Tala Hadid first came to general notice as a filmmaker with her short film, Your Dark Hair, Ihsan (Tes cheveux noirs Ihsan, 2005), which was awarded several prizes – among them the Student Academy Award and the Cinecolor Kodak Prize. Her background in cinema may be traced back to her first feature project, completed during her undergraduate studies at Brown University, titled Sacred Poet (1996), a documentary exploring the poetic life of Pier Paolo Pasolini. It would take her nine years after making Your Dark Hair to debut her next film work, the feature-length work, The Narrow Frame of Midnight (Itar al-Layl, 2014). During the long gap between them, Hadid not only was consumed by preproduction but also undertook other projects such as a photography exhibition of a New York City brothel titled Heterotopia (2011) and a feature documentary project on a remote rural community in Morocco titled House in the Fields which debuted at the 2017 Berlin Film festival.
Hadid was born in London in 1974 to Iraqi and Moroccan parents. She completed her higher education in the United States, having completed a MFA in film at Columbia University (Your Dark Hair, Ihsan was her thesis project). In her biography one encounters the traces of a sort of rooted cosmopolitanism – rooted given her recurrent interest and focus primarily on themes drawn from the Arab world, and more broadly a commitment to exploring experiences of dislocation, migration, and social marginality, while cosmopolitan in her insistence on seeing these questions through her own many-layered identity, refusing to grant a privileged sense of authenticity to national or other forms of identity. In her films one discerns the outlines of a search never completed, a moving gaze across a changing landscape.
Her two major cinematic works, Your Dark Hair, Ihsan and The Narrow Frame of Midnight, are both concerned with a similar primary character. In the former film, a young man (Hmed Khribesh) living abroad, returns to Morocco after his mother’s death, searching for traces of her while being overcome with memories of her from his childhood. In the latter, Zacaria (Khalid Abdalla) travels to Morocco to investigate the disappearance of his brother, following a trail that leads him to Iraq and into the dark horrors of the post-invasion setting there. In an early scene in Your Dark Hair, Ihsan, Ihsan rides a taxi through a rural landscape in Morocco, while the radio reports on the US invasion of Iraq. The camera frames his upper body in the back seat of the taxi, showing no emotion (or lost in thought) as the news reports on the war. This ability to bring to focus an articulation of a private inner life set against the turmoil of contemporary geopolitics is perhaps the most powerful attribute of Hadid’s work.
It may be useful (or not) to characterise Hadid as an “Arab filmmaker” – it is a label she embraces – but it is one that does not exhaustively define her. While being of Arab origin, Hadid’s technical crews have largely been European, and Narrow Frame of Midnight was a multi-national co-production involving Danny Glover’s Louverture, the London-based Hokus Bogus, and the Moroccan producer Khadija Alami’s K Films. Regardless, Hadid’s work certainly partakes in and contributes to current trends and debates in the cinemas of the Arab world, perhaps most clearly the dynamic contemporary cinema of Morocco, but also resonances that are clear in other settings: Lebanese and Palestinian filmmaking, and even some new voices of Egyptian cinema. However, arguably The Narrow Frame of Midnight exceeds any other work of Arab cinema in its ambition to encounter and embrace the complex dynamics across the Arab world in echoes of the aftermath of the US invasion of 2003, and the subsequent social upheaval of the Arab spring, and the ongoing wars in Syria, Yemen, and beyond. In particular, rather than simplistically treating the rise of Islamist politics and militancy in a reactive or one-dimensional manner, The Narrow Frame of Midnight traces the step-by-step descent of one man into jihadi commitments set against the backdrop of a global system that is deeply exploitative and unjust.
Hadid answered my questions for this interview by email in an exchange that took place over July and August in 2015. The conversation primarily served as an opportunity to explore the nuances of The Narrow Frame of Midnight, but also afforded opportunities for her to offer insights into the present state of Arab cinemas, and her position as an Arab woman director active between Europe and the US.
The Narrow Frame of Midnight seems concerned with the near impossibility of representing the destructive tectonic shifts currently reshaping sociocultural and political realities in North Africa and the Middle East: it’s a work that is concerned with the spectral limits that 9/11 and the Iraq war inaugurated to “our” cultural memory. By focusing on the two story lines that comprise the center of the film, the frame of the film is “narrowed,” but each of these story lines have much to say about the surface features of what is a global crisis: migration/human exploitation; insurgency and the rise of religious political movements; the loss of idealism, and so on. I am very interested for you to say more about you how attempted to craft a cinematically representable material from the crises that so far have eluded a representation that captures their complexity.
You touch on a key point when you speak of this issue of representation, a concern, among other things, that lies at the very center of all cinematographic work, and indeed any visual work of art. As Jean Michel Frodon reminds us, all representation is a “matter of morality”, or more specifically, as Godard states, “the tracking shot is a matter of morals”. And so, in The Narrow Frame of Midnight, which was initially conceived as a script after 9/11 and the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, and continued to be written as events unfolded across the landscapes of North Africa and the Middle East, the fundamental question was always how to represent not just the world, but what was invisible within it. To attempt, in some way, to shake free and clear one’s vision. And to do so, in the face of catastrophic destruction and injustice, with the right distance, or what Jean Marie Straub refers to as Einstellung, in that each image is a frame and each frame is point of view on the world whose distance of ‘refusal and fraternity’ is one that is both moral and political. It’s a responsibility. One has to be very clear about where one stands in regards to what one films, especially in the context, in a visually saturated world, of what one could term the ‘un-filmable’ – specifically the result (death, displacement, dissolution of entire countries) of what you call the ‘destructive, tectonic shifts’ that we are seeing in many parts of the world, including of course in the Middle East.
And so we come back to the film, whose frame is indeed “narrowed”, but in the sense of its title, which is taken from Walter Benjamin’s concept of a fissure in time, a narrow frame that is in fact an opening, or a leveling of things, if you will, that allows for all kinds of possibilities, all kinds of visions. The structure of the film is not so much based on two story lines, but rather a confluence of different journeys, different lines that converge. Which renders it, in its totality, formally open. A wager perhaps, and a risky one at that. But it was something that was always desired: a construction of a narrative that opens up a space of autonomy for the spectator.
What is asked is participation in the construction of the narrative, participation in the drawing of the lines. The film, in its most fragmentary and episodic form, is a film that can perhaps be approached like the sketching out of a cinematographic map, where lines constantly shift and change, disappear and reappear in correspondence to a geopolitical terrain that is fluid, and that changes because of events, like wars for example. And so the film exists and reflects back onto this ever-changing landscape; it looks to the past, present and future like a kind of magic mirror. And, importantly, asks for active viewing from its audience.
What is remarkable about Narrow Frame is the way by which it manages to be both topical and in conversation with very current events, and also to be fairly timeless, almost out-of-time. I can’t think of many other films that aspire to, much less to achieve, such a balance. I wonder to what extent this was present in your mind, or if you began with an idea of a particular kind of film that then was affected and took on resonances from its immediate environment? Put otherwise what for you were the challenges and dangers of trying to be both topical as well as out-of-time?
Time in Narrow Frame is of the essence. For a long while now, in my practice, the key question was and is, among other things, the issue of Time in the image. Influenced by the theoretical works of Andre Bazin, Serge Daney and especially Gilles Deleuze, this was of course an underlying concern during the making of Narrow Frame. Before I return specifically to your question of the balance in the film of being “out of time” and in time, or ‘topical’, I would like to address this question more broadly. How to create space in a film for the spectator that allows for the unfolding of Memory and of the imagination? How to break loose from the tyranny of particular narrative structures so as to engage the viewer in a way that liberates vision and paves the way toward a process that approximates thought and engagement? I think that the answers can be found in the very particular relationship between Time and the image, or Time in the image. And it is precisely through an experience that is temporal in nature that perhaps a link can be made back to the world. In what Deleuze calls the “pure, optical, sound (and tactile) image” can be found a cinema of pure ontology. We are brought back to the body and to landscapes that exist temporally. What is certain, is that believing is no longer believing in another world, or indeed in a transcendental world, it is simply believing in the body, giving discourse to the body and for this purpose, as Deleuze puts it, in an echo of Artaud, “reaching the body before discourses, before words, before things are named.”
Coming back to Narrow Frame and its ‘out-of-timeness’, I return to this idea of the map. The lines of the film were always, metaphorically speaking, drawn in pencil, specifically in light of the very particular relationship between Cinema and History, between the unfolding of the interior life of a film and the unfolding of ‘History’. And this drawing in pencil was not only on the page, in the script form of the project, but in the film itself. Being in pencil means that it can always be redrawn, in the film proper, by the viewer himself/herself. The fact that it was (and though I don’t like to draw too distinct of a line between documentary and fiction) a ‘fiction’ work meant that its relationship to events on the ground as it were, had to be open. There is no time, and yet a very specific time. And so, in allowing the film to be structured in such a way, meant that some of the scenes then came to exist almost as crystal balls. The Baghdad makeshift morgue scene for example, where the main character enters a space of the dead, can just as easily be read as a scene in Syria or Egypt, or elsewhere for that matter, depending on when it is viewed in ‘historical time’ or ‘real’ time and depending on what is happening on the political terrain. So it has a strange thing about it, of being precisely linked to a place and a time, and yet also not, and of allowing a small space for the viewer to make connections, to become a topographer in a way.
I want to ask you about the rural location and story line of Judith (Marie-Josée Croze), the French former lover of Zacaria. This story line reads as a gesture to colonial history, to France’s presence in North Africa. It reminds me somewhat of the scene shot for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now (only included in the longer 2001 director’s cut of Apocalypse Now Redux), where Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) encounters a French family living in a decaying settlers encampment in the midst of the war, almost unaware of it. Coppola’s treatment of colonial history seems to be somewhat ironic, while I feel in Narrow Frame it’s perhaps almost elegiac. Can you say more about the presence of the colonial in your film?
The presence of a European element in the film was always important. A nod if you will to the fraught relationship, both past and present, between the periphery and the core, between the East and the West, between, in this specific case, France and North Africa. In an earlier version of the script there was a whole section of the film to be shot in the north of France, which had to be cut out because of budgetary constraints. These sequences would have meant that the characters travel from North Africa, through Europe and onto Turkey and Iraq. To have crossed Europe would have juxtaposed various different landscapes in the film- specifically nature and the industrial, or the landscapes of the global South and Europe with its (especially in Northern France) decaying factories, bleak highways and grey cities. Judith (Marie-Josée Croze), the former lover/partner of Zacaria (Khaled Abdalla) would have existed in these spaces- in the same farmhouse but in the North of Europe. In a place where she belongs. The other characters meanwhile would have crossed such spaces as strangers. Having to change the location then transposed these scenes back to Morocco. Which of course brings, in the film, Europe back to North Africa. The sequences of Judith in the farmhouse place her firmly in a landscape in which she is out of place. A landscape I might add that, with the exception of the penultimate sequence where the young girl, Aicha (Fadwa Boujouane), plays in the field with the children, is not one of destruction and ruin. Here, nature reigns supreme within a time that unfolds in a totally different way than the rest of the film. Here, despite the beauty of what we see- the hills and the fields of rural Morocco – things are strange and out of joint. As is Judith, who lives in a sort of suspended state of liminality, in total solitude, cut off from everything, where her trauma- the loss of her partner, her child etc. – make her a character who looks backwards towards an irretrievable past, where the traumatic memory of loss returns again and again, forming a closed circuit from which there is no escape and no salvation. And so her vision remains locked, closed in on itself, while for Zacaria, there is no turning back or return. It is not a question of forgetting the past, but simply that he has moved beyond her. If there is an elegy in the Judith sequences, it is more to the land itself, to Nature and a time that is without beginning or end, which makes of its inhabitants, including Judith, only guests that pass through and exist in a state of finitude in the face of a landscape that will, in the end, surpass them. If Zacaria is exactly where he should be in the last scene of the film, surrounded and taken up by the flow of the world, by History, Judith not only does not belong to the land on which she lives, she has been left behind, facing a past from which she cannot escape.
I was provoked by a rather small detail in Narrow Frame, one that may, however be quite significant. In the mise-en-scene of the apartment of a man who Zacaria goes to see, the man who seems to be a handler for men who are en route to Iraq to fight, the camera lingers over the piles of books on his desk – one is Les principes léninistes de stimulation au travail by Laptine Mikhail– and later we see an image of Karl Marx placed on the wall. What link are you suggesting here between the history of Leftist militancy in the region and that of jihadi groups?
Details in the mise en scène of any film are never insignificant. Nothing escapes the lens, including what is hidden or invisible. The smallest gestures of a character are captured, looks exchanged, things or objects breath, everything resonates in the image. And so in the scene that you reference, the camera moves across a pile of books, including a book on Lenin, and finishes on a close-up of the Stranger (Samir El Hakim), the man whom Zacaria has come to question about the disappearance of his brother. This camera movement traces, as you observe, a link between an object (the book on Lenin) and a face, of the Jihadi handler. The linkage is traced, and nothing more. In the sense that the bridge is constructed and the door is opened for further elaboration and thought. The camera movement across the books to the face thus opens up a space for a certain questioning. I mentioned early the importance of the autonomy of the spectator, or to put it more precisely, the importance of an autonomy of vision. The image, with its stratum and layers of meaning, is powerful precisely because of its polysemy, because of the responsibility it can give to the viewer for the meaning he or she wishes to confer on it. It is, or should be, to paraphrase the philosopher Marie-José Mondzain, “the meeting between gaze and thought”. The fraught and tragic history and dissolution of the left in the region, years of neoliberal restructuring of the economies of the different nation-states, continuing imperial intervention, and now the horrors and destruction wrought by war, have left a gaping chasm and landscape from which we have seen the rise of a militancy, Jihadi, emerging from the ruins, the product of a deep social crisis, grounded in terror that is not emancipatory and that in essence offers no challenge to capitalism and makes of revolution an utterly destructive act. These are things that we know. And it is perhaps the work of a political scientist, or historian to piece together and offer analysis. And so to return to the film, and to your question, I would say that all one can do, as a filmmaker, in the face of such destruction, is to attempt to offer a space for a shared journey, to open up a world of the visible and of the imaginary, not where there are specific hidden signs or messages or answers, but a journey through a landscape where there are objects, people, fragments, shards and connections to be reconstructed and rethought, re-approached and reimagined.
And now for a rather broader question: How would you characterise the current situation of Arab cinema(s) and their place in what we may term the global networks for international filmmaking? The question also begs your own reflections on being identified with the label of “Arab filmmaker” – how do feel about this label/grouping?
To speak specifically of filmmakers and artists from the region means to acknowledge that we are producing work in a state of crisis. In the most extreme cases, we are emerging from the ruins. This means that the urgency of the situation calls for a cinema that takes no prisoners. And what I mean by this, is that filmmakers in the region are now faced with an all or nothing choice. Do we reclaim cinema as an art that frees the gaze, bodies and thoughts from enslavement or do we fall back on a cinema as a modern industry of mass spectacle that produces images only for consumption? It is precisely out of a devastated terrain, for example the Middle East, that perhaps new forms of cinema and production, visions of a humanity and world to come will emerge. And indeed I believe this is happening. We are, as image producers, accountable for the images that we produce and that we return to ourselves and to our community. Nowhere is this question more felt than when one is facing a pivotal moment, as we are now, in our history as members of a shared political space. As for your question about being identified with the label of ‘Arab filmmaker’, I have no issue with it. I am that and other things, I belong to that history and to other histories too. My commitment lies not to a specific identitarian group but to a certain way of approaching and producing the image and cinema. Which means that the borders are open, and solidarity, including cinematographic solidarity, is transnational.