Yet, Theeb is just the latest in a spate of complex and artful films that have originated in the Middle East and North Africa within the past decade. The accessibility of production tools and advent of digital distribution has helped spur what some scholars and filmmakers tentatively say is the start of a golden age in Arab cinema. The evolution of filmmaking styles and production methods from the region, the social movements that have been fomenting there in the past decade, and the role that film has historically played in constructing Arab identity have all played a part in Theeb’s current success. Though Arab cinema still faces plenty of challenges—including limited funding channels, a dearth of film schools, and few public screening opportunities—many independent directors are creating works that, like Theeb, reflect the region and its inhabitants in new, boundary-pushing ways.
Of course, the Middle East and North Africa isn’t monolithic—it contains a diversity of peoples, states, and cultures, and the Arabic language itself is split into many dialects—but for the purpose of assessing the Arabic-language film industry, it’s helpful to look at Arab identity as congruous.
The events of Theeb take place roughly after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire post-World War I, when nearly the whole Arab world was divided between Britain and France through the Sykes-Picot agreement. As a result, most Arab countries didn’t make movies before their respective independence from colonial rule in the 20th century. It was then, between the 1920s and 1960s, that filmmaking became a powerful way to create distinct national and cultural identities. In her book Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity, the film scholar Viola Shafik writes:
Getting into industrial film production was considered a national achievement in the former Arab colonies and protectorates. The acquisition of cinematic techniques was a sign of progress and offered a real opportunity to expand economically. On the political level, cinema was believed to create a platform for counter-representations, giving the formerly colonized a chance to challenge Western dominance, at least on the screen.
Egypt was at the helm of film production, and the period of time between the 1940s through the 1960s was especially fruitful. Many viewers and listeners outside of Egypt enjoyed Egyptian cinema, specifically the musicals and melodramas that were popular at the time.
Film industries in other Arab nations looked to Egypt for guidance, and productions were quick to adopt its funding model and replicate the popular styles and genres that were emblematic of Egyptian films. In the 1960s, however, the control over filmmaking shifted from the private sector largely to the government, which led to a decline in the quality and number of films being produced. Film production in the 1970s through the early 2000s was difficult across the Arab world, encumbered by a crisis in the public sector and hampered by increasing state censorship. “All Arab governments,” writes Shafik, “be they capitalist or socialist, have reduced the medium’s freedom of expression through legal restrictions.”