by Ian Long
1. Neo Noir is international!
Many people think Noir is an American form – even though it was made in Germany (M, 1931) and France (Pépé le Moko, 1937) years before the classic US era.
In fact, the themes in Noir and its contemporary cousin, Neo Noir, can apply to a host of settings.
For instance, as detailed in a recent BBC radio programme, there’s currently an explosion of Noir in the Arab world – particularly Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria.
Neo Noir can be made in many settings, but it thrives on the energy of cities, where people are crammed together and there’s a thrusting sense of money, modernity, crime, struggle and corruption.
So it should be no surprise that Cairo, with its 20-million population (one LA and two NYCs hitched together, anyone?) works well as a setting.
We’ve been blown away by Neo Noirs brewed in mega-metropolises like Seoul (A BITTERSWEET LIFE) and Rio de Janeiro (CITY OF GOD). So where's next? Nanhui New City? Bucharest?
Raymond Chandler’s essay The Simple Art of Murder suggests that all crime novels are political.
In the Noir world, Chandler says, gangsters can rule nations and cities; men who made their money from brothels can own hotels, apartment houses and celebrated restaurants; a screen star may be working for a mob; and “the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of money-making.”
Arab writers in particular are all too used to the misdeeds of their gangster ruling classes, and they know how Noir can be used to shine a light on them.
Did you know that the woes of the welfare state are at the heart of Nordic Noir?
The shadow side of a squeaky-clean modern society is central to Scandinavian stories from Lars Von Trier’s mini-series THE KINGDOM (set in a state hospital), to THE KILLING, THE BRIDGE and BORGEN.
Take LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (a horror film with Noir aspects). It’s set in Blackeberg, a neighbourhood in the showcase Swedish city of Vallingby.
Here, a communal rural past has been swapped for a vision of rational, state-planned ‘perfection’ – but one which threatens social and familial bonds. And, as we know, an older threat is also rearing its head…
In an echo of state plans for flawed Nordic Utopias, Ingolf Gabold, head of the dramatic fiction department of DR, the public channel responsible for the Danish TV Noirs, used a Dogma-style manifesto (with different content) to shape its shows.
The manifesto shaped the company's output and production methods, and - crucially - its attitude to writers (putting them at the centre of the creative process, rather than seeing them as an unfortunate side-issue).
Sometimes it's good to have a clear vision of where you want to go, so why not write a manifesto?
What process could lead to the taking of a human life? Who was involved, what was the logic, and what stood to be gained? Tracing this is often the crux of a Noir story.
But once we have the pretext, it can lead us in any direction that a writer wants to go.
As Egyptian novelist/screenwriter Ahmed Mourad (once ex-President Hosni Mubarak’s personal photographer, so a fly-on-the-wall observer of the inner world of power) says:
“While the hero is solving the case, which is merely the means, we get to see every level of Egyptian society. It’s like cutting a cake with a knife. Each layer is clearly exposed. The crime is only the beginning: we need to see how a whole society works to produce it.”
Crime stories, particularly ones with the extra twist of Noir, have a wide appeal.
Would we be thinking about the problems of the Scandinavian welfare state if Nordic Noir hadn’t made them thrilling and compulsive?
And Neo Noir can morph into many different forms to reach its audiences: films, novels, TV series and comics (like Magdy El Shafee’s Cairo-set Metro).