Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Behind the Veil; Women on Both Sides of the Camera

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Behind the Veil; Women on Both Sides of the Camera

Article excerpt

ONE night in December 1976, in a farm rented from some peasant farmers 70 kilometres from Algiers, with a team of seventeen technicians and two actors, I was shooting an interior night scene-a man looking at his sleeping wife.

Nothing very special about that! Nothing special about the action... except for the duration of the look (a minute and a halo, or rather of the double look-myself, the technicians, and later the film audience, looking at the man, the Other, looking at an Algerian woman lying heedlessly asleep, like a Venus in an Italian Renaissance painting. It was as if all art (at that time Arab cinema could, objectively, be said to be at a stage of development similar to that of Florentine or Venetian painting of the Quattrocento) had to begin by going through this first discovery of how another person-the Other-looks at a woman in an unguarded moment and how, in turn, we look at him looking at her.

In the film, La nouba des femmes du mont Chenoua, the woman is lying on the marital bed, her hair bound up in a red scarf; only the pure lines of her face are visible. I had worked out the decor down to the last detail-the silky glimmer of the bedclothes and the pillows contrasting with the rough whitewashed walls, the carpets on the floor, and wool, lots of wool all around. Enveloped in the wide bed, the sleeping woman seems passive, serene. Then, from her few disordered movements, we gradually sense the beginnings of a struggle against a nightmare-the memories, as we will later learn, of a wartime past. we wi

Stolen glances What of the onlooker, the man motionless in the doorway of the bedroom looking at his wife? Will he Join her on the bed? No. Though there is desire in his look is not the explicit or implicit impulse of desire an essential ingredient of true cinema?), it is not observed with sufficient insistence to suggest shared pleasure, the promise of intimate union.

The Other's way of looking at the desirable woman, a look on which we too are spying, is not the look of a voyeur. Slowly and with increasing intensity (a minute and a half can be a very long time), he is, despite himself, contemplating his impotence and the pain of separation. It is a look which faces up to and makes more distinct the dividing line between a couple, between the sexes.

I should, perhaps, have indicated earlier that the man is immobilized in a wheelchair which he has propelled along the wall to the open door. Even at a distance, the woman fascinates him. His hand grips the door-frame. Behind the camera, I capture the movement of the seated man as he struggles to rise, inch by inch, his face in profile twisted by the effort, and in the background the bed, the sleeping woman with the red kerchief two masks, one so near, the other so distant.

Long after, I began to wonder if it was really just by chance that I had decided to shoot this interior night scene. At the time I had sought only the pleasure of composition, as much in the manner of a painter as of a film director. Had I not chosen the scene in spite of myself? After all, for me as a writer, as a film-maker, or simply as an Arab woman, was not the real problem the painful search for an answer to the question as to the nature of the Other's look at woman, in a culture in which, for centuries, the eye had been closely guarded? One eye only existed, the eye of the master of the harem who forbade all visual imagery and invoked religious taboos to reinforce this dominance. The look of the Other, unless it is the look of a voyeur (an aggressive, invasive look), perceives nothing but the image of the woman, a mirage enshrouded in poetry and melancholy.

By looks possessed This whole question of what it means to be scrutinized by others is a paramount concern of Arab cinema today. Yet I feel it is relevant to go beyond the personal experience I have described above, and to speak of the placing, in the not too distant past, of entire societies under the microscope of the alien eye of the colonizer. …

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