Film After Euphoria
Rasha Salti in conversation with Sheyma Buali
In September 2016, Safar: A Celebration of Contemporary Arab Cinema, returns to the Institute of Contemporary Art in London for its third edition with a selection of UK premieres. While the first two editions looked at popular films from across Arab film history, this year focuses on contemporary cinema from across the region, screening films deemed to be singularly defiant of stereotypes and self-censorship. Organized by The Arab British Centre with a programme selected by curator, writer, and film programmer Rasha Salti, the festival reflects on the 'profound transformations that have taken place in Arab societies since 2011' by presenting films released in 2015 or 2016 – a time commonly understood as the 'post-Arab Spring', and often referred to by social and political commentators as the 'Arab Winter'. In this interview, Salti discusses the seven contemporary feature films and documentaries making up the programme, which are a mix of the personal, political, fictional, dramatic, and surreal, and explains how these films highlight the transgressions of 'social and political taboos' that have taken place in the last five years.
Sheyma Buali: The seven feature films chosen for this year's Safar include political drama (Hicham Lasri's Starve Your Dog, 2015), a family drama (Fares Naanaa's Borders of Heaven, 2015), and a couple of autobiographical documentaries (Avo Kaprealian's Houses without Doors, 2016, and Selim Mourad's This Little Father Obsession, 2016) among other films. What is the one conjoining thread among these films in the context of the contemporary moment?
Rasha Salti: For a long while, the genre that prevailed in Arab cinema was the melodrama but, in the past 15 years, Arab filmmakers have ventured and experimented in different registers, forging their own voice uncompromisingly, with low-budget – or no budget – independent productions. The most radical experimentation is in non-fiction and non-narrative, often cross-fertilized from contemporary art practice. There is no thematic thread stitching the programme together; rather there is a desire to foreground and celebrate the wide diversity of approaches and voices, albeit within the abbreviated framework of a small selection. Showcases such as the Safar programme are not only vital for London audiences to come into close contact with this surge of creativity, but they are also necessary for the filmmakers, as the system of film distribution of international independent and auteur films worldwide is in crisis. For a set of complicated reasons that are too long to list now, films simply don't travel beyond film festivals anymore and filmmakers don't get the opportunity to experience the most fundamental purpose of making films, namely, public screenings.
Sh.B: Your comment regarding the 'unflinching vitality and creativity' of these films has a very positive tone. What kind of agency do you see gained (or lost?) within the narratives that you have included in this programme?
RS: Film production changed irreversibly since the early 1990s with the advent of lightweight, affordable filmmaking digital technologies. This 'democratizing' impact was tremendous in that people who did not have access to making films suddenly could and did. So the 'authors' of films were far more diverse than in previous decades but, practically, these technologies were able to capture realms, images and narratives that previously were inaccessible. More and more, people dared to pursue their aspirations or make personal films, while independent spaces dedicated to culture and art provided platforms for their exhibition or showcase. A number of filmmakers chose to make artistically and politically subversive films, to represent what was unrepresented or unrepresentable and tell stories or give voice to what was silenced or unsayable. They did so at the risk of colliding with censorship and authorities policing freedom of expression. After the popular insurgencies that unseated dictatorships in several Arab countries took place, an additional threshold was crossed – or at least that is my own personal speculation – namely that a veil of self-censorship was lifted or dissipated. Never have so many social and cultural prohibitions and inhibitions been transgressed in films.
Sh.B: A second part to that question is: what kind of agency do you see in the meta-narratives, or the film production mechanism, of the last five years? 2011 brought us a push in creative storytelling and almost a new visual language. Do you see a new type of empowerment there?
RS: The empowerment is a complex set of factors rooted in people reclaiming a modicum of political agency and refusing to live under the aegis of dictatorships anymore. Never mind the reality that everyone is enduring now, a few years after the fact of the insurgencies. I am very aware that being optimistic about the political situation in the Arab world may seem delusional, but one ought not to underestimate the political transformations that have taken place – they simply cannot be measured with the yardstick of electoral politics. These new political subjectivities are perhaps the most important empowering factor.
Sh.B: In regards to the idea of film imitating life, do you see any parallels between reality and cinematic narratives? Have societies become more politically vocal? Has religion come more to the forefront of discussion? Are borders or nationalism being treated differently? Are there any taboos that we see uncovered more in current films?
RS: A number of very accomplished personal films capture the intimate private story of their author (or her/his family) to tell a larger collective story, or draw a counter-narrative (or representation) to the official discourse. Houses without Doors is a very personal film for which Avo Kaprealian filmed his own family in their home in Aleppo. But the film speaks far and beyond the reality of Syria today and offers a meditation on forced exile, collective memory of trauma and cinema as a repository of lived experience. This Little Father Obsession is also a very personal film in which Selim Mourad confronts, almost without inhibition, painful questions about choosing not to father children. Religion, as well as nationalism, have been addressed for a while and from a very wide variety of angles and approaches, to name a few: the perfidy of socially enforced religiosity to curb women's freedom and criminalize sexual freedom, the complicity of regimes in promoting conservative political forces, and the demonization of ethnic and cultural minorities.
There are also other taboos that have been challenged. To cite some examples, in Starve Your Dog, Hicham Lasri dares to imagine the sudden re-emergence of one or Morocco's most well-known official torturers to disclose his uncensored confessions on public television and how society might react to such an 'unimaginable' event. The film is about impunity, justice, unrepentant politicians and the legacy of unsettled wrongs. In This Little Father Obsession, Selim Mourad comes nude to a family portrait photo session, a provocative gesture in the dramaturgy of his film, but also a real transgression of a socio-cultural taboo and a precedent in the personal cinema of the region.
Identifying taboos is more or less a straightforward undertaking, but there are other questions, themes and stories that were never at the centre of a film's dramaturgy for a multitude of reasons, including the sense of political urgency that animated filmmakers prior to 2011. For an auteur melodrama to be considered meaningful or serious, it had to have an identifiable socio-political dimension and every day stories, like parents overcoming their grief over the loss of their daughter in an accident, as in Borders of Heaven, was not deemed to have enough gravitas to be produced. As social media began communicating with the tools of moving image media (YouTube and what not), filmmakers no longer felt the compulsion to replace news broadcast journalism; every day dramas, like the one told in Borders of Heaven, could finally find their way to becoming films.
Sh.B: Borders of Heaven is ultimately a family drama and is possibly a story we have seen before – where a young family loses a child and great emotional and personal turbulence ensues. What are the traits of this film that led you to include it in this programme that has been described to reflect transformations of the last five years?
RS: Besides being a superbly accomplished film, Borders of Heaven is a melodrama about a subject that does not carry the kind of political urgency perceived as pressing during the time of dictatorship. However, part of the 'dissipation' of self-censorship is an emancipation from expectations and pressures, and daring to make finely crafted films that incarnate issues that we never deemed important enough, like mourning the loss of our beloved. And that is no less politically relevant than filming workers. Obviously, it is possible to project several other interpretations on Borders of Heaven.
Sh.B: History is an important point to mention. In the past two editions, Safar presented a sort of history of popular cinema from the Arab world. But this year, you have switched gears a bit to present contemporary films reflecting an ongoing shift in both society and politics within the region. What do we see in contemporary filmmakers looking to revisit the historical contexts that have brought us to 2011?
RS: There are a few films that plumb the legacy of life under dictatorships. Salem Brahimi's film Let them Come (2015) is set in the Algeria of the late-1980s and 1990s (officially referred to as the 'Decade of Terrorism') and is so accomplished and sharp that it is profoundly contemporary and urgent. As I Open my Eyes (2015), directed by Leyla Bouzid tells the story of a young Tunisian woman on the very eve of the insurgency, reconstructing with captivating precision how she became mobilized to stand up for her rights against Ben Ali's tyranny.
Sh.B: There are historical, social and political points that are still not being reflected in cinema. I have heard you speak of the idea that we do not see enough (or any) reflection on labour movements in the Middle East in cinema, for example. It is interesting because recently I was thinking the same thing after watching Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk's Out on the Street (2015), which is not in your programme but does present a sort of contemporary Cairo story. This film references the 1963 movie, The Dark Glasses, directed by Hossam El-Din Mustafa, which also centres around a workers movement in Egypt. Why do you think that certain histories, and in particular ones that have such an underlying context to current movements, have not been of interest to filmmakers? What are some gaps in social focus that you think should be filled in contemporary filmmaking?
RS: Cinema is not news, and filmmakers should not be expected to be the standard-bearers of all their societies' struggles. It's fantastic that Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk felt the necessity and desire to make Out on the Street and to engage with workers and I am disheartened that the transformations taking place among workers in the Arab world, and in the past 20 years, have not been the marrow for cinematic dramaturgies. However, perceptions of political urgencies cannot be imposed by diktat. As a matter of fact, I have to confess that in the past five years, I have been surprised, even stunned, by the boldness and courage of some of the films made; I did not expect to see and hear what was projected on the screen. It is where I draw my optimism and enthusiasm from.
Sh.B: A lot has been said about film formats. From the shaky camera aesthetic – by mobile phones and handy-cams, we have moved to a blur in genres, losing what we have accepted as classical descriptions. Fiction imitates a sort of witness, as we see in Starve Your Dog and Lasri's other films, while non-fiction is more surreal, as in This Little Father Obsession. How do you characterize this current moment in experimental realism – a sort of truth/non-truth aesthetic that merges the documentary and narrative together?
RS: I am not sure if 'truth' is an interesting yardstick for discussing or interrogating formal languages or the aesthetics of film, although truth points to the ethics of the practice which can be defamatory, violent and abusive. Documentary cinema (especially political daring and provocative films) can 'push the envelope' in challenging ways. To answer your question more precisely, the notions of fiction and non-fiction might be more useful because our lived experience and the writing of ourselves in time and place is essentially made up of both these elements, including the way we see and represent how objective circumstances compel and impel our lives, how we try to shape our destiny and pursue our aspirations, as well as the projections we create of ourselves both in our own imagination and in the future. Selim Mourad was probably having conversations with his deceased sister in his head, or maybe he was imagining them, or maybe they are buried in his subconscious. But he decided to write them into the film's dramaturgy and filmed sequences of himself talking to a woman who could have been his sister. The film is more compelling, honest, and complex because of these sequences.
Safar: A Celebration of Contemporary Arab Cinema will be showing at the ICA, London, from 14 to 18 September 2016. For more information, see: http://www.arabbritishcentre.org.uk/safar-2016/
Rasha Salti is an independent film and visual arts curator and writer, working and living in Beirut, Lebanon. She co-curated The Road to Damascus, with Richard Peña, a retrospective of Syrian cinema that toured worldwide (2006), and Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s until Now, with Jytte Jensen (2010–12) showcased at MoMA in New York. She was one of co-curators of the 10th edition of the Sharjah Biennial for the Arts, in 2011. She co-curated with Kristine Khouri Past Disquiet: Narratives and Ghosts from the Exhibition of International Art for Palestine (Beirut, 1978), at the MACBA in 2015 and at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, in 2016. Salti edited Insights into Syrian Cinema: Essays and Conversations with Filmmakers (2006, ArteEast and Rattapallax Press); Beirut Bereft: The Architecture of the Forsaken and Map of the Derelict, a collaboration with photographer Ziad Antar (Sharjah Art Foundation, 2010); and I Would Have Smiled: A Tribute to Myrtle Winter-Chaumeny, co-edited with Issam Nassar, in 2010.