In early November, Zawya hosted a series of screenings and discussions organized by Cimatheque as part of Kurrasat, a one-year program of public screenings and critical writing workshops with young writers mentored by Arab film critics and scholars.
Cimatheque invited Tunisian film critic Tahar Chikhaoui to curate a selection of recent Arab films made at the edge of the production and distribution systems, in order to reflect on tendencies emerging in cinema.
The last session featured films dealing experimentally with political and social issues, questioning and testing the limits of cinematic language. Mada Masr sat in for two of them: The Immortal Sergeant by Ziad Kalthoum and Babylon by Yousef Chebbi, Ismael and Ala Eddin Slim.
Kalthoum was a soldier in Bashar al-Assad’s army in 2012, and his film narrates his transformative journey from the barracks to the set on which he worked as an assistant to acclaimed Syrian director Mohamed Mallas, who was shooting Ladder to Damascus.
In the conversation afterward, Chikhaoui and the participants discussed the relationship between cinema and war, and the significance of using what looks like leaked, rare material, with Chikhaoui suggesting that a new reality is creating a shift in cinematic language that leaves more space for interpretation.
“This is an important film because at this time there are practically no sources and no images available from Syria. There is very little footage of this time and this place, of what life’s like in the streets,” said Ahmed Abo El-Fadl “In the first shot we see him in POV, walking with his phone, but later the camera pans out, when he starts shooting consciously as a filmmaker, and expands even further as he films a film being made during a civil war, like in a crescendo.”
From mobile-phone shots of Kalthoum’s daily life on duty, The Immortal Sergeant gradually moves on to documenting the lives of the film crew.
“It’s the relationship between that film [by Mallas] and this account of it that makes it interesting,” said MF Kalfat. “In these difficult circumstances the crew, actors and people involved just go ahead and continue working. One actor compares the situation he’s living in Syria and the scene he’s acting in – and finds it ridiculous.”
Actors and technicians are interviewed by Kalthoum during breaks, while war planes, helicopters and explosions are constantly audible in the background.
“It made me wonder: What do we do when things like these are happening outside? Do we continue working or do we stop and think about what happened? When is the time to stop?” said Mohammed Abdallah “It’s not so much about revolution and war, it’s somehow about the cruelty of cinema. It unveils the process and shows the feelings of the people who work behind the scenes. Their stances and personalities are usually silent, including Mallas himself.”
“It highlights the relationship between artists and the revolution,” pointed out Kalfat. “One of the actresses interviewed, as she goes on about peace and love and unity, reveals herself as a fervent Assad supporter, while the film she is acting in is actually pro-revolution.”
The Assad-supporting actress, a traumatized man who can only handle the daily fear of violence by taking drugs, an old woman who lost a son and a granddaughter, a disillusioned middle-aged father, an eccentric, nostalgic old man, a passionate young actress and Mallas himself are the co-protagonists beside Kalthoum, who narrates his experiences and his decision to desert the army and become a filmmaker.
“It’s good that he focused on the crew – it shows that everybody out there has a story to tell,” said Maged Nader “Anybody in Syria has a story. He didn’t focus on a specific quality of the characters but rather decided to focus on anybody who shared the same context in those circumstances.”
The city is hardly recognizable, as everything takes place indoors or in anonymous alleys and cafes.
“We know it’s Damascus but we don’t see Damascus,” said an audience member, “because that is the city that they live daily.”
“Older generations could claim they don’t fully grasp what is going on in the world due to their limited access to sources of narration, but our generation doesn’t have this privilege,” said Ahmed Refaat. “So this is a confrontation between two generations in Syria.”
“He’s judging and exposing himself to judgment,” said another audience member.
There was also some criticism of the film.
“All those scenes of his daily life as a soldier with all the icons of Assad everywhere around him. Would he film them if he didn’t have the intention to show them consciously to a specific audience?” said Laila Arman. “I noticed an excessively didactic, explanatory attitude. The director is over-confident about being on the right side and telling what’s the right version of the story, as if he looked down at the audience. I think the film is a bit condescending. Like in Ahmed Abdallah’s Rags and Tatters – as if he was looking for confirmation of the story he wants to tell through the characters he interviews, to comply with a certain uniformity of narrative.”
Chikhaoui offered a different view: “He’s not sure about what to express and what to convey through the images and scenes he shows, yet he holds on to the camera. The film conveys an apocalyptic feeling: the fragility of life during the war, when everything could be destroyed any second.”
Babylon (Babel) is a two-hour documentary by three young Tunisian filmmakers who divert attention from the revolutionary turmoil of 2011 and focus on collateral events taking place at the border, where distant realities collided and many global issues made themselves evident. They patiently document the construction, organization and dismantling of a refugee camp at the border with Libya during the uprising.
“For me this film is very political. It brutally unveils all the forms, dynamics and techniques of crowd control,” said Hana Al Bayaty. “The structure of the camp, the way it is built, the workers rolling out barbed wire around a group of migrants queuing for food. It is also a critique of the aid industry – without commenting explicitly it shows its stark contradictions. The images of the massive dump of trash that the camp generated speak eloquently of the failures of capitalism.”
The camp hosts hundreds (or thousands) of young men from African and Arab countries as well as Bangladeshis escaping the situation in Libya, who were transported to the camp in mass before eventually being relocated elsewhere. The film follows their daily lives, coping with precarious conditions of hygiene and comfort.
“It’s one story but the migrant changes his face all the time,” said Abdallah afterward. “It’s a personal story but also a collective one.”
The directors show the footage bare, without commentary, context or any translation of the many languages heard, leaving wide space for interpretation and reflection.
“It steers away from a traditional style,” said Ahmed Abo El-Fadl “It tries not to seduce emotionally through the aesthetic of film. It focuses on a few strong ideas that it expresses efficiently. But it’s too long.”
“The length of the film is an element of it,” argued Kalfat. “You’re immersed in a reality for two long hours and experience the pace of that reality.”
Long still shots of the area from a distance alternate with close-ups of chaotic scenes taking place during the daily activities prescribed by the camp’s rule system. The presence of the camera is discrete in some scenes and invasive in others, but without elevating the point of view or separating the filmmakers from their subjects, questioning the intrinsic contradictions of the spectacle of human suffering and the relevance of the leftover image.
“It made me think of the language of news broadcasts: small clips repeated over and over again throughout the day that make events look familiar. The exact opposite of this film,” said Kalfat “Two painful hours of very unfamiliar images of an event that we recognize as familiar, ending in equally painful and long shots of the trash left behind once the camp is dismantled.”
“They used the approach of an explorer: Instead of delving into the issue, they kept a distance. Looking from afar, trying to gain perspective,” said Chickhaoui. “These images show that young directors have a strong awareness of the situation. They test the subject, they test the ability of an image to communicate. The narration focuses on secondary aspects of migration and conflict, images journalism would discard, questioning our ability to understand events as spectators from a distance. It captures a rare and important moment where humans live outside of the ‘world’, outside of borders, outside of the law, and start from scratch in a extraterritorial space.”
“I think it shows the events only on a micro level,” countered Ahmed Abo El-Fadl “This way it stops the potential of seeing the bigger picture. It inhibits my understanding.”
“Every time someone starts speaking and you can grasp a sense of their words, another voice overlaps. They drown each other,” said Kalfat, using as one example a conversation among some Nigerian men about religion and belief in the darkness. “This strategy disturbs those trying to hold onto something in the narration and find what they are used to, or identify with a character. The directors seem detached from the subjects and the situation itself. Like in the scene where a local aid worker in sunglasses is getting ready to speak in front of the camera, testing the position, and then there’s a cut right as he’s about to talk. Every time a scene is unfolding or you start getting familiar with a space or story, there’s an intentional interference.”
“It could even be read as an anti-immigrant critique. In a way the message is that all this process only leaves trash behind. In a situation like this all the conflicts of human behavior emerge, incommunicability, the lack of resources people must fight for in order to survive,” said Mohamed Youssef. “At one point there’s a protest organized by a group in the camp. It made me reflect on their inability to change the situation they live in.”
“It’s about sharing a space and still being unable to find a common language, rather than a description of the place or a narration of what’s happening,” said Laila Arman.
“I agree that the film is about the limits of human behavior, and about the borders of the cinematic language as well,” said Chikhaoui. “It dissects reality with a remarkable aesthetic ability. There’s a lot of attention to the photography and sound. It’s important to reflect on these aesthetic choices, like using a small DV camera, in this time of technological advancement.”
“The opening and closing scenes focus on the trees in the desert near the refugee camp. In both moments before and after the arrival of the refugees, the surroundings are empty and silent,” said Mohamed Beshir. “The ‘permanence’ of the trees, that stand in place until they die, stands in opposition to the movement of the animals. They keep going on and looking for survival. Like the migrants. This means there’s hope in movement, and that borders are not made for human beings, who by nature continue moving and changing until they die. It’s very political because it asks questions that are deeper than the contrast of leftist or right-wing opinions.”
Chikhaoui agreed: “At the beginning the camera follows the path of the ants, the movements of a beetle, indulges on a tree, its leaves in the wind. It’s like a progressive parallel narrative of the human (and animal) activities of settling, organizing, building, moving and producing waste, like a cycle that goes on over and over. This symbolism has a political value. Also, the decision to step away from the “hot” events happening in Tunis and go to the periphery is political. It indirectly questions the problem of the media today: There’s only the center and it’s difficult to understand the big picture.”