DUBAI: Last year, Netflix, the world’s biggest streaming service, made a call to nine of the best filmmakers from across the Arab world with a simple request: Make a short film about love. The result is something beautiful — an anthology series entitled “Love, Life & Everything in Between,” in which stories from Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia explore the myriad ways love both blossoms and struggles, each with a flair all its own.
“Each of us worked separately, so no one knew what the others were doing. Yes, we had the same theme, but it was up to our own interpretation. It was extremely exciting artistically, because you cannot put yourself in someone else’s shoes, so we didn’t know what to expect from the rest, and were anxious to find out,” says Lebanese filmmaker Michel Kammoun, whose episode, “The Big Red Heart,” follows a man whose life nearly falls apart because of a giant plush Valentine’s gift.
As light-hearted and easy-to-watch as the films are, the project — a globally-released series uniting filmmakers from across the Arab world in a single project — is one of huge significance for Arab film as a whole, displaying both the intricacies of each culture while highlighting the shared values and sensibilities, something that was not lost on the show’s contributors.
“To be perfectly honest, I’m honored to be a part of it. The Arab world has long been unfairly treated by the rest of the world, because of political reasons and dehumanization of our culture and art. This gave us the chance to unite in all our different ways,” Hany Abu-Assad, the two-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker who co-directed the short film “Kazoz” with writer-director Amira Diab, tells Arab News. “This is a great step towards the Arab world collaborating, because it’s actually united, though politically it’s divided. It was a dream of ours to be part of a series like this.”
When they sat down to watch the other films in the series once the project was completed, the filmmakers were pleasantly surprised by how well their works fit together, each displaying a strong sense of humor and self-deprecation, addressing the many issues in their own societies that become obstacles in the face of love straight-on.
“I was struck by how they treated the subject with a lot of humor and self-reflection. There was this similarity that they all had: The courage to laugh at our own misery,” says Abu-Assad.
“In Palestine in particular, this is how we deal with our very cruel reality under occupation. We use humor to overcome all our life issues,” adds Diab.
The misery that each film laughs at was often intensely personal for the filmmakers, and the process of filmmaking served as a way to cope for Kammoun, who made his film in the wake of the horrendous 2020 in Beirut that was coupled with the collapse of the Lebanese economy.
“Beirut was starting to fade, but we all had to survive. Life must continue,” he says. “You had to drag yourself (out of bed) in the morning, because you knew what you were facing. I asked myself, ‘How am I going to write something about love?’ I don’t think I would have been able to write anything else other than a black comedy. It gave me oxygen, to tell you the truth. It was encouragement. It was anti-depressive to work on this project, and I really used it, personally, as a weapon, to give me hope and a reason to continue.”
For Saudi filmmaker Mahmoud Sabbagh, whose groundbreaking 2016 film “Barakah meets Barakah” was the first Saudi feature to screen at the Berlin Film Festival, his contribution to the show — “Glitch Love” — was an opportunity to explore the way Jeddah’s traditional culture interacts with the present. It follows a sound engineer in love with a famous singer who once recorded in his studio.
“Yes, it’s about love, but it explores how this particular district became the epicenter of Saudi’s music scene in the late 60s and 70s. This story of a mundane sound engineer helps show the dichotomy between then and Jeddah’s youth today, and how these two different worlds reflect each other — how they’re existing without co-existing,” Sabbagh says.
“I think black comedy works with characters who are terrible loners, anti-heroes with gender in the backdrop, and I was attracted to explore that all through the theme of love,” he continues.
Diab — Abu-Assad’s collaborator and, by his own admission, the main creative voice of the project (“I was just sitting there,” he says) — was inspired by the way that, during lockdown, there were two events that carried on : Weddings and funerals.
“It fascinated me, because the world had stopped, except for these two events, run by the same people. They use the same chairs, same food, same everything. I kept wondering why on earth this was still happening, one celebrating the future and one grieving the past. Really, it is because we, as human beings, have an existential need to socialize. We want to continue to live together, to socialize together — to dance together in the joy and grieve the loss, all of it together. So, in my film, a wedding turns into a funeral, and a funeral turns into a wedding,” says Diab.
While each of the films represent the filmmaker’s culture, they are also a wonderful representation of their creators and a chance to see a different side of them, often a more-playful one.
“Because it was a short project, we had more freedom to express our insanity — and all of the directors expressed some form of their own madness. In a long feature, you wouldn’t dare go insane,” says Abu-Assad. “It’s a huge achievement to put all these talents together and just give them freedom without any (direction) other than a theme. It gave us the chance to express ourselves in a crazy way, and on a platform like Netflix that will allow the world to see Arab filmmakers do things they’ve never seen before.”
Now that the risk of the project has paid off into something sure to be received well across the region and the world, Sabbagh is hoping that it leads Netflix and others to take more risks with Arab filmmakers — showing more of the many layers that have yet to be discovered within the depths of the region’s talent.
“I would like to see Netflix take more risks with more original Saudi projects, in particular. I want to see period pieces. I’ve seen a reluctance so far, but we need bigger projects from this region. Now, I feel that should start to happen,” Sabbag says. “We’re more than ready.”