Other Cinemas are pleased to announce the ‘Radical Films, Radical Forms’ weekender taking place on the 25th – 27th of March, which has been co-curated with filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky. As part of the programme, we have asked Momtaza Mehri to reflect on the revolutionary Arab documentaries we are screening and the radical forms they take.
A Form Fit for This Feeling
Form is torturous. Poets are more than familiar with its constraints. Its pleasures, too, reveal themselves to us in surprising ways. The modernist imperative to make it new gives way to making it askew, to our attempt to enliven form by stretching and working with and against it. Inspiration springs from countless approaches and antagonisms towards form. Film is one such arena. I’ve long been fascinated with filmmakers who puncture assumptions of narrative cohesion, who use form to reflect a tangle of subjectivities and complexities that depict the world as it really is and not as how it’s sold back to us. These filmmakers are mindful of form as a conversation with histories they can’t ever hope to perfectly distill but which still irrevocably haunt their work. Form has a spectral presence. It’s the work of the shadow brought to light.
A group of men chant, their calloused hands a percussion against cell doors. These are their experiments in form. They are Palestinians recreating decades – sometimes lifetimes – spent holed up in Israeli detention centres. Raed Andoni’s Ghost Hunting is a film which adopts the approach of the survivor. It melds together various techniques of recreation, reconstruction, and reinvention. Actors portray former detainees, former detainees construct mock interrogations of their own, and bursts of animation reflect the teeming minds of those subjected to solitary confinement, extensive torture, and routine degradation. Still, I am reminded of the prison cell as an incubator of irrepressible creativity. The corpus of prison literature proves the sheer difficulty of truly crushing a spirit into silence. Poems composed in prison cells have always been the best endorsements of poetry itself. In desperate circumstances, the fact that so many of those who have struggled for the rest of us turn to scrawlings on scraps of material remains the best defence for the social role of poetry. I think of Gazan poet Muin Bseiso composing a poem while handcuffed on a military train in 1955, on his way to his first spell in an Egyptian jail. To his joy, the poem travelled far beyond where he could reach, finding new life in the cells of his occupied Palestine. “When the miracle of the hands disappears”, he had insisted, “the miracle of the mouth appears”. Ghost Hunting returns us to the prison as a laboratory, restaging its routines of violence, cold floors, and hooded subjects. Survival becomes another experiment in form. Of course, it’s hard to write poems in prisons. It’s hard to watch former prisoners reenact the conditions many still endure. In prison, “the air lends itself not / to the singer”, to borrow a line from Etheridge Knight. The filmmaker’s task is a kind of atmospheric refraction of form, even when it doesn’t lend itself easily to those of us who have been disciplined at its hands. But we still find other ways of singing.
Beyond the enclosure lie the open hills. The jebel’s wilderness is another form. Heiny Srour’s The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived is a dynamic snapshot of a people attempting to defend the seeds of their revolution. Notably, it was the first film made by an Arab woman to be screened at Cannes. Srour captured the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf in action, crossing hundreds of miles of desert by foot, under the constant risk of British bombs. Inside the combat zone, she found cadres of militants energized by the sweeping changes the Dhofar rebellion had brought to their lives. Srour’s intensive research initiated a gruelling experience living amongst the rebels. Surrounded by an unforgiving landscape, these guerillas clarified their ideals even as they fought. In one scene, Mona, a teenager, recounts her previous life as an illiterate shepherdess. Now clad in camo, she is a vision of dogged conviction. “The Front gave women freedom” she says, her gaze hovering somewhere beyond the camera. The women convene, sing, educate one another, bear arms, bear the terrible responsibility of recognizing their intergenerational suffering and choosing to confront it. They apply kohl while renewing their spirited commitments to the People’s War. Their sacrifices are as immense as the threats to their newfound liberation. They are besieged. They are forced to eat leaves. Srour is attentive to their cultivation of new ways of being together, even amidst such a state of extremity. The revolution’s reforms specifically target the violent social and familial orders which keep women uneducated, worked like cattle, and deprived of autonomy. These were the conditions Heiny Srour, Selma Baccar, and Magda Wassef decried in their manifesto ‘For the Self-Expression of the Arab Woman” as preventing women from developing their intellectual capacities. Women and children populate the frontlines of Srour’s concerns, and her film’s anchored focus is a study in a militant cinema which evokes struggle extending beyond the dust of battle and the figure of the rebel crawling through thickets of jungle. Form is bent to the will of the message, affixing what hangs in the balance. Montage disentangles a shared narrative. There is a graceful lyricism, as the rebels voice their dreams and deliberations in a polyphonic choir that offers us another alternative, another palpably tangible vision of the Arabian Gulf. This is the promise of a Gulf that was snuffed out and never allowed to flourish. In The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived, the future is not yet a sentence. The slick hollowness of petrostates lubricated by the blood and sweat of imported and exploited workers is not yet a foregone conclusion. The archive shivers with possibility, and Srour’s film reminds us that we live in the suspension of countless what could have beens.
“Those of us from the Third World have to reject the idea of film narration based on the 19th-century western bourgeois novel with its commitment to harmony. Our societies have been too lacerated and fractured by colonial power to fit into those neat scenarios. We have enormous gaps in our societies and film has to recognize this.” — Heiny Srour
I think of Sudanese filmmaker’s Suliman Elnour’s 1978 documentary It Still Rotates, a portrait of daily life in the formerly Communist Republic of South Yemen. Here, too, education is central to transforming the self-image of a beleaguered people. A teacher sits with a farmer, patiently trying to convince the latter to send his child to school. Girls trace words in books in packed classrooms, each little face a squeeze of wonder. Flanked by goats, children carry their satchels with purpose. In one memorable moment, the teachers direct what can only be described as critique sessions where their young students offer their thoughts, objections, and recommendations on how they are being educated. The kids are brash and inquisitive, using these sessions to resolve conflict and attain what so many children are denied; the right to trust in their own interpretations of their lives. Their teachers are a striking picture of humility. Suliman Elnour belongs to the generation of Arab and African filmmakers who studied in the USSR at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), in cohorts which included the likes of Ousmane Sembène, Sarah Maldoror and Mohammad Malas. The writer Sonallah Ibrahim, whose novel Warda depicts the Dhofar Rebellion through the life of an elusive woman aflame with revolutionary zeal and the man who sets out to find her, was also a student at VGIK. There’s a reason many of us seek out the work of these filmmakers. Why we keep an eye out for screenings, celebrate restorations, learn from their techniques and sensibilities, and dig our fingers into the archive. We are drawn to the potency crystallised in work which is faithful to the urgency of its mission. These are documentaries which take their subjects and audiences seriously.
On my part, I admit I also harbor the nostalgia of the lateborn for films which evoke a militancy not yet defanged beyond recognition by the marketplace. These days, “radical” is a much abused word. It’s tossed around like confetti, devoid of any real meaning. What does a radical documentation of the times actually look like? I think we know it when we see it, and I see it in the films featured in this programme. Radical approaches are sweeping in their range, critical ambition, and emotional weight. They leave their impressions on both the artist and their audience. They are approaches to life. Militant cinema has always prioritised a collectivity of vision. It’s a spirit that has the power to animate us today.
We see this collectivity in Jasmine Metwaly and Phillip Rizk’s Out on the Street, an immersion into the world of ten working class Cairo residents who gather for a rooftop acting workshop. They cajole, provoke, and perform for one another, re-enacting the drama of factory life. There’s a universality to experiences of exploitative working conditions, corrupt officials, police brutality, and state oppression. A hybridity of form defines this film. Metwaly and Rizk were part of Mosireen, a media collective of volunteers which dedicated itself to preserving and disseminating images of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath. I remember being captivated by the breadth and accessibility of Mosireen’s dispatches at a time when I was receiving my own dispatches from Cairo-based friends. Mosireen’s archive remains a sprawling record of protests, clashes, funerals, processions, strikes, self-protection tutorials, testimonies, and interviews. Then there are its quieter moments; plates of shared food, vigils held by the bedside of the injured, the binding ties forged between neighbours and strangers.
“My dear Mary,” a lone voice addresses the director, “I was wondering if I might die before someone remembered the Gandour strike, and it even occurred to me that I had dreamt it altogether”. Documentation becomes an obligation. We need to remember it happened so we can believe that it can happen again: Mary Jirmanus Saba’s A Feeling Greater Than Love excavates the 1973 strikes of tobacco farmers in the south and workers at a Beirut chocolate factory, events which were overshadowed by a civil war which has swallowed up Lebanese national memory. Archival footage and the grainy videographic heritage of the Lebanese Communist Party flit between interviews with strike participants who describe the lives of farmers without support or unions, whose children are also resigned to backbreaking labour (“the world piles itself up on the bones of the years, so our labor gathers / while we sell ourselves in fractions”, as Karen Brodine wrote). At Gandour factory, the strike united workers across sectarian lines. A Feeling Greater Than Love traverses from the rural to the urban. Form is as scattered as its subjects.
Radical forms are suffused with the difficulties of relation. They reveal the tectonic modalities of our being. Where empathy is at the risk of atrophy, they rise to the occasion. Alongside Hala Alabdalla and Ammar el-Beik’s I Am the One Who Carries Flowers to Her Grave, I think of Mona Hatoum’s work Continental Drift, a horizontal world map where metal filings represent the seas. The artist aligns herself with water, with the fluidity of relation. The artist is magnetised and challenged by the shared experience of dislocation.
Born to a family of Palestinian refugees, Hatoum arrived in London in 1975. War prevented her from returning to Lebanon. Two years before the debut of her yearning-drenched autobiographical video work Measures of Distance, you can spot a young Hatoum in the audience for Edward Said’s 1986 thoroughly entertaining conversation with Salman Rushdie at the ICA. Writing in the catalog for Hatoum’s 2000 exhibition The Entire World as a Foreign Land, Said wrote about the illuminating qualities of dislocation, of a “belligerent intelligence” that is “always to be preferred over what conformity offers, no matter how unfriendly the circumstances and unfavorable the outcome”. To Said, sloppy, sentimental homecomings didn’t offer the same rewards as rigorous confrontations with a past that is never as immutable as we imagine it to be. Said, like Hatoum, was drawn to the “logic of irreconcilables” that defines exile, the very nature of being human, and most art worth talking about.
Flies meet death in sweet honey. Filmmaker and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha invoked this Vietnamese proverb in her essay “The World as Foreign Land”. Complacency is widely rewarded, but it’s rarely artistically rewarding. Moroccan filmmaker Moumen Smihi described the various guises of the crushing uniformity which dominates the cultural mainstream: Hollywood, the Chicago gangster universe, the love stories of the Western petty bourgeoisie. All are steam-rollers levelling the imagination into an arid wasteland of simplistic narratives and poor imitations. A film like I Am The One Who Brings Flowers To Her Grave refuses to flatten exile. It does something different – something other – by poignantly integrating the experimental with the testimonial. Children run the length of the beach. Close up shots linger. Interviewees recall their time in prison, play chess, and visibly well up in the presence of music. Sometimes, they abruptly ask the directors to stop filming. They are difficult subjects, which is another way of saying that they are fascinating individuals.
Minh-ha noted that the condition of the postcolonial other is one framed by the regime of visibility, even when one is participating in the production of theories of resistance. “Participation never goes without a certain vigilance”. This kind of vigilance can become debilitating if we allow it to trap us in an ouroboros of institutional critique and creative stagnation. Maybe we need to think of it as the steady vigilance of the gardener. The flowerings of radical forms require a little attention and a lot of trust. They require many hands. These forms germinate in the dark, feeding off strategies of sustenance that don’t rely on institutional heavyweights, fickle trends, and individualist career models. Other Cinemas’ latest picks highlight filmmakers documenting the stubborn sproutings of radical practices in various settings, from the damp isolation of prison cells, to the chatter of classrooms and the grassy fields of liberated land. Everywhere, the impulse to break away begins unceremoniously, like the shy nudge of a shoot emerging from the dirt.