Encyclopedia of Computer Graphics and Games

Living Edition
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Challenges Facing the Arab Animation Cinema

  • Tariq AlrimawiEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-08234-9_62-1



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.

The report defined the term Islamophobia as “the practical consequences to such hostility in unfair discrimination against Muslims individual and communities, and to the exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political and social affairs” (Runneymede Trust 1997). Islamophobia has affected Muslim film producers’ capacity to show their Arab/Islamic animated films to a Western audience. For example, a Saudi film production company called Badr International invested around 12 million US dollars, which is the highest budget for any Arabic animated film so far, in their first feature animated film, Muhammad the Last Prophet (2002) (Jammal 2012). These movies were made by a team of artists from Hollywood who combined traditional hand drawing with computer graphics and effects. The director who had the unique experience and challenge of making this movie was Richard Rich, who worked for Disney for many years. The soundtrack was composed by Emmy-award winning composer William Kidd. In consequence, the movie was described as being an “(old-fashion) Western-style entertainment about a distinctly non-Western subject” (Stevens 2004). However, this movie was the first feature-length animated film that focused on the biography of the prophet Muhammad and the journey with his followers from Mecca to Madina, set around 1400 years ago during the early years of Islam (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Muhammad : The Last Prophet (2002) (Directed by Richard Rich)

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.

In contrast to all the challenges that face Arab animation, and the small number of animation productions compared with the Western animation productions, the Arab world is abundant with magnificent folktales such as the One Thousand and One Nights stories which are suitable for adaptation to make into many animated films. From the inspiration of the Arabian Nights stories Western film producers have developed animated films such as The Adventures of Princes Achmed (1925), Aladdin (1992), and Azur and Asmar (2006). Arabs, however, have not used their own past Arabian stories to reach either the domestic and international animation marketplaces. Bendazzi recalls:

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.

Ghazala explains the reasons behind the small selection of Arab animation in his booklet; he collected those Arab animated films individually by himself. The main problem was that he could not find any official archive or library for Arab animation. It was hard to find the original copy of the animated films, and few Arab animated films are available on the internet, and then, only with low resolution. Ghazala points out the problems of Arab animation films in terms of quantity and quality compared with the Western animation productions:

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)

Arab film productions focus more on making live-action films. For example, in Egypt, “The Arab Hollywood,” there had been produced thousands of live-action films (Shafik 2007). Surprisingly, Al Sahar Studio, one of the biggest animation studios in Egypt, has had financial difficulties since 1998 in attempting to complete their first Egyptian feature length animated film The Knight and the Princess (Ghazala 2011). Therefore, it is appropriate to question the reasons why there have been so few animated feature films successfully produced in the Arab world; Is it because the Arab film producers think that animation is only for television and children? Ghazala points out that for a long time, Arab national television has imported all the animation films and TV series that suited children:

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.

Most of Ella Cartoon Studios films are historical, such as The Conqueror (Al Fatih, 1995), a feature animated film that tells a story about the conquer of Constantinople in the fifteenth century by the Turkish leader Sultan Mehmed Al Fatih (Fig. 2). Also, the animated film Conquered Andalucia (Fateh Al Andalous, 1998), which tells a story about the Muslim hero Tariq Ben Ziad when he conquered Andalucia in Spain in the early eighth century to spread the religion of Islam in the West. The studio also made the feature animated film The Lion of Ain Jalout (Asad Ain Jalout, 1998) which tells a story about the Egyptian Muslim leader Prince Saif Al-din Qutuz when he led the Muslims to achieve victories against the Crusaders in Mansoura in Egypt and Mangouls in Ain Jalout in Palestine in the thirteenth century.
Fig. 2

The Conqueror (1993) (Produced by Osama Khalifa)

However, Khalifa also produced some religious animated feature films such as The Immortal Journey (Rehlat Al-kholoud, 1996) directed by Darwish Yasin (Fig. 3). The story is adapted from the Holy Quran, Surat Al-Buruj (The Mansions of the Stars) Chapter 85 verses 4–9. All of the animation and illustrations were made in cooperation with a studio in Turkey. However, the style of the illustrations and animation is similar to the Japanese cartoon visual style used in Anime and Manga, using common visual elements such as big eyes, minimum facial details, a lot of light and shade, and numerous camera rotations. Khalifa also produced a number of political animated films especially about the Palestinian Israeli conflicts, such as The Olive’s Dream (Holm Al Zaytoun, 2009) and a 3D animated film Martyr of World (Shaheed Al-alam, 2003).
Fig. 3

The Immortal Journey (1994) (directed by: Darwish Yasin, produced by Osama Khalifa)

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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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Graphic Design DepartmentUniversity of PetraAmmanJordan