Rasha Salti is a curator, writer, and researcher, and a current internationa programmer at TIFF. Some of her curated projects include: 'Past Disquiet: Narratives and Ghosts from The International Art Exhibition for Palestine, 1978' for the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (2015), 'Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s until Now' for the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2012); the 10th Sharjah Biennial, Sharjah, 2011; and the retrospective of Syrian cinema 'The Road to Damascus' for the Film Society at Lincoln Center, 2006. She also curated the 10th Sharjah Biennal (2011), and SAFAR (2016), a celebration of contemporary Arab cinema for which this interview was taken place.
How did you come to work on SAFAR? What did the Arab British Centre ask from you when approaching you to curate the festival for them?
The Arab British Centre has been promoting various disciplines in art and creativity, showing as much as possible in London, with a particular interest in film. The curator of the previous SAFAR festival (Omar Kholeif) is a common friend. He suggested my name, they contacted me and there it was.
The previous film programmes were more thematic, and the last edition showed classic films in addition to recent films. I am more versed in contemporary cinema. I have, by virtue of being a film programmer, a sense of the modern film landscape so I decided it would be really relevant to put together a programme of contemporary films. I believe that things are changing in Arab cinema, which was basically what I wanted to foreground. I wanted to show how diverse, broad and different Arab cinema has become.
For a long while, the genre that prevailed in this region - at least in auteur cinema as opposed to popular cinema - was social or political melodrama. Now auteur filmmakers are daring to do other things, other kinds of films. Those who continue to make social or political melodrama are doing it in a different way.
Is there a theme or topic you were asked to select films around? Or some elements that you think unify these films?
I think they are all films that challenge stereotypes and taboos, and they are films where the veil of censorship has been lifted. Or at least they assess censorship, which is perhaps actually more interesting than defying censorship.
What were you looking for when putting this programme together? Or when you program in general?
It depends for what, and for where. For this particular programme, I was keen on selecting films that have not been presented, films that have not yet been seen in London, films that will not have a theatrical release. I wanted to, in the span of six screenings, propose as diverse a programme as possible.
What were you thinking in regards to your audience? Do you hope to educate British audiences on a type of cinema they are unlikely to be exposed to usually?
When I know my audiences, I do. Its wonderful if you can present a film that you suspect will work. In this case, I couldn’t. I haven’t worked much in London. The last time I screened films was in 2011 at the Tate. That’s a very specific audience. For SAFAR, I was kind of working in the dark. It’s thrilling to presume audience reactions, but its even more thrilling when you take a risk and don’t know what to expect.
Do you think this festival will appeal exclusively for a cinephile audience. Or do you hope that it will go wider?
Great question! I definitely had that in mind. I wanted to include films that would probably appeal to a wider audience, and films that would be more for a cinephile audience. I also don’t know the Arab British Centre, the team or the board or the audience. I don’t know what they have seen of Arab cinema. One of the things I’ve learnt over the years programming films, anywhere, is that you should never underestimate your audience. People have bought a ticket. They’re predisposed to being surprised, enchanted or provoked. Most of the time, our perception of what might please or displease is challenged by the audience. I think people still love to go to the movies, and they still like to see what they don’t expect to see. I don’t think people want to see what comforts them or what they’ve seen before, so this is also part of what has informed my selection.
Do you hope that the festival will enable conversations about cinema of the region and further?
I think its about both the films and the conversations that follow. In the conversations that follow, especially when the filmmaker is present, magic can happen. Even if the audience reaction is negative, for the filmmaker it is crucial for his or her development and growth. They make films to be seen, and they have to be screened to as many different audiences in as many different countries as possible. It’s really important for the filmmakers, and audiences too.
Audiences need to see these representations, images, narratives, compositions, music. They need to be exposed to this incredible creativity. This programme is informed by my belief that Arab cinema has been changing a lot in the last 15 years, but in the last 5, something wild has been happening. It is almost as if the genie is out of the bottle. I believe it is the impact of the Arab Spring that you cannot measure in electoral politics.
The industry is far more professional. Arab filmmakers go to workshops, they apply for grants, they know how to prepare their films for festival submission. Yet, instead of becoming more mainstream, they are becoming more radical. I think this comes with watching dictators fall, and knowing that people have power. I think its part of no longer being afraid, no longer holding back.
Is that something you have seen with the films you’ve selected for SAFAR?
Absolutely. It’s the essential energy behind these films. It’s intangible but I feel it. As a programmer, I am also invited to sit on juries for grants, and I read a lot of scripts. I never became jaded, but I never expected to be truly surprised by films, and I have been. I’ve been stunned by the courage, the inventiveness of cinematic language, of approach, of narrative.
As a specialist in this area then, I suppose your job has got better in the last few years?
Oh hell yes! One of the films in the programme, called Starve Your Dog. It’s a punk film. I describe the filmmaker as the Sid Vicious of Arab cinema. This is not something I could have imagined in years past.
Does programming work for you with a regional approach? Is ‘Arab cinema’ a label that works for you?
It’s tricky. It’s a chicken and egg situation. The world of film distribution is suffering. How many foreign languages, whether Serbian or Taiwanese, screen in London anyway. How do we make sure that international films make it some screens anyway? There are different ways of programming, one is thematic, one is regional. It’s not a very flattering label to be under the regional label, because it creates a set of predefined expectations and discourse. Despite this, it if you able to bite the bullet, get past this and make it to the screening, you find a filmmaker who is a great filmmaker standing in front of an audience talking about influences of British Punk, or Japanese cinema, and talking about the reality that is really a universal reality. I think these labels are troubling, but the way international cinema travels is so problematic and complicated, we need to find tricks.
Do you think filmmakers are making films with a more international outlook.
I think they are making the films they want to make. They are responding to their own sense of urgency. What’s beautiful is that it’s not necessarily a political urgency that you perceive. They are making films that they think they absolutely must make. This is just one form of emancipation.
What do you see for the region going forward, based on what you’ve observed over the last five years?
The next challenge will be to find ways that these films screen, so that they seen by their own audience, generate discussion and debate and push other filmmakers to make more films. My job has become far more enjoyable than I ever expected it to be. Its wonderful not just to witness, but to be an accomplice to this surge of creativity.
Definitely. I think if we could get people who don’t generally watch films involved, then it would be good. I think a festival like this, could definitely bring new people in. What would you say to people who are coming to this festival who are unfamiliar with these films, or these filmmakers, or these countries even? How would you give them an in?
I think its a kind of a magic. its like selling a magic act. These films will never come back to London, because of the situation in film distribution. They are delightful and funny and provocative, and meaningful, and I don’t know if you would this about Hollywood film. when you see these films, I feel we are in a better place because these artists dared to open doors and tell stories, to represent a reality that is really there but is not communicated. It’s the only time people in London will be able to travel to the immediacy of a Lebanese family struggling with legacy, or to the heart of an Armenian genocide survivor.