Ahmad Ameen is is a cultural activist, writer and researcher from Jordan. Most prominently, he was the writer behind the award -winning film TRANSIT CITIES which was directed by Mohammad Al Hushki in 2010. He is also the founder of the Arab Cinema Archive, an on-going independent and non-profit project that documents and digitizes Arab films to allow access to these works of art for research and educational purposes. We spoke to Ahmad to learn more about his project and his dedication to disseminating Arab cinematic heritage.
Arab Film Festival: What is the Arab Cinema Archive? How did it start? What was the inspiration behind it?
Ahmad Ameen: Basically, I did not plan it this way. Ten years ago, I was working with a film school that was part of the Royal Film Commission here in Jordan. I had been working with the Film Commission and at some point, they wanted to take the initiative further and establish a proper film school in the country. It was called the Red Sea Institute for Cinematic Arts. It went on for 6 years but they had to stop for financial reasons, so we only managed to teach four classes. Each class would go on for two years and students would earn a Master’s degree. It was done in partnership with the University of Southern California (USC). So back then in 2007, one of the things I was in charge of was building a film library. More specifically I was in charge of the acquisition of Arab films. So when I started my research I began with Egyptian films.
All my life I’ve been a fan of old Egyptian films, I grew up watching them and learning about them, and basically in the 50’s and 60’s they were pretty huge to everyone in the Arab region. Egyptian stars were treated like Hollywood, like big movie stars. They were even more important than Hollywood stars. When a movie would premiere in the country, everyone would make sure to go and support them. So I grew up learning about this culture and I watched a lot of films and I had so many favorite classical films. I tried to find them when I was building the library and that’s when I realized how difficult it was. In the late 90’s, ART [Arab Radio and Television Network], which is a Saudi cable network, bought a huge number of Egyptian classics under an exclusive deal. I remember back then, when I was young, in my teens, hearing about some demonstrations from Egyptian filmmakers wanting the government to investigate how this deal was made. Basically, no one cared and the deal went on and was finalized and the films handed over. So these films were under ART for exclusive rights. The same scenario happened again around 2009 or 2010 where they sold a big number of films to Rotana, another Saudi network, though this is not a paid network, it’s a free one. Back then, towards the second deal that was made, there was this very well-known Egyptian presenter who used to work for Rotana who came out and said: This is for the industry. You should thank Rotana because these films are going to be digitized and mastered and re-released as DVDs with subtitles and so on. The funny thing is, they only did that for a few films, the mainstream ones. But they kept the other big ones as part of their library and, obviously, they’re not allowing anyone to access them. So in 2007 I was trying to get to ART endlessly. I tried everything possible to contact them. I sent them emails and every time they would say, “We got your email and we’ll get back to you.” It came to a point that I actually asked them to keep their logo [on the films] and give them to us watermarked. We were willing to buy, under institutional rights, films from them with their logo and watermarks and anything they wanted. We were begging them to allow us to negotiate but they never got back to us. Cut to 2010, when I was taking some sort of Pan-Arab regional workshop and one of the people who was in charge of acquisitions at ART was there. I went up to her and I reminded her of myself and my story and what we were trying to do and she said, “Ahmad, forget it. These films are our biggest investments and there are no circumstance that we’ll give them to anyone.” I was really shocked. We were talking about education and importance of having these films for that purpose. These people don’t really get it and they’re not willing to collaborate.
After I came back to Amman, I decided to start collecting films myself and making them available for me. I teach Arab cinema and I use them a lot and I also [wanted them to be available] for people who might want to use them. So I started collecting films in every possible way. From VHS to DVD to internet to TV. Most of my library is recorded copies from TV, actually. At the end of 2013, beginning of 2014, I realized I had almost one thousand films and that this could go on as a bigger project. I started consulting with some people and I realized I should start some sort of archive. In 2014, we started a pilot version of the archive in partnership with an art space here [in Amman]. I gave a series of lectures along with a screening while promoting the archive and talking about it and thinking about how to operate it in the best way possible. in 2016 we were officially launched with 1,300 films. Now we have 1,700 films and what we do now is that we have a database of the films and we only allow access to people in education. We want to protect ourselves because we know that, at any moment, if we start giving films for spaces or festivals or for people to screen, we are going to be in big trouble. Our first step is to focus on education and only allow teachers, students, journalists and researchers to have access to these films. In order to do that they must get in touch with us and tell us why they want to use the film and eventually sign a paper that says that they’re not going to distribute these films or use them for commercial purposes. From the summer of 2016 until now, we have managed to serve more than 25 people in education. I know it’s a very small number but I’m happy with it because we are working completely underground. It’s a one man show actually. I keep saying “we” because I’m hoping at some point this project can become a network of people working and operating in different countries.
AFF: Wow, that’s an amazing story! So once someone writes to you about wanting a film, how do they receive it?
AA: Online, at this moment. One of the reasons I kept myself away from funding and mainstream media was because I wanted to learn my options and also investigate the best legal solutions. For example, in Europe they say if you have a physical location, where these films are and you’re inviting people to watch the films, no one can legally pursue any action against you. But I’m still investigating this scenario in Egypt. I’m consulting with some people there. I also need to know what’s the case in Lebanon and in Jordan…I at least need to cover the main countries in the region. So if having a physical location is the only choice, I already have people in mind to partner with places in each of these countries and give them the films on a hard drive where they can connect it to a viewing station and people can go and watch whatever they want. We are also trying to figure out other legal options. Right now what I’m doing is, whenever they get in touch and sign the paper, I send them the films online via our Google Drive and they can watch it on their laptops. I know it’s much easier so I’m leaning more towards this kind of choice if we have it. Unfortunately, I don’t think we do so we’re still studying our choices.
AFF: Where do you envision the project to be at the final stage? Do you hope one day it can be more open to the public? What’s your ultimate goal?
AA: One of the objectives of this project at this moment is to raise awareness about the issue because the issue is still there, obviously. I’ll tell you a funny story on the side and then I’ll answer your question. When I was teaching Arab cinema, I remember at some point I was asked to teach a longer class, like a proper course over a university semester at this Australian film institution here. So I went there and I was happy because finally I could screen films and talk about them in detail. But there was this reputation about the students of this institute, that they are mostly influenced by the West and they don’t really connect with the region and most of them come from wealthy families so they don’t really care. This reputation has always been there. So I went and said I was going to do it and the surprising thing was that people were really amazed. The students were really amazed by these films. They had heard about certain directors, but because these films are not available anywhere and they’re not easy to get unless you know the film that you want and do your research [and even then] you can’t really access these films easily. That moved me so much. I can’t really describe how it feels but seeing these people interact and feel the connection with these stories and feel that they need to learn more, that is amazing. So the issue here is that these films are not available and there are all of these boundaries. You can’t get them and [even if you can] it’s so hard to find them, so hard to understand which film falls under which company or which TV channel. Because of all of this, the project is now operating as an awareness raising initiative. This is why we are not removing the logos of the TV channel. When we give you a copy, it’s most likely going to be a TV copy and we’re keeping that [logo] as part of our mission. We want people to understand how we got the films and how it is in reality. In the future, ideally – if I had the choice, I would love to get proper copies of proper quality. Sign some sort of partnership with these TV channels. I know it’s not very realistic, but I’m hoping we get to reach that point when we have legal copies and these films can be accessed by anyone and can be used for different reasons, not only for education. When I started in 2014 and when we relaunched last year, so many spaces got in touch with us, so many spaces in the region. They wanted us to curate films and give them films to screen. I felt the danger there so I had to close the door but this is sad. So many places want to spread these films and showcase them, but it’s not possible at the end of the day. I’m hoping to reach that. Knowing that this scenario might no happen easily, my plan B is to partner with some sort of an education entity that could protect the archive and keep it the way it is or maybe develop it [further]. For example, sometimes I have four copies of a certain movie because I got it from VHS and then I recorded it from TV and that copy might be a bit clearer than the VHS copy and then at some point I found a online link…so it’s an on going process. You need to always check what’s available and you need to always check that you have the best copy of what’s available. In order to systematize this, I hope we could do a partnership with the University of Cairo or something, a bigger institution that could help us. That could give us protection legally, so our work would fall under their library or their education element, and also they would give us the infrastructure to operate on a bigger scale and make sure we have everything updated. The other thing I wanted to mention here is that the archive at this point is a very simple one. We only have the films by their title, the director and the year. This is not my intention, but because of how difficult it is to run without a lot of money and as a one man show at this moment, ideally I wanted the films to be archived according to not just the crew members and the year and the director, but also according to subjects and main characters. For example, if you want to investigate how women or a policeman was portrayed in the 50’s in Egypt, you could find all the films that have policeman in their characters. Same as, let’s say, you’re interested in seeing how religion or drugs or any specific topics were handled or dealt with in a certain era or period, you could also get that through the archive. So, in order to move academically on this, we need a real partnership. This is how I’m imagining things would, hopefully, go.
AFF: Your goals line up very closely with the Arab Film Festival’s goals. We are showing newer stuff that’s coming out now but so much of those films are inaccessible to many, in the U.S. at least. I know whenever I have to research films to write a post, it can be the most painful headache to find anything about some of the films. International distribution in general is really difficult [to navigate] Some of the films in the Arab world get made and passed around and sort of lost. I know this project is not up to where you want it to ultimately be, but as soon as I found that you were doing this I got so excited that someone is trying to make an active effort to preserve and allow people to access these films.
AA: Thank you so much! I really appreciate this and from the moment I read your email I got so excited, because in reality it’s so hard to talk about it. One of the first things I tried while I was building up the idea was getting in touch with AFAC, the Arab cultural fund, and another cultural fund operating in the region. They did not get it. They did not show interest in it. They didn’t really know how to help. Even until now, I’m still trying to reach out to people and seek support but it’s not easy. The other thing, this is off topic, but there was such a sad moment when Mohamed Khan died. They discovered that he did not have his films. Can you imagine that? He did not have copies of his films. I remember at some point in 2010, a colleague of mine from when I went back to work with the film commission, she went to acquire some films and do some research and at some point she met Tawfik Saleh. She met him in person and she asked him for a copy of his films and he gave her copies. When she came back I was so happy that we had his films but we discovered that the films are recorded from TV. Can you imagine these kinds of stories? It’s really sad.
AFF: I don’t know how common it is but I used to work for a little while for a distribution company in New York I remember once sending a screener copy of a film to a director and I was thinking, “does she really not have it?” I don’t know if that’s common or not, but you would definitely think all filmmakers should have good quality copies of the movies they make.
AA: Yeah, it’s a very harsh reality at the end of the day. No one knows what’s going on. I got a couple of emails since we opened last year of people asking us advice about how to access films and how to get to the right distributor. But you can’t. The thing is, neither ART or Rotana are willing to reveal their collection. They refuse to give them to us. For example if you go to Rotana, the only things you see are the films they’re showcasing but I know for a fact that they have a lot of other films that they are keeping in the closet.
AFF: You would think that they’d be fine allowing people to screen the films, for a fee or something like that. I can’t believe they’re keeping them behind locked doors.
AA: And the thing is, it’s not something we’re trying to invent here! It’s something that everyone does. We have something called institutional rights and you go and buy your film. Another funny story, back at the university, we ended up buying from Arab Film Distribution in the States. We ended up buying from the States Arabic films because they’re the only one qualified under institutional rights. The only exception we’re talking about is in Egypt. The only people who understood this and were working so that people could have access was Youssef Chahine and Gabi Khoury and those people. They’re the only ones who understood this from the beginning. Otherwise it’s a mess, it’s a real mess.
AFF: I’m glad that you’re stepping up to help clean up the mess!
AA: If you need any films or if you have questions about any filmmakers or directors, please feel free to ask me.
AFF: Definitely! I will use you as a resource for sure. I just have a few more questions. What films do you choose to archive? Is it whatever you can get your hands on or are their certain guidelines to the types of films you archive?
AA: When we started, it was just me trying to collect films I care about and then at some point when I realized that this could grow into a bigger project or being serving more people, I started paying more attention to the classical stuff. I started with whatever I could get my hands on from the 30’s onward. I think that it’s important to keep as many films as we can. For me I personally find it very interesting to study the pop culture of Egypt or Syria or Lebanon at a certain time. I’ve found many people also have interest in studying who was the movie star in the 50’s and why this movie star was famous in the 80’s and so on. Also, other stuff related to the history of cinema because when you study, for example, the history of Egyptian cinema, it went through so many interesting and different phases. For instance, in the 80’s they were producing 90 films a year but most of these films went straight to VHS. Keeping that in mind is pushing me to collect as much as possible. I try to avoid the pornographic stuff, though, which was famous in the 70’s and 80’s in Syria and Lebanon. I try not to get into it because I don’t see a value in it at this moment because they’re everywhere. This kind of stuff people like to keep and to spread and to save. You can find them easily on YouTube and other channels. Generally, I’m collecting everything. I’m trying to position this as a database of every single feature film, mostly feature fiction film, that was screened in theaters as a main standard but I’m also collecting stuff that was produced due to certain circumstances like in the 80’s and so on.
AFF: So hopefully you’ll have everything one day!
AA: If I manage to get most of the good stuff. I’m so proud that I have every film Youssef Chahine directed. I’m so proud of that. I’m so proud to have every film from Mohamed Khan. I’m so glad to have almost every film for Henry Barakat and Leila Mourad. My focus is to get at least the good stuff. To make sure that I have all the main names that influenced and changed Arab cinema and history.
AFF: Is there any way the public can help support you?
AA: When we started, there was something that we included when we started the website but then I thought the website itself is not a proper website so I said I’d hold it for a while, but we had a page where we invited people to donate films that we don’t have. Especially, for example, one of the weakest points of the archive at this moment is that we don’t have enough films from the Arab-Moroccan region, like from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia. We don’t have that many. So this is an obvious weakness in the project and I’m hoping at some point, if I get some money or some funds, to travel there and collect films physically and add them. But, at the end of the day we have to be realistic, legalizing the archive is our goal. We might get away with a physical space for the archive or being hosted in partnership with someone but at the end of the day legally it’s not going to be able for the archive to exist as project on its own. Because of that, I want to disconnect the personal element. I don’t want the archive to stay associated with me personally. I would like to create a network. I would like to have people have the same access as me to the archive. [People who are also] trying to collect more films and adding them directly and they can be the contact person for any requirements in their countries. So ideally I’d like to create a network where we have a representative of the archive present in Lebanon, another on in Egypt, in Tunisia, Palestine and so on. And these people will have the same access and authority and it will become a collective. That way if I disappear or get busy or get arrested or anything, the archive keeps going. We’re dying to get as many people who are passionate enough about this as possible.