9th ALFILM Spotlight: Reflections on Arab Masculinities
The portrayal of masculinity in cinema is closely tied to societal codes next to aesthetic and content questions. This manifests itself in the physical and mental idealization of the heroic figure inherent to cinematic storytelling. Arab cinema, too, is full of these »supermen«: unionists with rolled-up sleeves, gallant men of the world, and of course handsome princes rescuing their damsels in distress before sailing into the harbour of marriage with them. But Arab cinema has its ambivalent figures as well, whose greatest pioneers have been comedians. The great Egyptian actor Ismail Yassin with his grimaces, who played transsexuals in the 1950s, or shortish Adel Imam who rarely served as the glorious hero but conquered hearts of cinemagoers from all around the Arab world since the 1980s remain unforgotten.
Over the last decades, however, the Arab man has turned into a questionable character as an exotic ornament in Hollywood cinema. He appeared on German screens as a noble savage or a one-dimensional terrorist — as someone who by default raises suspicion. The Arab man was of course complemented with the image of the oppressed woman, which as an orientalizing standard occupied film, literature, and public discourse substantially – until Arab women felt discriminated rather than represented by this discourse which reduces the really existent social problems to a gender-specific disparity. Especially in Germany, the public debate around the influx and integration of refugees has opened up even more new controversies. Clearly, the Arab man has an image problem.
Traditional gender norms and roles are undergoing a transformation not only in the Arab world but all over the world as a representative study by the organizations UN Women and Promundo-US published in 2017 shows. Cinema with its regional diversity plays an important part depicting and artistically challenging this transformation. As an expression of the global crisis of the modern man, the Arab cinema serves not only as a mirror but also as a projection surface for the pitfalls and potentials of a new male image.
The film series »Reflections on Arab Masculinities« presents a selection of nine feature and documentary films that critically renegotiate the changing gender norms in various forms and questions concepts of masculinity based on key elements of its perception: lucrative employment or the ability to materially support the family, protecting the living space as a social and national task, as well as the ability to reproduce. Based on current debates in the Arab world on the economic and political participation of different social groups, feminism, homosexuality, and self-realization, the film series aims to present a thematic and geographic cross-section of these debates and their relevance for the social discourse around gender norms.
The two featured films by Algerian director Merzak Allouache present an essential framework to the series: Omar Gatlato (1976) finds a kind of revenant in his namesake in Madame Courage (2015), where masculinity as a concept becomes a blank pose in a gender-separated, socially unstable society threatening to undermine the young individual and the society.
The Closed Doors shows the impossibility of becoming a man in Egypt of the early 1990s between the awakening sexuality, Islamic fundamentalism and a corrupt society, while The Last Friday laconically discusses the social demands on men to be functioning providers using the example of a failed father in Amman.
Both of the films from the double feature Majnounak and Cinema Fouad look back on Lebanon in the 1990s and challenge male sexuality, desire and gender norms in a documentary format, while Room for a Man uses the camera to reconstruct a queer identity between worlds in today’s Lebanon.
Of heroism and suffering tells the documentary Saken through the story of an unusual male friendship between a paralyzed resistance fighter and his patient caregiver. A female perspective on a society and its rules regulated by men is taken up by Withered Green, in which the stoic protagonist is threatened to fail due to men’s inability to act until she takes over the reins.
The featured films offer an insight into a subject which will be further developed through talks with the audience, a panel discussion with the filmmakers Merzak Allouache, Mohammad Hammad, Eliane Raheb and Mohamed Soueid as well as an audiovisual lecture by Rasha Salti about the history and motifs of masculinity in Arab cinema.
The Spotlight was curated by Claudia Jubeh and funded by the Berlin Senate for Culture and Europe.