Here at the Arab Film and Media Institute, we pride ourselves on being a strong resource for learning about and experiencing Arab film and cinema. We collected some resources to help you continue to expand your knowledge and appreciation of Arab cinema. Hopefully all of this will leave you excited to watch some amazing Arab films with us at the next Arab Film Festival!
What makes a film “Arab”?
When we talk about Arab film we are generally referring to films made by Arab filmmakers, produced in the Arab world and/or depicting Arab stories. But lets back up a little and start by defining the word “Arab”. The term refers to a group of people who speak Arabic as their first language and are also united by shared history and culture. There are 22 countries that are considered part of the Arab world: Algeria, Djibouti, Jordan, Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Mauritania, Comoros, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Qatar, Somalia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
As “Arab” does not refer to one specific country or even one exact culture, it is important to note that it does not refer to a specific religion either. Arab and Muslim are not synonymous or interchangeable. Though a large portion of Arabs are Muslim, there are predominant Christian, Jewish and other religious communities in the Arab world as well.
There are also many ethnic and cultural groups within this “Arab” world who do not identify as Arab. It is impossible to define such a large and diverse group of people. For the purposed of AFMI and this blog, we prefer to err on the side of inclusion over exclusion which means we feature and support films and filmmakers from the “Arab” world, regardless of their identity.
Why is it important to pay attention to Arab film?
It’s always important to support art and expression in its various forms, in cultures, all over the world. It is particularly important for those living in Western countries, such as the United States, to be exposed to Arab stories so that they can better understand our culture and combat the negative stereotypes of Arabs commonly shown in popular media. Dr. Jack Shaheen, the author of numerous books about the depiction of Arabs in American pop culture, described it best: “What is an Arab? In countless films, Hollywood alleges the answer: Arabs are brute murderers, sleazy rapists, religious fanatics, oil-rich dimwits, and abusers of women.” By watching films by and about Arabs, we hope to counteract these stereotypes.
A Brief History of Arab Cinema
Film was an invention of the West that began in the late 19th century. At the time, much of the Arab world belonged to European countries. These countries introduced film to Arab countries but production in these areas was long hampered due to the market being flooded with European product. Cinema was able to flourish early on in Northern Africa, though, specifically in Egypt and Algeria, where films by the Lumiere brothers were first screened in 1896. This was quickly followed by the construction of a number of cinematographes that held regular film screenings. Slowly, though unsteadily, the medium began to spread throughout the Arab world. Some countries were not very accepting of film for a long time, (cinema was not accepted in Saudi Arabia until the 1960’s and 70’s,) or the government held tight control over production. Egypt has developed the strongest industry in the region, with the production of over 2,500 feature films. For a long time film production in the Arab world consisted of Western countries filming in Arab countries or in collaboration with Arab people. Native-made feature films only started to become a regular occurrence in the late 1920’s, with films like Syria’s The Innocent Accused and Egypt’s Layla. Independence also played a factor in local film-making. Many countries saw a sharp spike in film production after they gained independence. Film has also been a strong tool of expression and resistance in Arab culture, and continues to this day. The history of Arab film, despite it’s delayed onset, is extremely rich.
Resources to Watch Arab Films
After all of this educational talk about Arab cinema, you must be ready to watch some films! While we hope you’ll join us for the Arab Film Festival in October, as well as at our screenings throughout the year, there are many other resources for you to explore Arab films in the meantime. Please note that these resources may be limited to the United States.
Where to Watch Arab Films Online
Many of your favorite digital film and TV platforms have more Arab films available than you may think! While offerings are always changing, we have curated some lists of films we recommend that are currently streaming:
We also recommend the following platforms focused on Arab film:
- Palestinian Film Platform is a collaboration with filmmakers from Palestine and Palestinian cultural institutions. PFP streams a Palestinian Feature Film every week for free.
- Aflamuna is an initiative launched by a group of Arab filmmakers and film institutions, lead by Beirut DC, a cultural association for the development of independent Arab cinema. This initiative aims to showcase some of the best, most thought-provoking and independently-minded works of contemporary Arab cinema to enjoy for free for a limited time. New films are released every 15 days.
- Cinemoz is a platform to and from the Arab world, based out of Beirut. The platform is totally free and features both Arab and non-Arab films and television.
Arab film series and regular screenings
- ANA Contemporary Arab Cinema is an annual film series showcasing 12 films by Arab directors. The series is curated by Lina Matta, channel manager at MBC 2, MBC 4 and MBC Max in Dubai. The series takes place in September at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in Brooklyn, NY.
- Arab Film Series from the Arab American National Museum brings a wide range of new and classic films by Arab and Arab American filmmakers to the doorstep of metro Detroit, uniting community members through film, dialogue and activism.
- Alwan for the Arts is a New York based organization that promotes the cultures of the Middle East in the New York and tri-state metropolitan area. They host a number of cultural events and classes, including regular screenings of Middle Eastern movies.
- We encourage you to also check out your local colleges, museums, theaters, film festivals or Arab cultural organizations for screenings of Arab films!
Resources to Learn More
These only a few of the many resources available worldwide which delve into the history of Arab cinema, current Arab film, as well as the representation of Arabs in Western media.
- Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity by Viola Shafik
- Film in the Middle East and North Africa: Creative Dissidence by Josef Gugler
- Ten Arab Filmmakers: Political Dissent and Social Critique by Josef Gugler
- Encyclopedia of Arab Women Filmmakers by Rebecca Hillauer
- Hanan al-Cinema: Affections for the Moving Image by Laura U. Marks
- Filming the Modern Middle East: Politics in the Cinemas of Hollywood and the Arab World by Lina Khatib
- Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies People by Dr. Jack Shaheen
- A is for Arab: Archiving Stereotypes in US Popular Culture by Dr. Jack Shaheen
- Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies People directed by Sut Jhally
- Patterns in New Arab Cinema from Film Reference
- Arab Film Distribution
- Middle Eastern Film Posters Digitization Initiative
- Chronology of Palestinian Cinema
- Arab Face
Do you know about any more festivals, streaming sites or resources you would like to add? Let us know!