Book Review: Animation in the Middle East: Practice and Aesthetics from Baghdad to Casablanca edited by Stefanie Van de Peer

Jingyi Zhang
University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia, USA
jz66666@uga.edu

Van de Peer, Stefanie, ed. Animation in the Middle East: Practice and Aesthetics from Baghdad to Casablanca. I.B. Tauris, 2017. 318 pp., ISBN: 978 1 78453 326 7, $87.44 (pbk).

Abstract

Animated films produced in the Middle East and North Africa tend to be overlooked by western scholars, who they may only be familiar with a few titles or nations from this part of the world. Stefanie Van de Peer’s edited book, Animation in the Middle East: Practice and Aesthetics from Baghdad to Casablanca, reveals a dichotomy whereby, despite their complicated political, cultural, and religious environment, animation from Middle Eastern and North African nations managed to represent important and popular works. By tracking each country’s development in animation, Van de Peer argues that animation is quite a popular art form in the area, where is widely practiced. Not only do local audiences prefer their own national animation, but also, many animators and artists use the medium to explore and identify their (trans)national identity. In this book review, I introduce the chapters in the book and argue that this edited study is very useful for scholars who teach and study the animation history of the region. 

Keywords: Animation studies, Middle Eastern animation, North African animation, animation history, animation industry

 

Though Persepolis (2007) and Waltz with Bashir (2008) attracted some attention from audiences, the animated films from the Middle East and North Africa hardly ever reach the radar of audiences as compared with globally popular animation from the US, Japan, or Europe. Moreover, the animated films from the region are too often overlooked by western scholars. Stefanie Van de Peer’s edited book, Animation in the Middle East: Practice and Aesthetics from Baghdad to Casablanca, reveals a condition whereby, despite the complicated political, cultural, and religious environment of Middle Eastern and North African nations, the animation produced from these countries embody important and popular works. By tracking each country’s development in animation, Van de Peer argues that animation is quite a popular art form in the area and that is widely practiced. Hence, local audiences from the region prefer their own national animation, and many animators and artists utilize the medium in order to explore and identify their (trans)national identity.

Before this book was published, Van de Peer had co-edited two books about cinema in Africa and the Middle East. Her experience in academia along with her background of working for film festivals around the world have helped provide the scholarly and practical perspectives of the book. With the contribution of twelve authors, each a specialist in their own area, she takes the reader on a tour from Iraq to Morocco and offers in-depth analyses of the animated films of the twelve countries from a historical point of view. This book is a bridge between the western film academia and the less discussed Middle East animation industry.

The twelve chapters in the book are organized by each  country’s geographical location. Starting from Iraq, the editor traces the map from east to west, ending with Morocco. Focusing on one country per chapter, the articles combine to offer an integrated view of the animation of the region, a perspective that differs from the prevailing scholarship about the region that is too often concentrated on Arab, Iranian, or Turkish cinema. Moreover, the authors of the book have an interdisciplinary background, several of whom have practical experiences in film, animation, comics, and/or illustration, which has furnished their insights from both theoretical and industrial perspectives. This book also adopts articles written by young scholars, which brings a variety of new perspectives to the study.

Though each chapter concentrates on one country, the inner connections make the chapters work as a whole, geographically as well as thematically. For instance, in Chapters One and Three, Amber Shields and Omar Adam Sayfo explore the way Iraqi and Saudi Arabian artists use animation as the medium through which to identify their transnational identities in different methods. Shields conducts a case study of Furat AL-Jamil’s short animation Baghdad Night and argues that by retelling this traditional tale in animation, the director displays a historical memory that reinforces a collective identity, connecting the present to the past. Sayfo, on the other hand, traces the development of the animation industry in Saudi Arabia from a historical point of view. He points out that the production of animation in the area has involved a large amount of outsourcing. The energy of local literature, political issues and satire, however, has been infused into animation works to help the industry blossom. Similar to Sayfo’s method, in Chapter Eight, Yael Friedman also walks through the history of Israeli animation and argues that though Israeli animation is developing, it may remain on a small scale. Its production does however range across genres, from children’s entertainment and educational works to commercial series.

Several authors examine the relationship between art, education, and entertainment and analyze the influence of advertising on local production. In Chapter Two, Maryam Ghorbankarimi explores the contribution of Iranian animation as an art form. She looks at the institutional history of Iranian animation, recognizing the significant auteurs, like the pioneer Esfandiar Ahmadieh and revolutionary Noureddin Zarrinkelk. Basak Urkmez, in Chapter Four traces the history of Turkish animation back to an earlier stage as is represented by the Karagoz shadow theatre. Besides taking its inspiration from theatre, Turkish animation has also had a close connection to the advertising field. Founded in the 1940s, Turkish advertising agencies employed caricature artists, who later became cartoon animators, to produce illustration ads. Though the government has encouraged the production of animation, Urkmez points out that the conservative environment still brings obstacles to the local industry.

Compared to other countries in the Middle East, according to Lina Ghaibeh and George Khoury (Jad) in Chapter Six, Lebanon has a relatively liberal political environment. Being no stranger to cultural experimentation, Lebanon was “known to represent the avant-garde in the Arab World” (Darwish 10). Though it is hardly a well-formed and established animation industry yet, the objectives of producing animated films now go beyond educational and entertainment goals, thanks to the private TV station Future Television. The future of animation in Lebanon is difficult to foresee. But it is very likely that artists will continue to contribute to its independent production. In Chapter Nine, Mohamed Ghazala highlights the fact that Egypt was the first country in Africa and the Middle East to construct a successful film industry. Along with Ghazala’s historical examination, he portrays the beginnings and subsequent development of animation in Egypt. Once popularized through commercial ventures, animation in the country has now returned to its being an exploration of the art form. Most importantly, this cannot be discussed without contextualizing it through the influence of the Egyptian revolution of 2011,which pushed animators to seek to express their ideas freely and explore online platforms.

Syria and Libya face a repressive environment and have experienced a great deal of political turmoil. Van de Peer and Nisrine Mansour, respectively in Chapters Five Ten, both argue that the political turmoil occurring in these countries has pushed both animators and artists to more energetically create their art and animation. To counterbalance the effect of their country’s revolution, animators have learned to use social media and online platforms to spread their works. Moreover, Mansour looks at the development of animation in Libya from the perspectives of political/national representation and gender relations. In Chapters Seven and  Twelve, Colleen Jankovic and Paula Callus highlight the function of digital media in the animation industry in Palestine and Morocco, respectively. They comb through the way artists discovered the digital platform and form online communities to create and collaborate. Jankovic also underlines the fact that artists actively use training opportunities abroad and co-production with NGOs to generate animated works to make up for the lack of resources in their area.

The articles in Van de Peer’s edition offer the readers a valuable account of the history of animation in the Middle East and North Africa. The readers who study and teach animation history should embrace and draw on this book in their curricula. It not only offers abundant historical facts and the political background of the industries in the region but also provides a large number of important titles and examples to begin or enhance the reader’s study of the region. Moreover, the film references consist of the original title and the translated version, which is convenient for readers who speak multiple languages. With rich illustrations in each chapter and some original materials from the animators, the authors unfold the strengths as well as the obstacles that the animators must face. As Paul Wells states on the cover of the book, this edition “is an important contribution in revising assumptions about animation history and culture.”

Works Cited

Darwish, Mustafa. Dream Makers on the Nile: A Portrait of Egyptian Cinema. AUC Press, 1998.

Van de Peer, Stefanie, ed. Animation in the Middle East: Practice and Aesthetics from Baghdad to Casablanca. I.B. Tauris, 2017.

Author Bio

Jingyi Zhang is an ABD of Theatre and Performance Studies PhD program at the University of Georgia. Her research interests lie in the East Asian animation, with a dissertation on the history of the 21st century Chinese animation. She has presented at several conferences on Japanese anime and Chinese animation, including Southwest Popular/American Culture Association and Society of Animation Studies. Her article on the industrial practice of anime is to be published in 2024. Zhang is also an animation practitioner who received her M.F.A. on Dramatic Media at the University of Georgia.

Suggested Reference Citation

APA

Zhang, J. (2023). Book Review: Animation in the Middle East: Practice and Aesthetics from Baghdad to Casablanca edited by Stefanie Van de Peer. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 10(2). http://journaldialogue.org/reviews/book-review-animation-in-the-middle-east-practice-and-aesthetics-from-baghdad-to-casablanca-edited-by-stefanie-van-de-peer/

MLA

Zhang, Jingyi.  (2023). Book Review: Animation in the Middle East: Practice and Aesthetics from Baghdad to Casablanca edited by Stefanie Van de Peer, Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2023, vol. 10, no. 2. http://journaldialogue.org/reviews/book-review-animation-in-the-middle-east-practice-and-aesthetics-from-baghdad-to-casablanca-edited-by-stefanie-van-de-peer/.

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