Challenges Facing the Arab Animation Cinema
Arab filmmakers attempt to export their animated films to an international market and try to speak to other global cultures. They seek to build a bridge between the Arab world and the West through animated films which have been adapted from Arab and Islamic sources, but speak to the universal human condition. The relationship between Islam and the West, though, remains very complicated; the West looks at these projects and already has a perspective about them as religious and ideological propaganda, especially after 9/11, 2001. Thus, the majority of these Arabic animated films are rejected by the West because of concerns that these films represent the unwelcome principles of foreign cultures. Inherently, there is an Islamophobia about Islamic cultural products as soon as they come to the West; there is suspicion of them and extensive interrogation of them. Ironically, when Western artifacts are exported to Arab countries, though almost inherently at odds with Muslim ideology and Muslim politics, they sometimes find distribution and audiences. The consequences of this relationship between Arab countries and the West is not only ideological, however, and also concerned with the fact that Arab filmmakers and producers face economic challenges, and a number of Arab animation studios went out of business or stopped making more feature animated films due to the difficulties of reaching international marketplaces. Thus, the focus of contemporary Arab animation is mostly low-budget projects distributed through YouTube and social media, which became the main platform for Arab animation artists to distribute their political works during the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East since 2011.
After 9/11, Arab animation producers struggle to screen their films at cinemas in Europe and the USA. The irrational fear of Arabs and the Islamic religion [has] increased in the West, and Muslims have become targets of increased hostility, creating the now so-called Islamophobia. (Kalin 2011). The first use in print of the term Islamophobia was in the report of the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia in 1997 (Iqbal 2010). This commission was established in 1996 by the Runnymede Trust, an independent research and social policy agency. The report was called Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All and describes the main features of Islamophobia and the challenge it poses to Muslim communities. It covers central topics about Muslim communities and concerns in Britain, media coverage, violence, and building bridges by intercommunity projects and dialogue. The report also contains many subtopics separately from the main text, such as diversity and difference within Islam, perception of Islam as a threat, opposition to immigration, and other topics. Moreover, the report shows statistical tables of Muslim issues such as residential patterns, employment and unemployment, population in some cities in Britain, and incidents seen as racially motivated. The commission distributed more than 3,500 copies to government departments, organizations, social communities, universities, and the media.
There were two versions released of the feature and the short films, one in the Arabic language and one dubbed in English hoping to gain the attention of non–Arabic speaking audience. Badr made an agreement with many companies and cinemas to distribute and screen the film Muhammad the Last Prophet in the USA. However, the film’s production finished at around the same time of 9/11 in 2001. The consequence was that most of the agreements were cancelled by US cinemas and distributors due to Islamophobia. Badr held the film for 2 years without screening it in cinemas. They did not want to sell the film’s DVD to the market before the theatrical release. Later, a new Arabic distribution company based in the USA called FineMedia arranged a theatrical release in 37 US cities with Eid al-Fitr in 2004. The venture was not successful and revenues were very small. Therefore, Badr International stopped making any more animated films and went out of business in animation field.
Limited Resources and Release
The bibliography related to animation in the Arab world is very limited, and it was hard to find published materials related directly to the subject; only two published references relating to Arab animation were found: the first one being Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation by Giannalberto Bendazzi (1994) and the second, the booklet Animation in the Arab World, A glance on the Arabian animated films since 1936 by Mohamed Ghazala (2011).
Bendazzi’s book covers the history of animated films assessing over 3,000 films in more than 70 countries worldwide. Nevertheless, the book covers only 3 of 22 Arab countries and contains only small animated productions from Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria. Most of those Arab animation productions were TV series and TV commercials, and a few made as short films. An electronic communication was arranged with Bendazzi (2012) to ask what the reasons were for having such a small selection of Arab animation in his book (Bendazzi 2012). Bendazzi’s first sentence was “I think you will be disappointed by my answers”; this sentence immediately gives a negative impression about Arab animation cinema and the challenges it faces.
Bendazzi points out that when he was writing the book, from 1983 to 1988, it was hard to find Arab animated films due to the lack of connections at that time such as internet, e-mails, and social network websites. In addition, Bendazzi faced language difficulties communicating with Arab film historians and filmmakers. Moreover, Arab critics did not pay attention to animation films.
Arab animators should participate to the great international festivals; watch the masterpieces of ten, twenty, seventy years ago, and read translated books. They first must be great animators with a distinctive style, and only then adapt any text from any literature. (Bendazzi 2012)
The Arab animation industry needs people with strong skills in animation techniques and process such as character design, animation, editing, lighting, compositing, sound, music, and marketing, and then start thinking about making successful animation feature films to screen to the Arab audience and then export these films to the international audience. However, one of most important parts of any successful film in the contemporary era is the story; the film would be good as soon as the story is good. Also, quality could come in different method and ways; it does not have to imitate Disney and Pixar styles. The Arab filmmakers should think of using contemporary tools and creating fresh and unique styles such as the Iranian animated films Persepolis (2007) and the documentary The Green Wave (2011). Thus, the Arab filmmaker should focus more on making universal stories with different styles in order to show them to audiences all around the world.
In March 2012, an invitation has been received from the Cairo International Film Festival for Children (CIFFC) to present my short animated film Missing. The CIFFC, organized by the Ministry of Culture in Egypt, is one of the biggest children’s film festivals in the Arab region. There were more than 100 short and long feature live-actions, documentaries, and animated films at the official competition. Most of them were international productions and few were from Arab filmmakers, and there were no Arabic feature length animated films. This shows the limited amount of animated short and feature film productions in Arab countries.
During the festival, an interview was arranged with one of the festival’s jury committee, Dr. Mohamed Ghazala (2012), the author of Animation in the Arab World: A Glance on the Arabian Animated Films Since 1936, the sole booklet on the market about Arab animation history. Ghazala is also the founder and director of the regional African and Arabian chapter of the International Association of Animation Filmmakers (ASIFA). The aim of this organization is to involve Arabic and African animation filmmakers in creating, developing, and promoting their own regional identity and having an impact in the international animation market by participating in festivals and setting up some animation workshops.
Ghazala notes that the booklet is a collection of five articles about Arab animation published in a South Korean animation magazine called Animatoon in the Korean language. Every two months, he covered the animation in different areas of the Arab world such as Egypt, North Africa, the Ash-sham area, and the Gulf area. Subsequently, he collected the five articles with some editing then presented them as a conference paper at Athens Animfest Animation Festival in 2011 in Greece. The booklet contains only 56 pages and includes a small filmography of Arab animation with some valuable data that is important to any researcher interested in Arab animation.
I have attended many international animation festivals as a filmmaker or jury member; unfortunately, there were hardly any Arab animation in those international festivals. There is no systematic approach to producing and educating animation in the Arab region, most of the experiments that happened by the Arab animation filmmakers to show their Arabic identity and culture through animation are independent and without serious support from the Arab governments. Most of the high quality animation productions in Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco focus on TV commercials and TV series especially for Ramadan, and don’t have interest in producing artistic films for cinema and festivals. You can only see the graduation projects by the Arab art students, who make artistic animation films, then after the graduation, they work in the industry to produce commercial works and the artistic work is disappearing quickly. (Ghazala 2012)
When I was a kid I thought that the animation is only Walt Disney’s productions. When I grew up, a friend gave me a video tape of animated films produced in the Czech Republic, which has completely different style than the films we used to watch in our national televisions. These Czech animated films were abstract, artistic and nice stories. In that time I realized that animation could be for kids and adults. The Arab did not screen the East European animated films that were produced in the 60s and the 70s in the cinemas and television; these films could inspire the Arab of making such artistic animation films. (Ghazala 2012)
Another challenge facing Arab animation is the lack of animation academies in the Arab region; many universities have Arts schools that focus on graphic design and the fine arts, but only a very few schools teach animation. In addition, there are a few animation festivals in some Arab counties such as the Cairo Children’s Film Festival in Egypt, the Meknes International Festival for Animation Films in Morocco, and the newly established festival JoAnimate in Jordan. In contrast, the governments of Europe, Japan, and North America acknowledge the importance of the animation industry by giving financial support and arranging many animation festivals which develop the filmmakers and the animation industry in their countries.
Making animated feature films in the region is a massive risk due to the unstable market and the high expenses of making them. On the other hand, the Arab countries include more than 300 million people who speak the same language and share the same culture, and this would clearly be a promising marketplace if there were appropriate methods for media marketing to reach it. The Arab producers should take the Western animation markets as a model, and see how animation could have huge success and profits at the box office.
In 2009, Aljazeera News, one the biggest news broadcasting channels in the Middle East, had an interview with the animation producer and the cofounder of Ella Cartoon Studios, Mr. Osama Khalifa from Saudi Arabia. The title of this interview was The reasons for the weaknesses of the Arab animation industry (Without borders [Bila Hodoud] 2009). Khalifa produced more than 14 Arabic animated feature-length films; started with the feature animated film The Island of the light (1988) which was based on the Arabian novel Hay Bin Yakzan (Living son of Awake) which was written by the Andalusian philosopher and novelist Ibn Tufail in the early twelfth century.
None of the above films were supported by the Arab governments; they were made using their own money only. Khalifa indicates that the Arabic media market was empty of animation film productions and he decided to take a risk and make Arabic animated films for the Arab and international audiences. However, most of his animated films have been made using high quality overseas production in Turkey, Ukraine, and China due to the lack of Arab animation artists. Khalifa noted that the Arab animation industry produces less than 0.5 % of Western animation production. One year after the Without Borders interview, Ella Cartoon Studio went out of business, after 30 years of animation production.
Arab film producers made number of animated films by using a variety of stories such as religious, historical, political, and folk tales. In addition, the target audiences of most of his films are the general public and families. Nevertheless, they did not make enough profit for the studio to keep producing Arabic animated films. For this reason, his production company stopped making more films. The evidence suggests that there are a number of reasons for this struggle domestically and internationally, such as cultural challenges; the majority of the Arab people think that animation films are only for children and for that reason there is no success for theatrical releases of any Arabic animated films so far. However, Arab animation filmmakers are trying to convince investors and Arab audiences that the target audience of their animated films is general and refer to the huge success in animation in the West. Another reason could be political challenges; some of the films were made about the Palestinian Israeli conflict and those films could be difficult to screen in Europe and USA, because they might be considered as anti-Semitic. Moreover, most of Arab films have Muslim heroes who achieved victories against the Crusaders and Byzantine empires. The Arab film producers want to demonstrate the importance of making animated films appropriate to the Islamic religion and Muslim civilization. However, there is view that by making such historical stories, especially the conflicts between Muslims and Crusaders, would remind both Muslims and non-Muslims about the past, and it would “illustrate feelings, fears and animosities in the present” (Runneymede Trust 1997). Therefore, the target audience for any historical and religious films that show conflict with others might be limited to Muslim audiences only, and these types of animated films would be difficult to screen for an international audience due to subject matter that might offend the Western audience. This is the same as when Arabs and Muslims are offended by Western animated films that stereotype the image of Arabs and Islam in a negative manner.
Most of the Arab animated films were discussed so far are political, historical, and religious which could be one of the main reasons why those films are not reaching the international film marketplace. The previous examples show that the Arab animation industry is struggling in terms of budget, marketing, broadcasting, distribution, and government support. However, reaching the international market could be achievable if Arab animation filmmakers and producers make universal stories that are suitable to everyone in the world. It is worth mentioning that a number of animated films from Arab countries found that the best way of making low-budget animated films/clips was to distribute them for free via the Internet and social media such as YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, and other social media networks. The number of Arabic online videos increased greatly during and after the recent Arab revolution, the “Arab Spring” in 2011. This recent revolution gave Arab artists the freedom of expression to discuss whatever subjects they wanted to, including the political issues which attract a large number of audiences and received international channels’ attention such as CNN, France 24, ABC News, Aljazeera, and other international channels, during the Arab Spring.
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