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Wednesday
Apr162014

Land of Fear (1999): Life Under Deep, Interminable Cover


Dear readers,

I had promised to review Land of Fear nearly two years ago, within my review of Daoud Abdel Sayed's Al-Kit Kat. Please refer to that review for more on Abdel Sayed's career. It remains inexplicable that Abdel Sayed's films, including Land of Fear, are not distributed widely. Perhaps I ought to do something about that...

There’s something about Daoud Abdel Sayed that gets to me. For years I thought it was his thoroughgoing, uncompromising approach to filmmaking or his films’ evident, grinning mischief. Now I realize that it’s more personal than that. I, like Abdel Sayed, have felt in my work an innate compulsion to prod, poke, and provoke as if to insist on disrupting conformity within nation-state societies that have left me—the eldest to Palestinian refugees—alienated, much like the characters that Abdel Sayed has continually depicted, characters whose lives represent society’s contradictions.

Could I also be alienated like Abdel Sayed himself? Abdel Sayed, who has never declared being Coptic (Mustafa) in anything I have read or heard, in October of last year remarked, “As far as I am concerned, what is frightening about the current condition is that I have terrorism. At the same time that I have terrorism in the sense of explosions and murder and so on, from the other side I have intellectual terrorism, as in McCarthyism … And this is what is frightening me, that we have found ourselves, that I have found myself between two forces: one that wants to kill me and one that wants to silence me. “ (Abdel Sayed)

For years, I have felt a guilty pleasure in relishing crime pictures. There are vociferous anti-genre voices in cinephile circles, voices that suggest that genre films are commercial, that genre films are lowbrow and that genre films target the undiscerning, unless, of course, they happen to be made by Hitchcock or Ford or a French New Wave director. Only that I’m not bonkers about westerns or war films or romantic comedies or sci-fi films the same way I am about crime films. For years, I thought this had to do with the high moral stakes of their stories and charged emotional states of their characters, but I now know that there’s more. As Palestinian American poet would put it:

“i have always loved

criminals and not only the thugged

out bravado of rap videos and champagne

popping hustlers but my father

born an arab baby boy

on the forced way out

of his homeland his mother exiled

and pregnant gave birth in a camp” (Hammad)

Land of Fear (أرض الخوف) observes what its criminals do intently and keenly, but it stands out because it so handily explores what being a criminal means, not only for oneself, but for society. If I’ve made Land of Fear sound like a lofty treatise, well, that’s because it is. But it is also a suspenseful mood piece of a high order, the greatest Egyptian crime picture of all.

Russel (Lawrence Fishburn) is assigned to Deep Cover (1992)Yahya is assigned to Land of Fear

Land of Fear stands for the title of the indefinite investigative operation to which a bright and incorruptible police officer Yahya al-Manqabawi (Ahmed Zaki) agrees to be assigned. Land of Fear is not your typical detail. It would position Officer Yahya to accept a bribe so that he may be arrested, convicted, dishonorably discharged then imprisoned, wherein he transforms into Yaha Abu-Dabbourah. Upon release, Yahya may begin his assignment to infiltrate the “underworld” (literal translation of the term used by Yahya--العالم السفلي) first as a smalltime hustler and drug dealer. Land of Fear is a lifetime assignment Yahya is told at the outset. He is to ambitiously pursue a career as a drug dealer with full immunity against any illegal actions he may take in pursuit of such a career; he is to operate with minimal oversight. The only proof of service being the reports he is to regularly submit, under the nom de plume Adam. Otherwise, a safety deposit box bound, failsafe document, signed by “people at the very top” guarantees the noted immunity, if his cover is ever blown or if Land of Fear unravels. He is told that nothing about Land of Fear is to be recorded other than in the failsafe document and that knowledge of the operation’s existence is to be passed orally from ministers of interior and justice and chief of intelligence onto their successors.

As Yahya’s station rises, from pool hall manager, to bodyguard, to cabaret manager—erstwhile moving increasing product—so does his star in the underworld. Yet, on the way to becoming one of Cario’s kingpins, spanning the decade of the 1970s, Yahya reports with increasing distress about the dissonance he experiences in leading a double life, especially with the passing and resigning of successive ministers and intelligence chiefs, who would have been privy to the Land of Fear operation. Such is his torment that he visits the location of the safety deposit box of note, more than to assure himself that the failsafe contract exists, but to assure himself that Land of Fear had not been a fabrication of his memory. He sends in a report beseeching his overseers to set up a meeting with him and when a decidedly reticent Mousa meets him, Yahya laments: “Memories have fused with dreams, with illusions, with facts, so that I no longer know anything.” The irony is that Mousa turns out not to know anything either… By the end of the picture, hunted by operatives of the underworld and repudiated by the law, though perfunctorily intromitted into the “above-world,” Yahya finds himself longing for his life in the Land of Fear, despite its having led him to rape, murder and an evident psychic schism.

Yahya learns from Mousa that he has been living a lie within a lie: the mise en scène is fractured, as is the protagonist's psyche 

Land of Fear is a rich, relevant picture, despite its allegory and its determinedly embellished, seedy milieu. We all project multiple personas. We act differently at work than we do around our families. We act differently in public than in private. How many times have I wondered how it is that a person could act so respectfully toward a boss that he abhors, while treating with disdain a life partner. How many of us have laughed at a superior’s daft joke, forcing the grin and churning the chuckle. We are all false, to some degree. Land of Fear compels us to confront this falsehood.

Land of Fear is also a luxuriant picture. Its dialogue is streetwise and lucid, its characters complex and cohesive. The story and its characters draw upon Egyptian modern political history—the verisimilitudes of the successive regimes of Nasser, Sadat then Mubarak—upon monotheistic legend and upon American crime pictures. Abdel Sayed is not interested in realism; that is not to say that he is not interested in the truth—small t, for Abdel Sayed would intrinsically oppose any notion of Truth.

A subtitle declares the year of a pivotal scene in Land of Fear. The year is 1981, the year Mubarak succeeded Sadat as president. We see Yahya in the back of a luxurious car then we see it turning to park in a row of Mercedes S class sedans, an unmistakable sign of wealth in the Middle East, and we realize that he’s made the grade. Soon, a group of Cairo kingpins are meeting a representative from a non-local syndicate who proposes that they switch from selling hash to coke. He showcases a handheld parcel of boudrah (powder) and declares that it stands to earn a profit margin of 500%, against the 100% that the kingpins realize in selling es-sinf (literally the variety). He adds that the parcel once cut would deliver a return equivalent to a truckload of hash.

Vito Corleone says no to drugs in The Godfather (1972)

Hudhud says no to powder in Land of Fear

Two of the kingpins demur; one named al-Manzalawi earnestly protests, asserting that the two products are not the same, that the authorities would consider him a criminal if he started selling powder. The more vociferous protest, however, is issued by a most memorable movie criminal, one named Hudhud, played to potent poignancy by the marvelous Hamdi Gheith. He tells off the representative, alerting him that unlike himself the rep’s bosses will never know their customers and as such will never have to directly deal with the consequence of poisoning them. Hudhud later invites Yahya to his labyrinthine Old Cario home and confides in him that God has created and as such provides for kingpins like himself, that it is his divine duty to alleviate the struggle of the people by distributing god’s own creation. Hudhud asserts that he has nothing against the authorities, that they too serve a purpose, as do hashish dealers. Gheith imbues his part with an unmistakable sagacity and integrity, despite his criminality, which turns murderous when necessary.

HoopoeLand of Fear conspicuously draws on monotheistic scripture. Yahya’s codename is Adam, after all, a code name of which he learns when invited to a secret meeting wherein he is propositioned to undertake Land of Fear. To a backdrop of a stylized storm he bites into an apple. Hudhud, the wise kingpin, is also Arabic for hoopoe, a bird mentioned in the bible as abominable to eat (Leviticus), perhaps thence informing the Egyptian proverb, “It is not every bird whose flesh is edible” ("مش كل طير اللي يتاكل لحمه"), which may well paraphrase the threat that Hudhud issues to Ragab, the syndicate representative. Then there is Mousa (Arabic for Moses), the postal officer who unsuccessfully attempts to deliver Adam’s letters to his principles, failing to convey messages between creator and created.

Cop confronts criminal in Heat (1995)Cop confronts "criminal" in Land of Fear

Most potently, however, is the influence of American crime cinema on Land of Fear. The kingpins’ refusal to get with the new and deal in cocaine recalls that of the Don Corelone’s (Marlon Brando) refusal to back Virgil Sollozzo’s (Al Lettieri) investment in smack, because he feels that it would be bad for neighborhoods and would undermine his relationships with politicians. A late scene in Land of Fear,  in which Yahya’s nemesis, a competent and incorruptible cop named Omar al-Asyuti asks to meet him in a café, riffs on the central scene involving cop and criminal (played by Al Pacino and Robert De Nero respectively) in Michael Mann’s masterpiece Heat. Most notable, however, is the film’s borrowing from the underrated American crime film Deep Cover, including the mode of the investigative operation and the arch of the undercover protagonist played by Lawrence Fishburn.

Those who scoff at the Land of Fear’s lack of originality must not realize how artistic influence works and must have not come around to reckoning that those who claim utter originality do so because they fear discovery of their fraudulence. All artists borrow; the best reimagine and re-illustrate, as has Abdel Sayed in Land of Fear.

Nevertheless, Land of Fear is not perfect. Makeup design underwhelms. Ahmed Zaki, despite his boyish face is not helped in passing for a 20-some-year-old man. Costume design is even worse. “Could they not corral some bellbottoms and wide lapels to depict action in the 1970s?” I wondered. Against these, however, are a number of standout facets. Beside Ahmed Zaki’s performance, among the best delivered by the actor who many rightly consider the leading Egyptian cinematic actor of his generation, Land of Fear presents us with Hudhud, as fascinating a screen villain as I have ever seen. Locations, from queries to cabarets to opulent villas to Nile delta marshes entrench the polemical state of luxury and decrepitude. The soundtrack, composed by regular Abdel Sayed collaborator Rajih Daoud, what with its tumbling angles and pleading chants, looped and electronically processed, immeasurably enhance the mood of falling and failing.

Abdel Sayed deploys a couple of distinct visual and auditory flourishes, but unlike his wont—and auteur beloved—sequence shots (plan-séquence) here they support the story. In a number of sequences, Abdel Sayed surveys the scene with an overhead shot, as if to deliberately distance audience from action, lest the audience regard what they see as realistic. Abdel Sayed’s interest in asserting allegory is even more pronounced in his blatant use of dissolves, which are rarely used today, but which in Hollywood classic films usually connoted a movement between a character’s lived and remembered states. In Land of Fear, dissolves serve the comingling of reality and memory in the mind of its disillusioned protagonist Yahya (literally meaning to live).

Such visual flourishes are enforced by the echoing of dialogue in pivotal scenes and especially by Yahya’s narration, which guides the film’s audience throughout, a narration which, as in Deep Cover, recalls an idiom of American film noir. Only here, Abdel Sayed has Yahya narrating in formal Arabic (لغة فصحى), unusual in non-historical Egyptian cinema, and not only when Yahya is voicing the letter of his reports. Abdel Sayed is unmistakably positioning the teleological tale in the land of fable, in the land of fear.

I have convinced myself that Daoud Abdel Sayed deserves to take the time he does to work on his films and am delighted to read of an impending conclusion to principal production on his most recent Abnormal Abilities (my translation) ("قدرات غير عادية") (Ma'moun). Yet, I fear for him as I do for all who express critically in Egypt at the moment, considering the alarming, reprehensible crackdown on journalists and activists. Abdel Sayed not only has the right to express as he wishes but should be celebrated for his unshakeable integrity and unmitigated ambition. Abdel Sayed does not wish to become an auteur; he always was one. He does not make independent films. He makes films independently--as independently as a filmmaker can work and live in the land of fear.

Works Cited

Abdel Sayed, Daoud. "Cinematic Censorship of Egyptian Selections." The Full Picture. Lilian Daoud. Cairo, 27 October 2013. Video. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_07ItXOCbI>.

Hammad, Suheir. "Letter to anthony (critical resistance)." Hammad, Suheir. Za'atar Diva. New York: Cypher Books, 2005. 67. Document.

"Leviticus." Holy Bible, New International Version. Biblica, 2011. 11:13-19. Document. <http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Leviticus+11%3A13-19>.

Ma'moun, Asma'. "Daoud Abdel Sayed: I Will not Realease Abnormal Abilities During the Eid Becauuse of a Clamour ." Al-Youm As-Sabi' 14 April 2014. Document. <http://www1.youm7.com/News.asp?NewsID=1611507#.U06Bu_ldWSp>.

Mustafa, Tariq. Coptic Artists ... Integrated with the Strength of Their Talent. 13 March 2010. Document. 10 April 2014. <http://www.masress.com/rosaweekly/44311>.

 

Wednesday
Feb052014

Guest Review: Mars at Sunrise (2014)

Dear readers, below is a guest review of Mars at Sunrise by essayist and film enthusiast Ali Hazzah (whose byline links to his own review of The Dupes). Hazzah's views do not necessarily reflect my own, but I am sure that you will enjoy his perspicatious review.


Mars at Sunrise is a poetic yet engagé meditation by director Jessica Habie on the refusal by its main protagonist, Khaled (Ali Suleiman), to become an Israeli informant—despite intense external pressures exerted upon him in captivity.

This is Habie's first feature-length film, for which she also wrote the screenplay.  It was produced by Baher Agbariya and Nirah Shirazipour.  Habie is a Jewish-American graduate of NYU's Tisch school of the Arts, with several award-winning documentaries already to her name, including the Best Documentary Short award winner at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival Mandatory Service.

Habie explores how the West Bank has become a social incubator in which certain forms of perversion have flourished, but does so without the didacticism and agenda-driven plot developments one often finds in less sophisticated examples of the genre.

Inspired by the life story of Hani Zurob, many of the scenes in Mars were drawn from Zurob's testimony as to the torture he endured at the hands of Israeli intelligence.  It also drew on supplementary accounts of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, such as that of Wajee Tameise, who personally experienced one of the key opening scenes in the film.

The screenplay was considerably influenced by an original soundtrack by Tamir Muskat, which was recorded prior to filming. According to the director, the fluid interplay between Khaled and Eyal, the film's protagonist-antagonists, grew out of "the guitar and oud performances of Mohsen Subhi (Ramallah) and Itamar Zeigler (Tel Aviv)" during various recording sessions.

Khaled and Eyal--slacked and clenched

The plot is straightforward, although the narrative is recounted in a highly allusive, fragmented, montage-driven, flashback-heavy style.  It portrays a man finding refuge in his art, when confronted by vicious oppression.

Khaled is a talented and influential Gaza-born Palestinian artist, a painter now living in Ramallah who is arrested because he has chosen to remain in his studio.  The studio has suddenly and arbitrarily become a target of Israel's ever encroaching land assimilation policy.

Jailed, he refuses to submit to repetitive and prolonged questioning by Eyal (Guy El Hanan), a conflicted artiste-manqué Israeli soldier who serves as his prison interrogator when not manning checkpoints.

Mars is structured as frame story.  Azzdeh (Haale Gafori) is a young Jewish American poet with an Iranian name.  She does not know Arabic and is curiously unfamiliar with the methods Israelis employ to keep the Palestinian population in the West Bank under subjugation.

At a checkpoint in Jenin, she is approached by Khaled, who is attracted to her.  With her taxi broken down, she accepts an offer by Khaled to give her a ride. They arrive at the next checkpoint and are stuck behind a long line of Palestinians waiting in the hot sun.

Things have come to a standstill by a soldier's decision to take a nap.

It is Eyal.

As they wait, Azzdeh hears Khaled's stark but ultimately inspiring story, which took place several years earlier.

Mars is not just a facile movie with a naive, uplifting message.

Dominance and submission are often a necessary subtext in films about the West Bank.  Mars is no different in this regard.  It offers a textbook visual example of the Foucauldian conception of the strategic use of power to conceptualize and justify the physical and emotional disfigurement of marginalized Palestinians.

Moreover, a homoerotic subtext strengthens this association.    If Eyal is an artiste manqué, then it is finally his willingness, if not desire, to be treated as a model, both in actuality and within the context of the imprisoned artist's imagination, that seals the deal.

Habie seems to be telling us that the failure of pervasive Israeli reductionism, its zoomorphism, if you will, vis-à-vis Arabs, is driven both by subliminal desire and a disorienting recognition of increasing creative impotence, irrespective of internalized claims of ethnic superiority.

As things start to come apart for Eyal, the film seems to float as we watch a series of dream sequences that portray (with gorgeously liquid camera work by DP Xavier J. Cunilleras) the psychological impact of the Occupation on both parties to the conflict.

Can art triumph in the end against an implacable foe?

Yes, says Habie.  But it's worth keeping in mind that Hani Zurob was compelled to leave Palestine and live in France in order to regain his personal and artistic freedom.

This visual treat of a film is well worth seeing, particularly by movie lovers who may already be emotionally invested in some historical interpretation of the Palestinian-Israeli narrative.

A promising start by a fearless young director.

~ ali hazzah

 

Mars at Sunrise is being shown at the Quad Cinema in New York starting on Feb 7th.

Mars at Sunrise Trailer HD from Mars At Sunrise on Vimeo.

 

Thursday
Jan022014

Trans-Arab Cinema: Governmentality, Nationalism, and the Economies of Filmmaking

The economic model for Arab cinema is broken. Despite a dramatic increase in film production in the last decade, spurred by increased funding from within and from without, as well as by encouraging participation of Arab films in renowned film programs and festivals the two remaining legs of product delivery—distribution and exhibition—are failing the promise of such production by underserving Arab audiences. Considering the potency and populist appeal of normatively constructed films, rigorous study of the causes and ramifications of such failing would be in order. Yet, though transnational cultural, political and economic forces have  described and attenuated Arab filmmaking since the colonial epoch, a new phenomenon has manifested and grown since around the beginning of this century—an Arab cinema support network of funding, investment and showcasing, primarily in the Persian (or Arab if you prefer) Gulf region. However, as cultural critics have long observed, cultural production instrumentally takes place within the confines of ideological and theoretical models. I herewith propose that a web of intersecting and intervening economic and political forces has evolved in the film industry within and across the twenty-two Arabic speaking nations, a trans-Arab cinema.

 

Transnationalism and neoliberal governmentality

Transnational serves the purposes of an investigation into the cinema industry, not only because the mechanisms of such an industry function in domains “above the level of the national but below the level of the global,” but also because “the intermediate and open term ‘transnational’ acknowledges the persistence of the agency of the state, in a varying but fundamentally legitimizing relationship to the scale of ‘the nation.’ At the same time the prefix ‘trans-‘ implies relations of unevenness and mobility.” (Durovicova ix)

Thus, transnationalism does not entail a hegemonic imposition on the workings of the nation-state in the totalitarian connotation of the term global, but intersects its functions and intervenes its methodologies. If the confabulation of methodologies and functions, corporeal and imagined, makes for a system then such a system “is a congeries of functions, bureaus and levels spread across different sites.” (Gupta and Sharma 278) Scholars have commonly remarked in recent years about the expiry of the nation-state in the face of global neoliberal forces. Though the nation-state as entity and as cultural artifact has been challenged, even reformed (Gupta and Sharma 277), in the era of a neoliberal globalization that has come to describe the world order in the wake of the demise of the Soviet global agenda, other scholars have called for a reexamination of its new forms so as to assess its influence on filmmaking. (Hjort and MacKenzie 2)

If a nation-state is a system reformed and reforming within a neoliberal order then what is being contested and reformed is the actuation of what Foucault termed governmentality. Governmentality may be broadly described as the way with which collective thinking attends to governing, a thinking that necessarily involves national economies and whose apparatus operate vis-à-vis the neoliberal global order. (Dean 7-13) Governmentality appeals discursively precisely because of the decentering of capital within the neoliberal order that has come to describe global flows and exchanges of capital, a phenomenon that has challenged Marxist analyses of the power-capital relations within the boundaries of nation-states. (Newman 7) Indeed, a focus on “domestic capital” falters because of “empirical evidence on the transnationalization of capital and the increasingly salient role of transnational state apparatuses in imposing capitalist domination beyond the logic of the inter-state system … The end of the extensive enlargement of capitalism is the end of the imperialist era of world capitalism. The implacable logic of global accumulation is now largely internal to the complex of fractious political institutions through which ruling groups attempt to manage those relations.” (Robinson 5)

Yet, neoliberalism while embraced including per-force by nation-states has compelled them to realign their power structures and bureaucratic workings in the name of flexibility. It sustains the interest of capital within the state by “opening the market to centralized capital and monopoly power” (Harvey 25) engendering a resistance not only within the governing class structures of nation-states whose power has been undermined by their participation in the neo-liberal global order, epitomized by such bodies as the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, but also by peoples and parties that have exposed the failings of the neoliberal ethos as put forth by such institutions and the state actors who bid on their behalf. (Harvey 50)

The Arab Spring revolts, which began in Tunisia in 2010, speak to this populist dissatisfaction. Linked upheavals against the regimes of postcolonial states in which revolting people and parties took advantage of the transnational systems of digital and new media, arguably initiated by the launch of the first Arab communications satellite in 1985, by the Arab Satellite Communications Organization dubbed Arabsat—headquartered in Saudi Arabia, ushering in an era of state and privately owned satellite television broadcast in 1991 with the launch of the private Saudi channel named MBC. The era of what I have dubbed as Trans-Arab cinema would commence over a decade later, in Saudi Arabia’s less conservative neighbor the UAE, with an interest in exerting its own influence through transnational cultural production, with the launch of the Dubai International Film Festival and its affiliated Dubai Film Market in 2004.

Arab Transnational Filmmaking Intensifies:

Transnational Arab filmmaking has existed for decades. The Arab World and Africa’s only vital national film industry (until Nollywood’s emergence in the 1990s) in Egypt was started by foreigners, primarily Italians, who continued to direct and produce Egyptian films well past token independence of 1922. Although, even after Egyptians had taken over the reins of filmmaking, western cultural, including cinematic, influences persisted as manifest in the continued use of western music, source material (which was downright plagiarized) and generic categories. (Schochat 23, 26) Whereas cinemas of the Maghreb (Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) have for decades involved that which has “caught up” with the cinemas of many Arab nation-states: the engagement of what Hamid Naficy has dubbed accented cinema comprising the categories of exilic, diasporic and postcolonial ethnic cinemas. The French government has maintained and promulgated a policy to support cultural production by citizens of its ex-colonies, including by Maghreb filmmakers, many of whom live between their country of origin and that of residence. (Higbee 52) Additionally, since the 1980s a wave dubbed beur cinema has emanated in France, a cinema represented by the works of minority Maghrebi French natives, those who Naficy would describe as postcolonial ethnic. (Grassilli)

If Naficy holds that the experience of expatriate filmmakers informs stylistic parallels in their works then what of the expatriates (many of whom also repatriates to the Middle East) who predominantly make up the bureaucracies that participate in the economies of Arab filmmaking?

I propose to examine the economies of filmmaking as Andrew Higson has, through production, distribution and reception (Higson 67-69)—though I hold that the last must be coupled with exhibition, within cultural events, in commercial cinemas, in make shift venues (cafes for example), on TV and through personal computers. Although a transnational analysis of the Arab film industry, which I see as involving Arabs living within and away from the Middle East, benefits from what Hjort and MacKenzie have observed as a capacity to “mediate successfully between macrosociological and agential levels of description” (Hjort and MacKenzie, Introduction 1) a restriction of such analysis to an Arab transnationalism is in order, one that specifically focuses on how Arab films narrate their nations still, to borrow the Homi Bhabha term, though they often narrate multiple nations, as “new transnational dynamics in the cinema industry create further departures from the schemes of post-colonial production,” including the decade long and increasingly impactful funding for filmmaking, film practitioner training, and film showcasing and promotion all taking place concomitant to a continued disregard for addressing the broken models for distribution and exhibition/reception of Arab films to audiences across twenty-two nation-states of predominantly Arabic speakers often declared as the intended audiences by Arab filmmakers, producers and funders.

Notable here is that though digital technology has, to use economics parlance, reduced the barrier for entry into the industry, precisely the financial barrier, it has not resolved the economic barrier that afflicts all Arab films because of the comparative paucity of cinemas per capita, because of satellite TV’s refusal to take on the role of distribution vehicle and because of piracy, along with other factors that I will scrutinize in relation to four Arab narrative features made in the decade old funding surge. These four titles do not represent all currents in Arab film production and do not dismiss the value of examining persistent national cinemas in Egypt and Morocco. Yet the films I have selected for discussion below do make the case, I posit, that recent trans-Arab economies of filmmaking have emerged, economies deserving of analysis beyond the scope of this essay.

Tans-Arab Cinema: Four Case Studies

As noted earlier, I do not propose to strip an analysis of the Arab film industry of its transnational dynamics outside of the Arab World, but to underscore the dynamics of such transnationalism within it, particularly as the region undergoes dramatic shape shifting, not only in the manner of toppling regimes or instituting  new constitutions and new modes of national governance, but also in the questioning of the viability and validity of the region’s national boundaries predicated by and large on the boarders drawn up in the Sykes-Picot agreement nearly a century ago. (Wright)

Black Gold (Day of the Falcon)(2011):

At $55 million, reportedly the most expensive Arab film production of all time. Black Gold (which has since been renamed Day of the Falcon, possibly to improve the universally panned film’s chances at recouping some of its cost) was funded by the Qatari governmental production fund the Doha Film Institute, during the tenure of Australian-English executive director Amanda Palmer. Although the film tells the story of Arab Bedouin and was shot in Qatar and in Tunisia (while the Jasmine Revolution’s protests raged), none of the principle crew members is Arab and only one of the lead four roles is performed by an Arab.

More problematical are the rhetorical tropes, including visual, of the film as well as the screenplay, drawn from the novel The Arab, by Hans Ruesch, who had never been to the Arab World. In his review of Black Gold, Variety’s Jay Weissberg opined, “In this post-Edward Said era, things apparently haven't moved from the fantasy depictions of Rudolph Valentino's ‘The Sheik’ (1921) and 1933's ‘The Barbarian’ with Ramon Novarro. Annaud has acknowledged using 19th-century orientalist painters as inspiration; the harem scenes with an underused Pinto could have been lifted from a Victorian tableau vivant, and not in a good way.” (Weissberg)

Were the representatives of the Doha Film Institute (DFI) so eager to participate in the Hollywood styled (although in this case not Hollywood produced) international commercial cinema industry, so as to back a project with such problematical aspects of source material and of casting? Was DFI so eager to mimic itself, to borrow Shadin Tageldin’s term? (Tageldin 49) What is to explain the resurgence of the market for Orientalist paintings in recent years, propelled primarily by record price purchases made by people belonging to the lands whose cultures had been mendaciously distorted by such paintings?

Of the three other major productions that the DFI funded during Palmer’s tenure, two—The Attack and The Reluctant Fundamentalist—center thematically on suicide attacks (or homicide attacks, as the Bush administration called them or martyrdom attacks, as many Palestinians call them). This is not an isolated occurrence: Of the eleven Middle East narrative features that the Sundance Institute has supported, five center thematically on violence or on the threat of violence. Moreover, one of the most celebrated Arab narrative features of this year is the Moroccan/French production Horses of God, whose story fictionalizes the developments leading to the multiple suicide attack operation carried out in Casablanca in 2003.

I am suggesting that the depiction of violence in transnational Arab films is informed by a neoliberal ethic, one that is particularly concerned with movement-image, to use the Deleuzian term, predicated on the stable sustenance of oil production and transport. Implicated in this dynamic in the case of Black Gold is the film’s producer Tarak Ben Ammar, a relative of Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba, business partner of Silvio Berlusconi and associate and advisor to Saudi media mogul Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. (Serafini) Several months ago, Ben Ammar formed a strategic partnership with another investments media mogul Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris (who like Ben Ammar, continually moves between Europe and the Arab World) to produce movie and TV content for the Arab World and beyond. (Vivarelli) French-Tunisian Ben Ammar had made a name for himself in the late 70s as a film producer and production studio owner in Tunisia, who could arrange for location shooting for Hollywood spectacle big budget pictures, such as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Serafini)

In the publicity following the premiere of the film in Doha, Ben Ammar deflected questions about the film’s cast by reminding of the Arab ethnicity of Tahar Rahim, the film’s lead, and that Antonio Banderas hailed from Andalusia. (Mottram) Ben Ammar’s neo-liberal model for the cultural industry is amply demonstrative of the identity shuffling, shape-shifting transnationalism discussed earlier. He and other neoliberal capitalists have put their money into Arab film production, in part supplanting national funding apparatuses.

Winter of Discontent (2012):

Launched with a six-page treatment and a phone call from director Ibrahim el-Batout to Egyptian movie star Amr Waked, on the eve of the overthrow of Mubarak on January 25, 2011 (Waked and Hanafy) Winter of Discontent has been submitted by the Egyptian government as its official entry into the competition for Best Foreign Language Oscar. This is notable for two reasons: El-Batout’s first narrative feature film Ein Shams (Eye of the Sun) became the first film to screen in commercial theatres in Egypt, not having received authorization for its screenplay from the censor prior to production. Secondly, Winter of Discontent was produced and financed in part by the director himself, who had won one of the highest denomination prizes of any film festival—the $100,000 Best Arab Film award in the now defunct Doha Tribeca Film Festival.

Ibrahim el-Batout was a documentary producer, director and cinematographer for eighteen years, covering twelve conflicts including three in Iraq. El-Batout shot the footage depicting the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 in Ein Sham himself. Moreover, the film begins with an Iraqi folk song being performed by an Egyptian singer in Cairo, as well as footage of and narration by the character of an Egyptian physician working in Iraq, seemingly as part of a humanitarian effort, who reports on her investigation of a possible linkage between US weapons deployed and cancer incidence in children. (Batout)

El-Batout’s three narrative films to date have been characterized by what David Martin-Jones has identified as a fractured narrative structure. Such films stylistically and thematically fuse time-image and movement-image assignments with which Deleuze had distinguished art and commercial films: “In either case what we see in these non-linear films is a crisis of national identity formally rendered literal by multiple, jumbled or otherwise discontinuous narrative time. As such these images are time-images ‘caught in the act’ of becoming movement images.” (Martin-Jones 37)

El-Batout is not the only Arab filmmaker to make what some have dubbed hyperlink movies— works of fractured, elliptical narrative structures that gathered traction in world cinema, by the likes of Alejandro González Iñárritu, Tom Tykwer, and Fatih Akin before being acknowledged by Hollywood cinema in the Best Picture award presented to the film Crash.  . Ahmad Abdalla has done similar with his Microphone, although, an investigation of the prevalence and trans-Arabism of such filmmaking stylistic and thematic methodology is a topic for another occasion.

Wadjda (2012):

Hyped in the US as the frontrunner for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (Lyttelton), Wadjda though internationally lauded for its artistic accomplishment has received much more attention for its operative accomplishment—its being the first narrative feature film to be made by a Saudi woman. Wadjda was shot in Saudi Arabia with an all-Saudi cast.

Director Haifaa al-Mansour sought to make an accessible, allegorical, celebration of will-to-power and by economic and institutional accounts has succeeded. Wadjda has already secured worldwide theatrical distribution including in the coveted US market. Yet, with all of the enthusiasm for the film on the festival circuit and in the press, problematical discourses have emerged, including the ignorant and flagrant (Garcia)—to be expected—as well as, arguably more troubling, the over-emphatic and exaggerated, betraying a neoliberal concern.

What of the iterated observations of the irony of the film’s unavailability in a country which permits no public cinemas? When in truth among the twenty two Arab countries from which figures exist, many have among the fewest screens per capita in the world: Algeria, Syria, Palestine and Tunisia—public cinemas are virtually nonexistent. (Gonzalez) Moreover, why have such observations so conveniently ignored TV broadcast and internet streaming and downloads including of the pirated? Middle East film industry observers are well aware of the major challenges facing the industry in its distribution and exhibition systems. Considering that only three Arab countries have a viable theatrical exhibition industry—the UAE, Lebanon and Egypt (Khawaja)— considering that Arab films are challenged to garner distribution in neighboring countries despite cultural, historical, and linguistic similarities (1Co) and considering what renowned Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah has observed as a cessation in buying film broadcast right on the part of the two principle Arab movie satellite channels ART and Rotana (Adler), both of which owned by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (whose Abu Dhabi based Rotana Studios co-produced Wadjda as it so happens).

One last commonly bandied take on Wadjda that lacks scrutiny is that of the degree to which the film has challenged the strictures of the Saudi state, in its illustration of the subjugation of women and its call for a solidarity among the oppressed and their allies to challenge the system. Yet, as director al-Mansour has observed:

“Liberal arts should play a greater role in shaping the Arab nations. We see rising fundamentalist and conservative ideologies in Egypt and Tunisia, and we need to create space for arts to grow and call for higher human values such as tolerance, acceptance and rights. Activists tend to work against the system but I really want to work within it. A lot of people in Saudi Arabia are against a female film director voicing her opinion, but I still feel they respect me because I work within some sort of system. I don’t try to push against it as much as create a dialogue. Conservative societies shut off when their values are threatened. We should create a space where they can feel part of the world, not outside it.” (Powell)

Not only was Wadjda supported by a member of the Saudi royal family in Alwaleed Bin Talal, but the film would later be submitted by the Saudi government itself for participation in the competition for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award. Thus, confirming that despite the film’s provocation it had managed to secure official state sanction.

Rock the Casbah (2013):

The second feature film by Laila Marrakchi, financed by French studio Pathé, employs methodical and thematic approaches consistent with her first Marock. Both films are melodramas. Both deploy social taboo as plot propellers, in the case of a latter the taboo is a McGuffin of sorts. Both films relate stories of Morocco’s elite principally. Both are conventional in structure and style, intently commercial projects despite their determined challenging of traditions that subvert and suppress women. Marock, involving an appreciable amalgamation of Romeo and Juliet and autobiography, succeeded beyond all expectations in Morocco in 2006 (Pajon) and Rock the Casbah is expected to do well internationally (Toronto Film Review: Rock the Casbah).

Rock the Casbah’s class critique is in passing but its feminist critic is the engine of the story, as the film focuses primarily on three sisters who have gathered to attend their father’s funeral in has grandiose villa where their mother still lives. It was to be expected that Marrakchi would seek out movie stars who could help sell the film’s distribution rights in as many markets as possible, what with the film’s evident commercial interest—from its title, to its Anglo and Franco content, to its “white telephone” mise-en-scene, to its generic underpinnings. What is surprising about Marrakchi’s casting choices, being perhaps too politically progressive to cast white actors to play Arab characters, was not that she did not cast Moroccan born actors, not uncommon for “exile” Maghrebi cinema, but that she did not cast all Maghrebi Europeans. The father, mother and one of the sister characters are played by non-Maghrebi Arab (and Arabic speaking) stars with appeal and recognition outside the Arab World.

Marrakchi, asked about her casting of Arab (presumably non-Moroccan) actors, remarked that doing so helped cast a family with similar features, as well as that she had wanted to lend the film an Arab and International dimension. (Radsi) I reckon the latter justification more like it. What is likely at play is an interest in casting actors who would not raise the ire of critics of false cultural, including cinematic, representation, such as in casting, while helping secure distribution in a market that weighs actors’ renown heavily. This is not unusual; see Black Gold and Winter of Discontent above. What is particular to this case I find is the Francophonic connection. Whereas French is widely spoken by all social classes in Morocco, it is relatively exclusive to the upper class in the non-Maghrebi Arab World. Indeed, of the three non-Maghrebi actors cast, only Hiam Abbas speaks Arabic in the film. Omar Sharif and Nadine Labaki may not have had the chops to learn a Moroccan dialect to order, but they could speak French enough like a Moroccan to pass. Rock the Casbah presents its own case of nostalgia inflected self-mimicry.

Conclusion

What I have attempted to do is to make the case for a specific theoretical approach to analyzing Arab cinema. I have certainly not fully charted what I have observed as a particular transnational system, a trans-Arab cinema, within a complex of transnational cultural production. What I have attempted is to shine a light on some of the symptoms, modalities and idioms of a distinct transnational subset, a layering of post-colonial, governmental, and transnational forces acting upon a region with a high degree of commonality in its shared history, its religions, and its languages. As revolutions unfurl and civil wars rage, while sectarian strife manifests and shifting alliances take place, particular attention must be paid to arguably a most popular and prominent cultural product.

 

 

Bibliography

Conference on distribution and promotion of Arab films: Obstacles and solutions. Paris: Institut du Monde Arabe, n.d. 1. Electronic. <http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://euromedaudiovisuel.net/Files/2013/06/26/1372262567377.pdf>.

Adler, Tim. "Arab Cinema Could Collapse Completely, Abu Dhabi Festival Attendees Hear." The Hollywood Reporter 16 October 2012. Electronic. <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/arab-cinema-could-collapse-completely-379236>.

Batout, Ibrahim El. Ibrahim El Batout--Official Website. n.d. 18 Novermber 2013. <http://ibrahimelbatout.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=75:egypt-today&catid=38:ein-shams-press&Itemid=59>.

Dean, Mitchell. Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society. London: Sage, 1999.

Durovicova, Natasa. "Preface." Durovicova, Natasa and Kathleen Newman. World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2010. ix-x.

Garcia, Maria. "Wadjda." Cineaste 38.4 (2013): 51-53. Document.

Gonzalez, Roque. Emerging Markets and the Digitalization of the Film Industry: An analysis of the 2012 UIS International Survey of Feature Film Statistics. NGO information paper. Montreal: UNESCO Institute for Statics, 2013. Electronic. <http://www.uis.unesco.org/culture/Documents/IP14-2013-cinema-survey-analysis-en.pdf>.

Grassilli, Mariagiulia. "Migrant Cinema: Transnational and Guerrilla Practices of Film Production and Representation." Journal of Ethics and Migration 34.8 (2008): 1237-1255. Document.

Gupta, Akhil and Aradhana Sharma. "Globalization and Postcolonial States." Current Anthropology 47.2 (2006): 277.

Harvey, David. Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development. New York: Verso, 2006.

Higbee, Will. "Locating the Postcolonial in Transnational Cinema: The Place of Algerian Emgire Directors in Contemporary French Film." Modern and Contemporary France 15.1 (2007): 51-64.

Higson, Andrew. "The Limiting Imagination of National Cinema." Hjort, Mette and Scott MacKenzie. Cinema and Nation. New York: Routledge, 2000. 63-74. Document.

Hjort, Mette and Scott MacKenzie. "Introduction." Hjort, Mette and Scott MacKenzie. Cinema and Nation. New York: Routledge, 2000. 1-12.

Hjort, Mette and Scott MacKenzie. "Introduction." Hjort, Mette and Scott MacKenzie. Cinema and Nation. New York: Routledge, 2000. 1-12. Document.

Khawaja, Moign. Interview: Tarak Ben Ammar – Arab Film Producer and Distributor. 31 July 2012. 20 November 2013. <http://arabiangazette.com/interview-tarak-ben-ammar/>.

Lyttelton, Oliver. Oscars: Will Saudi Arabia's 'Wadjda' Win The Best Foreign Language Film Award? 18 November 2013. 20 November 2013. <http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/will-saudi-arabias-wadjda-win-the-best-foreign-language-film-award-20131118?page=2#blogPostHeaderPanel>.

Martin-Jones, David. Deleuze, Cinema and National Identity: Narrative Time in National Contexts. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2006. Document.

Mottram, James. "Tarak Ben Ammar – Golden Touch." MovieScope 2 April 2012. Electronic. <http://www.moviescopemag.com/insiderspov/tarak-ben-ammar-golden-touch/>.

Newman, Kathleen E. "Notes on Transnational Film Theory." Nataša, Durovicová and Kathleen E. Newman. World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2010. 3-11. Document.

Pajon, Par Léo . "Rock the Casbah--Laila Marrakchi: "Moroccans Are Condemned to Schizophrenia"." Jeune Afrique 11 9 2013. Electronic. <http://www.jeuneafrique.com/Article/JA2748p118.xml0/>.

Powell, Libby. "10 Minutes with Haifaa al-Mansour." The World Today 68.8/9 (2012): 50. Document.

Radsi, Ahmed. "Laila Marrakchi: "My New Film Is not Marock"." Morocco Events 3 September 2013. Electronic. <http://www.ahdath.info/?p=131725>.

Robinson, William I. "Beyond the Theory of Imperialism: Global Capitalism and the Transnational State." Societies Without Borders 2.1 (2007): 5-26. Document.

Schochat, Ella. "Egypt: Cinema and Revolution." Critical Arts 2.4 (1983): 22-32.

Serafini, Dom. "Tarak Ben Ammar: The Great Negotiator." Video Age International (2003). Electronic. <http://www.videoageinternational.com/articles/2003/11/article1.html>.

Tageldin, Shadin. Disarming Word: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt? London: University of California, 2011. Document.

"Toronto Film Review: Rock the Casbah." Variety 16 September 2013. Electronic. <http://variety.com/2013/film/reviews/rock-the-casbah-review-toronto-1200613933/>.

Vivarelli, Nick. "Arab Media Mavens Team Up for Global Content Creation." Variety (2013). Electronic. <http://variety.com/2013/film/international/arab-media-mavens-team-up-for-global-content-creation-1200482190/>.

Waked, Amr and Salah Hanafy. Amr Waked and Salah Hanafy - leading actors in Winter of Discontent CinemaEuropa. 9 November 2012. Electronic. <http://cineuropa.org/vd.aspx?t=video&documentID=229567>.

Weissberg, Jay. "Review of Black Gold." Variety 25 October 2011. Digital. <http://variety.com/2011/film/reviews/black-gold-1117946437/>.

Wright, Robin. "Imagining a Remapped Middle East." New York Times 28 September 2013. Electronic. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/29/opinion/sunday/imagining-a-remapped-middle-east.html>.

Friday
Aug302013

Chronicle of the Years of Embers (1975): Ample Splendor, not Enough Sedition

Someone saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground

“What have you lost, Mulla?” he asked. “My key” said the Mulla. So they both went down on their knees and looked for it.

                After a while, the other man asked: “Where exactly did you drop it?”

                “In my own house.”

                “Then why are you looking here?”

                “There is more light here than inside my own house.”1

Nasruddin statue in Bukhara, UzbekhistaIt is said that at least seven Nasruddin tales are to be told consecutively, to lend enough time for the world’s best known wise fool tales to reduce listener resistance to the humor, long enough to open the heart to the tales’ wisdom.2 I think I ought to get around to the film’s review sooner than that!

The wise fool, the jester, or the savant fool has shown up in cultures aplenty, in the histories of their royal courts as well as in their literary and/or oral tradition. In the company of monarchs and magistrates—in societies European, Islamic and Asian—the fool's principle function was to remind such societies’ monarchs of their humanity3, to check against the excessively agreeable advise conveyed by royal court sycophants, the monarchs' yes-men.

Nasrudin (also Nasruddine) if he existed at all was born in modern day Turkey it seems, around eight centuries ago. His archetype appears in a variety of cultures under a miscellany of guises, including in the Arab World as Juha.4

Mohammed Lakhdar-HaminaMohammed Lakhdar-Hamina (محمد الأخضر حمينة) who must have known about Juha and was likely also exposed to wise fools deployed by Western European novelists and playwrights for centuries for their utility in varying the discourse and in enhancing the moral and dramatic stakes of such works. After all, what would King Lear be without its Fool. So impressed was Hamina with the wise fool that he decided to make one such character a lead and to play him himself, in Hamina’s most highly regarded film, the only African or Arab film to ever win Cannes’s top prize, the Palme d’Or—Chronicle of the Years of Embers.

So what does it take for a film to win arguably the most prestigious award in all of cinema in any given year? Well, presumably singular cinematic excellence in vision and in execution, though this has not held true every year. Consider the case of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, winner of the Palme d’Or in 2004, one of only three documentary films to be admitted into the competition for the top prize. It would be naïve to think the film deserving of it on artistic merit alone. How could one explain its receiving the longest standing ovation of any film in the festival’s history? Political persuasion. Half of the jury members for that year’s competition were American, Americans who probably couldn’t escape the avalanche of anti-Bush sentiment expressed at the time of the festival’s holding that year, what with the evident failure to locate WMDs in Iraq. How better to distance oneself from Bush and his doctrine than to vote for the propagandist anti-Bush cinematic tirade Fahrenheit 9/11.

Not to say that that Chronicle of the Years of Embers (also Chronicle of the Years of Fire, Chronicle of the Smoldering Years, Chronique des Années de Braise, وقائع سنين الجمر) is on par cinematically with Farenheit 9/11, only that it well stands to reason that the ten-member competition jury that year—comprising three French, including jury president Jeanne Moreau, as well as Russian director Yuliya Solntseva who had won the Best Director award in 1961 for her film (ready?) The Chronicle of the Flaming Years—would have been persuaded to award the festival’s top prize to the Algerian film. Do I merely speculate that the jury was politically motivated? Yes, but I have watched four other films in that year’s competition and would readily opine that Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger and especially Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Casper Houser are superior cinematic works.

Chronicle of the Years of Embers like most films selected for that year’s Cannes competition and like all others by the director—he made seven of them—are exceedingly difficult to find (hearty thanks to Bob Anant for the VHS copy), though having watched two other works of his I feel that his films deserve remastering and reissuing. Not only was Hamina one of few Algerian filmmakers to produce narrative features in the 60s and 70s, but he has obviously influenced other filmmakers stylistically and conceptually, including plainly Tunisian filmmaker Nacer Khmer in his notable and noted Desert Trilogy, not least in their tactile and transportive desert photography.

 

Chronicle is presented in six chapters, introduced by poorly descriptive titles: 1. The Ash Years; 2. The Ambers Years; 3. The Fire Years; 4. The Cart Years; 5. The Charging Years; 6. November 11th, 1954. As a whole, these rhapsodize about the Algerian national experience between the break out of World War II and November 11th, 1954 ten days after the launch of the Algerian Revolution, a brutal war of independence from a France that considered Algeria part of its integral territory, a revolution that would end in 1962 with the attainment of national independence.

The film's plot elides a historical narrative, naming little and few, preferring a theatrically vivified account of two Algerians, mostly occurring in an unnamed provincial town. Both figures take on mythical dimensions, both embody heroism: one speaks the Truth; the other fights for it. The former—the wise fool named Miloud (مولود), played with grandiose gusto by director Hamina—introduces the latter—the beleaguered, brawny Ahmed, played with precise control by Greek star Yorgo Voyagis—to politics of a broader scope, upon Ahmed’s arrival in the town nearest his village, thereby triggering within Ahmed a consciousness keener than had informed his struggle, his and his tribe’s, to secure water against a competing tribe in his home village. Even though Ahmed becomes a revolutionary in earnest when joining another, a leader named ‘L’arabi (العربي) upon the latter’s banished arrival in the Ahmed’s adoptive town, it is Miloud’s invocation, entreaty and, incitement that have awakened Ahmed. By film’s end, the two heroes, who will have grown close enough that Miloud is caring for the by then full-fledged revolutionary Ahmed’s son, give birth to the revolution.

Yorgo VoyagisIt would seem suspect that such a well-funded, national production telling such a patriotic story would hire a non-Algerian actor in the role of the phoenix Ahmed. Yet it is a credit to actor and director that Vaoyagis’s performace is credible as well as creditable. Perhaps I glommed a single line of dialogue in which the actor’s lips don’t sink with his words—impressive despite the paucity of lines uttered by the laconic Ahmed, if one were to consider the obviousness of lip sinking by such superb actors as Lars Rudolph and Tilda Swinton in Werkmeister Harmonies and The Man from London respectively, as directed by the great Bela Tarr. Whereas normally I would scoff at such “ethnically workable” casting of an internationally recognized actor for the purpose of enhancing critical and commercial interest in a film, I herewith acquiesced.

Other aspects of film strike me as more problematical than the casting of a Greek to play a fictional Arab. Hamina’s decision to cast not only himself but his three sons in the film reeks of nepotism, especially when considering that one’s performance as Ahmed’s son, the one that Miloud takes care of while his father is imprisoned then on the run, underwhelms, especially in the closing moments of the film. (The child actor could also have used with some darkening makeup, since he is quite lighter in complexion and hair color than any of the other Arab characters.)

More troublesome is the collusive relationship between Hamina and the Algerian government. Hamina had worked in the Information Minsitry of Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA) in Tunis, before training with the Tunisian newsreel outfit Actualités Tunisiennes, in the late 50s. He then left for Prague where, after abandoning film studies, he wrote and co-directed three short films. Thus, upon returning to Algerian, following its declaration of independence in 1962, having surely been promoted by his connections in the exiled government, Hamina set up and took charge of Algeria’s own Newsreel Office (OAA) in 1963, which Hamina then deployed to produce his films, shorts early on then features, of which he made three by the time that the OAA had been shut down in 1974: The Wind from the Aures (ريح الأوراس from 1966—a compelling war drama and impressive first feature that garnered the award for best first feature in Cannes, setting the stage for the Chronicle’s winning of the very festival’s top prize),  Hassan Terro (حسان الإرهابي from 1968, a satirical politically charged comedy) and December (ديسمبر from 1972, a drama about torture and guilt, told from a French officer’s point of view—surprisingly)5.

Meanwhile, these same feature films were produced by the “official” state film production company named Office National Commerce Industrie Cinéma (ONCIC), which would produce Hamina’s next two films, after the dissolution of OAA, Chronicle and his 1982 episodic woman centered drama Sandstorm (رياح رملية). His last film The Last Image (الصورة الاخيره from 1986) would become his only non-Algerian state production.6

Houari BoumedieneHamina has described Chronicle of the Years of Embers as a purely personal work, not an historical one, which conveniently rebuts accusations of his having created a work to comport with the concurrent agenda of the Houari Boumedienne military dictatorship, including the government’s sanctioned version of Algerian modern history. Is it merely a coincidence that Hamina managed to produce/make his own feature narrative films after Boumedienne—who had led the “frontier army” in Tunisia during the revolution, while Hamina served there—had taken over in 1965?7  Yet, how could the film not be personal, when Hamina not only directed Chronicle and played one of its two protagonists; he also wrote the story upon which the screenplay was based, a screenplay which he co-wrote. Hamina is also credited as the picture’s sole producer and, rather comically, its camera operator! Moreover, the parallels between his own life and his character Ahmed’s experience are certainly evident.

Hamina’s rejective defensiveness notwithstanding,  I find myself unconvinced that Chronicle is a purely personal work, considering the overt historical references, the archival war footage and the publicized connection between the film’s production and the Algerian government’s celebration of the twenty year anniversary of the launch of the Algerian Revolution, which is the event that concludes the film.8

Chronicle also appears cautious about condemning France’s colonial role. Most of the depicted violence is at the hands of collaborators and apologists, particularly at the silent behest of the Caïd (سيد), the magistrate of the town to which Ahmed moves early on in the film, at the hands of his henchmen. Curiously, though we see Ahmed suddenly pick up a sword and straddle a horse (rather unconvincing, but then he is a mythical figure) in defense against a massacre perpetrated against himself and his comrades at the hands of an Algerian cavalry, a massacre that he survives, we do not see the perpetrators of a subsequent, sudden attack that brings Ahmed’s life to an end; they are neither shown nor identified in the script.

Chronicle has also been criticized for having enlisted many European technicians, including the cinematographer and composer. In the film’s defense, most medium or big budget Arab films made today still rely on non-Arab talent, including often in the two roles mentioned. Yet, considering Chronicle’s subject matter, I agree with the criticisms of the film’s having been scored by a European musical soundtrack.9

Reportedly, Algerian critics and filmmakers resented Chronicle’s cost, which would exhaust Algerian cinema’s state budget for three years.10 Nevertheless, Chronicle is an ambitious, stupendous, fitfully entrancing work, whose expense is born on the screen in splendid glory. The abundance of crane and aerial photography serves the expansive vistas, captured using 70mm Panavision from what I have gathered (recorded on 35mm film, not 70mm, as has been predominantly described, then printed onto the comparatively expensive 70mm stock for exhibition). The sizable budget in the case of Chronicle surely availed its stunning imagery, in a three-hour epic.

Considering the problems with Chronicle of the Years of Embers, it certainly deserves to be seen and discussed. Further, it deserves a thorough remastering job, one to vivify the film’s splendor. Any takers?


CHRONIQUE DES ANNEES DE BRAISE Eng sub by lakhdar-hamina

 Notes:

1.    Shah, Idries. The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin. London: Octagon, 1983. Print. pp. 9

2.    Shapiro, Ann. Preface. The Uncommon Sense of the Immortal Mullah Nasruddin. Comp. Ron J. Suresha. Maple Shade: Lethe, 2011. 7. Print.

3.    Martin, Vanessa. "The Jester and the Shadow of God: Nasir al-Din Shah and His Fools." Iranian Studies 40.4 (2007): 467-81. EBSCO. Web. 29 Aug. <http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?sid=c2d850b6-6967-4713-b5e2-da2a6fde8826%40sessionmgr12&vid=1&hid=14&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=26461345>. pp. 467

4.    See # 2. pp. 11

5.    Armes, Roy. "Cinema of the Maghreb." Companion Encyclopedia of Middle Eastern and North African Film. Ed. Oliver Leaman. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2004. 420-514. Print. pp. 464

6.    See # 5

7.    Armes, Roy. Postcolonial Images: Studies in North African Film. Bloomington: Indiana University, 2005. Print. pp. 96-104

8.    See # 7

9.    See # 7

Monday
Jul292013

The Attack (2012): Polished, Inchoate and False

Humans are not the only animal to carry out suicide attacks I came to learn in researching for this review. A termite species found in French New Guinea sends off its old to carry out suicide attacks, deploying poison reserves that they will have accumulated over a lifetime. Curiously, the researcher who uncovered this behavior characterized it as altruistic.1

 

Samson destroys himself and his enemiesAs have theologians of one Samson’s suicide attack. Of the many violent crimes mentioned in the bible I was startled to learn that suicide attack is one. The attacker in question is the Israelite judge Samson who, after a lifetime of resisting the Philistines on behalf of his people, asks God to empower himself to kill those Philistines who had been summoned to regard the vanquished warrior (not realizing that despite Samson’s blindness his great strength had returned):Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines!’ Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived.”2

Indeed, though most suicide attacks in modern times have been carried out by Muslims, non-Muslims have carried them out or prepared for them, responding principally to Nationalist ideologies: Kamukaze (nationalist though literally meaning “god’s wind”) fighters and Tamil Tiger militants (check out the superb Indian film The Terrorist.) As far as European native and settler societies are concerned, it has come to surface that Churchill had designated a secret group named the Auxiliary Unit (otherwise known as the Scallywags), which was to carry out a variety of militant acts of resistance in the event of a German occupation of Britain—a unit of4000 volunteer civilians. Tom Skyes, who had campaigned for official recognition of the Auxiliary Unit stated about its members: “Many of these veterans were in reserved occupations and could not join the regular Forces… But when the call came, they did not hesitate to join what would have been a suicide mission to confront the enemy.”3 Indeed, the most probing investigation4 into the motivation behind contemporary suicide bombing has found it weakly linked to religious fundamentalism, Islamic or otherwise.5 Rather, opposition to occupation and a desire to gain strategic advantage over it has described almost all such attacks, as has been proved by another comprehensive study conducted since.6 There is strategic advantage to not having to execute an exit plan, since an exit is not part of the plan.

A time existed not long ago when suicide attack was the commonly used term in Palestinian circles, though I do not now think that its gradual replacement with martyrdom bombing reflects the increasing religiosity among Palestinians, but a rejection of the connoted self-centeredness of suicide versus the connoted collectiveness of martyrdom: Those who commit suicide die for themselves, whereas those who commit martyrdom die for their people. Yet, whereas suicide is an objective term (as is Bush’s homicide attack, but homicide is confusing, because attacks that may involve homicide may well not involve suicide), martyrdom is subjective. Martyrdom’s meaning resides in perception of the act, not in the very act of self and enemy destruction for the sake of sustaining the cause of one’s own people.

Subjective is not to say ethnically or religiously restrictive, for martyrdom has been a term of use in a variety of religious traditions of various peoples. It was curious to encounter a resistance to describing Samson’s act mentioned above as suicide within the Judeo-Christian tradition7, which views suicide as immoral as the Islamic has, in favor of … you’ve guessed it—martyrdom. Not surprising, considering that Samson is the only character treated as a “keeper of the faith” among the several whose acts of suicide populate the bible.8

Palestinian militants who died in battle or during attacks, long before the first sucide attack of modern times, carried out in 19829, were called martyrs as well, including secularists and communists. Nor does a majority Palestinian Muslims support suicide attacks “in the name of Islam,” according to a recent PEW poll, though a higher percentage of Palestinian Muslims do than in any other predominantly Muslim country.10 That Afghanistan polled a scratch second to Palestine on the question of the occasional justifiability of suicide bombings is telling.

Occupation engenders acute indignity, an indignity that starting in the early 80s, though not since 200811, has persuaded fewer than 200 Palestinians to volunteer to seek terminal revenge. One such person was 29-year-old Palestinian lawyer Hanadi Jaradat, who detonated the explosives belt strapped to her waist in a restaurant in Haifa, in 2003, killing twenty people and wounding many others. Her family reported afterward that her decision was motivated by the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) killing of her brother and her fiancé, as well as for Israeli crimes of murder and land expropriation in the West Bank.12Jaradat was also in all likelihood the person who inspired the character of Sihem, author Yasmina Khadra’s Samson in his own piece of fiction The Attack, published in 2005. In the bestselling novel, Sihem is the secular, seemingly adjusted and integrated spouse of the novel’s protagonist, Palestinian hotshot surgeon Amin Jaafari, with whom she has shared a life in Tel Aviv for over a decade. Sihem blows herself up early in the novel, also in a restaurant.

Amin’s world is pulverized. Beyond smiting grief, he must deal with the ramifications of living in Israel as the spouse of a Palestinian who blew herself up in a restaurant full of Jewish kids. Further, Amin feels zealously impelled to investigate how the woman he had thought he knew so well, a secular-humanist, could bring herself to commit such a horrific act, not having betrayed her intention to himself in the least. Amin is determined to uncover who had taken the love of his life from him and persuaded her to betray her legacy with himself, a legacy that she had helped build. In his quest, he traces a couple of clues to Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jenin. (Nablus appropriately stands in for Bethlehem in the film, Nazareth is referred to, and Jenin is dispensed with.)

Yasmina Khadra (AKA Mohammed Moulessehoul)The Attack, the novel, is at its best when mining its protagonist’s psyche, the psyche that Dr. Amin Jaafari has for years tamed, following formative years in the West Bank whose memory he has utilitarianly quarantined. Yasmina Khadra (nom de plume of Algerian Mohammed Moulessehoul, who immigrated to France with his spouse—suprise—Yasmina Khadra) does two things indicative of an adept modern storyteller: He injects his characters with evident humanity, which is a better way of saying that he cares about his characters. Secondly, Khadra manages to bring the story to a fulfilling end-start point, without its seeming as if it were heading there.

Regrettably, Khadra’s assiduous insistence that his novel honor its characters’ impulses and intentions, its pretense to secure a “balance” (existing subjectively, not objectively) comes off as stilted, especially when relying on baroque imagery and metaphors of a bygone era, which serve to soften the blow of the compunction suffered by his liberal humanist non-Arab readers’ sympathizing with a suicidal Muslim martyr. It’s as iff Khadra determined to broker insight into the most macabre realm of Muslim civilization to the secular humanist West and was rewarded for his delicacy and sagaciousness under topical duress with recognition and abundant sales.

Additionally, Khadra’s efforts fall short in a number of ways that a seasoned writer’s shouldn’t. I developed a wee concern when I saw the spelling of Sihem’s name. Palestinians would pronounce the name Siham. However, I all but forgot about this quibble when I came upon the principle example of The Attack’s major lapse. Amin is a naturalized Palestinian Israeli, but there is no such human. At first, I thought Khadra had meant a Palestinian Israeli, one born as a minority citizen of Israel, but soon enough I realized that Khadra intended him as a Palestinian born in the West Bank who had managed by attending medical school in Israel to acquire Israeli citizenship, as highly skilled professional may in more developed countries (MDC). Well, it could not happen. It could not have even happened through Amin’s having married an Israeli citzen, which Sihem is.13

Throughout The Attack, Khadra describes the severed territories as far more open to each other’s denizens than they really are. Israelis travel into the West Bank and even live there (no, not just within settlements) and Palestinian militants posing as businessmen travel through Israel “proper” freely—flagrantly fantastical. Khadra, despite his extensive sociological research, has made a few indicative assumptions. Thereby Khadra has cast his complex, sympathetic characters in a fairly contrived, hazily miserable world, persuaded perhaps by the postulate that such a vivification would meet the conception of the “Palestinian/Israeli conflict” held by the secular humanist Western European audience (as well as institutional supporters) that the novel would have to win over first.

Ziad DoueiriZiad Doueiri’s interpretation of the novel is also hazily vivid, most appropriately in the first 20 minutes or so, the lead-up to Amin’s identification of Siham’s (her name’s pronunciation corrected) body. This intro is rendered with a deftness and polish that belie the film’s relatively meager $1.5 million budget.

At the film’s center, in the role of Amin is one of the best Arab screen actors working today—Ali Suliman (who himself curiously played the abdicating suicide martyr in Hany Abu-Asad’s Paradise Now). Suliman, like all excellent actors, has great command over him movement and stillness. Wherein The Last Friday Suliman was seen fidgeting, hesitating and tilting, herein we find him a man depleted by anguish and indignity, so that even in rising to admonish or to accuse we see a person summing up energy reserves from all corners of his body. Suliman is a treat to watch, as is Uri Gavriel as Captain Moshe, whose scenes of interrogating Amin are among the best.

Ali Suliman as Dr. Amin JaafariDoueiri, who has written the screenplay with his spouse Joelle Touma, insists on secularizing the character and motivation of the Palestinian suicide bomber, which must be why Doueiri and Touma convert Khadra’s Sihem, the secular Muslim martyr, to Christianity, as does the screenwriting pair a young Muslim militant leader, who in the film becomes a young, vaguely militant priest.

What the writing pair does not do is to fix the naturalization and freedom of movement problems that mar the novel. And though this would upset the knowing, i.e. Palestinians, it does not the drama. What does undercut the film’s dramatic effect markedly, however, is the dispensation of the lyrical, elegiac conclusion that takes place in Jenin in the novel, amidst the ruin and carnage of an Israeli military incursion, in favor of a muddled, intrinsic finis. A single vestige of the novel’s near closing Jenin chapter is Amin’s coming upon, in Nablus, a site of an unremarkable, unindicative concrete demolition, replete with a graffiti verse “Ground Zero.”

As such, the film eventuates having concretely presented little, in dialogue or in imagery, of the oppression and injustice that has driven Palestinians to justify the murder of civilians, having restricted its explanation of the motivation behind such self-enemy annihilation to the following: on the Israeli side as a false historical narrative of Palestinian bonkers-bomber motivation, presented as probing, objective assessment on the part of two radio news show hosts. On the Palestinian side, such motivation is obliquely explained by two religious figures, distrusted a priori by secular humanists.

Too many well-funded, high profile films centering on Arab/Muslim suicidal martyrdom have been made I reckon, including three last year alone: beside The Attack, Horses of God (by far the best of the bunch) fictionalizes the actual coordinated suicide attacks in Casablanca, Morocco in 2003 and Inch’Allah culminates with a Palestinian martyrdom attack that waxes insipid by sensationalism. After all, Morocco has not seen a suicide attack since the noted and Palestine has not since 2008. Thus, what we have are films that feign boldness to tackle a most difficult subject, while engaging a discourse based on outmoded events. Suicide attacks carried out by Muslims in the last year have mainly occurred in Iraq, Pakistan and in Afghanistan. Most have been sectarian attacks against Muslims and/or have targeted occupation, particularly, US and collaborator targets. If a film about suicide martyrdom is to be made at all then it ought to be a gritty, realist, timely work, a Battle of Algiers for our day.


Note: The title The Attack has been translated into Arabic, in the cases of book and film, curiously as as-Sadmah الصدمه, which translates better as The Shock and is a term usually more internally directed than, say, al-hajmah الهجمة—a decision informed by target audience sensitivities perhaps?

  1. Cormier, Zoe. "Termites explode to defend their colonies." Nature. Nature Publishing Co., 26 July 2012. Web. 26 July 2013. <http://www.nature.com/news/termites-explode-to-defend-their-colonies-1.11074>.
  2. New International Version. Biblica, 2013. Web. 25 July 2013. <http://www.biblica.com/bibles/chapter/?verse=Judges+16&version=niv>. Judg. 16:30
  3. Elliott, Valerie. "Honoured at Last: Churchill's Secret Guerillas Who Were Poised to Execute Senior British Figures if There Was a Risk of Them Helping the Germans After Nazi Invasion." Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 30 Mar. 2013. Web. 26 July 2013. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2301720/Churchills-secret-guerillas-poised-execute-senior-British-figures-risk-helping-Germans-Nazi-invasion.html>.
  4. King, Oliver. "News Blog: What really motivates suicide bombers?" The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 Aug. 2006. Web. 26 July 2013. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/blog/2006/aug/11/suicidebombers>.
  5. Pape, Roberet A. Dying to Win: The Strategic Advantage of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Random House, 2005. Print. pp. 3
  6. Harris, Rachel S. "Samson's Suicide: Death and the Hebrew Literary Canon." Israel Studies 17.3(2012): 67-91. EBSCO. Web. 28 July 2013. pp. 67-69
  7. Hassan, Riaz. "What Motivates the Suicide Bombers?" Yale Global Online 3 Sept. 2009: n. pag. Web. 28 July 2013. <http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/what-motivates-suicide-bombers-0>.
  8. O'Mathuna, Donal P. "But the Bible Doesn't Say They Were Wrong to Commit Suicide, Does it?" Suicide: A Christian Response : Five Crucial Considerations for Choosing Life. Ed. Timothy J. Demy and Gary P. Stewert. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998. 349-66. Print. pp. 361
  9. Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. "Suicide Attack Database." Suicide Attack Database. U of Chicago, 14 Oct. 2011. Web. 28 July 2013. <http://cpost.uchicago.edu/search.php?noresults=1>.
  10. A Rising Tide Lifts Mood in the Developing World: Sharp Decline in Support for Suicide Bombing in Muslim Countries. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2007. Pew Research Global Attitudes Project. Web. 28 July 2013. <http://www.pewglobal.org/2007/07/24/a-rising-tide-lifts-mood-in-the-developing-world/>.
  11. See # 9
  12. Burns, John F. "The Mideast Turmoil: The Attacker; Bomber Left Her Family with a Smile and a Lie." New York Times [New York] 7 Oct. 2003, World: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 28 July 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/07/world/the-mideast-turmoil-the-attacker-bomber-left-her-family-with-a-smile-and-a-lie.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm>.
  13. "Israel Upholds Citizenship Bar for Palestinian Spouses." News: Middle East. BBC, 12 Jan. 2012. Web. 28 July 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16526469>.