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Sunday
Jan012017

Guest Interview: Khalid Interviews Khaled (Khaled Abol Naga--Acting as a calling and social activism)

Cinephiles populate many arenas and links to the cinema have been made by a multitude of disciplines. The medical humanities is one such discipline. I was delighted to learn more about this discipline from a wonderful particitioner of it. Dr. Khalid Ali is a clinical academic concerned with medical humanities and an avid cineaste. In 2002, he started reviewing films from a medical and humanitarian viewpoint at the London Film Festival


His film reviews expanded to other forums including Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London, Edinburgh Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival and Dubai International Film Festival. His film reviews and interviews were published in Medical Humanities Journal, where you may read his report from the most recent Dubai International Film Festival, and the British Medical Journal.

In 2013 he was appointed as the editor for 'Screening room' the film reviews section in Medical Humanities Journal I am pleased to share herewith an interview he conducted of renowned Egyptian actor, producer and activist Khaled Abol Naga. The interview reviews Abol Naga's life and work, exploring his varied interests and tapping into his indomitable enthusiasm.

Monday
Jul112016

Rags and Tatters (2013): A Nihilisitic Text, a Proposal for Utopia

My presentation centered on Rags and Tatters, written and directed by Ahmed Abdallla, delivered in the The RAWI+Mizna 6th National Lit Gathering, on June 18, 2016. Much gratitute to Amanda Hankerson for capturing and producing the presenation and to RAWI and Mizna for their permission to post.

Saturday
Nov212015

Most comprehensive list of films shot in Egypt during its silent era, 1896-1932

Derived from disparate secondary sources, especially Ali Abu Sahdi's Proceedings of Egyptian Cinema in the Twentieth Century وقائع السينما المصرية في القرن العشرين

This spreadsheet is accessible publicly and may be copied. I hope that it may draw attention to an all but forgotten era of vital cinematic activity, the era of silent cinema in Egypt.

Friday
Jun192015

The Deranged New Iconoclasts--ISIS in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Having attended elementary and secondary public schools in Saudi Arabia until the age of fourteen, I became keenly aware of the Wahhabi[1] repudiation of realistic pictographic representation of life—animal and particularly human life—though not plant life. I could not have foretold the attention that “animation” in such discrepant forms as pre-Islamic Assyrian statues and polished internet ISIS propaganda videos would attract a quarter of a century later.

To be sure, the Saudi government permitted depiction of animal and human life forms on state television, in the press, and in third party publications produced in the country or imported. Censorship was enforced strictly, so that broadcast programs were edited to remove whatever provoked in the minimum the conservative sensibility of the autocratic, theocratic government. Aside from the provocation of varied content, a stricter interpretation of Islamic doctrine than that imposed by the government had it that depiction of animal and particularly human life was forbidden outright. Such a view was pervasive enough that I have found drawings I made in early elementary school wherein a line crosses the necks of animals and humans, certainly in response to a teacher’s request, to undercut a presumed intent in drawing to depict realistically.  Years later, classmates and I would be admonished by religious teachers that watching TV was forbidden, regardless of content, because it depicted lifeforms.

By the time I had left Saudi, I was confused about the religious acceptability of depiction, because I had noticed the variety of opinions and interpretations regarding. What seemed contradictory was that more realistic depictions were considered more flagrant, so that sculpting humans was more egregious from a religious practice standpoint than two-dimensional depiction, while representation by hand, such as in painting or drawing, was considered more flagrant than “mechanical” depiction such as by camera. In recent years, we have witnessed the modern era’s most extreme advocate for Islam not merely condone video depiction, but practice it instrumentally, for propaganda, including the depiction of ISIS members destroying iconographic sculptures that the group considers idolatrous.

ISIS could indeed be described as the New Iconoclasts, who similar to the original Byzantine Iconoclasts referred to by Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation, would appear to practice an uncompromising form of rejection of representation of not only divinity but of god’s creation. In fact, reprimands I heard in Saudi school in my youth, drawn from the Saudi government’s adopted ideology of Wahhabi Islam, which borrows much from the scholarship of 11th century theologian Ibn Taymiyyah, as does the ideology of ISIS[2], sounds near identical to the description of the sentiments expressed by Christians across broad territories, critical of devotional depiction in images, prior to the Byzantine Iconoclasm against cultish devotional practices in the 8th century.[3]

As is told in the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad ordered that the idols in the vicinity of the Ka’ba be destroyed upon his conquest of his hometown of Mecca with his followers, in 630 CE. ISIS is continuing this tradition a millennium and a half later[4], so as to seem far more outmoded than the Prophet and his followers had been, though I suspect that Jean Baudrillard has suggested the motivation behind iconoclasm in both instances:

But what becomes of the divinity when it reveals itself in icons, when it is multiplied in simulacra? Does it remain the supreme authority, simply incarnated in images as a visible theology? Or is it volatilized into simulacra which alone deploy their pomp and power of fascination - the visible machinery of icons being substituted for the pure and intelligible Idea of God? This is precisely what was feared by the Iconoclasts, whose millennial quarrel is still with us today. Their rage to destroy images rose precisely because they sensed this omnipotence of simulacra, this facility they have of erasing God from the consciousnesses of people, and the overwhelming, destructive truth which they suggest: that ultimately there has never been any God; that only simulacra exist; indeed that God himself has only ever been his own simulacrum. Had they been able to believe that images only occulted or masked the Platonic idea of God, there would have been no reason to destroy them. One can live with the idea of a distorted truth. But their metaphysical despair came from the idea that the images concealed nothing at all, and that in fact they were not images, such as the original model would have made them, but actually perfect simulacra forever radiant with their own fascination. But this death of the divine referential has to be exorcised at all cost.[5]

ISIS has demolished the remains of the 2,000 year-old city of Hatra, in fact, including structures not depicting any life form, having already assaulted the 3000 year-old remains of the city of Nemrud and a museum of antiquity in Mosul, the largest city currently under ISIS’s control[6]. All the while, ISIS had deployed video, arguably more lifelike than an antique statute in that it depicts movement and sound, whose style and content had been greatly informed by narrative Hollywood action films.[7] As such, ISIS has determined to assault creative works of indigenous origin, which have negligible influence on current ideological lives of people in the area, as it borrows a foreign art form and coopts creative works imported from an entity which it opposes vehemently—the United States. How could such an approach stand as congruous with the group’s doctrine, which has been central to its recruitment practices?[8]

The explanation, I reckon, is twofold and is contained in Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Firstly, sculpture, such as of pre-Islamic civilizations of the Middle East, and painting, such as that which I undertook in art class in my childhood, involve the hand in creation of the work—throughout. Whereas photography involves the manipulation of apparatuses that perform the work on behalf of the hand, arguably a comparatively indirect practice of “creation.” As Benjamin famously qualified, “For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens.”[9] Secondly, photography in all of its forms, differs from painting, sculpture and other pre-industrial pictographic art forms in that photographic images reproduced and re-disseminated ad infinitum lack what ruins evidently possess, what Benjamin describes as the “aura” of non-reproducible arts works.[10]

What will ISIS make of virtual reality technologies—looming as they are, if one were to follow the announcements and maneuvers by the likes of Google and Facebook[11]—and their holographic accruement, one might ask? I predict that ISIS would adopt them, because of their potential utility in persuasion, a practical concern of the group, and because of the technology’s “indirect” creation, as far as its human users are concerned—an apparent, though arguably false, removal of such creation from human agency. Indeed, we may not look forward to ISIS continuing to adopt new media technologies in an effort to assert its governmentality upon not only the people under its territorial control, but Muslims far and wide.


[1] Wahhabism (المذهب الوهابي) was not a commonly purveyed term describing the particular brand of Islamic theology in the Saudi Arabia of the 80s, from my experience. Rather, the theology was presented as the correct interpretation of Islam with hardly a qualification.

[2] Ideological links between Wahhabism and Ibn Taymiyyah, as well as between ISIS and Ibn Taymiyyah are well established. See ”You Can't Understand ISIS If You Don't Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia,” by Alastair Cook, a quarter-century operative of MI6 and Middle East political writer, a background that would have me distrust him, were it not for the perspicacity of his work. June 29, 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alastair-crooke/isis-wahhabism-saudi-arabia_b_5717157.html> and “The other side of Ibn Taymiyya – on the occasion of the political ascent of Salafis and Islamists,” by Abdel Hakim Ajhar of al-Quds al-Arabi. December 14, 2011. < http://arabist.net/blog/2011/12/20/in-translation-will-the-real-ibn-taymiyya-please-stand-up.html>

[3] “In the age before iconoclasm, therefore, certain basic positions had been staked out by both the attackers and the defenders of images. The former said that God was a purely spiritual being who could not be depicted. Depictions, in any event, were made of vile matter which was unsuited to the divine essence and also encouraged the worship of material creation. Creation itself, moreover, was God’s work alone. People should not, in creating images, presume to share in God’s work. Images were idols, or so very much like them as to make no difference. Finally, God revealed himself in words, not in pictures.” Thomas F. X. Noble. Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians. University of Pennsylvania Press. Philadelphia. 2009. 27

[4] As is the Saudi government of ruins dating back to the dawn of Islam—see “The Destruction of Mecca.” Ziauddin Sardar. New York Times. Sep 30, 2014. < http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/01/opinion/the-destruction-of-mecca.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0>

[5] Simulacra and Simulation (originally published in French in 1981). The University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor. 1994. 169

[6] See “Iraq Says Islamic State Militants Raze Ancient Hatra City.” Ahmed Rasheed and Isabel Coles. Mar 7, 2015. < http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/07/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-hatra-idUSKBN0M30GR20150307>

[7] See “Islamic State and Its Increasingly Sophisticated Cinema of Terror.” Jeffrey Fleishman. Los Angeles Times. Feb 26, 2015. < http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-ca-isis-video-horror-20150301-story.html#page=1>

[8] See “The Secret World of ISIS Training Camps—Ruled by Sacred Texts and the Sword.” Hassan Hassan. The Observer. Jan 24, 2015. < http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/25/inside-isis-training-camps>

[9] The renowned remark is found under “I”

[10] ISIS videos may lack taste in the extreme, but that does not preclude their artistry. See Benjamin under “III”

[11] See “Google’s Android to Take on Facebook in Virtual Reality.” Rolfe Winkler. Wall Street Journal. Mar 6, 2015. < http://www.wsj.com/articles/googles-android-to-take-on-facebook-in-virtual-reality-1425684553>

Saturday
Feb212015

“Seeing” Rodney King’s Arrest through Barthes’ Three Meanings

Reading William Mitchell’s classic digital imaging work The Reconfigured Eye, I had not expected to find mention of Rodney King, the single paragraph that it was[i], though I had decided twenty pages earlier to link the operative chapter, “How to Do Things with Pictures” to a disquisition on the Rodney King arrest video. It has not been quite a quarter of a century since King’s fateful arrest on March 3rd, 1991, but then I’ve never been into jubilees.

At the point of referring to the Rodney King arrest video, already Mitchell had cited Barthes’s notion of the press photograph in dialogue within a context, a linguistic one, with at least a title or caption[ii]. I find it likely that Barthes would have thought the same of press motion pictures, analog video for example, such as the edited, broadly TV-broadcast recording of the Rodney King arrest captured by hobbyist photographer George Holliday.

Mitchell himself uses parlance that evokes the legal procedure when discussing photography’s deployment of “larger signifying structures to report the significant facts (or ‘facts’) about states of affairs that are claimed to have existed and events that are claimed to have taken place, and how such reports are used to convince, to create belief, and to command assent.”[iii] Mitchell then goes on to write, “A piece of evidence is a fact with significance in some context, a fact that has been pressed into service, used to support some claim or argument. It serves to tell us about something in the past… Photographs then present facts but are frequently used as evidence.”[iv]

Which leads me back to Barthes, who despite writing about photography throughout his accomplished career, including in his final work Camera Lucida (1980), wrote on film in a single instance of which I know and even then referring only to a film’s stills and not to any “motion” photography: stills from Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in his 1970 essay The Third Meaning. In this essay, Barthes lays out three levels of semiotic interpretation, tiers of sense making according to functionality: “communication,” “signification” and “signifiance.”[v] I wish to explore these three tiers in the hermeneutic experience of viewing the video of the motorist’s arrest, particularly within the courtroom, in a manner that applies The Third Meaning’s mode of analysis to the motion, instead of to the still, photograph.

Barthes’ first discussed level—or perhaps range is a better description—his first range of interpretation is the one he addresses only in passing in his noted essay, that of “communication.” Here is the interpretation concerned with transference of information. The experience of drawing information from viewing of the video recording of King’s arrest. Information was communicated to viewers in two distinct realms: the public realm, mitigated by press and broadcast (the internet would not have figured in public opinion then), and the realm of the courtroom, which subsumed the goings-on of the public realm since the video had been shown on national TV and discussions about it had taken place for months before the trial had begun.

The video of nine minutes and twenty seconds in total[vi] had its first thirteen seconds truncated, including the video’s first three seconds which depicted King rushing at one of the four arresting officers. The video was not consumed in its entirety by most  American viewers who saw a minute or two of it (I included, at the time), because news broadcasters opted to broadcast the most graphic segments of it, at a length of sixty-eight seconds. The jury, on the other hand, saw those same 68 seconds, but were persuaded to reconsider the pervasive account of brutal arrest by the 13 seconds noted, excised by the local TV station KTLA to whom photographer Holliday had conveyed his video, because seconds 4-13 were blurry.[vii] In court, expert witness Sargent Charles Duke going through the video frame by frame managed to convince the jury--of ten whites, a Hispanic and an Asian--that Officer Koon was justified in each blow he had administered to King. The jury acquitted the officers of ten of the eleven charges and was hung on the eleventh, concerning only one of the four indicted officers--Powell.

Sergeant Charles Duke, witness for the defense

Barthers’ second range is that of “signification” of what he explains as the “obvious meaning,” the decided and directed symbolism of the image. To mind comes the race and gender of the person undergoing arrest. “Driving while black,” King is dressed in clothes that do not connote “work,” unlike the officers, who are dressed in the regalia of government—of the authorities.

Then there were captions. After all, hardly any words could be made out of the video’s soundtrack, recorded from an apartment’s balcony nearby by an amateur photographer, as a helicopter hovered above the arrest scene. Instead, Sargent Duke narrated the action by explaining the developments as they progressed, one frame at a time. Duke did not describe what he saw on screen, but interpreted for the jury the actions of Officer Koon, based on his own occupational expertise.[viii]

What observers and analysts have missed about the conduct of the trial, however, is precisely Barthes’ third range of meaning—“signifiance.” Barthes describes this as the image’s obtuse meaning: “Indifferent to moral or aesthetic categories (the trivial, the futile, the false, the pastiche), it is on the side of the carnival.”[ix] Here Barthes refers to the disguised or the undeliberately revealing, the truth in the absurd. Several witnesses representing law enforcement testified in the case, all referred to by their occupational title despite wearing civilian clothes, including three of the defendants, two of whom engaged in a narration or explanation of the action in the 81-seconnd segment of Holliday’s video.

Theodore Briseño, one of the four defendant officers

The TV used was a large CRT set, perhaps even 40 inches in size, but it was of a concave screen variety and placed at a distance of at least several meters from the jury. Moreover, particular components of each frame were pointed to by what may be called a baton, that used by the police as well as a different a pointer of a baton, such as the sort that could be used in a classroom.

Sergeant Stacey Koon, another of the four defendants

Terry White, African American prosecutor in King’s case described the jury polemically: “They were people who believe there is this 'thin blue line' separating law-abiding citizens from the jungle--the criminal element.”[x] During the trial, the judge had permitted the inclusion into evidence of a remark made by Laurence Powell, one of the officers on trial, transmitted from his squad car, earlier on the day of King’s arrest, in which he had likened domestic trouble among blacks to the film Gorillas in the Mist[xi]. A gorilla in the jungle is not likely to wield a baton, but a police officer could wield one with authority, regardless of its shape or intent of use.


[i] Mitchell, William. The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-photographic Era. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994. 212

[ii] Ibid. 191

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid. 192

[v] Barthes, Roland. "The Third Meaning: Reasearch Notes on Some Eisenstien Stills." Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 52-54.

[vi] The disagreement about the length of the video is curious: The ascribed length is eight minutes in a Los Angeles Times article. ("The Other Beating." Los Angeles Times 19 February 2006. http://articles.latimes.com/2006/feb/19/magazine/tm-holiday8.) Only that five years later, the same publication described the video as nine minutes long. (Rubin, Joel, Andrew Blankstein and Scott Gold. "Twenty years after the beating of Rodney King, the LAPD is a changed operation." Los Angeles Times 3 March 2011. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/03/local/la-me-king-video-20110301), as did by Time, following year. (Gray, Madison. "Rodney King, Whose Police Beating Led to Los Angeles Riots, Dies at 47." Time 17 June 2012. http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/06/17/rodney-king-whose-brutal-police-beating-sparked-the-deadliest-riot-in-u-s-history-dies-at-47/). These errors are intriguing since a (near) exact length was reported much earlier, in 1993, in The Philadelphia Inquirer (Clark, Robin. "Life After Taping The King Beating Hasn't Always Been Easy He Has Been Hounded By The Media, Cursed By Strangers. His Wife Returned To Argentina." The Philedelphia Inquirer 19 April 1993. http://articles.philly.com/1993-04-18/news/25983219_1_george-holliday-police-officers-king-video) much closer to the length I have clocked in watching a version recorder from a camera pointing to a TV playback of the video, as posted on YouTube (Weinstein, Henry. "After the Riots: The Search for Answers." Los Angeles Times 8 May 1992. http://articles.latimes.com/1992-05-08/news/mn-1894_1_king-case), and the duration (9 min 20 sec) noted by the most extensive work on the King affair by Lou Cannon in Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD.

[vii] Cannon, Lou. Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD. Boulder: Westview Press, 1999. 23

[viii] "Expert Testifies Officers' Beating Of Motorist Complied With Policy." New York Times 20 March 1993. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/03/20/us/expert-testifies-officers-beating-of-motorist-complied-with-policy.html

[ix] Barthes, Roland. "The Third Meaning: Reasearch Notes on Some Eisenstien Stills." Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 55.

[x] Weinstein, Henry. "After the Riots: The Search for Answers." Los Angeles TImes 8 May 1992. http://articles.latimes.com/1992-05-08/news/mn-1894_1_king-case

[xi] "Judge Says Remarks on 'Gorillas' May Be Cited in Trial on Beating." New York Times 12 June 1991. http://www.nytimes.com/1991/06/12/us/judge-says-remarks-on-gorillas-may-be-cited-in-trial-on-beating.html