Cinema arrived in the middle eastern countries around the beginning of the twentieth century. It is believed that cinema was brought into most of the Arab countries by Pathé Frères or the Lumière Brothers. Middle eastern cinema has long been neglected by the world. Western cinema dominates the sphere but audiences are now growing tired of the outdated narratives of the west. Therefore, middle eastern cinema comes as a breath of fresh air for cinephiles all over the globe. Despite producing a lot of quality content, Middle Eastern Cinema has to face a lot of trials and tribulations. This has to do with the dominant cultural and religious beliefs of these countries, where cinema is frowned upon.
Middle Eastern Cinema Explained
Middle Eastern Cinema is an amalgam of multiple film industries of Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. It can’t be studied as a single entity because each nation has its own film industry with a distinct history and cultural influences. But here also, space is dominated by Egyptian cinema as it has the largest commercial film market in the middle east. In recent years, the Middle East has given some of the finest films to the world. The emergence of the Middle Eastern Film Industry has not only put it on the global lens but has also contributed towards debunking the religious and cultural stereotypes surrounding the Middle East. They have used their films to reclaim their voice and to tell their story from their own perspective. Middle eastern cinema touches upon the issues of gender, identity, the physical and psychological consequences of the wars and conflicts.
Problems Faced by Middle Eastern Film Industry
There is no doubt that Middle Eastern Cinema has come a long way and is producing some of the finest works. But the road is not easy. The film industry faces a lot of problems because of the political and cultural institutions in the country. The governments in the majority of Arab nations do not consider the film industry as an important sector. Filmmakers with immense talent, often have to struggle because of a lack of opportunities and funds. According to Farida Marei, “The government usually does not give any help or gives a little in rare cases. Cinema is not one of the priorities on their agenda as they look at cinema as pure entertainment and therefore it comes at the bottom of their list”. Lack of government support is one of the main reasons why so many brilliant film ideas don’t materialize as the filmmakers don’t have the necessary means.
Censorship and demonisation of films and the film industry is another major issue that plagues the Middle Eastern film industry. Middle Eastern countries have stringent censorship laws. Countries like Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, censor their media and films heavily. In fact, Turkmenistan runs the third most stringent censorship program in the world and all foreign publications and non-government libraries are banned. These censorship policies apply to the film industry as well. A lot of films fail to get the approval of the government and hence never reach the audiences. According to middle eastern censorship laws, any material dealing with government policies, religion or any kind of sexual activity is prohibited. Farida Marei gives a few examples of the implications of stringent censorship laws- “There are many examples in this direction – the films Five Doors (Khamsah Bab), and The Road of Love (Darb al-Hawa) were both denied approval until the writer removed some intimate scenes. Even after removing them and after the films were ready for screening, they were both banned because there was still too much intimacy (in their opinion)”.
One of the main reasons why these strong censorship laws aren’t going to be relaxed anytime soon is because of the huge support from the masses. In middle eastern countries, religion is very strong and influences the masses. Religion and cultural beliefs could be the major factors why the films are demonised in the middle east by the government and the majority of the population, alike. Northwestern University in Qatar, in partnership with Doha Film Institute, conducted a survey ‘Entertainment Media Use In The Middle East: A Six nation Survey’. The results of this survey are a clear indicator that the people of the middle eastern nations heavily support the censorship laws and the restrictions on the media and entertainment industry. According to the survey-
“The large majority of the people surveyed believe entertainment should be more tightly regulated when it comes to violent and romantic content, and that some scenes should be deleted or whole programs banned if some people find them offensive (about seven in ten agree with each of these statements). Conversely, less than a third expresses the opposing opinion that films and television shows should be shown in their entirety even if some people find the content inappropriate (29%).”
The survey also uncovers the extent to which cultural beliefs influence the censorship laws as- “About eight in ten of those with strong feelings about cultural traditions support the regulation of violent and romantic content and also support banning or deleting offensive content, compared with two-thirds of those who are less concerned with preserving their cultural traditions”.
Even though the situation seems pretty bleak, there is still a ray of hope. Despite the stringent censorship laws and various other restrictions, The Middle Eastern film industry continues to produce some of the most profound and moving films. Even though the filmmakers have to face a lot of problems in order to produce good quality cinema and to ensure that it reaches a wide range of audience, they haven’t given up. A lot of filmmakers have repeatedly challenged the strict laws of the government in court. And a lot of times the results have favoured them. This is a great sign that middle eastern cinema is flourishing and will soon overcome the dilemma of censorship and demonisation to realise its full potential.
Featured Image: Still from Ghadi by Amin Dora