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What role can the archive play in developing and sustaining a critical and culturally located art history?

Laura U. Marks
6 November 2013

The Arab Shadow Archive

Akira Mizuta Lippit, in Atomic Light (Shadow Optics), characterizes the shadow archive as what cannot be archived, and therefore survives when the archive is destroyed. The shadow archive describes the majority of Arab cultural memory, which survives in non-visual traces, such as the work done by memory and imagination in response to an archival fragment, or the lack of any physical archive at all. Thus, while the activities of individuals and groups who have been building and maintaining photography, film, video, and audio archives across the Arab world is extremely valuable, just as valuable is what we might call the Arab shadow archive of memory and imagination.


For example, the archive of the Palestinian Film Unit, based in Beirut in the 1970s, was somehow lost during the Lebanese civil war. Azza El-Hassan's detective movie Kings and Extras: Digging for a Palestinian Image (2004) attempts to track down this archive. All she finds is one film reel, shot in 1978 and never developed. 26 years later, its images were no more than a mass of blurred colours. El-Hassan took advantage of the nothing-to-see to dream that these blurry masses hide a film in which the Palestinians are the victors; justice is restored; and the victors travel the world righting wrongs. Recently some PLO films turned up at the Jordan-Russian Friendship Society: they may fill, more prosaically, the gaps Kings and Extras imaginatively held open. Numerous works by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige revolve around lost and destroyed films, including The Lost Film (El Film el Mafkoud) of 2003: here too the destruction of an archive gives rise to imaginative speculation about why a society (Yemen, where a print of Hadjithomas and Joreige's Around the Pink House (1999) disappeared) appears uninterested in movies.


Filmmakers delve into archives to create counter-histories. Some of these must be kept in a state of latency until times are right to reveal them. During the Mubarak regime, Mahmoud Sabit carefully guarded the enormous archive of documents, photographs, and the tantalizing rushes of an amateur fiction film, In Search of 'Oil and Sand' (2012), produced by his father, Adel Sabit, a parliamentarian, editor, and cousin of King Farouk. After Egyptians deposed Mubarak, Sabit collaborated with filmmakers Philippe Dib and Wael Omar to release a few fragments from his archive. What their film, In Search of 'Oil and Sand', revealed was not a decadent aristocrat – as the successive military governments labelled his class – but an agitator for Arab democratic reform and sovereignty, as the smart Oil and Sand indicates with its depictions of two competing sheikhs sweet-talked by British and French oil speculators. But now that the military government is back in power in Egypt, the rest of Sabit's archive may be safer in the shadows.


The archival tendency in Arab cinema extends to the numerous documentaries about movie houses that have since been destroyed. Here the shadow archive exits in the memories of filmgoers. For example, Maria Karim's student film Il était une fois… of 2004, interviews former habitués of Casablanca's Old Medina Cinema who fondly and ruefully recall screenings over the decades, as audience tastes and film economics changed, of Egyptian dramas, kung-fu movies, and softcore porn. During the Lebanese civil war, Mohamed Soueid spent countless hours in Hamra Street cinemas, as he recounts in Tango of Yearning (1998), a shadow-archive film in which the movies and theaters have vanished but the sentiments to which they gave rise endure.


And from the darkest shadow archive emerges the sweetest light, in Omar Amiralay's Le plat de sardines, ou la première fois que j'ai entendu parler de Israël of 1997. This film ruminates on the fact that when the Israeli army razed Quneitra, as they withdrew from this part of the Golan Heights in 1974, the only building not destroyed was Quneitra's cinema. So he imagines that inside the shell of the movie theater a film by Mohammed Malas is playing, Quneitra 74 (1974); and he engages his longtime friend in a subtle debate about whether his films are really about the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights or about the cinema itself. Malas responds, 'it's a pity you never saw Quneitra before. It's true that sometimes reality doesn't protect things. But it seems to me that cinema protects them. If we'd known Quneitra was going to be destroyed we'd have preferred to live and die there, rather than turn it into memories or images on film.' These are a few of the shadow archives of Arab cinema that remain alive when the archives themselves have been destroyed.

Laura U. Marks

is a professor in the School for Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, and is a scholar, theorist, and curator of independent and experimental media arts. Her most recent book is Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art (MIT Press, 2010).

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