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Wednesday
Apr172019

Barakah Meets Barakah (2016): Not as Slight as it Seems

My review of Barakah Meets Barakah--more culturally significant than most critics have deemed--for the Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies is available through JSTOR, where a preview and access for those with a subscription (personal or institutional) may be found. The film itself is available on Netflix in the United States.

Image result for barakah meets barakah

Wednesday
Feb202019

"I fell in love with the cinema in my teens and am still paying for it"

An Interview by Kitty Aal, originally posted on Cinema Revolution Society

Cinema Revolution Society interviews Mohannad Ghawanmeh, a film scholar and cineaste who has produced, acted in, curated for, written about, and lectured on film. His expertise is focused on Arab cinema, but also thoroughly extends into silent cinema, non-fiction cinema, transnational cinema, religious cinema, and more. Mohannad is a PhD candidate in Cinema and Media Studies in the University of California, Los Angeles and a 2017/18 fellow in the American Research Center in Egypt. His dissertation investigates the political economy of silent cinema in Egypt, 1896–1932.

CRS: Tell me about a particularly beautiful memory you have of watching a film (any film) in sensual (not analytical) terms - what, where, when, with who...?

M: Hmm, well the first date I went on with my spouse involved our watching the three-hour Metropolis.This was to the version augmented with footage found in a print uncovered in Argentina, as I remember, not long before we went to see it in 2010. I had to see the newly restored version, of course, considering that Lang was and probably still is my favorite director of all, especially since I had learned that it it was only a few minutes short of the original cut's length. Yet, inviting my date served a purpose beside going to a movie I was excited to see: It was a test of whether she could handle sitting through an 80-year-old silent film. As it turned out she enjoyed it, not merely tolerated it.

CRS: You have worked with film in many capacities over the years, as a lecturer, festival programmer, an actor, a scholar - how would you define yourself at the moment, if you define yourself at all, with regards to cinema?

M: I have and still think of myself as cinephile turned cineaste, broadly wrought. I am whatever I am doing principally and most robustly as relates to cinema, which since my matriculation in a PhD program has been scholarship--research and writing. In the last four years, I have prepared and trained to become a media scholar, a film historian specifically, since it is the discursive domain of my dissertation on silent cinema in Egypt. However, I could end up doing something other than professing as a full time job and even I get an academic job I could end up doing far more teaching that writing, depending on the university. I have, however, continued to do non-academic cinema work since starting my PhD. I have directed a film exhibition program in UCLA, narrated a feature documentary, served as film festival juror, and have helped organize and lectured within a special presentation of a collection of Mohammed Bayoumi's silent films, for the first time in North America, to a commissioned, live musical score. As for current projects, I serve as consultant on an Egyptian shorts archiving project and am consulting for two narrative feature film projects, one Saudi, the other Egyptian. I like to balance my bread-and-butter historical scholarship with non-academic work focused on the future, which I fear is rather dim for the cinema as we had long known it.

CRS: With Cinema Arabiata, you focus on Arab film. In your mind, what makes a film "Arab?" Ethnicity, location, subject matter etc.?

M: Astute question, tricky assessment. My dissertation attends to the concept of nationalism and attempts to complicate it as it relates to cinema. I have observed in much of the scholarship on cinemas other than those highly industrialized and run by private organizations with little government interventions--such as Hollywood, Hindi and Hong Kong cinemas--that the term national cinema is ascribed loosely and uncritically, by authors who opt not to tackle how a cinema represents a nation. I think that much of the uncertainty around the term national has to do with the fact the both national and nationalist nominalize as nationalism. I have identified four factors that influence an assessment of a film's nationalist credentials, which I think may be applied to an evaluation of a film's Arabness: 1) The work's content and themes; 2) its principles and creative leads; 3) its source of funding; and 4) its location of production. In most cases, I believe that a single factor among these is not enough to signify Arabness for the film. For example, I consider Battle of Algiers an Arab film, even though it was written and directed by non-Arabs.

CRS: Any thoughts on Danielle Arbid's work? She seems willing to take a lot of risks with style and subject matter (for example, L'homme perdu / A Lost Man) confronting themes like sexuality and exoticism - going out of the safe zone of what might be expected from Arab women filmmakers.

M: I've only watched Beirut Hotel by Arbid. It was a charged with intrigue--spies, sex and hotel rooms--but unfulfilling. I cannot speak about her other films obviously, a couple of which have fared well at Cannes, but Cannes has repeatedly shown favoritism toward Francophone Arabs.

CRS: The Middle East is a pretty charged place these days. With that said, do you think Arab filmmakers have an obligation to tackle political realities in their work - to be activists - or do you see them more as artists who must follow the muses as they see fit?

M: I don't believe in a social imperative for artistic work. However, I scoff at artists who attempt to convince observers that their work is exclusively their creation and is a purely intrinsic form of expression. I also am loath to believe any filmmaker who claims not to care about what audiences think. Filmmakers grow and learn among humans and produce works to be consumed by humans. Not to abruptly pivot but I think Arab filmmakers should get into making VR and ride the early crest of a new media form, instead of living off the fumes of one whose heyday has long past.

CRS: Are you a stickler for how films are watched or made (cell phone, streamed, cinema, 35mm etc.)?

M: No, I am not. I have already conceded the value of digital photographic capture and processing for a variety of reasons. I have also conceded that people have good reason to watch their films at home, in part because as American Cinematographer magazine has adroitly pointed out recently, home theatre systems often exceed in quality those of cinemas. Furthermore, my 55 in TV's proximity to my seating position somewhat makes up for its smallness relative to a cinema screen, especially considering that I need not worry about distractions from other cinemagoers. However, I refuse to watch films on my phone and try not to watch them on my laptop.

CRS: Would you say there is a country or countries to watch in the Arab world at the moment? A place that seems to have a vital film energy at the moment?

M: The Arab country with the most exciting cinema scene at the moment is of course Saudi Arabia, particularly interesting to somebody who writes about early cinema. How can a proposed infusion of $64 billion over a decade not energize! Nevertheless, I add my voice to those who have decried the influence of European financiers on Arab film narratives, in its evident, interruptive and reductive effects. I say this especially of Lebanese films I have watched in recent years, but have noted it in films Egyptian, Iraqi and from elsewhere.

CRS: From everything you've seen, can you highlight 2 or 3 must-see Arab films for us? And any leads of how one might watch them?

M: To recommend so strongly I would have had to have seen the film and I have not been watching new films like I used to, considering my occupational occupation with silent cinema! However, aside from the films that your readers may have hear of because of their wins and nominations in major festivals and award programs I will say that my favorite four films from the last couple of years were The Preacher, directed by Magdi Ahmed Ali; Withered Green, by Mohammed Hammad; Much Loved, by Nabil Ayoush, and Those Who Remain by Eliane Raheb. My favorite Arab director currently working is probably Ahmed Abdalla. Not going to get into where to find them other than to advise your readers to be resourceful!

CRS: Is there a question about cinema that you would like to answer that I haven't asked yet?

M: Yes, "When does cinema cease to be cinema?"

I don't believe that the cinema is dying, but I do believe that it's being absorbed. The cinema has borrowed throughout its history from other art forms and mass media. It has become entangled with television, but both are now absorbed into a medium of delivery that has changed people's experience of visual communication emphasizing storytelling markedly.

Internet streaming services are what the Hollywood studios were in the 1920s--with global reach and vertically integrating. Films and TV programs are listed in separate menus, but searches produce works of both. I don't want to get into how TV offerings produced by and transmitted only through the Internet are also suspect as "television." However, I wish to remark on the supposed distinctions for a viewer: length and seriality.

A streaming service customer may figure that watching a film is committing to a singular work, that they would not have to watch multiple, such as episodes of a series. Yet, from my research into silent cinema, I've learned that serial films were common, say, in the early 1920s, cliffhangers included. And what of sequels? Now prequels have also become common in film franchises. If four or five of these could be available through a single service, seriality of film becomes TV like.

The second matter of distinction for a viewer looking through the offerings on Hulu is that a film will likely last 2-3 times longer than a TV episode. But then some short films are multiple times shorter than a TV program episode. What of the pause button? It works for both. What of binge watching a TV show's season? That can take hours longer than a Cecil B DeMille epic!

We know that movies are no longer films. So what's left of cinema that is specific to it as a medium and art form? It is the case that film budgets range higher in, say, per minute cost, but GAME OF THRONES isn't cheap either! Video and audio recording quality is such that the production values of TV programs often rivals those of movies.

It is still the case that only films are typically watched on theatre size screens, but how many films made actually ever end up screening in a cinema to be seen anywhere in the world?

Is it not the case that live opera has been screening in select cinemas over the last decade? A live opera production presentation is not a movie even in a broad sense of the term. What of sport bars that screen live matches projected on a screen of small cinema proportions? The public experience of viewing these is not drastically different from the experience of watching a film with others--strangers--in a cinema. 

We've had TV movies, straight-to-video movies and now we have blockbuster budget movies (Netflix's Bright) that are not made to be screened in cinemas, not even as a primer for their revenue earning activities, from theatrical exhibition to broadcast TV and all sorts between, as historically the case.

What then of what was until a couple of decades ago of the cinema is still of the cinema and only of it? Not much I reckon. 

Thursday
Jan112018

Performing Silence: Screening the Films of Mohamed Bayoumi

A review by Leyya Tawil, of an event that premiered several of Mohamed Bayoumi's films (1923-1933) in North America, in accompaniment to a commissioned, live orchestral performance and punctuated with a segmented lecture by yours truly, originally posted on Open Space, SFMOMA's online & live interdisciplinary commissioning platform.​

On the occasion of the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules, and the performance program Limited Edition, Projects + Perspectives and Open Space invited artists Alex Escalante, Keith Hennessy, and Leyya Tawil to offer their thoughts on three iconic dance works included in the Rauschenberg show – and to link these works to three contemporary pieces. On P+P you’ll find Merce Cunningham’s Antic Meet, Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy, and Robert Rauschenberg’s Pelican, and here you’ll find robbinschilds’ Sonya and Layla Go Camping, Skywatchers’ I Got a Truth to Tell, and a collaboration between Mohamad Bayoumi, Michael Ibrahim, and Mohannad Ghawanmeh.


 

The instability of the frame is what is important here.

Another live conversation between moving image, physical music, and vibrating space recently celebrated its world premiere at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The cross-circuiting of creative forms parallels Robert Rauschenberg and Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy, but this time the action was a trio: Mohamad Bayoumi, Michael Ibrahim, and Mohannad Ghawanmeh.

Ibrahim, director of the National Arab Orchestra, created a live orchestral work for a series of rarely-seen silent films from the 1920s and 1930s by Bayoumi, a pioneering Egyptian director. This duet was punctuated by periodic appearances from film scholar Ghawanmeh, who offered historical and political context and also outlined the films’ technical advances. Notably, he entered and exited side-stage left. Just as in Glacial Decoy, audiences navigated a wall of moving silence, sounds generated in the stage plane, and the information offered from the periphery.

Skirting the theater’s wings, Ghawanmeh’s disappearing act provided sonic and physical structures that would manifest, then retract, like the limbs of Brown’s dancers teasing audiences from the wings. Ibrahim’s music was responsible for the space, his compositions drawing the action from the screen into the body of the audience. Arabic percussion and electronics rumbled our bellies and we were transported to the Egyptian village square. The rustling newspaper was tangible. The film is silent, but that night we could feel it.


Presented on November 17th, 2017 by the Arab American National Museum Global Fridays at the DIA Detroit Film Theater.

This collaboration is a National Performance Network Creation Fund Project, co-commissioned by the AANM, the City of Chicago, in partnership with the National Arab Orchestra and the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Sunday
Dec242017

Open Shutters (2008): Cinema of Empowerment

Dear readers,

Below is an interview I conducted with UK based Iraqi filmmaker Maysoon Pachachi about her documentary film Open Shutters and on occasion of her preparing to shoot her first fiction feature Another Day in Baghdad, a project that happens to inolve participants in Open Shutters made a decade earlier.

 

1. The discussion about the line between exploitation and evocation in photographing people is a provocative and generative one that comes up early in Open Shutters. How does this concern come up in your own work, in what you decide to photograph and what you decide to include in the film’s final cut?

I think 'exploitation' is when someone is used in an instrumental way, to illustrate a point, to represent a type, state of being, when no proper attention is paid to the actual person as a particular individual. As a documentary filmmaker, I work in an observational way, trying to look and listen as carefully and honestly as I can, to maybe intuit what is going on 'under the surface.' I try to remain as open as I can. I don't write a 'narrative' ahead of time and it is actually in the course of shooting that I discover what the 'story' might be. I really don't like documentaries, which try to foist a spurious sense of drama or a fictional storytelling form on what is essentially something being lived at that moment in front of the camera. This feels to me like a kind of exploitation.  You never really know what will happen, or what someone will say and for me, anyway, this state of unknowing is very productive and allows you to really open yourself to the people you are filming. I'm also careful about  including something in the cut of a film that the person might have a problem with. I always check.


2. A little into the second half of the film, shot in an art center outside of Damascus, Nawara Mahfoud makes two wonderful critical observations relating to which I’d like to ask a question: How did you as a filmmaker handle tapping into the inner worlds of grief and heightened trauma of the photographer women? If, as Mahfoud states, she had encountered people who appear mighty, but then at some point when turning inward they collapse, if as Mahfoud states, one of the challenges of expressing pathos is that others never fully appreciate our own experiences then how do you as a filmmaker maximize the pathos channeled to the viewer? Perhaps you disagree with these postulates, but as a documentary filmmaker you are compelled to make decisions about highly sensitive, private, and painful matters in electing to make a film such as Open Shutters. Your production company website states that “all of Maysoon’s and Oxymoron’s documentary films have in common a drive to let people tell their own stories and to depict them not as victims only, as so many well-meaning films do, but as complex, often contradictory, individual human beings, who may be caught up in difficult circumstances.” Could you fill us in on some of your thinking?

This relates to the answer to the first question.  For me it's a matter of looking and listening in as open a way as possible.  You can actually feel the grief or trauma or fear in people even if they are being stoic or are trying to hide it--I won't push it but it's like a vibration you feel from people and it's maybe subtle, but it's visible if you are really watching. Sometimes it's a word stumbled over, a flick of the eyes, the way they actually structure a story. Sometimes you get a turn of phrase or an image which surfaces suddenly almost from nowhere. I remember one woman I was talking to--I wasn't filming, just talking--and she was recounting something and suddenly she said, 'I saw them burn my sister, it was in front of me and my mother.' I asked her something about this; she answered and continued to talk about something else, and then a while later, the image burst through again and she repeated what she said.  This was a pretty strong example of what can happen, but one way or another things do break through, sometimes.  I think really one of he most important skills as a documentary filmmaker is to be someone that people feel they trust, someone who is truly interested in their story and is not judging them. Also I think it's important that if you are expecting people to open up to you, that you be prepared to answer whatever they want to ask you, so there isn't just a one-way power relationship. Although, of course, I am the filmmaker and I am filming them and will edit their material and they are not filming me etc.


3. Just as I was thinking about what might have become of the art center in which the post-production part of the residency takes place, considering the Syrian civil calamity in the second decade of this century, a scene came on in which Um Muhammad calls you toward an image she has on the computer of a cultural center that has since become the headquarters of a religious organization. The destruction of Iraq in the twenty-naughts seemed unprecedented to the region for an outside, concerned observer. Today, we have three or four “Iraqs” in the region. Millions of peoples’ lives have been ruined or lost and in the wake of ever expanding unrest cultural heritage and institutions have been assailed or neglected. How do you navigate this scene as a filmmaker? 

I carry it around inside me.  The devastation is something that affects me even if I've experienced it from a distance.  It is somehow very close.  I had a very strong feeling of this when I watched the coverage of the '91 Gulf War on TV in London. I felt like the country and its people (who were nowhere to be seen on the screen) were being erased from the face of the earth. And this country was where my family had its roots; it held a part of my personal history. I remembered sensual details--a certain bird's song, the light at a particular time of day... and Syria? One of my grandmothers was Syrian, from Aleppo, where I'd never been but about which I heard so much in my childhood.  So, I'm walking around with this sense of the catastrophic loss that people are carrying.  What catches my attention is to see what the counterweight to that might be. It's often a powerful coming together of people or the making of something in the face of all the 'unmaking' going on inside and outside them--creativity, in a wide sense of the word, as an act of resistance.  This is very much what I came to feel was going on in the film you saw about the Iraqi women's photographic project.


4. Have more women gone through a photo residency similar to the one depicted in Open Shutters? Beyond the nine photo stories noted near the end of the film, have any been produced since? What has become of the archive of images produced? What has become of the “ongoing project” as Irada al-Jabbouri characterized it to one of the participating women photographers?

There hasn't been another Open Shutters photo residency. The first one happened with Syrian women in Damascus before the one in the film, with the Iraqi women, but those are the only two.  No more photo stories have been produced from the Open Shutters Iraq project, but some of the women who participated in it have gone on taking pictures, like Raya Asee, who did the story about the bombing of Mutanabbi Street. She is also, as it happens, the production designer on my current fiction film project.  The archive of images is held in joint copyright between the the women photographers and Eugenie Dolberg, the photographer who ran the residency.  They are there for the women to use when they want to.  I think what Irada meant at the time by 'ongoing project' was the project of collaboration, sharing experiences across religions, ages, class backgrounds etc, and trying to make more work.  It has not really continued as a project as such, especially since many of the participants had to leave the country because of the security situation at the time (2006/7/8)


5. How do you feel about the film a decade after its release? How did it impact your work and life?

I went into the project with no idea about what it was going to be or how it would work.  It was a remarkable thing to be part of and I was part of it, in a double role as participant and observer. At the beginning when Eugenie said she was going to ask the women to do 'life maps' I couldn't really understand what she meant, and I said, 'If you think that women who come from different backgrounds and don't know each other are going to get up and present their life stories to each other, you're crazy.  Iraqis have lived for decades, not trusting each other, terrified to speak out.' Of course, I was completeIy wrong.  Eugenie created a circle of trust. No one else 'from outside' was there--just us. I feel very lucky to have been involved.

People were carrying all the burdens of past wars, sanctions, dictatorship and now a country being ripped apart by insane violence and this project was a process of, I wouldn't say 'healing', but rather maybe the beginning of repair.  On this project I met Irada Al Jabbouri , the Iraqi project manager, with whom I have gone on to co-write the script for my current fiction feature film, as well as working with Raya, as I said, as its production designer. And, of course, I formed a very close relationship to the little 6 year-old girl in the film, Dima, Irada's daughter, who gave me such an insight into how a child, or this particular child, might deal with what was happening all around her.  I learned a lot from her, including something about not drowning in sorrow and grief.  As she says at one point 'Everyday I laugh at myself...so I don't cry'.


6. What is on your plate these days? How can readers learn more about what you are doing?

I am working on fiction feature film. Its working title is “Another Day in Baghdad”  and in (Iraqi) Arabic  “Kulshi Makoo” 

The film is an ensemble piece, made up of intersecting stories unfolding over the last week of 2006, in Baghdad, a time of intense sectarian violence and nightly curfews. 

It's about the daily effort needed  to sustain a fragile hope in the face of unrelenting destruction; it’s about resistance and resilience.  There are a lot of characters, and many of them are strong female ones.  And aside from the harshness of the situation, there’s also a lot of humour, a certain lyricism and music in the film.

The script was partly developed from notes that my co-writer, Irada Al Jabbouri, a Baghdad-based Iraqi short story and novel writer, women's rights and civil society activist made in 2006/7, when she found herself unable to write one word of fiction, shocked by what was happening into silence. At home, at work, with friends or out on the streets, she found herself in the middle of telling, resonant, sometimes comic, scenes; people trying to live their lives in this extraordinary situation. She wrote it all down just as she saw and heard it.  She said to me “this is all I can do right now”. From this material, as well as my own gathering of real-life stories and, of course, our imagination and experience we pulled our characters and dialogue together.  

We will be shooting in 2018, but are still fundraising.

Luckily, we've received good support from European and some Middle Eastern funds, including winning the IWC Schaffhausen script prize at the Dubai Film Festival in 2012 (presented to us by Cate Blanchett)  but it's not enough, especially since much of the European money, the major part of the funding,  must be spent on European crew and post-production.    

So, to support the Iraqi crew and actors, who are coming from all over, and some of whom are refugees in Jordan where we will partly be shooting the film, we are running a crowd-funding campaign, at this link: bit.ly/dayinbaghdad

There is a lot of information about the film and the people involved and there will be regular updates and new stories and pieces of writing. Anyone who wants to donate can do that at this website.

Our social media accounts are: 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/anotherdayinbaghdad/

Twitter: @AnotherdayinB

We would really appreciate if people could help by forwarding the link to the crowdfunding site and our regular announcements and newsletters over the next weeks of the campaign, to anyone they think might be interested in the project and/or might be able to make a donation. People can also help by ‘liking’ our Facebook page and ‘following’ us on Twitter etc, and by sharing or commenting about campaign content on their own social media accounts.

Aside from the money raised for a specific purpose by crowd-funding, we also need further general production funding. If anyone is interested in talking to us about this, they can contact me through my website www.oxymoronfilms.com.

Sunday
Jul092017

The Dupes and the Wage of Escapism

Dear readers,

The Walker Art Center's Crosscuts blog has published a review of The Dupes (1972) I have written that is quite distinct from the review that launched this blog. Click below and enjoy!