Seize the Space, And Run With It

Artistic freedom cannot be granted; it must be seized. A look at art from the Middle East reveals the fluid boundaries between freedom and repression, and between art and propaganda.

The sweeping changes in Egypt and Tunisia and the uprising in Syria have increased our awareness of the art and culture of those countries. Or maybe we simply desire to translate the quick succession of events into the language of artistic expression with its seemingly universal grammar. In any case: a sense of urgency has befallen many of us.

Film festivals around the world already expect to showcase movie productions about the revolutions that can only have been put together hastily to meet deadlines. Theater festivals stage productions about current discontent, and performance groups act out Facebook conversations. Little space and time is left for reflection and for the attempt to seek a more careful understanding of history as it unfolds – that responsibility is seemingly outsourced to the news cycle. And how much compromise is necessary to produce art that is both timely and of good quality? If art from the Middle East, hastily produced for the international art market, lacks quality, does that imply that artists from those regions cannot produce “good” art? When would we be exposed to their works if not now, during a time of crisis?

Since the introduction of cheap video technology in the early 2000s, a growing alternative film culture has developed in Egypt. Short films grew significantly – the kind of film you could tape indoors and show to a few friends. The emphasis was on experimentation: forms, content, and production techniques were rethought and reimagined. The boundaries between permitted and prohibited political art were fluid, and many of the young artists engaged in a constant global exchange. How did they know what was allowed? Three examples:

The director Ibrahim El-Batout produced his feature film “Ain Shams” wholly without seeking government permissions. Surprisingly, it was never censored. To prevent trouble for movie theaters that wanted to show his film, El-Batout presented his finished film to government censors. They had already heard about the project, since El-Batout had promoted it via TV, radio, and newspapers as soon as production had finished, and he had encouraged others to speak out about the film as well. Word of mouth was already spreading. The censor complained about the preemptive publicity but reluctantly granted a license to show the movie. In addition to filming permits, the movie lacks star power and a happy end. It is a raw piece of art, a protest against the power of money and corruption, against mainstream escapism, the lies of powerful elites, and against the gullibility of the masses.

In the case of the historical movie “The Migrant,” by Youssef Chahine (the movie tells the story of Joseph from the Book of Genesis), all necessary government permissions were granted in the mid-1990s, but the finished movie was censored twice. First, because an Islamist lawyer complained about the Biblical content and the prominent display of the story of prophet Joseph. Chahine fought the subsequent censorship in court, and won his case. It was then censored a second time when a Christian Copt complained about the less-than-accurate portrayal of Joseph. We might ask: What constitutes artistic freedom? Who curbs it? And who is affected by art?

Jocelyne Saab’s movie “Dunia,” which raises the issue of female genital mutilation in Egypt, won international acclaim. Inside Egypt, the movie was released in 2006 after a one-year delay. Young oppositional politicians were enraged because Saab, a Lebanese, was meddling with Egyptian issues and focused on a topic that was also a cause championed by Mubarak’s wife Susan (who, in turn, was widely despised by the Egyptian opposition). A cultural minefield indeed.

Artistic freedom cannot be granted, it can only be seized and taken. One discussion that is remarkably absent from our coverage of the Arab protests is about propaganda. It shows how easily art can become a pawn in the political game.


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