Contemporary World Cinema: Middle Eastern Cinema

Shohini Chaudhuri begins her chapter on Middle Eastern cinematic culture in Contemporary World Cinema (Chaudhuri, 2005) with a brief background on the Middle East and its film industry, noting that “Middle Eastern filmmakers have used film to mediate international attitudes to their societies and cultures, offering a counterpoint to Western mass-media representations (Chaudhuri, 2005 p54)”.

She picks out the the displaced nature of the Palestinians as being of particular interest to Middle Eastern cinema, and highlights the exiled status of the region’s Kurdish population: “The other major nationality in the region without their own state is the Kurds, who reside in the borders of Iran, Iraq and Turkey (Chaudhuri, 2005 p55)”.

She then discusses the artistic traditions of regions film industry:

Traditional cultural motifs in Middle Eastern films include oral storytelling, calligraphy, textile arts and musical theatre […] The importance of dance, music and oral storytelling often means that sound is generally not as subordinated to image and diegesis as it is in Western cinema. (Chaudhuri, 2005 p56)

She also highlights the Turkish film industry, writing that “Turkey also has strong traditions of social-realist filmmaking (Chaudhuri, 2005 p67)”. And she picks out the work of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, quoting a paper written by Asuman Suner:

[Ceylan] uses a minimalist, documentary-like style, depicting everyday situations that ‘seem to be both all too real and at the same time somewhat skewed and bizarre (Suner, 2004 p312)’. (Chaudhuri, 2005 p69)

The allegorical nature of much of the region’s cinema is linked by Chaudhuri to its oppressive rule. To illustrate this point, Chaudhuri quotes from Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (Shohat and Stam,2014) “[…]the allegorical tendency available to all art becomes exaggerated in the case of repressive regimes (Shohat and Stam, 2014 p272)”.

And she notes that:

[…] allegory serves as ‘a form of protective camouflage (Shohat and Stam, 2014 p272)’ enabling filmmakers to ‘speak for and about the nation as a whole (Shohat and Stam, 2014 p272)’ (Chaudhuri, 2005 p57)

She moves on to link the use of the oppressed and the other as subjects in Middle Eastern cinema to this type of allegorical storytelling:

In these films, gender is often linked to issues of nation, with images of women creating ‘metaphors for the loss of individualism, national rights and political suppression (Zuhur, 1998 p13)’. Since the 1990s, there has been a rush of films dealing with the oppression of women in Islamic societies; often as a covert critique of political regimes that oppress men as well as women. Other prevalent themes include: politics; imagining the nation; religious extremism; war and occupation; exile and a loss of ‘belonging’. (Chaudhuri, 2005 p57)


Chaudhuri also highlights the tradition of blending documentary realism with fictional narratives in Middle Eastern cinema, and links it to the personal oppression and political upheaval experienced by many who live in this region:

In the wake of Egypt’s 1952 revolution […] revolutionary Arab films were made in Egypt, Algeria and Syria celebrating anti-colonial struggle and expressing support for Palestinians […] This was a politicised cinema energised by anti-imperial pan-Arab nationalism and socialism. The neorealist model which it adopted mixed documentary and fiction. (Chaudhuri, 2005 p56-57)

[…] more recent manifestations of ‘Third Cinema’ from the region display a shift in perspective from the public realm of nationalist revolution to the more private realms of gender relationships and social institutions like the family, using these to interrogate the fulfillment of nationalist goals. The realist impulse in these films is modified by ‘a more subjective, self-critical, and pluralist (Shafik, 2007 p212)’ approach. (Chaudhuri, 2005 p57)


Chaudhuri moves on to explore how film has been used by Palestinians to vocalise their conflict with Israel. She discusses their use of documentary and realism to record their plight:

Zionist propaganda created the myth of Palestine as a ‘land without people (Ali, 2003 p90)’ for the Jews, ‘people without a land (Ali, 2003 p90)’ […] Israeli state ideology proceeded to related a one-sided history which suppressed the expulsion of Palestinians and tried to erase it from collective memory […] In the aftermath of the 1967 war, documentaries were made by film units attached to Palestinian armed resistance organisations […] The realist paradigm is paramount for this early stage of Palestinian filmmaking. Palestinian filmmakers trusted in the ‘veracity’ of documentary images to record the plight of those who had been bereft of their image in Zionist propaganda. (Chaudhuri, 2005 p62)

But she also points out that fictional allegory is used equally powerfully in Palestinian cinema:

Alongside the documentaries, there sprang up revolutionary fiction films, which presented the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in Manichean terms (heroic nationalist versus occupying villain), often through genderised iconography figuring Palestine as a raped woman. (Chauduri, 2005 p63)

And she finds that modern Palestinian cinema is a hybrid of both traditions, highlighting the work of Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman as an example:

Recent Palestinian cinema is a cinema of auteurs rather than collective filmmakers […] They use stylistic forms such as magic realism and parable as well as documentary realism to express themes of exile, disappearance and resistance […] Suleiman’s films use absurdist strategies and deadpan humour to encapsulate the psychological toll of Israeli occupation – the experiences of stasis, interminable waiting, internal exile and civil disputes […] The diary-like form of the narratives fuses the personal with the political. (Chaudhuri, 2005 p63)

In Chaudhuri’s earlier references to a Zionist belief that Palestine was a land without people and that the Jews were a people without a land there is a link to the concepts of cultural place, non-place and the re-signification of place. What the Zionists saw as a non-place ripe for the taking clearly held deep significance for the Palestinians that they displaced. Chaudhuri goes on to link the concept of non-place to the concept of the other:

Asuman Suner claims that these directors approach the themes of belonging in a non-essentialist fashion – in contrast to their popular counterparts – by rendering ‘home’ a side of the uncanny. (Chaudhuri, 2005 p68-69)

It seems that when a place that holds personal and collective memories is removed from us against our will and re-signified in front of our very eyes, it becomes simultaneously representative of ourselves and of the other, of place and non-place. And in this duality there is something unsettling, something uncanny.


Ali, T., (2003), The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, London: Verso

Chaudhuri, S., (2005), Contemporary World Cinema, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Shafik, V., (2007), Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press

Shohat, E. and Stam, R., (2014), Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, Abingdon: Routledge

Suner, A., (2004) Horror of a Different Kind: Dissonant Voices of the New Turkish Cinema, Screen, 45 (4), pp 305-323

Zuhur, S., (1998), Images of Enchantment: Visual and Performing Arts of the Middle East, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press


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