It’s an old way of knowing where you stand. Who you eat with, dine with, or sit with, has always been a way of making public one’s relationships. In a cosy auditorium at the 9th Osian festival, sitting across the table, acquired just such a meaning. Intishal al Timini, the Iraqi artistic director of international Arab festivals, pinned the Algerian director Nasser Bakhti, on “co-productions,” by which most of his country’s films are made. Algeria’s artistic output, tied to the moneys of Europe, its former masters, has, in this sense, been a sell-out.
The other side to this story is this. State censorship, distribution, smallness of production, — all these problems have made co-production the best way for the Arab to set the record straight about his identity. Rima Mismar, a Lebanese film critic who is documenting Osian’s Arab section for her TV channel, says that for the past 15 years, most of the ‘important’ films have been made, with much interruption in this way. “Producers have to be deceived into financing our films. They are only interested in commercial cinema, and that’s what we say we are making when we approach them,” says an Egyptian director with a laugh.
Sorry for the interruption
Indeed, much of what we know about Arab cinema always begins with Egypt, and Youssef Chahine, who combined the neo-realism of Satyajit Ray with the romanticism of Raj Kapoor. But that should change. Hala Khalil, one of Egypt’s upcoming directors, whose film Cut and Paste closes the festival today, says she is “not an extension of Chahine.” The absence of an Arab Union — both as a political formation, or even in spirit — is another gripe with directors today. The lack of a uniform cinematic code led to a one-and-a-half hour cut to the original three-hour Egyptian film, The Yacoubian Building, in Kuwait! At home, despite huge box-office success, Marwan Hamed, the director, had to fight a campaign by the religious right, an example of how ‘secularism’ and ‘modernity’ in secular and modern Islamic countries, have not been reached by a process of dialogue and reconciliation. The tearing off of the veil, in Turkey, and its imposition, in Iran, points to the same thing: the problem of unresolved cultural politics in these countries. Lebanese cinema talks of another forcible compromise. Of ‘peace’ breaking out post-1991.
“For the generation of Falafel, that was the real test. Of keeping one’s head in the midst of daily tension even when war was officially over. Of re-asserting one’s identity,’’ says Mismar. “Because falafel is cheap, you need not be rude. Go take your sandwich,” says the cafe-owner taking a jibe at Toufic (a Kunal Kapoor lookalike) in the film. A yearning for personal freedom from state control is another take-off on the identity theme. “We live in a state of constant paranoia,” says Tunisian director Elyes Baccar. In his She and He, the male protagonist dresses his imaginary girlfriend in biker chic and has her taunt him about his monk-like wrap (a chador with which he wears short red socks!) and his sudden sexual withdrawal: ‘Are you saving yourself for the Maghreb republic, for poor Congo?’ The entire Arab continuum is constantly referred to through most of these ‘Arab films’ on which Osian had at first placed, and then lifted, the trap called genre. “In all Arab films, one senses a longing for oneness. They seek their own identity, but somewhere they are linking up,” says Tenzin Paldon, a student of LSR.
I am the other
Night Shadows, by Algerian director Bakhti, sidesteps any generalisation, and talks of a different Arab experience: immigration, one of the big issues facing the Arab disapora. (“Did you know Akram is going to Canada? (Falafel); “I must go abroad, when you go abroad, nothing will wrong”
(Iraq in Fragments) — are constant refrains that show the Arab looking for an escape outside Arabia. Director Nasser Bakhti’s protagonist is however, a man who wants to go back after many years in Europe. ‘The extraordinary and the marvellous lasts only a week…the photographs were just lies,’ he confesses in a letter to his mother. Bakhti who faced racism first-hand when he moved to Geneva from Algeria says: “If I say my name is Nasser why should it prompt people to look at me differently? All Arabs are not terrorists. Our kids go to school. If jobs are made available to us, why should an Arab steal?” The definition of the ‘other’ also changes with the territory. But there seems to be a new imagination at work that is making directors move towards documentaries. For instance, Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, (Divine Intervention), a child of the Generation of 1948 — Palestinians who stayed even after Israeli occupation — makes cinema that shows how to ‘look’ at one’s enemy. At the end of the day, even he is a human being.