Book explores creativity of Middle Eastern filmmakers

  • Date

    Wed 9 Nov 22

A depressed looking woman, of middle eastern origin, sits at a bus stop with a human-size cream teddy bear sitting next to her.  Still from Tehran: City of Love courtesy of Here and There Productions, 2018

A new book by Professor Shohini Chaudhuri has challenged stereotypes about Middle Eastern filmmaking by showing how constraints in the region inspire creativity, offering lessons for filmmakers around the world.

Crisis Cinema in the Middle East: Creativity and Constraint in Iran and the Arab World focuses on filmmaking since 2009, a period during which the Middle East has been rocked by multiple crises, from street protests to violent state crackdown, civil wars and currency devaluation.

By exploring how filmmakers such as Waad Al-Kateab, Ali Jaberansari, and Larissa Sansour have overcome such obstacles, as well as constraints around financing, production and distribution, Professor Chaudhuri offers lessons for filmmakers producing movies in times of crisis.

Professor Chaudhuri, from the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, explains how curating an earlier season of films inspired the book: “I realised there’s an astonishing cinematic vibrancy in the Middle East, despite being the world’s so-called crisis hotspot and worst region for freedom of expression. I wanted to grapple with the paradox of creative constraints – how independent filmmakers in Iran and the Arab world manage to produce their creative works despite or indeed because of the restrictions they face.”

The book offered Professor Chaudhuri the chance to explore constraints beyond state censorship and how obstacles can even be beneficial when they are transformed into creative opportunities.

“Understanding the constraints is essential for having a more nuanced perspective and breaking some of the stereotypes in which filmmaking from the region is enshrouded. These filmmakers’ experiences can be inspiring and empowering for other filmmakers because of the agency they demonstrate in the face of obstacles,” she said.

“New constraints can arise and dramatically transform the filmmaking landscape, as shown by the COVID-19 pandemic. As our constraints and conditions change, we can learn from the innovative approaches fostered by filmmakers in the Middle East,” Professor Chaudhuri added.

The book, which was made possible by a Leverhulme Trust Fellowship, offers nine creative strategies for producing work under conditions of crisis. One is the use of science fiction: “Filmmakers in the region have made use of the ‘found’ dystopias on their doorsteps to reflect on unfolding realities and transcend expectations that they are only dealing with ‘local’ concerns through the ‘universal’ genre of science fiction,” Professor Chaudhuri explained.

Mounia Akl’s short film Submarine (2016), filmed during Lebanon’s trash crisis when garbage was piling up on the streets and flowing into rivers makes creative use of this found dystopia by incorporating real locations into its science fiction story,” she added.

Other strategies include using non-professional child actors in real locations where gender segregation creates barriers for adult actors, using animation in place of missing footage or where anonymity is required, and using archive footage to uncover forgotten or untold stories.

“Despite the many types of obstacles that filmmakers from the Middle East confront, they show extraordinary resourcefulness: finding ways to work within or around these limitations. Their inventiveness provides lessons for all filmmakers,” said Professor Chaudhuri.

Header image: Still from Tehran: City of Love  (2018), courtesy of Here and There Productions