Lujain IbrahimJune 03, 2018

Modern Arab Science Fiction

Films

Science fiction films have had a strong presence in the Western world from as early as the 1900s and have been more popular than ever over the past 100 years, with blockbuster films like Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Metropolis and more captivating viewers’ minds and imaginations. Even though science fiction films are often very speculative and offer an uncanny sense of escapism, they simultaneously create a sense of realism and authenticity as they strip down big ideas and forces that govern our world to the raw human emotions and desires that drive them; there’s Blade Runner  that provokes thinking about the meaning of being human and deserving human empathy, and then Star Wars  that explores the meaning of family and other social and political institutions and more. By allowing us to contemplate ideas that are bigger than us, we are given the opportunity to navigate uncharted territories that are then revealed to be actually frequently visited territories simply in a different form. 

Science fiction storytelling in the Arab world has been explored very early on with the likes of One Thousand and One Nights  and Sinbad  dominating from as early as the 14th century. However, Arab science fiction films and stories have seen a significant rise in popularity over the past 10 years with the increase in the size of the Arab diaspora and recent events in the Middle East. In an era of constant negotiations and disagreements, the powers of science fiction which include delivering commentary without bitterness and imagining alternate worlds with unorthodox solutions have been rediscovered. This has led to the creation of works that are mashups of genre (often documentary and science fiction) as well as mashups of content (often Western and Eastern). 

A Space Exodus (Directed by Larissa Sansour)

A Space Exodus (Directed by Larissa Sansour)

In A Space Exodus , Larissa Sansour takes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and reimagines it in a different setting exploring relocating to space as a possible solution to the conflict in Palestine. Even though the visuals and sometimes the lines, “Jerusalem, we have a problem”, are adapted from Kubrick’s film, the music is very characteristically Middle Eastern. In that way, Sansour not only visualizes the issue of Palestinian displacement in the actual events of the film (by going to the moon and losing contact with Jerusalem), she also creates a hybrid of two worlds: Kubrick’s world visually and the Arab world musically serving as a metaphor of the state Palestinian diaspora communities are often in. Sansour has also previously revealed the reason she was attracted to this genre of surrealist science fiction films: “... what’s happening in Israel and Palestine is so surreal… For me, it became more honest to work in a surreal way, and I feel that it adds more to the dialogue, because I wanted the audience to be on par with the people they watch in the film.

No Exit (Directed by Mohanad Yaqubi)

No Exit (Directed by Mohanad Yaqubi)

The second film, No Exit, explores the end of the journey of seeking refuge in a war-free paradise, and the struggle of starting a new life in that paradise. It creates a cyclical world in between two worlds that Ali, a refugee just about to enter London, is stuck in. It redefines the concepts of time and space thus crafting a world that is a manifestation of the state of mind Ali is in but is struggling to accept. There are multiple instances in the film where we hear excerpts from the characters’ imaginations echoing in their minds whose source is unclear as coming from the media or from the personal experiences of the characters. The film is full of metaphors, visual contrasts, the raw human desire of seeking normality, and the simple request of “dying of old age”.


2026 (Directed by Maha Maamoun)

2026 (Directed by Maha Maamoun)

Finally, 2026 is an Egyptian film in which a time traveler visually describes a vision from the future in 2026. 2026 in a similar manner to A Space Exodusadapts a scene from Chris Marker’s French science fiction film La Jetée. The film has no visual distractions like shiny androids and new worlds in outer space, but instead opts for a minimalist visual choice with stills from the scene adapted from La Jetée playing throughout the film. There is a stark contrast between the narrator speaking in a continuous uninterrupted stream and the visuals being stills that are stitched together rather than a video. 

About the author

Lujain is an undergraduate student studying computer engineering at New York University Abu Dhabi who is particularly invested in engineering applications in the world of biotechnology and biomedicine. She is also interested in exploring science and technology in film as well as the cultural and political significance of cinema.

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