For a whole week, from 19 to 25 September, one would indulge in rich filmic evenings, the likes of which one has either forgotten about or been longing to enjoy. The Safar film festival, promoted as the "festival of popular Arab cinema", was inaugurated in 2012 by the Arab British Centre, in collaboration with the Dubai International Film Festival and London's Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), where the films were screened. While London is well-known for its multiculturalism, it is also famous for its draining work schedules which make evenings such as those of Safar, where one can just sit and enjoy a film with peers and friends, in high demand.
This year, Safar's films raised many important questions ranging between sexuality and the disenfranchisement of the working-class in the contemporary Arab world. Mohamed Khan's Factory Girl, premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival in December 2013, was particularly interesting. The film, set in Cairo, follows the story of Hiyam, an impoverished textile factory worker who fell in love with Salah, her handsome middle-class supervisor. Salah, initially attracted to Hiyam, decides to ditch her for another woman from his own social ranking. The narrative is further complicated when Hiyam gets accused, not least by Salah himself, of having violated the sexual codes of her community. Perhaps most striking about the film is the last scene; Hiyam, proven "innocent" of these accusations, stands up in Salah's wedding, and dances with shattering confidence on the stage. Salah's demented and embarrassed face, in stark contrast to the cheery atmospherics of everybody else in the room including the bride herself, announces her triumph and, consequently, his defeat.
The satisfying end of the film perhaps hints at Khan's unmet expectations of the 25 January 2011 revolution, which deposed Hosni Mubarak but left the despotic socio-economic structure ruling the country since the neoliberal reign of Anwar Sadat unshaken. Surely, this is just one possible interpretation of a seconds-long, but captivating scene, in which a big demonstration passes by the café where Hiyam and Salah were having a heated conversation. Overall, Khan's film offers a social critique of Mubarak's Egypt which, as Lila abu-Lughod argues in Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt, marginalised the working-class and promoted a lowly perception of it among Egyptian middle and bourgeois classes.
Although a narrative of class struggle was unfolding on the screen, and regardless of the scorn one develops toward Salah, the ICA cinema room was dominated by middle-class and intellectual elites. One manifestation was the unurprising question aboutthe oppression of Arab women by their culture, except that Khan promptly explained that the oppression of women is not a phenomenon that is peculiar to Arab culture, but to women in each and every country around the world. His answer was met with ringing applause from the audience. However, one could go as far as to wonder how accessible such evenings are to the working-class or illegalised migrants on whose lives films as Khan's directly touch. It is surely not to criticise the organisers of Safar or to judge the ICA for both have done brilliantly in terms of putting the festival together and bringing back to life classics such as Daoud Abdel Sayed's Kit Kat.
This said, it remains important to question the exclusionary nature of festivals such as Safar, and Nour which has just begun, together with the privatisation of the cinema and other cultural and artistic works in and outside London. It is also worth asking to what extent films made about the working-class are seen by them as well as what it means, politically, to have a room full of Arab and Western elites watch a film about a woman the real-life counterparts of whom have probably never been to something remotely resembling the ICA. To be sure, one should be wary of assigning a deterministic value, positive or negative, to artistic settings that produce –or replay- this effect. However, it is interesting to note the artificial collision between the two social strata, which is often avoided by the elites or barely occurs thanks to urban planning and the long-standing neoliberal goal of "cleaning" the cityscape.
The cultural landscape of London is definitely interesting to look at. As anyone who has lived here not for a long time can easily observe, there is always a festival or some sort of cultural, hence political, activity going on. Safar offered its audience critical perspectives on many controversial subjects and, as argued earlier, the festival itself is an interesting subject to discuss and critically engage with. In the meantime, one looks forward to Safar's films next year and to the line-up of other festivals and lectures scheduled for 2015.
Rana Baker is Palestinian from Gaza. She is currently pursuing graduate studies at SOAS, University of London
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.