloging all the visible archaeology of AlUla county and the nearby Harrat Khaybar volcanic field. The tens of thousands of structures found, most between 4,000 and 7,000 years old, tell a story of a landscape and a climate that was once lush and temperate.
In all, the Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia project has identified 13,000 sites in AlUla and an extraordinary 130,000 in Khaybar county, dating from the Stone Age to the 20th century, with the vast majority from prehistory.
A “core” 3,300 square meter area of AlUla was surveyed separately by UK-based Oxford Archaeology which, working with staff and students of King Saud University in Riyadh, identified in excess of another 16,000 archaeological sites.
Dr. Hugh Thomas, a senior research fellow at the University of Western Australia, said that in the past archaeologists had concentrated on the Fertile Crescent. “But as we do more and more research, we’re realizing that there was so much more here than small, independent communities living on nothing much and not doing much in an arid area,” he told Arab News.
“The reality in that in the Neolithic period, these areas were significantly greener, and there would have been really sizeable populations of people and herds of animals moving across these landscapes.”
Among the most intriguing finds cataloged by the AAKSA team are the mysterious mustatils — often huge, rectangular structures, built by an unknown prehistoric people over 8,000 years ago. Possibly unique to the Arabian Peninsula, they are thought to have had some kind of ritualistic purpose.
More than 1,600 are now known to exist across 300,000 square kilometers of northwestern Saudi Arabia, concentrated mainly in the vicinity of AlUla and Khaybar.
More evidence of Saudi Arabia’s prehistoric past can be found in the world’s largest and most impressive collections of Neolithic rock carvings, or petroglyphs, located at two sites 300 kilometers apart in the Hail province, together adopted by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 2015.
The first is at Jabal Umm Sinman, a rocky outcrop to the west of the modern town of Jubbah, the origin of which dates back to the dawn of Arab civilization, when the surrounding hills once overlooked a lake, lost beneath the sands of the Nefud desert some 6,000 years ago.
It was on the hills of Umm Sinman, in the words of the UNESCO nomination document, that the ancestors of today’s Saudis “left the marks of their presence, their religions, social, cultural, intellectual and philosophical perspectives of their beliefs about life and death, metaphysical and cosmological ideologies.”
The second site is at Jabal Al-Manjor and Jabal Raat, 220 kilometers southwest of Jubbah, near the village of Shuwaymis.
Together, the twin sites tell the story of over 9,000 years of human history, from the earliest pictorial records of hunting to the development of writing, religion and the domestication of animals including cattle, horses and camels.
The rock art in the Hail region is regarded as one of the world’s most significant collections, “visually stunning expressions of the human creative genius by world standards, comparable to the messages left by doomed civilizations in Mesoamerica or on Easter Island…of highest outstanding universal value.”
Saudi Arabia’s other UNESCO sites include the most recently inscribed, the Hima Cultural Area, listed in 2021. It also consists of a substantial collection of rock art images made over 7,000 years ago by armies and travelers who passed this way along an ancient desert caravan route in the southwest of the country.
Historic Jeddah, inscribed by UNESCO in 2014, was established in the seventh century as the major port on the Red Sea and grew rapidly as the gateway for pilgrims to Makkah who arrived by sea. Jeddah, which developed into “a thriving multicultural centre” was “characterized by a distinctive architectural tradition, including tower houses built in the late 19th century by the city’s mercantile elites,” many of which can still be seen today.
Al-Ahsa, a “serial cultural landscape” in the Eastern Province, is home to the world’s largest, and almost certainly oldest, oasis, a sprawling collection of 12 separate elements and 2.5 million palm trees scattered over a total area of 85 square kilometers.
Listed by UNESCO in 2018 as “an evolving cultural landscape,” Al-Ahsa “preserves material traces representative of all the stages of the oasis history, since its origins in the Neolithic to the present.”
Al-Ahsa, which lies between the rock desert of Al-Ghawar to the west and the sand dunes of the Al-Jafurah desert to the east, is associated with the Dilmun civilization that flourished in the third millennium B.C. in what is now eastern Saudi Arabia. Pottery finds from the Ubaid period, dating back roughly 7,000 years, also suggest the Al-Ahsa region may have been among the first in eastern Arabia to have been settled by humans.
Pride of place, in the hearts of Saudis at least, must go to the Turaif district of Diriyah, which is considered the birthplace of the Kingdom and was listed by UNESCO in 2010.
Nestling in a bend of the Wadi Hanifah, a few kilometers northwest of the modern metropolis of Riyadh, are the preserved remains of a breathtaking collection of mud-brick palaces, houses and mosques, “the pre-eminent example of Najdi architectural style, a significant constructive tradition that developed in central Arabia…and [contributed] to the world’s cultural diversity.”
First settled by the ancestors of the House of Saud in the 15th century, the oasis of Diriyah became the capital of the First Saudi State, established in 1744.
Diriyah was destroyed in 1818 after a six-year campaign by a vengeful Ottoman Empire, alarmed by the challenge posed by the First Saudi State to its grip on Arabia and the Holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.
Ultimately, it was Al-Saud that would prevail, as history relates. In 1902, Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, better known to the wider world as Ibn Saud, famously recaptured Riyadh, going on to unite the kingdoms of Nejd and Hejaz in 1932 as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Turaif district of nearby Diriyah, left in ruins by the Ottomans, would never be occupied again. Carefully preserved and protected, however, it is now the jewel in the crown of one of Saudi Arabia’s largest giga-projects — the development of the wider area by the Diriyah Gate Development Authority as “one of the most amazing cultural gathering places in the world.”
The $50 billion plan to transform Diriyah into a global historical, cultural and lifestyle destination will create 55,000 job opportunities and attract 27 million visitors every year. They will be able to immerse themselves in the history and culture of a kingdom that, in less than 300 years, has grown from an idea born in a small desert community to become one of the world’s most influential nations.
Awaiting visitors on the site of 7 square kilometers will be museums, galleries, world-class hotels, restaurants, shops, homes and educational and cultural facilities, all created in the traditional Najdi architectural style.
But at its heart will be Turaif, which, like so many of Saudi Arabia’s historic sites, is a priceless piece of the past now helping to shape the Kingdom’s future.
Thousands throng to Iran museum with Western art masterpieces
- Exhibition features 132 works by 34 world-famous contemporary artists
- The museum was inaugurated in 1977 during the reign of deposed ruler Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi
TEHRAN: More than 20,000 people have flocked to an Iranian museum showcasing renowned Western artists’ works, some for the first time — part of a treasure trove amassed before the Islamic Revolution.
The museum’s collection is reputed to be the greatest line-up of modern masterpieces outside Europe and the United States, and includes multi-million-dollar pieces, much of which has been kept under wraps since the 1979 revolution.
The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art “surprises me every time,” said visitor Shahin Rajabi, 35. “The current show is no exception.”
The current “Minimalism and Conceptual Art” exhibition features 132 works by 34 world-famous contemporary artists, museum director Ebadreza Eslami said, including Marcel Duchamp, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd and the duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
“The reception has been marvellous,” Eslami said, particularly after long closures in recent years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
He said one of the main factors for the footfall of this exhibit was that “38 masterpieces” were being displayed “for the first time.”
AFP saw visitors at the museum this week, some stopping to study details while others were busy taking photos as they made their way intently through the museum.
“I loved the last room of the exhibit in particular, where the artist had worked with the fluorescent light,” said visitor Rajabi, referring to American artist Dan Flavin’s “Untitled” work.
The museum was inaugurated in 1977 during the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was deposed by Islamic revolutionaries two years later.
Its design was inspired by Iran’s desert wind towers — an architectural element used to catch and circulate cool air in hot environments.
Most of the collection was built up by the shah’s wife, former queen Farah Pahlavi, who deployed a team of experts to tour Western auctions and snap up prestigious paintings and sculptures to boost the country’s cultural profile.
The museum also holds an important collection of Iranian modern and contemporary art.
But the international works went underground after the Islamic republic’s founder Ruhollah Khomeini railed against “Westoxification,” deploring Western moral and sexual depravity which he said had infected the Islamic world.
The themes of many of the Western works have been considered too risque to be publicly shown, and have spent much of the past decades languishing in storage.
The museum counts some 3,500 works, hundreds of which are “very valuable,” head of public relations Hassan Noferesti said.
They include masterpieces by Western artists from Paul Gauguin to Pablo Picasso, Rene Magritte, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Alberto Giacometti, according to Iran’s culture ministry.
The current show, which runs until mid-September, includes a collage by Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto titled “Green Curtains,” and an untitled work made from hemp by Canadian-American sculptor Jacqueline Winsor.
Curator Behrang Samadzadegan said “some 20,000 people” have visited since the show opened in late June — about twice the normal turnout.
Describing the theme of the show, he added “when we are talking about minimalism, we are primarily talking about the environment not the work.”
Standing in front of the “Rock Salt & Mirror” by American artist Robert Smithson, 28-year-old painter Solmaz Daneshvar said she “greatly enjoyed” the display.
The exhibition, however, was at the center of controversy this month when an amateur video surfaced showing two silverfish insects underneath the frame of a rare image by the late German photographic duo of Bernd and Hilla Becher.
The video, whose authenticity could not be independently verified by AFP, went viral.
The museum later made a formal apology, assuring concerned art lovers that the work by the Bechers, who are known for their photos of industrial structures, was not damaged.
It also closed its doors for two days for fumigation.
In 2015, the museum held an exhibition of 42 works by Western artists including Pollock’s masterpiece “Mural on Indian Red Ground,” valued by Christie’s auction house experts in 2010 at $250 million.
Saudi Arabia has embarked on a real cultural revolution, says Arab World Institute president Jack Lang
- There has been a radical change brought about by the impetus of the crown prince in all areas of culture, Lang tells Arab News
- Crown prince’s Paris visit will open up new possibilities in bilateral relations and consolidate ties, says former minister of culture
PARIS: Jack Lang is one of the prominent cultural public personalities in France. He was minister of culture from 1981 until 1986, and again from 1988 until 1993. He was also minister of national education from 1992 to 1993, and from 2000 to 2002.
Lang has been deeply connected with Arab culture by virtue of his presidency of the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), or the Arab World Institute, in Paris since 2013. Under his leadership, the Arab World Institute, founded in Paris in 1980, has organized cultural workshops, concerts, conferences, exhibitions, festivals and activities both in France and around the Arab world.
The IMA has a museum, library and auditorium, and seeks to provide a secular location for the promotion of Arab civilization, art, knowledge and aesthetics as well as the teaching of Arabic. It was founded in 1980 by 18 Arab countries and France to research information about the Arab world, including its cultural and spiritual values.
Q. What is your perception of Franco-Saudi cooperation?
A. First of all, I welcome the visit of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince to Paris. This is an important event, which will certainly open up new possibilities in bilateral relations and will consolidate the political, economic, strategic and cultural ties between France and Saudi Arabia.
I am not directly linked to political life, so I do not have to comment on related issues. I know that there are differences that may arise; these are discussions that will undoubtedly take place between the leaders of the two countries, President Emmanuel Macron and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
For my part, I cannot forget that historically, the two founding countries of the IMA were Saudi Arabia, at the time of King Khalid, and France, with President Valery Giscard d’Estaing.
Q. What about Franco-Saudi cooperation in the context of cultural projects?
A. Saudi Arabia is a fabulous country that is developing many ambitious projects like the AlUla project, initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al-Saud, the Saudi minister of culture, and supported by France via the French agency in charge of the development plan for this site.
Personally, I belong to the advisory committee, operating under the authority of Prince Badr. The committee does exceptional work for the preservation of the site, its history and the beauty of these incredible places. Every time I go to AlUla, I am struck by the progress of archaeological, touristic, economic and social projects.
I am also impressed by the respect that AlUla officials have for the history of the sites and the local populations, who are fully associated with the project, which is indicative of the ambition the Kingdom sets for its cultural revolution.
In France, in Europe, and more generally in the West, we do not know enough about the extent to which Saudi Arabia is starting a real cultural revolution. If we compare the situation five years ago with that of today, we see a radical change brought about by the impetus of the crown prince in all areas of culture: Cinema, theater, museums, architecture and music.
There is a rather unique cultural breath and momentum in this country. I can cite the first Red Sea International Film Festival, organized in Jeddah last year, or the many exceptional projects scheduled in Riyadh, a city destined to become one of the greatest cultural capitals of the world.
It is the same for the other cities and regions of the country, which are experiencing this dynamic in all artistic and creative disciplines. What is being accomplished today in Saudi Arabia is astonishing and remarkable.
If the visit of the crown prince is an opportunity to make this happy and positive metamorphosis better known, it is wonderful. I can only rejoice in this extraordinary cultural effervescence which makes Saudi Arabia a major country in world culture.
Q. What is the place of youth in this “cultural revolution?”
A. This cultural, educational and scientific strategy mobilizes the youth, who represent the Saudi Arabia of tomorrow. Many young people recognize themselves through this new impetus. If we go today to Jeddah, Riyadh or elsewhere in the country, we see that a new cultural event takes place every week. It is kind of a permanent cultural revolution.
Personally, I am one of those people who thinks that each country must prioritize culture, youth, science and education. This is the choice made by the Saudi authorities to build the future of the country.
France, as a country committed for a long time to these issues, will find itself in full harmony with Saudi achievements.
Q. What about cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the IMA?
A. Since I have chaired the IMA, I have forged close relationships with the cultural leaders of the Kingdom. The crown prince has decided to provide financial support for the renovation of the mashrabiyas on the walls of the IMA building, designed by (French architect) Jean Nouvel.
We are discussing many projects, including the possible creation of an IMA in Riyadh and, above all, the possible support of Saudi Arabia for the renovation of the IMA museum, which is destined to become one of the most important museums of contemporary Arab art in the West.
Controversial Saudi painter aims to make her mark in modern art
- Jana Mousa has been the subject of criticism for portraying womanly shapes
- She's been backed by her family and buoyed by Saudi government support for the arts
RIYADH: A controversial Saudi painter is aiming to overturn traditional public perceptions of art with her modern abstract style.
Jana Mousa has been the subject of criticism for portraying nudity and womanly shapes in her vibrant artwork.
But backed by her family and buoyed by Saudi government support for the arts, she remains determined to open her own modern art museum to showcase her work and that of other up-and-coming artists.
She told Arab News: “My art isn’t traditional, but what makes me creative is that I don’t relate myself to an idea or a concept of one agenda, because I don’t want to be in a box.
“I feel as though many people still hang on to traditional art, the art of horses, Arabic calligraphy, and such, but when they see modern art, it’s new to them, and the reaction varies. This is why I want to introduce modern art to the public and let it have its space.”
It was during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown when Mousa rediscovered her love of painting and with the help of her family, she set up a social media account and started posting her work online.
She said: “I was criticized for portraying nudity and, in general, for my modern style, and when I displayed my work in Al-Balad (historic area of Jeddah), I got comments that my paintings were just doodles that ruined the place. Because they did not show a horse or swords, then, to society, it was not considered art.”
Undaunted, she has since gone on to exhibit her pieces at Jeddah corniche, the port city’s Durrat Al-Arus, Culiart gallery — as part of a collaboration with chef Joud Badr — and in March, the Silence art gallery.
“Chaotic and full of life is how I would describe my artwork. I don’t have one direction, and I like to mix styles, but eventually, a pop of color needs to be included in my paintings.
“I like to feel the painting and touch it. Art doesn’t have rules or right or wrong; anything you do is art, and the possibilities are endless,” Mousa added.
She plans to open her own modern art museum to showcase her artistic style, support local artists, and provide a space for them to exhibit their work.
“I am noticing a lot of support from the government to empower art. The Jameel district in Jeddah is a good example of art encouragement, and many local artists are invited to display their artwork in Al-Balad,” she said.
Museum of the Future unveils bold vision for the Dubai of tomorrow during event in Paris
- Khalfan Belhoul, CEO of the Dubai Future Foundation, described the new museum as the latest addition to the list of world’s most celebrated cultural landmarks
- He was speaking during the 26th International Trade Show for Museums, a prestigious three-day event that took place at the Louvre Museum this week
PARIS: The UAE’s Museum of the Future has unveiled its bold vision for the Dubai of tomorrow. It presented its ideas during the 26th International Trade Show for Museums, a three-day event at the Louvre Museum in Paris that attracted many of the world’s leading cultural institutions.
The delegation at the event, which concluded on Thursday, was led by Khalfan Belhoul, the CEO of the Dubai Future Foundation, and also included Lath Carlson, the executive director of the Museum of the Future, and Majed Al-Mansoori, its deputy executive director.
The museum, which is located in Dubai’s Financial District and opened in February, was invited to attend the trade show to share its ideas for incubating a new generation of talent and helping to build a better future for humanity.
By embracing the latest breakthroughs in advanced technology, its team also aims to offer unparalleled visitor experiences and help to stimulate the cultural economy of Dubai.
“Our presence here in Paris represents a golden opportunity to engage with like-minded peers and establish deeper ties as we create pioneering experiences in a museum focused on making history by perceiving the future,” Belhoul said.
He described the Museum of the Future as the latest addition to the list of the world’s most celebrated cultural landmarks and added that it has set new benchmarks in the design and development of cultural landmarks.
“Today, it serves as an incubator for bright minds to accelerate big ideas that can strengthen Dubai’s position as a place to address some of the world’s most complex challenges,” he said.
By embracing cutting-edge technology and the pursuit of innovation to drive social, economic and environmental growth, Dubai is helping to unify global efforts to build a better future for humankind, added Belhoul.