Fragility, Legacy, Diversity: A Showcase of MENA Short Films

Pyramids Hostel Short Film for Nour Shorts at the Nour Festival

Pyramids Hostel, Thierry Lledo (director), 2015

The Nour Short Film Night presented a showcase of young Middle Eastern and North African film talent, offering eight short films screened in the resplendent Leighton House Museum.  A treat for both enthusiasts of Middle Eastern film and those encountering the cinema of the region for the first time, these shorts have all been released in the last two years and are fresh off the festival circuits, with many prizes to their names.

Speaking to the Nour Short Film Night curator, Yasmin El Derby, the desire for inclusivity was raised as a central theme in her selection process.  As El Derby put it, she sought to incorporate “as wide a range as possible of film genres and of countries of origin.”  In this, the Short Film Night was very successful: genres range from documentaries and docu-dramas, a satirical comedy and a horror film, to more experimental art films.  The directors are also equally diverse, hailing from Jordan, Egypt, France, Libya, South Africa, Tunisia, Lebanon and the UK, and many of them representing the Middle Eastern art diaspora.

Facing The Sea Film Poster for Nour Shorts at Nour Festival

Facing The Sea, Sabry Bouzid (director), 2014

Each film deals with an incredibly broad range of issues, but when one looks a little closer one sees that each is in dialogue with another.  For example, My Dreams in Granada (2015) poetically documents the struggle of a Libyan artist working in Granada, Spain, and speaks directly to both Coffee (2014), a simple but powerful artistic short that looks at how belonging to two different cultures influences the visual style and cultural views of a storyteller, and Facing the Sea (2014), about a Tunisian artist who is secretly hiding his sexuality from his sister and worrying about his position in society.  Pyramids Hostel (2015) has issues of conflicting post-revolution sentiments in Egypt lightly woven into its script, while the documentary film The Runner (2014) tackles the issue head on.

For me, the standout film is without doubt Hotel Zaatari (2014), a docu-drama that captures the lives of four Syrian refugees – two adults and two children – living in the Zaatari camp in Jordan.  The deep-voiced, winding narrative that overlays haunting images of everyday life in the camp, sounds almost like poetry and adds to the strong sense of aimlessness in the film.  The main soundtrack to the piece is the whistling desert wind, which only adds to the feeling of desolation and hopelessness visually portrayed – as the film states it is a story “with no beginning and no end”.

Ceci N'est Pas Une Menace at Nour Shorts for Nour Festival

Ceci N’est Pas Une Menace, Charbel Kamel (director), 2015

The run of films is certainly a journey.  In fact it’s almost cyclical, with the first film, A Cold Morning in November (2014), opening with a mournful wake and the last, Ceci n’est pas une menace (This is Not a Threat) (2015), ending with a gun pointed directly at the camera.  Ultimately, through the framework and lens of the Middle Eastern region, all these films deal with issues of life, its fragility, its legacy, and its diversity.

This review was written by Aimee Dawson; a London-based writer and blogger on contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa.

Cairo, Actually

Nour El-Sherif in Cairo Time

Yehya (El-Sherif) in a still from Cairo Time

Six multi-generational characters, three interconnected stories, one overarching theme that binds them together… Sounds familiar? New Egyptian film Cairo Time (Betawqeet El Qahira, 2014) is a classic multiple-storyline film. It’s a winning combination that is increasingly used in popular contemporary film, showing a cross section of life in one place, at one time, and the inextricable connectivity of life in our modern world.  It can be found in the seamlessly interwoven British film favourite Love Actually (2003) and in Arab films such as Merzak Allouache’s The Rooftops (Les Terrasses/Es-Stouh, 2013) and the cult classic The Yacoubian Building (Omaret Yacoubian, 2006).  Such an approach to film-making has the ability to highlight the spectrum of a human and societal difference as well as a variety of pertinent issues and concerns.

The film unfolds over a single day, and the six characters in Cairo Time are all at a crossroads in their lives: Leila, a retired actress, is looking for Sameh, her old co-star to seek a divorce from their on-screen marriages; Salma, Leila’s daughter, is thinking about taking her relationship with boyfriend Wael to the next level in Wael’s friend’s apartment; Hazem is a young drug dealer who is on the run from Alexandria to Cairo and accidentally ends up giving a lift to Yehya, an old man with Alzheimer’s.  Yehya holds a picture of a beautiful young woman who he can’t remember but is sure is important to him, and so sets his ‘last dying wish’ on finding her.  Unsurprisingly, the narratives collide at the end in touching and not fully predictable ways.  In fact, one of the best things about the film is its fast paced storyline that keeps you guessing right until the very end.

clip from Cairo Time movie

Yehya (El-Sheriff) hitches a ride with drug dealer  Hazem (Ramzy).

clip from Cairo Time

Salma (Amer) with Wael (Kassem).

The film features a stellar cast of Egyptian cinematic icons, including Mervat Amin, Samir Sabri and Nour El-Sherif, as well as young up and coming actors Sherif Ramzy, Ayten Amer, Karim Kassem, Tunisian actress Dorra and Syria’s Kinda AlloushCairo Time deserves to become an instant classic, not only for El-Sheriff’s exceptional and tenderly delivered performance as a lost and wandering soul losing his memory, but also for the fact that this is his final performance, as he sadly died from an ongoing illness in August of this year.  This film also marks the long anticipated return of director Amir Ramses to feature films.  Ramses is best known for his box office hit The Code (Wara’et Shafra, 2008) but has recently been focussing on critically acclaimed documentaries The Jews of Egypt (2013) and End of a Journey (2014).

As with his previous films, Ramses wraps a great deal of emotion and sensitivity into Cairo Time and tackles tough and pressing issues that affect Egyptian society today.  One of the film’s most successful aspects is the way in which it relates some of the issues surrounding post-‘revolution’ Egypt without being too overt.  For example, one scene shows Salma being harassed by various men on the street, an issue that has become increasingly prevalent since the uprisings.  In Wael’s friend’s flat, pictures hinting at left-wing socialism adorn the walls, while Wael is later terrified to be asked to take a mysterious blue folder to his friend.  Such subtle sub-plots and settings, build a feeling of pressure, panic, and suspicion that somewhat epitomises the younger generation in Egypt right now.

Samir Sabri in Cairo Time

Sameh (Sabri)

Mervat Amin in Cairo Time

Leila (Amin) in Cairo Time

Other issues raised in the film include extremist Islam, as enunciated through the fatwa stating that weddings in films are real marriages in the eyes of God; interfaith marriage, through Yehya and his late wife; drug and gang culture, through Hazem’s story of deceit; and the issue of diasporic families through Sameh’s distant son in Canada – there are so many layers built into these interwoven stories that the film warrants multiple viewings to catch all of its intrinsic parts.  One may argue that there is a little too much going on – some elements could have been simplified and certain character relationships (such as Salma’s with her mother) could have been better developed.  But overall, this is a film that will draw you in and place you right on to the bustling streets of Cairo, and immerse you in all its drama, vitality, and unpredictability.

Cairo Time is screening on Wednesday 28 October 2015 at Leighton House Museum.  You can buy your tickets here.  This review was written by Aimee Dawson; a London-based writer and blogger on contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa.

Another Member of The Nour Steering Committee

Having spoken with Aser El Saqqa and Roya Arab, today we learn more about Alnoor Samji who looks after the evolving Volunteers Program for the Nour Festival.


Alnoor Samji of Nour Steering Committee

Alnoor Samji – Nour Festival Steering Committee Member

Last book you read.

Disordered World by Amin Maalouf, an exceptionally well-written assessment of how we arrived at the current messy state.  I loved the tone: often posing questions, providing the context as objectively as possible, and inviting the reader to make up their own mind.  No magical answers, but plenty to think about.

Favourite place to grab a bite.

We’re spoilt for choice: if it’s a lovely day, Leonardo Caffe on Upper Richmond Road West has a hidden garden.  Otherwise, on the opposite side of the road, Valentina serves a first-rate Italian take on the Full English.  For special occasions, it has to be The Wolseley.

 What museum or gallery do you most often visit?

Knight Webb Gallery in Brixton showcases both established and contemporary artists.

If you could choose one piece of art to live with, what would it be?

Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park.  It never fails to refresh the body, help you think things through and nourish the soul.  The water trickling down the brook, the vivid azaleas in late spring, the remodelled duck pond and all the other wonders have been scattered on a natural canvas to produce a work of outstanding beauty.

Most touching moment from a previous festival?

Last year’s launch event was sponsored by the Embassy of Yemen.  In preparation, the Ambassador took us on a day trip, to visit members of the Yemeni diaspora in Sheffield, including performers and artists.  The warmth and hospitality were unforgettable.

This is the sixth edition of the Nour Festival of Arts. Have you been involved since the festival was established? How is the 2015 edition of the festival different than its predecessors?

I was invited to join the Nour steering group in 2011, the festival’s third year but the first time the Arts Service extended Nour beyond Leighton House Museum.  It has grown each year, attracting new partners and audiences.  This year, Nour returns to its roots as a pioneering arts education programme with a comprehensive learning programme.

Another important development is the festival’s volunteer programme.  Whilst we have always required the support of volunteers, this year we have a structured process, with an initial team supporting the set up and marketing, and a further group of Festival Ambassadors and Workshop Assistants helping at events.

As “Europe’s most significant annual showcases of contemporary artists and culture from across the Middle East and North Africa,” what is one of the ways that the festival continues to interest and engage local and international audiences each year?

Often, festivals such as Nour allow nascent themes to gain momentum and capture the public imagination.  I remember so well, the salon on Arab Science Fiction on the first evening of the 2013 festival.  The discussion continues today around the world, with regular contributions on social media.

Alnoor Samji is a former partner of market research organisation, MORI.  He now works independently, balancing research and cultural consultancy with extensive voluntary work.  This interview was conducted by Lisa Pollman, freelance writer who connects Asian and Middle Eastern artists to the world.

The Nour Festival Steering Committee Continued …

Last time we spoke with Aser El Saqqa, founder of Arts Canteen and long standing member of Nour Festival Steering Committee.  Today, we learn more about the dynamic Roya Arab and how she is involved with Nour.

Steering Committee Member Roya Arab

Roya Arab – Nour Festival Steering Committee Member


Tell us about your interest in poetry. When did you start writing poetry? What at that time influenced you? What does now?  

I started writing poetry soon after the 1979 revolution, when we were exiled from Iran due to my father’s political and business activities. I guess I was influenced by the pain of feeling torn from a family, people and land that we were attached to. In school there was a great poetry book we worked from. John Donne and Wilfred Owen, in particular, touched me. I still think about life and what it means for us individually and collectively and pay close attention to international events and calamitous political-religious decisions that impact humanity.

Did you draw on this creative outlet when you began to write lyrics for songs? How? 

My love of music dates back to the minute I could speak to sing and stand to dance. When we moved to the UK, I began to learn classical piano and folk guitar. In my late teens, I was introduced to jazz music and singing became more important to me. After a few years of jamming around London in the early 90s, whilst working on a musical project in Vienna, the poetry morphed into lyrics.

For those who may not be familiar with Persian music, which artists would you suggest to provide a kind of rudimentary introduction?  

In terms of popular modern music, to get a cursory taste, there are classically influenced musicians such as Hayedeh, Gholam-Hossein Banan and Sima Bina. During the 1960/70s there was a spate of young popular musicians inspired by jazz, pop, funk, rock and psychedelic music, such as Googoosh, Vigen and Kourosh Yaghmaei.

You also have a keen interest in archaeology. Is there something that the past can tell us about the present or future? What?  

From the indispensable computer, which has its roots in rudimentary mathematics and physics, to the shuttles we send to the moon that would not exist without early metallurgy and astronomy, the past is stitched into the fabric of the present. The flood of agony plaguing much of the MENA region today finds its source in streams flowing in the distant past. Likewise, decisions made “today” all have a bearing on what tomorrow brings.

Speaking of antiquities, is there a favourite piece that you hold dear to your heart?

Although I am drawn to and delighted by Iranian artefacts and am a bit of a collector of craft and art objects old and new, our Mother taught us never to become too attached to earthly goods.

How are you involved with the Nour Festival of Arts 2015?

I am curating a panel discussion on the critical state of MENA heritage and an Iranian Theatre Retrospective workshop. I will also be singing for Scheherazade’s Night.

The Iranian Theatre Retrospective day-long workshop, perhaps the first of its kind in the West, takes an overview from early indigenous entertainment forms to the modern plays of the 1960s and ends with the theatre scene post-1979 revolution.

Roya Arabis a musician and archaeologist. Arab is currently an Honorary Research Assistant at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. Her research examines the socio-political and economic uses and abuses of the past in the present, while her work promotes MENA region heritage.  This interview was conducted by Lisa Pollman, freelance writer who connects Asian and Middle Eastern artists to the world