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Films From the Middle East and North Africa Often Struggle to Reach Viewers in the Region. A New Streaming Service Aims to Bring Them Home

9 minute read

You might describe Mary Jirmanus Saba’s first feature film, A Feeling Greater Than Love, as the perfect movie to spur discussion as hundreds of thousands took to the streets across Lebanon in the fall of 2019 to demand political change in the face of economic crisis. And the movie—an essayistic film that highlights the role of women’s political labor and organizing emanating from factories in Lebanon in the 1970s, in parallel with events from the recent past—did just that, in small sessions run by community groups. “I couldn’t have imagined a better setting or a better use for the film,” Saba says. The movie had screened and won awards at festivals around the world. But beyond those community meetings, and a one-month theatrical run in 2017, the movie hasn’t been widely available to watch in its home country and around the region.

“It’s not the kind of film that Netflix is going to pick up, but it’s not that these films aren’t relevant to bigger audiences,” says Saba, who independently produced and distributed the film. “Of course they are, and maybe in some cases, they’re more relevant than what would end up on these bigger streaming platforms. But because of the way the industry is, there’s not a space for them.”

But all that could change now, with the launch of Shasha, a new streaming service that marks the world’s first platform showcasing films from the Middle East and North Africa to a global audience. When it launches on March 1, Shasha, which means “screen” in Arabic, will give films like A Feeling Greater Than Love a chance to reach viewers worldwide—as well as presenting them to audiences in the region who otherwise would not have the opportunity to see them. The platform will host 20 carefully curated films from the region each month, screening them in their original language (predominantly Arabic, with some Farsi, Turkish and Kurdish films) with English subtitles.

They will also be free from geo-blocking, a practice where internet access to certain films is restricted by governments, streaming services or distributors, so they will be accessible to anyone, anywhere. Founder and Iraqi-Irish curator Roisin Tapponi, who is leading a team of regional filmmakers and programmers to curate the collections on Shasha, is hopeful that this marks a new moment for filmmaking in the region and beyond. “It’s figuring out new ways of watching cinema with a global audience,” she says.

Challenges for audiences and filmmakers in the region

As a film programmer, Tapponi had screened A Feeling Greater Than Love at independent festivals and events in the U.K. to positive reactions. She says that when she posts about other independent films on social media, she often gets the same question from prospective audiences: Where can we watch this? “It is very paradoxical, as all of these films are shown in European film festivals, or in Western institutions, and aren’t actually shown to the people they’re made by and for and about,” she says.

While there are many streaming services beyond commercial giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime that focus on indie releases and international film, like Mubi, Criterion Collection and Sundance Now, Tapponi noticed a gap when it came to showcasing films from this region. She cites the lack of circulation, distribution and support for filmmakers in the region as key reasons for this void.

Commentators and critics have observed the impact of the Arab Spring on the region’s cinema as rich and diverse, sparking new experiments with form, style and content. And although the picture of course varies from country to country, structural challenges to filmmakers and the film industry remain, including censorship of films touching on themes considered taboo, and access to funding for independent filmmakers. Tapponi previously tried to organize two regional festivals, the Independent Iraqi Film Festival and the Queer MENA Film Festival, but neither could take place in person in the region for political reasons. “We actually couldn’t show some of these films in real life—they had to be online. And that really clicked for me, because actually screening online was a way to evade censorship almost.” Others are making efforts to tackle the challenges of censorship—Beirut-based streaming platform Aflamuna hosted a queer film festival online last June, showcasing filmmakers from the Arab world focusing on LGBT issues.

Beyond censorship and accessibility, there are other challenges filmmakers and industry professionals face in the Middle East and North Africa. Shahnaz Dulaimy, an Iraqi film editor based in London, says from her experience, pursuing filmmaking as a career is not a viable option in the region as culturally, there’s a lack of encouragement around the profession, and politically, there are restrictions on work visas based on nationality in different countries. “The irony is that myself, as well as several others, are trying to enter an industry that is pushing us away,” says Dulaimy, who is based in London, where she was able to obtain a work visa and is working on post-production for Arab films remotely. (Dulaimy also edited the trailer for Shasha).

Recent years have seen mixed commercial successes across the region. Two Lebanese films were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, one in 2017 and 2018. The following year, Jordan’s Royal Film Commission increased its cash rebate scheme on eligible productions filming in the Kingdom to 25% with a minimum spend of $1 million, as part of a long-running bid to woo international productions, though this doesn’t necessarily translate to more homegrown films—Dune became one of the first Hollywood productions to participate. And cinemas in Egypt, historically seen as the hub of the region’s film production, reported revenues of around $72 billion in 2019, though the industry has, like elsewhere, been hit hard by the impact of COVID-19.

Dulaimy says that as much as the Arab film industry has changed in the past 10 years, progress is still too slow, especially when it comes to support and infrastructure for independent filmmakers, and support for Arabic films more generally. Among the UAE, Egypt and Lebanon—the three largest cinema markets in the region—in 2015, Arabic films represented only a small portion of film titles screened, according to box office analysis in a report released the following year by Northwestern University in Qatar and Doha Film Institute. And recent years have seen several popular independent film festivals shuttered that otherwise would have supported regional filmmakers. “I’m so happy that platforms like Shasha are finally starting to rise, but where was this coming out of the film industry in the Middle East 10 years ago or five years ago?” she asks. “Why isn’t a top Arab studio in the Middle East creating that sort of platform?”

Spotlighting filmmakers, creating demand for content

The first group of films streaming for Shasha’s launch represent a broad mix in geography, genre and form, ranging from Saba’s movie, to Nadia Fares’ 1996 feature Honey and Ashes portraying the lives of three Tunisian women, to Sudanese filmmaker Eiman Mirghani’s short documentary The Bleaching Syndrome. “Rather than finding similarities, I was actually really keen to highlight the differences and the diversity in our filmmaking,” says Tapponi.

The idea for the new venture was borne out Tapponi’s a desire to make these films accessible to people within the region who want to see themselves represented onscreen. These aims are interlinked with her work with Habibi Collective, which she founded in 2018, a digital archive and platform for women’s filmmaking from South-West Asia and North Africa.

For editor Dulaimy, Shasha and Habibi Collective are important because “not only are they spotlighting Arab filmmakers, but they’re creating a demand for content. Shasha gives a platform to our content that now has to be created by Arab editors or by our filmmakers.” Of course, this is contingent on the platform generating demand for its content among potential customers, which Tapponi is attempting to do by creating monthly and annual subscriptions, costing just under $14 and $140 respectively. Dulaimy points to this more grassroots, community-oriented approach being the way for diverse creatives to gain a foothold in the industry, rather than from top-down change from larger regional studios and media companies.

And when filmmakers do get to the stage where they can apply for funding, sometimes it can lead to challenges of representation. “A lot of what kind of gets funded are films that would be appealing to a European audience,” says filmmaker Saba, whose film was turned down by several international film festivals in North America and western Europe. And in addition to a service like Shasha, which creates an opportunity for films that have been made to find distribution, Dulaimy argues that access to the tools to make films in the first place needs to improve.

For Saba, having A Feeling Greater Than Love finally stream online and as one of the first 20 films available on Shasha is the “perfect place” for the film to find new viewers and spark conversations. “I think that this has the potential for my film to reach broader audiences and to pose those questions—the question of all the work women are doing that is unrecognized has become so salient in this pandemic,” she says. “To have a film platform that is intentionally dedicated to enabling people to see a different kind of set of films is really exciting and urgent.”

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