Ten Arab Filmmakers: Political Dissent and Social Critique

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Ten Arab Filmmakers provides an up-to-date overview of the best of Arab cinema, offering studies of leading directors and in-depth analyses of their most important films. The filmmakers profiled here represent principal national cinemas of the Arab world-Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, and Syria. Although they have produced many of the region's most-renowned films and gained recognition at major international festivals, with few exceptions these filmmakers have received little critical attention. All ten share a concern with giving image and voice to people struggling against authoritarian regimes, patriarchal traditions, or religious fundamentalism-theirs is a cinma engag.

The featured directors are Daoud Abd El-Sayed, Merzak Allouache, Nabil Ayouch, Youssef Chahine, Mohamed Chouikh, Michel Khleifi, Nabil Maleh, Yousry Nasrallah, Jocelyne Saab, and Elia Suleiman.

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1. Nabil Maleh: Syria’s Leopard (Syria)

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Christa Salamandra

The anti-regime uprising that began in Syria in 2011 lends a particular poignancy and urgency to a discussion of filmmaker Nabil Maleh’s life and work. The eminent director epitomizes the figure of the artist-activist, the socially committed and politically engaged cultural producer. Over decades of production and across genres, his work has challenged artistic, cultural, and political regimes. Maleh often cites a defining moment of childhood resistance: the seven-year-old Nabil confronted a soldier who tried to keep him off a public park swing so that military officers’ children could have free rein. In return for his defiance, the boy received a slap which, as Maleh puts it, echoed throughout his life.1

Aesthetics and ethics merged early in the director’s life. Born in 1936, the son of a high ranking army physician, and eldest of four siblings in an elite Damascene family, Maleh credits his mother for shaping his artistic and political sensibilities. Samiha al-Ghazi, an educated woman from a family of high-ranking nationalist activists and politicians, encouraged her son’s creative pursuits from an early age and instilled an enduring resistance to authority. At nine Maleh attended his first political protest, for the Palestinian cause; at fourteen he had a poem about Vietnam published in a Beirut newspaper. Soon afterward he became a political cartoonist and columnist for the Syrian daily Alif Baa, writing of the 1950s tumult: multiple coups d’état in Syria, the Suez Canal Crisis, and the Baghdad Pact. Upon completing secondary school Maleh worked as a substitute teacher in Syria’s rural northeast, experiencing firsthand “a world of barefoot children, unjust labor, and the wasted future of generations.”

 

2. Jocelyne Saab: A Lifetime Journey in Search of Freedom and Beauty (Lebanon)

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Dalia Said Mostafa

Jocelyne Saab is one of Lebanon’s best-known filmmakers at home and abroad. In the context of Arab cinema, her cinematography is versatile, varied in style, and unique in outlook. Her first engagement with filmmaking was through the documentary genre, where she has produced over thirty films since 1973 (Hillauer 2005, 173). Like many Lebanese filmmakers of her generation, it was during the early years of the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990) that Saab’s films took root. The context of war, ironically, made possible her contribution as a war reporter, journalist, photographer, and filmmaker. Saab has also produced feature films (which will be the focus of this chapter), and she has won many awards and prizes in both regional and international festivals.

Saab was born in 1948 in Beirut and studied economics in Paris. In the early part of her career, she worked as a journalist and, with the breakout of the civil war, became a war reporter. In 1975 she made her first long documentary, Lebanon in the Tempest (Lubnanfil Dawwama), which won the Arab Critics’ Award. In 1981, she was the second unit director with Volker Schlöndorff’s movie on the Lebanese civil war, Circle of Deceit. She produced her debut feature film, A Suspended Life, in 1984. The film was selected for the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes International Film Festival. In 1994, she made her second feature film Once Upon a Time, Beirut, a tribute to the memory of her city; and three years later, she shot in Vietnam a documentary film, Lady from Saigon (La dame de Saigon). Saab wrote the scripts of all her films except A Suspended Life, which was written by Gerard Brach. She co-produced many of her films with her company Balcon Production. Saab has also had photography and installation exhibitions in Dubai and Singapore. In 2010, she released her latest feature film, What’s Going On? which she filmed in Beirut.1

 

3. Michel Khleifi: Filmmaker of Memory (Palestine)

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Tim Kennedy

From his first film, Fertile Memory (La mémoire fertile / Al-Dhakira al-Khisba, 1980), Michel Khleifi displays the narrative-documentary style that he goes on to develop to such great effect. He also announces some of the major themes that permeate his later work: the centrality of the land to Palestinian identity; the preservation of collective memory and culture; the difficulty of telling the history of the nation; the common humanity of Arabs and Jews; the trauma of defeat, displacement, and exile; and his critique of the weakness and paralysis of what he considers to be an archaic Arab society.

Stylistically his films subtly mix reality and fiction—Fertile Memory and the shorter Ma’loul Celebrates Its Destruction (Ma’loul fête sa destruction, 1984) fashion fictional spaces from fragments of the political reality of defeat and disorder; the feature Wedding in Galilee (Noce en Galilée / Urs al-Jalil, 1987) steers a fictional narrative through the tensions of an incipient uprising against the reality of military occupation; and the formally innovative Canticle of the Stones (Le cantique des pierres / Nashid al-Hajjar, 1990), the dreamlike Tale of the Three Jewels (Le conte des trois diamants / Hikayatul jawahiri thalath, 1994), and his exploration of memory, Zindeeq (2009), create an often uncomfortable tension between fiction, myth, and the actuality of oppression and active resistance.

 

4. Elia Suleiman: Narrating Negative Space (Palestine)

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Refqa Abu-Remaileh

Elia Suleiman is a pioneering filmmaker who has captured the absurdities of Palestinian life with a twist of humor and a deep dose of irony. His deceptively simple style has attracted audiences worldwide and won him recognition at major international film festivals. Both viewers who are more familiar with the sociopolitical Palestinian context of the films and those who are not have indulged in the pleasure of uncovering a multitude of layers, references, and allusions. Critics have likened Suleiman’s film style to those of Jacques Tati, Buster Keaton, and Jim Jarmusch. However, Suleiman has expressed in a number of interviews that his influences came from elsewhere—from Asia, particularly the films of Yasujiro Ozu and Hou Hsiao-Hsien.1

This chapter will begin with a short biography, moving on to an analysis of key elements of Suleiman’s filmmaking style, focusing on his three long fiction films.

Elia Suleiman was born in 1960 into a Nazareth that had become part of the new Israeli state in 1948. In his late teens, Suleiman was compelled to leave Nazareth. Reasons for his sudden departure are captured in his most recent film, The Time That Remains. Living in exile, Suleiman began to experiment with filmmaking, creating what he calls a “complicatedly simple” style of multilayered static frames, choreographed action, little dialogue, and nonlinear narratives (Butler 2003, 67). His early New York experiments paved the way for his three long fiction films: Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention, and The Time That Remains.

 

5. Youssef Chahine: Devouring Mimicries or Juggling with Self and Other (Egypt)

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Viola Shafik

When I was approached to contribute this chapter—I have to confess—I did refuse at first. So much has been already said about Youssef Chahine (Yusuf Shahin), and so many have written about him, for decades, including myself. At one point I stopped dealing with him; I moved to other subjects, despite the fact that his enigmatic figure has accompanied my film curating and writing career from the very beginning, and even on the private level I could hardly neglect his effect, having acquired a number of dear friends including my husband on his film sets. So, why not write about him, about “Jo,” as his friends call him, him, one of the most congenial and charming directors of Egypt’s cinematic Golden Age?

Doubtless the general iconic exaltation of Chahine’s personality and work—regardless of his de facto enormous achievements—is one thing that made me start turning my attention away. I became so used to his overwhelming presence, his name looming through almost every announcement of Egypt-related film events, screenings of film retrospectives, reviews on Egyptian cinema, particularly in Europe, that I went fishing elsewhere. This, and the slight feeling of disappointment that had seized me since he entered his very last working phase; so different from the daring, charming—and entertaining—early Youssef Chahine. What happened?

 

6. Daoud Abd El-Sayed: Parody and Borderline Existence (Egypt)

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Viola Shafik

Classified at first as one of Egypt’s “New Realists,” Daoud Abd El-Sayed (Dawud ‘Abd al-Sayyid) was in fact one of the least productive representatives of this wave that started in the 1980s. Like other New Realists, he faced major problems in finding willing producers to venture into more committed subjects. Yet despite his sporadic output, he developed and cultivated his own style, leaving behind any early classifications: epic in his narratives, often theatrical, though deeply lyrical, and at the same time ironic to the point of cynicism, he deserves to be labeled an auteur filmmaker even though he has never—unlike Youssef Chahine and Yousry Nasrallah—tailored his films for an international audience or for the European art house. Largely his own scriptwriter, he likes to send his protagonists on unsettling journeys and expose them to extreme or absurd situations. His evident social criticism quite often translates into parody; he hides the existential strife of his heroes and heroines behind an entertaining mainstream structure, ranging from thriller to musical. Despite his readiness to entertain, his insistence on quality and his critical mind still made producers shy away even after his major box office hit in 1991. This is why in forty years his work comprises only eight full-length fiction films (the ninth is currently in preparation) and six documentaries.1

 

7. Yousry Nasrallah: The Pursuit of Autonomy in the Arab and European Film Markets (Egypt)

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Benjamin Geer

This chapter surveys the career of the Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah (born 1952).1 Through an analysis of the eight feature-length films he directed between 1988 and 2012, it considers the relationships between his social background and biography, his pursuit of autonomy from the economic interests of mainstream film production, and the ways his films challenge social norms.

Autonomy can be understood in terms of the sociological theory of Pierre Bourdieu, where it has a specific meaning. For Bourdieu, the production of cultural goods often takes place in “fields.” The social world of cinema is a field in this sense, like the worlds of literature, journalism, and academic disciplines.2 A field is an arena of conflict, in which those who make cultural goods (directors, actors, critics, etc.) compete to attain dominant positions. Each field has its norms, its rules for competition, its criteria for evaluating participants. There are two main types of production in fields. The short production cycle involves responding to the present demands of the market outside the field; if vampire films are popular now, a vampire film stands a chance of making an immediate profit. This strategy has low autonomy from economic forces outside the field. In contrast, the long production cycle involves producing, partly or entirely, for an audience consisting of one’s peers in the field. Since one’s peers are also one’s competitors, their judgment carries a certain symbolic weight, and their approval can confer prestige and legitimacy on films and filmmakers, consecrating them as part of the canon of art cinema.

 

8. Mohamed Chouikh: From Anticolonial Commemoration to a Cinema of Contestation (Algeria)

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Guy Austin

Mohamed Chouikh occupies a key position as a kind of relay between the postcolonial, idealized Algeria of the 1960s and what one might call the contested, dysfunctional Algeria of the 1980s and since. As an actor, he played a part in the pioneering Algerian films of the sixties and early seventies, sometimes known as cinéma moudjahid or what we might call freedom-fighter cinema, predominantly state-sponsored, nationalist commemorations of the liberation struggle against French colonial rule. But his work as director, especially his mature work from The Citadel (1988) onward, interrogates the social, cultural, and political power of the Algerian state. Chouikh in this way embodies a general shift within Algerian cinema from the nationalist and anticolonial confidence of the presidency of Boumediene (1965–1978) to the disjuncture between the state and the people, the contestation of the one-party system of the FLN (Front de libération nationale), and the search for emancipation from traditional conceptions of gender, history, and power of the 1980s and since (see Austin 2012). His work can in this way be related to current forms of Algerian protest and can be read as mirroring the disillusionment of the Algerian people with state power. This cinema of contestation has focused in particular on women’s rights, and on the codes of violence (both literal and symbolic) that are imposed upon women in the Arab world. In terms of aesthetics, Chouikh’s cinema makes sustained use of allegory, metaphor, and symbol, but rather than instrumentalizing these as means to perpetuate a nationalist discourse based on realism, Chouikh effectively uses them as forms of critique, as well as—less obviously—in order to celebrate the possibilities that he still locates in values such as pluralism and tolerance, and in formal terms in the visual construction of space.

 

9. Merzak Allouache: (Self-)Censorship, Social Critique, and the Limits of Political Engagement in Contemporary Algerian Cinema (Algeria)

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Will Higbee

I am from a generation that grew up in the years that followed the war of liberation. Like many others, I was patient and idealistic. I attached great hope to the country’s independence, tomorrow looked promising, the nation was being rebuilt. Today, we need to reconsider everything, tear it all down, and rebuild from scratch.

—Merzak Allouache in Khatibi, 2011

In a career of almost forty years, comprising fourteen feature films as well as numerous TV films and documentaries, Merzak Allouache has confirmed his reputation as one of the most prolific and critically acclaimed directors in the history of Algerian cinema. From his award-winning directorial debut Omar Gatlato, one of the key works of Algerian and indeed Arab cinema of the 1970s, to The Rooftops, a film that combines narratives from five different neighborhoods in Algiers as a means of exploring class and religious divides in Algeria, Allouache has repeatedly demonstrated, both on and off-screen, his commitment to engaging with the realities and crises facing Algerian society since decolonization, and, above all, the struggles facing Algerian youth. The director has, moreover, achieved this prominent position among contemporary Algerian filmmakers despite spending almost as much time working in France as he has in Algeria over the past three decades. Such conditions of exile or temporary displacement are not unusual for postcolonial Arab directors, a point acknowledged by Tunisian director and critic Férid Boughedir when writing about the significant contribution of exilic and diasporic filmmakers to New Arab cinema of the 1970s and 1980s (Boughedir 1987, 10). For his part, Allouache defines himself not as an émigré director but as a cinéaste de passage: a filmmaker whose movement between France and Algeria is dictated by the political, artistic, and economic conditions associated with each new project. The director’s key distinction between émigré filmmaker and cinéaste de passage underlines the complex position occupied not just by Allouache but by many filmmakers of the North African diaspora(s) living and working in France: maintaining a presence that is simultaneously between and within the film cultures and industries of France and the Maghreb (Higbee 2007, 62).

 

10. Nabil Ayouch: Transgression, Identity, and Difference (Morocco)

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Jonathan Smolin

Nabil Ayouch is one of Morocco’s most prominent and innovative film directors.1 Born in 1969 in Paris, he is the son of the well-known Moroccan advertising and micro-credit executive Noureddine Ayouch and a French mother of Jewish-Tunisian descent.2 Nabil Ayouch studied theater in Paris during the late 1980s and worked in advertising in the early 1990s while directing three short films between 1992 and 1994.3 Ayouch made his first feature-length film, Mektoub, in 1997. In 1999, Ayouch moved to Morocco and founded Ali n’ Productions in Casablanca, which produced his subsequent films in addition to a number of successful works for Moroccan television, including the well-known series Lalla Fatima.4 In 2005, Ayouch and Ali n’ Productions were awarded with unprecedented funding from Radiodiffusion Télévision Marocaine (RTM) to produce thirty television films that feature Berber-related themes—both in Berber language and Moroccan colloquial Arabic—as part of a project called Film Industry, Made in Morocco. Ayouch used this opportunity to train a new generation of screenwriters, actors, and directors for these films. The project was completed in 2007.5 In France, Ayouch founded a new production house, Les Films du Noveau Monde, in 2006.

 

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