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Performing Silence: Screening the Films of Mohamed Bayoumi

Dear readers,

Below I link to Leyya Tawil's review of a special event that I helped plan and present: the North American premiere of several of Mohamed Bayoumi's films, in accompaniment to a commissioned, live orchestral performance and punctuated with a segmented lecture by yours truly. Enjoy!



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 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:

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: 


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


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!


La La Land (2016): The Male Lead should have been Latino

Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle… 

Moreover, Disneyland is not the only one. Enchanted Village, Magic Mountain, Marine World: Los Angeles is encircled by these "imaginary stations" which feed reality, reality-energy, to a town whose mystery is precisely that it is nothing more than a network of endless, unreal circulation: a town of fabulous proportions, but without space or dimensions. As much as electrical and nuclear power stations, as much as film studios, this town, which is nothing more than an immense script and a perpetual motion picture, needs this old imaginary made up of childhood signals and faked phantasms for its sympathetic nervous system.

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation[1]


I love Los Angeles, where I lived while I was writing the screenplay of Lolita. I had never seen jacaranda trees before, at least in bloom.

Vladimir Nabokov[2]

Amanda and I at the open-air screening of La La Land in a park by Chinatown

A couple of months ago, my spouse and I attended an open-air screening of La La Land in a public Los Angeles park. The weather was, as often it is in LA, perfect. Amidst hundreds, we turned our heads to the blow-up screen, gigantic and absurd, looking like a swimming pool mattress turned onto its side.  To its left and in the distance could be glimpsed the Downtown LA skyline, and here we were watching a celebrated celebration of LA. It should have been perfect, because the occasion was synchronous as to be supremely hyper-real. Only it wasn’t.

Weeks later, I attended a formal luncheon at my university where I was seated next to a veteran of American film and TV with decades of experience as actor, writer, and producer behind him. Critical and incisive, I enjoyed hearing his recollections and grievances. At some point as several of us chatted he qualified La La Land as his favorite film of late. It really captured the glory of the classical Hollywood musical he declared, before making a far more original observation: It was mature and true to life that the film made the failure of the protagonists’ romance a condition of the amelioration. He singled out the moment near the finale when a couple of years after parting ways the two leads exchange a glance of endearment and acknowledgment at a chance meeting wherein they exchange no words, before parting ways again, perhaps for good.

He was right, which is one reason I didn’t offer my observations, including those critical. Another reason is that the autumnal pro was present to be appreciated and I’d been told that my face is over-expressive. The film was lovely, in a way that a fresh and familiar passion piece of art is, the way few films are, especially for somebody who had come to know LA through films only to then come to learn that life in LA was akin to a film.

Romance aside, La La Land is far from perfect. It doesn’t serve a musical to serve its best number first. More substantively, the film adopts a regressive view of jazz, not merely a nostalgic one. It deliberately makes the “progressive” jazz numbers lousy, as performed by real-life marvel composer-musician-singer John Legend (Keith), a black man, whereas it adoringly punctuates its traditional numbers written and played by its Romantic, idealistic white hero of jazz Sebastian. Therein lies the film’s lost opportunity—in writing and in casting. I apprehend and critically appreciate the imperatives of casting in commercial cinema, but Ryan Gosling was miscast. Though I have not read any reviews of this film, I did read in the lead-up to the Oscars ceremony that awards observers were not surprised that he had not been nominated for best actor as his co-star Emma Stone had been. (She would go on to win.) Gosling is one of the good guys in Hollywood—earnest, genuine and nice. Many have reported this publicly, but I have also personally heard it from somebody who has worked with him intimately. Despite his talent as actor and his credibility in the piano playing scenes, Gosling, unlike Stone, does not sing or dance well and he is a decade too old for the role I reckon.

More problematic than the casting, however, is the writing of Gosling’s character Seb(astian) as white. Would it not have been refreshing and original for the film that appreciates the city’s past to acknowledge the city’s Chicano heritage, by casting a Latino in the lead? The Hispanic/Latino population of Los Angeles is larger than that of whites, while its adult residents speak English and Spanish at home by near equal measure.[3] In a city that is brown and browning,[4] in which interracial and interethnic romance is as common as doughnut shops, neither going out of style as far as I can see, would it not have been opportune to have a non-white play Sebastian? Further, a Latino jazz musician would have alerted today’s audiences to the glorious world of Latin jazz. The comradery and competition between Sebastian and black fusion jazz musician Keith would have nodded to the historical, longstanding cultural connection between black and Latino musicians as Latin jazz augmented and aggrandized the jazz that was the jasm.

In a heated exchange between Keith and Sebastian about the moment of jazz., Keith remonstrates, “How you gonna save jazz if no one's listening? “You're holding on to the past, but jazz is about the future.” Much like La La Land, which could have been about the future if it had helped its cause with a Latino male lead, under thirty, boasting a gorgeous voice and glorious moves, while sporting handsome headphones pumping Thelonious Monk, eyes wide and unblinking, decidedly oriented to the future.

"Deliverance in LA" (photography: Flo Razowsky, production: Amanda Hankerson, art direction: Mohannad Ghawanmeh)

[1] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994) 12-13.

[2] Gerald Clarke, "Checking in With Vladimir Nabokov," Esquire, July 1975, 131.

[3] See under “Demographics” and “Social” statistics indicative statistics based on American Community Survey census of Los Angeles dating to 2015,

[4] Javier Panzar, “It's official: Latinos now outnumber whites in California,” Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2015,


"The Tongue of Funding: Politics and Practices of Casting for Arab Characters in Transnational Film and Television Production"--A Lecture

Here is a link to a reading of an essay I had initially presented in the Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference, in April 2016.

This reading forms the principle text of a digital research seminar among many comprising HESCALE:

HESCALE - Histoire, Économie, Sociologie des Cinémas dAfrique et du Levant

The research initiative HESCALE intends to focus on the analysis of the film sector in Africa and the Middle East, and its activities are structured around three main themes : 1) Political, economic and industrial issues related to film production; 2) Political, economic and industrial issues related to film circulation via different media, internet, etc. ; 3) Audiences, spectatorship, film cultures and reception. The purpose of HESCALEs annual seminar is to present different perspectives on film distribution, exhibition, and audiences in the context of technological, economic and cultural transformations. In the upcoming year, well explore the ways in which research on cultural and creative industries can contribute to our understanding of film in these regions.

Following the posting of the reading was a discussion with Patricia Caille and Nolwenn Mingan, both of whom I would like to very much thank for the opportunity to participate in such an exciting project. I also wish to thank Anne Virmont for her making the discussion and contextual materials available.

HESCALE - Histoire, Économie, Sociologie des Cinémas d’Afrique et du Levant

The research initiative HESCALE intends to focus on the analysis of the film sector in Africa and the Middle East, and its activities are structured around three main themes : 1) Political, economic and industrial issues related to film production; 2) Political, economic and industrial issues related to film circulation via different media, internet, etc. ; 3) Audiences, spectatorship, film cultures and reception. The purpose of HESCALE’s annual seminar is to present different perspectives on film distribution, exhibition, and audiences in the context of technological, economic and cultural transformations. In the upcoming year, we’ll explore the ways in which research on cultural and creative industries can contribute to our understanding of film in these regions.