Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s to Now

By Kholeif, Omar | Art Monthly, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s to Now


Kholeif, Omar, Art Monthly


Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s to Now was screened at Tate Modern, 4 to 27 March.

When formulating discourses around cultural production one may question whether the identities that constitute the geographical and ideological Arab world should be presented together as uniform cultural outputs. There is an unspoken scepticism that this very act amounts to a form of Orientalism which, some might argue, has been instigated by a recent capitalist overindulgence. This is evidenced by the swift development, after 11 September 2001, of the Arab art world alongside western interests in Arabic artists, both as commodities for private art collections and as bearers of prophetic enlightenment.

While historically Arab cultural production has been demarcated by tangible narrative forms, such as the short story, traditional folklore, melodramatic cinema and music, recent events have, conversely, seen a growing tendency to unite the more ethereal qualities of so-called 'Arabness' as a curatorial theme. 'Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s to Now', however, refuses this form of cultural classification in favour of a more fluid approach to Arab identity. The programme achieved this by drawing together elusive connections between the contested regions of the Arab world.

Instigated by the influential New York-based non-profit organisation ArteEast in collaboration with MoMA New York and Tate Modern, this diverse survey traced the personal and artistic processes of Arab experimentation in cinema, showcasing many works rarely seen outside the Arabic-speaking world. Especially noteworthy was the range and variety of the programme. Unlike conventional surveys of Arabic art and film, where the focus tends to be based on a particular cultural premise, the emphasis was instead on fleshing out a history for Arabic experimental narrative. The historical starting point for the selection was a period of seeming cultural change during the 1960s. Bridging a gap between poetry, literature and theatre, filmmakers during this time developed their own unconventional language. This was an era in the Arab world when many filmmakers withdrew from the confines of commercial practice, choosing instead to portray their own personal, or subjective, expressions of so-called reality.

Unsurprisingly, 'Mapping Subjectivity' began with a film from Egypt, the nation renowned for its cultural production in the Arabic-speaking world, and also home to one of the world's most prolific national cinemas. On the surface, the Egyptian filmmaker Shady Abdel Salam's The Mummy/A Moumia, 1976, however, diverges from the norm of Egyptian cinema. Unlike the verbose melodramatic counterparts that preceded it, Abdel Salam portrays the tale of national identity with understated dialogue and a sumptuous pictorial quality. He utilises a rich mise-en-scene to tell his story, rarely resorting to dialogue. Instead, his cinematography adopts a form of abstraction, while the slow rhythms and gentle movements of the film's actors complement elongated silences. Also known publicly as The Night of the Counting Years, this sweeping and symbolic feature reveals the fatal moral dilemma that engulfs a tribesman, Wanis, who finds himselftorn between loyalty to his clan and duty to his nation when he realises that his kinsmen earn their living by robbing the mummies of the royal tombs near historic Thebes.

This tension surrounding national identity is more ambiguously addressed in experimental filmmaker Elia Suleiman's first feature-length film Chronicle of a Disappearance/Sijil Ikhtifa, 1996. In this charmingly scratchy film print, the actor/director whom many refer to as the Palestinian Buster Keaton presents us, through a series of vignettes, with a mischievous picture of Palestine.

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