Screens and Veils: Maghrebi Women's Cinema

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Examined within their economic, cultural, and political context, the work of women Maghrebi filmmakers forms a cohesive body of work. Florence Martin examines the intersections of nation and gender in seven films, showing how directors turn around the politics of the gaze as they play with the various meanings of the Arabic term hijab (veil, curtain, screen). Martin analyzes these films on their own theoretical terms, developing the notion of "transvergence" to examine how Maghrebi women's cinema is flexible, playful, and transgressive in its themes, aesthetics, narratives, and modes of address. These are distinctive films that traverse multiple cultures, both borrowing from and resisting the discourses these cultures propose.

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1 Assia Djebar’s Transvergent Nuba: The Nuba of the Women of Mount Chenoua (Algeria, 1978)

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Shahrazad’s tales included other tales in a mise en abyme that deepened as the Nights unfolded. Contemporary Maghrebi women’s filmic narratives often follow a similar pattern. The resulting films offer a complex narrative web of embedded tales. In Barakat, for instance, the surface narrative of the quest for a disappeared woman soon reveals another narrative embedded within it: the story of a past mujahida (woman freedom fighter). Shahrazad also embedded political messages in her narratives: this Sultan whose story I am telling you, she whispered to the caliph prettily, is “fair,” is “wise,” and acts in a politically courageous way. Similarly, Rachida, for instance, tells a fictitious story focused on one female protagonist that embodies the plight of Algeria during the 1990s (see chapter 3); and Bab al-sama maftouh/Une Porte sur le ciel/A Door to the Sky by Farida Benlyazid, for instance, tells a fictitious story focused on one female protagonist whose spiritual and feminist choices reach into the history of women in the Maghreb, and shows how to make significant personal/political choices.

 

2 Farida Benlyazid’s Initiation Narrative: A Door to the Sky (Morocco, 1988)

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As soon as Dunyazad enters the Sultan’s chamber, Shahrazad’s narration becomes clearly bifurcated: thanks to the presence of her sister, the storyteller addresses two audiences as the same time. Shahrazad, having placed Dunyazad (the familiar, powerless, female character) alongside the Sultan (the less familiar, powerful male figure), is thus able to play with the familiar and with power, and find the adequate terms to address both audiences at once, as she makes the alien and the strange familiar, so as to enthrall the Sultan with her tales.

Similarly, a Maghrebi woman director tells a story to an audience in the know at home, and another one abroad. This is where the notion of transvergent spectatorship arises as a descriptor of today’s viewers of Shahrazad’s cinema. Two films in our corpus give two widely different interpretations of such a phenomenon: Farida Benlyazid, in Bab al-sama maftouh/Une Porte sur le ciel/A Door to the Sky, constructs her double audience and shifts from one to the other in the middle of the filmic narrative. Hence it addresses two distinct audiences one after the other. On the other hand, Selma Baccar, in Khochkhach/Fleur d’oubli/Flower of Oblivion (see chapter 7), keeps the extra-diegetic gaze in flux. Flower of Oblivion requires the extra-diegetic viewer to change perspectives throughout the film via an ingenious system of relays through the gaze of various intra-diegetic spectators.

 

3 Yamina Bachir-Chouikh’s Transvergent Echoes: Rachida (Algeria, 2002)

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Watching Rachida in the wake of Djebar’s Nuba further illuminates the twists and turns of a commonly shared larger narrative in the Shahrazad tradition, as if Bachir-Chouikh had picked up her camera where Djebar had left her pen and camera. The transvergent quality of the narrative strategies that had started in The Nuba (with its active mise en abyme of women’s narratives) shines forth again here, along an intertextual arc that joins the two films in unexpected ways over the twenty-four years that separate them. Furthermore, with the making of Rachida with its multiple intertextual detours, the director becomes the avatar of old storyteller Shahrazad. Hence a lineage is established that unites Shahrazad, Assia Djebar, and Yamina Bachir-Chouikh in their narration of an egregious violence committed by men against young women (one unnamed, Atyka, and finally Rachida).

The study of Rachida also opens this second section of the book, which examines the dual notion of screen and veil in a cinematic context. In this chapter, we shall see how unveiling and veiling by women becomes a powerful statement at a time of great chaos in Algeria in the 1990s, and how filming such scenes and screening them might also indicate a mode of transvergent resistance to the forces of oppression within Algeria.

 

4 Raja Amari’s Screen of the Haptic: Red Satin (Tunisia, 2002)

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At the end of The Nights, Shahrazad marries the Sultan, and Dunyazad marries his brother. The description of the marriage feast is replete with details on the various attires both brides wear. Shahrazad’s first dress is of a deep red:

Presently they brought forward Shahrazad and displayed her, for the first dress, in a red suit; whereupon King Shahriyar rose to look upon her and the wits of all present, men and women, were bewitched for that she was even as saith of her one of her describers: –

A sun on wand in knoll of sand she showed,

Clad in her cramoisy-hued chemisette

Of her lips’ honey-dew she gave me drink

And with her rosy cheeks quench fire she set.1

In Raja Amari’s film, however, the bride does not wear red: her mother does. And the story is not about a fiancée’s long journey to marital bliss; rather, it is the story of a beautiful widow who marries off her daughter at the end of the film, yet who dances seductively, all clad in a fiery red dress. One could see the film as a different take on Shahrazad’s wedding to Shahriyar, or, better yet, as a new storytelling technique inspired by Shahrazad’s but taken in an entirely new direction. Amari as postmodern Shahrazad tells us a secret story by going against the grain of the viewer’s expectations.

 

5 Nadia El Fani’s Multiple Screens: Bedwin Hacker (Tunisia, 2002)

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How would a contemporary Shahrazad convey her multiple, embedded stories? Her mise en abyme of several stories could, of course, take the form of the hypertext linkages of today: at the click of the teller’s finger, a new story would unfold, like a Japanese paper flower. Another possible way to open up story after story is through embedded screens. Such is Nadia El Fani’s storytelling technique.

In Nadia El Fani’s film, the cinematic screen acts as a revealer of a multitude of screens, each of them referring to a distinct world. Hence, not only does one secret hide another, but also one screen hides another, and another, and another. The film flashes a series of embedded screens that frame multiple narrative fragments, destabilizing the hijab screen we have just explored in Red Satin in the process. In the end, of course, all the fragments, like pieces of an intricate jigsaw puzzle, fit together to propose a unifying, variegated meta-narrative. Each screen is a portal that leads to a particular plane of a globally shared cyber-vision rather than to a haptic apprehension of the world under the hijab. Here, El Fani proposes another interpretation of the filmic veil and screen distinct from Amari’s in Red Satin.

 

6 Yasmine Kassari’s “Burning” Screens: The Sleeping Child (Morocco, 2004)

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In the twenty-first century, how would Dunyazad be able to hear and respond to a transnational incarnation of Shahrazad? To a sister who has migrated far away into a different culture and still whispers tales meant for her sibling left at home? For, although Dunyazad can recognize her sister’s world, lexicon, stories, although both have been sharing secrets, narrative twists and turns since childhood, Shahrazad’s narrative comes from afar, across various borders.

Directors from the Maghrebi diaspora such as Yasmine Kassari can address both a sister in the know, locally, and a more distant, global audience. These latter-day, diasporic Shahrazads then cross borders, switch languages, and alternate modes of communication in order to construct a narrative with at least a double audience in mind. Yet, such double-edged narratives also cause them to cross unimaginable cultural boundaries and lines of permissible conduct.

In her first fiction feature film, L’Enfant endormi/The Sleeping Child (2005), Moroccan director Yasmine Kassari shows how “burning” (i.e., crossing borders illegally to become an immigrant worker in Europe) is experienced and seen by the wives and mothers of the migrants.1 In the process, she shows how the initial male crossing of borders upsets traditional behaviors at home and leads to a series of transgressive acts by the women left behind.

 

7 Selma Baccar’s Transvergent Spectatorship: Flower of Oblivion (Tunisia, 2006)

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The site of Shahrazad’s storytelling performance in One Thousand and One Nights is the Sultan’s chamber. As we have seen before, her sister’s presence in the liminal space between the realms of Eros and Thanatos – the nuptial bedroom is also the antechamber of Shahrazad’s planned execution – is both a political and a survival stratagem, on the part of Shahrazad, who has enrolled her sister to help her resist the Sultan’s death threat and impose Eros (life). Through it all, the sisterly dyad defines the tone of the storytelling in intimate terms that refer to a past, shared sisterly history, while each narrative is (over)heard by the less familiar figure of power.

Similarly, a Maghrebi woman director skillfully arranges her filmic tales, knowing the domestic forces in play: censorship, which is political – enforced by her nation’s overbearing leader – and cultural. As a result, the filmmaker’s cinematic discourse has to escape the watchful censor’s radar, while still sharing secrets with the local viewers and telling a story whose interest transcends the frontiers of her nation. Fortunately, it is possible – indeed crucial – in cinema, through a semantic montage of off-screen and on-screen images, to say something by showing something else.1 Just as Shahrazad could refer to familiar tales and allusions with sister Dunyazad unbeknownst to the Sultan, today’s director can play with an off-screen shared reality and an on-screen fictitious narrative.

 

Appendix A: Political and Cinematic Chronology

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“Algeria: Women in Public Life.” United Nations Development Programme/Programme on Governance in the Arab Region. http://gender.pogar.org/countries/country.asp?cid=1. Accessed 03/06/2009.

Charrad, Mounira M. States and Women’s Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

“Country Profile: Algeria.” BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/country_profiles/790556.stm. Accessed 02/27/2009.

“Country Profile: Morocco.” BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/country_profiles/791867.stm. Accessed 02/27/2009.

“Country Profile: Tunisia.” BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/country_profiles/791969.stm. Accessed 02/27/2009.

“Morocco: Women in Public Life.” United Nations Development Programme/Programme on Governance in the Arab Region. http://gender.pogar.org/countries/coutry.asp?cid=12. Accessed 03/06/2009.

“Personal Status Code – Tunisia.” International Labor Organization. http://www.ilo.org/public/english/employment/gems/eeo/law/tunisia/eeo-psc.htm. Accessed 03/06/2009.

 

Appendix B: Primary Filmography

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NB: The following selection of directors reflects a desire to reference not only women’s cinema in the Maghreb but also the “accented cinema” by women directors born in the Maghreb and residing in Europe. This is by no means an exhaustive filmography: it highlights women filmmakers who either have made – or are currently in the process of making – at least one feature fiction film, for which details are given below, or are directors of at least one long documentary. Hence, many talented Maghrebi directors who have made shorts exclusively do not appear below.

 

Al Dowaha/Les secrets/Secrets (91 min), Tunisia, 2009

Selection at the Mostra, Venice, 2009

Grand Prix, Arte Mare Mediterranean Cultures and Film Festival, Bastia

Best Feature Film, Milano Festival 2010

Director and Script: Raja Amari

Cinematography: Renato Berta

Sound: Patrick Becker

Music: Philippe Héritier

Editing: Pauline Dairou

 

Appendix C: Selected Filmography of Hiam Abbas

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Romance in the Dark (Rie Rasmussen, France, in postproduction at the time of writing)

Peace after Marriage (Bandar Albuliwi and Ghazi Albuliwi, U.S., in postproduction at the time of writing, 2011)

The Promise (Peter Kosminsky, UK, TV miniseries, in postproduction at the time of writing)

Habibti (Nour Wazzi, UK, 2010)

Miral (Julian Schnab, U.S., 2010)

I Am Slave (Gabriel Range, UK and Kenya, 2010)

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, U.S., 2009)

Espions/Spies (Nicholas Saada, France and UK, 2009)

Amreeka/America (Cherien Dabis, U.S., Canada, and Kuwait, 2009)

Chaque jour est une fête/Everyday Is a Holiday (Dima el Horr, Lebanon, 2009)

 

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