For Hajer Ben Nasr, the challenge of getting her documentary on the life of Ibn Khaldun to the screen would be familiar to filmmakers the world over.
When it comes to Khaldun — 14th century Tunisian philosopher, historian and confidant of monarchs across the Middle East and North Africa — it seemed everyone had an interest; everyone wanted input; everyone had suggested revisions. "He was such a complex person, people were perplexed about the output of the production, and what it should be," says Ben Nasr, a prolific documentarian and emerging TV production mogul.
Spain, with its Moorish past, wanted the film in its Khaldun Festival, but with some reservations. Neighboring Morocco wanted to "change some of the scenarios," she says. "He is big in Algeria," Ben Nasr continues. "This person is famous. Each country asked to read the script first." Just like they do in Hollywood? "Exactly," Ben Nasr replies. "Voila."
A new direction for Middle Eastern cinema has evolved with the Arab Spring. The revolutions have provided filmmakers with fresh narratives and wider global interest in Arab film, which has dovetailed with Arab Gulf appetite to invest in culture and become a new hub for the industry, long dominated by Egypt. Both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates now sponsor Arab film festivals and provide funding for movies — a recent example being Black Gold, a Middle Eastern period drama starring world-famous actors including Antonio Banderas.
Ben Nasr was one of several filmmakers to appear at the Tunisian Film Festival, a low-key event staged in Los Angeles as the first anniversary of the Arab Spring approached. Two of Ben Nasr’s documentaries screened at the festival: Abou El Kacem Chebbi, The Poet Of Love And Freedom, a biography of the Tunisian poet of the Arab Spring, and Women Of The Revolution, featuring women like blogger Lina Ben Mhari, who defied physical violence and imprisonment to rally opposition to the former Tunisian regime.
It is the latest event to broaden exposure to the Arab film industry. February’s Berlin Film Festival focused on Arab filmmakers and the Arab Spring. In May, 2011, the Abu Dhabi Film commission held a lunch promoting Arab filmmaking during the Cannes Film Festival.
Interest in filmmaking in the Arab world is also driven by newfound economic potential, both in domestic production and financing international films. The film production industry in Dubai earned it US$40 million last year, according to The National, while Abu Dhabi based-film company Image Nation co-financed The Help, which has grossed more than US$200 million worldwide and picked up Oscars.
There’s fresh potential for Arab cinema, but much has to be developed, Ben Nasr cautions. "It’s not yet an industry (but) some people now see an opportunity to make money."
Arab Spring Inspiration
Arab filmmakers are enjoying the currency their work has gained because of the Arab Spring. The makeshift office of the Tunisian Film Festival, at the less-fashionable eastern end of Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, owed its existence to the events on the other side of the world.
Organizers of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its offshoots, such as Occupy L.A., have said they drew ideas and inspiration from the people-powered movements that fueled the North Africa and Arab popular uprisings of 2011.
Bechir Blagui, the executive director of the film festival, had lived in Los Angeles for 11 years. It was on a visit to the Occupy L.A. site that he made the connection with his former homeland. When he told people there he was from Tunisia, he says, they cheered. "I re-discovered how much in common we have," Blagui says. "People were demanding justice in both places."
One day he walked up the steps of City Hall, where the thousands involved in the Occupy movement had assembled over several weeks, and addressed the crowd. "Tunisia has started this," Blagui told the gathering. "Now we’re learning from each other."
Ben Nasr’s interest in Ibn Khaldun was prompted at least as much by the philosopher’s ideas as his influence. British historian Arnold Toynbee describes Khaldun as "the one outstanding personality" of his era of Middle Eastern history. His conception and formulation of Tunisian history was "undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place," according to Toynbee.
To Ben Nasr, those insights remain timeless. "Even if he’s from the 14th century, he has the focus of our problems now," she said. "(He showed) the Prince does not have to make business with his work.
"We lived this with our regime of Ben Ali (dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011, after 23 years in power) and how opportunities were taken from the people. And we see the end of this regime."
Not Sure Yet
Ben Nasr’s was not the first proposal to document Khaldun’s life on film, but it was the most ambitious, with academics hired as consultants, and elaborate settings with crowds of extras to better illustrate the story.
Ben Nasr, a mother of five, mortgaged the family home in Tunisia to help meet the documentary’s budget of 570,000 dinars, or approximately $US500,000.
Her experience financing the film was a snapshot of life for artists under Ben Ali’s regime. Initial funding came from the Tunisian Ministry of Culture, in part, at least, because it coincided with the 600th anniversary of Khaldun’s death, in 1406.
This official backing was a first for her, Nasr said. A multitude of other approaches to the ministry had been unsuccessful. But Nasr wanted to focus on Khaldun’s two "big ideas": Social equality, and the duty of royalty to separate itself from trade and commerce. "You can’t own the country and lead it," Ben Nasr notes. These concepts figured prominently in the documentary "and not in a subtle way."
That was three big productions ago. Ben Nasr is now a successful TV executive, with her production house, Nasr for Art Production, providing programming throughout the Middle East, including children’s shows. Of itself, this is an indicator of change in areas beyond the political in Tunisia, where the stock TV viewing was once news programs.
Her other documentaries — the two that ran during the Tunisian Film Festival, as well as a study of Tahar Haddad, a dissident intellectual and vocal supporter of women’s rights from the 1930s — have been underwritten by profits from her TV productions.
But for Ben Nasr, all that is certain is that there has and will be change. Whether that change constitutes improvement is not something she feels she can safely predict.
"I will answer you very cautiously," Ben Nasr says. "To put things in perspective, it’s just one year. For now, there definitely is a breath of freedom in the business." But, she added, it’s hard to read the basis of that freedom; whether it is a relaxation of the grip of government, or simply a symptom of political instability.
This seems to be a near-universal response, both inside and outside Tunisia. A meeting of the African Development Bank last month was told that the combination of revolutionary change within the country and the financial tumult in the Eurozone meant that potential investors would remain on the sidelines for the time being.
An estimate by Oxford Economics suggested the Tunisian economy had shrunk by 0.4% in 2011; with a 40% drop in tourism earnings the main contributor.
A coalition led by Ennahda, a moderate Islamic party, holds power in the new Tunisian parliament. The next stage in the rebirth of this nation will occur quickly, with a new constitution, and presidential and parliamentary elections all due by mid-2013.
Thus, every aspect of life in Tunisia is in a fledgling stage. That includes the film industry.