The Arab Spring Has Replaced Squares With Movies Theaters

If in the past filmmakers in the Arab world self-censored for fear of the authorities, now they make undaunted forays into issues once considered taboo, like politics, gender and feminism

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A scene from 'The Swimmers,' based on the true story of two sisters who fled Damascus.Credit: Laura Radford / Netflix
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab

It was a fairly calm morning in the town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. Merchants arranged their goods in the market and the greengrocer Mohamed Bouazizi trundled his wagon from place to place.

That morning in December 2010, the police confiscated the wagon, claiming that he did not have a permit for it. Furious, Bouazizi went to the governor’s office to complain, but the latter refused to see him or listen to him. At 11:30 A.M., Bouazizi self-immolated in protest, and died of his injuries about two weeks later. This incident set off a wave of protests throughout Tunisia and sparked the Arab Spring.

Twelve years have gone by since the wave of uprisings, demonstrations and violent protests the likes of which the Arab world had never seen, and their impact is still palpable in Arab cinema.

In the new film “Harka,” director Lotfy Nathan returns to Bouazizi’s tragic story and reexamines the changes that occurred since the uprising in Tunisia. The film’s protagonist experiences poverty and humiliation by the police, and finds himself coping with similar events that broke his spirit. "Harka," which was screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, was shown this month at the Saudi Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, and garnered Nathan the best director prize.

Lotfy Nathan's 'Harka' revisits the tragic beginning of the Arab Spring.Credit: Film Constellation

It is no coincidence that Nathan chose to address one of the formative events that led to the Arab Spring. Over the past year, dozens of films have been made inspired by the first wave of protests, most of them documentaries depicting the demonstrations against the dictatorships in the Arab world. The impact of the second wave of protests, which began in 2019, is particularly noticeable in narrative films made over the past year, some of which have been screened at international festivals and those in Arab countries.

Arab cinema's transition from a means of entertainment to a political and ideological tool based on history and stories of protest did not happen overnight. In fact, the changes began even before the Arab Spring, with new technology that helped reduce production costs and the growth of foundations in the Gulf states that support new filmmakers. But the significant turning point began with the fall of the old regimes, which spurred filmmakers to break the barrier of fear and granted them the freedom to openly address political and gender-related issues that had not been mentioned or shown in the past.

Tunisia became a symbol of the success of the Arab Spring, as well as a model of protest-inspired, high-quality cinema that does not spare criticism of the regime. “Harka” comes after a number of successful films by Tunisian women directors dealing with explosive issues like sexual harassment, gender equality and feminism. During former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s term, these subjects were considered taboo, and filmmakers were forbidden from making works about them.

According to Dr. Iris Fruchter-Ronen, a historian of the Middle East and a scholar of film and culture in the Arab world, the protesters made it possible for many filmmakers to continue echoing the painful messages in light of the relative failure of the Arab Spring, deflated dreams and hope for change. She mentions the 2015 Tunisian film “As I Open my Eyes,” directed by Leyla Bouzid. The film depicts the true story of an underground rock band that sings protest songs with political messages against Ben Ali’s regime. Members of the band are subjected to violent interrogation and sexual harassment by the police. “Such films didn’t exist before the Arab Spring. Today there is more openness to criticizing the regime in cinematic works,” Fruchter-Ronen says.

Swimming against the current

Films of the Arab Spring aren't just popular at festivals, but also on streaming services, as representation of important values. For example, the new feature film “The Swimmers,” by the Egyptian director Sally El Hosaini came out on Netflix this month and centers on the Syrian refugee crisis. It is based on the true story of two sisters, both swimmers, who flee Damascus and manage to take compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It depicts the sisters’ difficult journey as refugees and the strength of their will, their courage and particularly their talent as swimmers, which helped them succeed. It was screened for the first time at the Red Sea Festival and was enthusiastically received worldwide.

In a column El Hosaini published in The Guardian, she explained why it was important to her as an Arab director to address the refugee issue from a female point of view. “On one level, it’s a classic, underdog sports movie. But by dint of featuring teenage Arab refugee girls as the heroines, I think it feels revolutionary. When I screened the film in Cairo and Marrakech, the Arab audiences burst into tears and applause when the younger sister won her race. They were witnessing something they’d never seen before: an Arab girl triumphing on the world stage.”

According to El Hosaini, the Arab Spring gave Arab women filmmakers the courage to express messages of protest, to give a space to voices previously unheard in the Arab world. In the same breath, she criticizes the portrayal of Arab women in Western films, writing: “Arab women were pretty much nonexistent. If present, they were either oppressed victims, veiled in black, or – again – sexy belly dancers. After 9/11, a third role opened up: the terrorist.”

One of the prominent outcomes of the Arab Spring was the fall of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Beginning in 2019, Sudanese cinema was born that had almost been completely absent from the country before that. The new film “The Dam,” by director Ali Cherri, deals with the uprising in Sudan and depicts the civil protest from the point of view of a young man working in a brick factory, far from the capital city of Khartoum. The story does not stop at political boundaries; it also analyzes the psychological state of the protagonist following the uprising.

Giving voice to the people who suffer from daily oppression in Sudan in 'The Dam.'Credit: Indie Sales

Cherri’s film was screened at the last Cairo International Film Festival, and in conversation with him after the screening, he noted that the actor who plays the lead role is a real laborer who had no previous acting experience. His goal, Cherri said, was to illustrate the political and social events from a local perspective, from the mouths of the invisible people who suffer daily oppression.

According to Fruchter-Ronen, while films inspired by the Arab Spring are on the rise in countries like Tunisia and Sudan, Egypt, which had long been considered the capital of Arab cinema, has experienced a significant withdrawal in filmmaking and artistic creations in general. This is due to restrictive regulations and censorship that curb freedom of expression and impede the work of directors.

If in the past, most Arab filmmakers self-censored for fear of the authorities, Arab Spring films prove that this obstacle has been surmounted. The filmmakers have learned to bargain over limitations to their freedom, to deal with explosive issues and, especially, not to give up their ideology.

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