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China Is Still Far (Wa Laou fil Seen / La Chine es
China Is Still Far (Wa Laou fil Seen / La Chine est encore loin) Malek Bensmaïl, Algeria/France 2008, 120 min © Malek Bensmaïl

Mapping Subjectivity: Arab Cinema at The Tate

As the political uprising in the Arab world continues, we talk to curator Rasha Salti about how it effects filmmakers and the role of video documentation during the protests

After premiering at New York’s MoMA at the end of last year, a film season has opened at London’s Tate Modern charting experiments in Arab cinema from the 1960s through to now. Running for the entire month of March, this timely series “Mapping Subjectivity” includes well-known films through to rare and little-seen gems from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine and Syria, across a diverse range of themes.

Acclaimed director Elia Suleiman’s 'Chronicle of a Disappereance' - a meditation on Palestinian identity made up of witty vignettes observing everyday life in Nazareth and Jerusalem- is for instance among the 21 films screening, as is 'The East Wind/The Violent Silence' from Morocco’s Moumen Smihi, about a woman in ‘50s Tangier who resorts to witchcraft to stop her husband taking a second wife, and Nagy Shaker and Paolo Isaja's 'Summer ‘70', an energetic Egyptian/Italian film student collaboration about the mood of freedom in that era, which will have its first-time London showing. We spoke to curator Rasha Salti about putting the season together, and its resonance with the region’s current mood of revolution.
Dazed Digital: The season comes at a time of intense unrest in the Arab world – was this in mind when you put it together?
Rasha Salti:
The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and wherever else there seem to be emergent uprisings and insurgencies in the Arab world took everyone - Arabs and the world at large - by surprise. There was such a stasis and stagnation of despair and hopelessness, their eruption and success could only be described as unimaginable. The research for Mapping Subjectivity started in 2007, four years ago. None of the films we watched could forecast the uprisings, but they certainly draw one of the most compelling chronicles of the despair in which lived reality seemed locked.

Hala Alabdalla's 'I Am The One Who Brings Flowers To Her Grave', for instance, is a very passionate, intimate portrait of a generation of women who turned 50 years old in 2006, they were 20 years old in the 1970s in Damascus, they were jailed for their political beliefs, fought and were defeated or driven to exile. Their children are the larger constituency of the uprisings.
DD: Can you explain a little more about your motivation behind the season?
Rasha Salti:
The idea for the program was born from research on ciné-clubs in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in the Arab world. The ciné-clubs played a key role as cultural spaces in many cities in the region, for the dissemination for world cinema, but also for an "alternative", non-mainstream cinema. At present, there is a generation of filmmakers in the Arab world, working in their native countries (or between there and Europe), who are making a very daring and personal cinema.

Their films don't have many opportunities for screening in their home countries or the region, but they travel quite a bit on the international circuit of festivals and receive acclaim and awards. They are often regarded as if they were pioneers, or a vanguard of sorts, because the work, or legacy, of previous generations is unknown, inaccessible. With a few exceptions, there has not been a transmission of experience. One of the motivations in presenting this program is precisely to map production from the time of its emergence until now.
DD: What’s the climate like now in the region for filmmakers wanting to innovate, compared to the counter-cultural mood of the 60s?
Rasha Salti:
The past two decades have been marked by the entrenchment of autocracies, a stealth policing on freedom of expression and dissent and the bolstering of Islamist movements as the only organised political opposition. The development of digital technologies and their wide dissemination, has had a tremendous impact on democratising access to the means of filmmaking (reducing costs significantly) as well as enabling a wide dissemination on media such as the DVD and all forms of digital cassettes. However, the margins for tolerance of political dissent and artistic experimentation have worsened.
DD: What effect can we expect the mood of political revolution sweeping the Arab world to have on the region’s film?
Rasha Salti:
It is definitely too early to predict anything. However, there are two questions worthy of note; firstly these uprisings were the most televised revolutions to date; and secondly, as one could see from the television broadcasts, they were also the most video-documented. When a police van was being pushed off a bridge in Cairo, half of the crowd was pushing it overboard and the other half was recording the action on the cameras of their mobile phones.

Furthermore, when news television cameras were forbidden from filming, the stations were feeding their broadcasts from these spontaneous, amateur videos. In other words, these "short" vérité chronicles became the stuff of news. It will take a couple of years for an impact on filmmaking to become tangible or coherent. The expectation is in itself thrilling.

'Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s to Now', Friday 4 March – Sunday 27 March 2011, Tate Modern