February, 2011
There’s more to Middle Eastern and North African cinema than the nationality of its creators
The Map is Not the Territory

Jim Quilty

Artists from the Middle East have been known to observe that, contrary to the experience of their colleagues in Europe and America, their work is seen to be Middle Eastern first, and art second. The same might be said of experimental and art-house film from this region. The contemporary Arab avant-garde is seldom consdiered in terms of its experimental cinema of the 1960s, 70s and 80s – itself a largely abandoned patrimony. While connections are drawn between Arab art-house film and Italian neorealism, French new wave and Soviet cinema, links between Arab filmmakers and developents in, say, Brazil or India go uncharted. “For too long we’ve left the history of these decades to political scientists, anthropologists and sociologists”, says Rasha Salti. “Cultural historians and critics have not written the 60s, 70s and 80s.”

Salti is a Beirut-based curator and stalwart of ArteEast, the New York arts nonprofit specialising in cultural production in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. For three years she has collaborated with Jytte Jensen, film curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, on an ambitious project that aims at recovering and restoring, collating and projecting a slice of Arab avant-garde cinema. Their labour has borne fruit with Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s to Now, a series of three month-long film programmes that assembles cutting-edge film and video from the MENA region.

The first instalment premiered at MoMA in October 2010 and will screen in its entirety at London’s Tate Modern in March. Compromising 25 short and feature-length fiction and documentary films, the programme spans the period of 1970 to 2009 and the region from Morocco to Iraq. The curators’ aim is to highlight “intangible connections and conversations among selected works” so the films are clustered to reflect thematic and aesthetic commonalities rather than historical or geographical proximity. “It’s not somebody saying: ‘This is how I See the political and social situation’, says Jensen. ‘It’s artists working within film and expressing a subjective point of view. That’s what’s interesting for us. We wanted to do something that takes its departure from the language of film.”

The recent work includes films that have seen limited cinematic release and others seldom screened outside the festival circuit. Four works will be projected by Palestine’s Elia Suleiman, the best-known Arab art-house filmmaker, including his trilogy of feature films Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996), Divine Intervention (2002) and The Time That Remains (2009).

Critically acclaimed Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige also have several works here, among them I Want to See (2008), which features Catherine Deneuve and Rabih Mroué as two actors driving from Beirut to the Israeli border in the wake of the month-long 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. Another, The Lost Film (2003), appears to be a documentary about Hadjithomas and Joreige’s efforts to track down a missing print of their first feature film in Yemen, but allows for a wider rumination upon aspects of the film image in the Middle East, in a film that is clearly embedded in their gallery-centred artistic practice.

Most of the restored films are unknown to European and American audiences. Best-known is The Mummy/Night of Counting the Years (1973), by Egypt’s Shadi Abdel Salam, which was restored in 2010 by the World Cinema Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna. AMong the remarkable works Salti and Jansen unearthed is The Man Who Was Looking at the Windows (1986), by Algeria’s Merzak Allouache. This tale of a quiet library employee whose mounting desperation leads him to rise up against his boss stands in for that of a society living under despotic rule. “An exquisite, riveting film”, says Salti, “and it’s made more powerful when you recall how Algeria was under [then-president] Boumediene at that time. It is quite unlike Allouache’s other work. And an increasingly bad copy of the film […] was seen by generations of Algerians.” Influences on Algeria from outside the region are also being investigated by the curators: “One work from Algeria from the 1960s […] made me think these filmmakers must have been aware of Brazilian cinema novo“, Jensen recalls. “Asking: ‘What did the filmmakers see? Did the cinema novo people watch these films? Did they study together?’ I think this will make an interesting conversation.”

The season also includes a newly restored copy of Summer 70 (1972), a collaboration between Egyptian Naji Shaker and Italian Paolo Isaja – both film studnets in Rome, neither of whom could fund the graduation film they had in mind. “Summer 70 hasn’t screened anywhere”, Sati says. “it is paradigmatically experimental, so unless you’re familiar with the experimental canon, it may baffle you. It’s the only film that Shaker made before leaving cinema to become a puppeteer.”

The second part of Mapping Subjectivity is scheduled for projection at MoMA in October and November this year. Jensen says that although the films will be different, the approach will be much the same as in the first edition. “We’re hoping to have more of the restored older films”, she says. “We’re thinking of having more new work that crosses the line into art – gallery-based work, installations and so forth – because that’s how a lot of the younger artists work nowadays.”

Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema is at the Tate Modern, London, from 4 to 27 March and MoMA, New York, in the autumn