The Arab Sci-Fi Comeback
scifi HH

Darine Hotait is a 29-year-old screenwriter, director and producer originally from Lebanon.

Coming from a long line of immigrants – the maternal side of her family tree has been living in the United States for the past 50 years – Hotait found herself dragging her suitcase from Beirut to Detroit, and then relocating again to Los Angeles for her Masters degree in film directing at the Art Center College of Design. Afterwards, she flew to Lebanon to shoot her first feature film, which was postponed out of lack of financing. But the disappointment was replaced with the excitement of the beginning of a new chapter in her life; she met her husband amidst the chaos of Beirut, and finally settled down with him in New York City.

Like all wandering souls (a situation Darine hadn’t consciously chosen), her constant travels affected the relationships with her family and friends. The loneliness she experienced with all the moving around resulted in an acute curiosity about people and the way they perceive things around them – how they react to the changing world. This resulted in an outsider’s point of view about her birthplace and its citizens.

“The Lebanese are becoming more artificial each day,” observed Darine. “We’ve reached a point where we can stop our physical appearance of aging with plastic surgeries and enhancements, however we cannot stop the body from dying”.

Thus, we segue onto Darine’s most recent project.

It all started in California, where the young and aspiring filmmaker received attention by writing her friends’ screenplays. A control freak – as Darine so affectionately refers to herself – she also wanted to have the final say in the making of the films, and thus became a producer. That is how Cinephilia Productions was born. As well as creating the Cinephilia Screenwriting Lab For Shorts – a selective world touring lab that aims to develop original, visionary and daring voices in the art of screenwriting from the MENASA region –, Darine is now in the pre-production stages of her debut science fiction feature film Symphony of a Flood, co-produced by Sabine Sidawi from Ourjouane Productions in Lebanon.

Before taking the leap into the production of feature films, Darine’s first step was to write the screenplay of Orb, a short sci-fi movie set in Beirut in the year 2050 and based on Symphony of a Flood.

“The interesting part is that this is not very different from Beirut 2014 in many ways,” said Darine. “A growing number of people are looking for perfection through continuous services that are being offered. People are becoming brain dead due to the lack of freedom of thought where consciousness is buried under the dramatized empire of capitalism.”

Orb tells the story of a mother that loses her son in a gruesome accident. She is given the opportunity to bring him back to life through a new kind of technology that enhances the human life span. The only downside is that her child will remain physically immortal, due to the surgical implementation of a robotized brain. Will she let go of him or keep a cyborg version of the fruit of her loins?

Orb just succeeded its campaign for funding on Zoomal, a crowd-funding platform for the Arab world that recently launched the Arab Women Pioneer challenge. 25 projects were selected and put online to be financed at the same time. Hoteit’s film was one of the final projects.

On June 6th, 2014, Orb collected $16,068 out of a $16,000 goal.

This may be a first in the land of the regenerating phoenix from the ashes, but the Arab world has been witnessing an outburst of sci-fi productions for the past few years in the film industry, books, illustrations and artwork. The echoes of the region’s productions had even reached the White House in 2010, when President Obama made a special mention about THE 99 – the world’s first superhero comic book, based on Islamic culture and the 99 names of Allah – and its creator, Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, in his speech given at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington. The American president commended THE 99 for capturing the imaginations of young people through the message of tolerance. An animated series was produced in 2009 and later on banned in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, under the pretenses of it being blasphemous according to the Holy Quran.

An investigation into the striking new wave of Arab artists that tackle important matters and existential subjects through science fictional works led to Al-Akhbar’s Yazan Al-Saadi, who published an extensive piece on the history of Arabic SF.

“The interest has been there for decades, if not centuries,” explained Al-Saadi. “It feels like an explosion now, and in many ways it is, because we, as the audience, have better access to this genre and its creators… There is an increased growth in these past few years than before, and I think this has to do with the eruption of more activity from the uprisings; not only was it a release of more political, economic, and social desires but also energized creativity. More creators, artists, writers, filmmakers, are willing now or feel like they are able to use genres like sci-fi to make powerful points.”

Theologus Autodidactus was the first science fiction novel in Arabic literature, written by the polymath Ibn al-Nafis in the 13th century. He had used his understanding in almost all scientific areas such as anatomy, biology, astronomy and geology to develop the SF world he had created.

On the 29th of April, 2014, the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) was the science fiction novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, written by Iraqi author Ahmad Saadawi.

As Marcia Lynx Qualey stated in her article for Al-Jazeera covering IPAF’s seventh anniversary, “Once a tiny minority in Arabic literature, science fiction, horror and thrillers are getting a boost.”

Featured image by Neal Conway (Creative Commons)

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About The Author

Roubina Arslanian

Roubina Arslanian

When asked to write her own bio, Roubina decided to just list the areas of work that were relevant to her career: TV. Documentaries. Journalism. Arts. Culture. Food. Music. Event management. Concerts. And just recently, Books.

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