If you were around in the 1980s and even a passing consumer of Hollywood action movies, you’ll probably remember Chuck Norris as an elite troop facing off against Lebanese terrorists in The Delta Force (1986) – the martial arts star’s last box-office smash. The story went down in warring Beirut. But not really – because what you won’t recall, unless you know the region like the back of your hand, was that the port city of Jaffa was used as a stand-in for Lebanon. Jaffa is home to thousands of Palestinians – but the film wasn’t made for them. For suspension of disbelief, its Israeli director Menahem Golan relied on an audience who would not recognise as familiar the houses, stones and cars in each frame. It’s just one of dozens of Israeli and American films that were shot in Jaffa between the ‘60s and ‘90s – which became the raw material for Palestinian director Kamal Aljafari’s experimental work of excavation and reclamation Recollection (2015). In a playful and eloquent stand of resistance, he removed the Israeli actors from the shots and, in so doing, takes back the home he once knew from the new narratives that had been thrust onto its emptied territory. With the actors taken out, locals who had by chance strolled into the frame became prominent – the ghosts in the material, given back (to the inspired accompaniment of Egyptian track “Return of the Mummies” their rightful dominion.
Aljafari spoke about and showed excerpts of this work of identity reassertion in the United Arab Emirates in January at the inaugural edition of the Sharjah Film Platform, on a panel entitled States of Emergence. “Imagine your hometown, a place of all your memories, being destroyed in front of your eyes,” said Aljafari. Jaffa’s actual inhabitants and the totemic power of place as a guardian of their memories was all but erased, even violently obliterated (some buildings were really blown up in the staging of the combat in The Delta Force). He called his removal of the actors (or “occupiers” as he put it) an “act of cinematic justice”, saying: “Palestinians were uprooted not only in reality, but also in fiction.” The panel, which also featured Raya Martin of the Philippines and Sammy Baoji of the Democratic Republic of Congo, flowed with eloquent ideas on postcolonialism and the aggressions and resistances involved in the building of nations, and notions of belonging. A recurrent theme – as Recollection so poetically illustrates – was the expectation upon the oppressed to be complicit in certain images that are at odds with authenticity.
An alcohol-free or “dry” emirate that is much more religiously conservative than its business and tourism hub neighbour Dubai, Sharjah might not be somewhere that first comes to mind as a natural host for a flagship international film event in the Emirates. But beyond stereotypes, it measures up to its credentials as the country’s capital of culture, in its open attitude to artistic innovation. Much of this has to do with the work of Hoor Al Qasimi, a London-trained curator and practicing artist, who also happens to be the daughter of the kingdom’s sovereign ruler Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi. For the last decade she has been spearheading the Sharjah Art Foundation, inspired by her visit to the agenda-setting Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany. Her hands-on approach to putting quality programming at front and centre of the emirate’s cultural offerings could be felt in Sharjah Film Platform, the latest of the foundation’s initiatives, which included three well-orchestrated industry days of panels and talks. There was a general sense among attendees that the Film Platform is a promising new addition to the UAE’s cinematic landscape – especially since the unexpected shake-up of the Dubai International Film Festival, scaled back to happening only every two years, has meant increased uncertainty over the future form the showcasing of Arab cinema in the Middle East and North Africa region will take.
A round moon was overhead, as cats strolled around and the desert-climate air chilled down. It gave the Mirage City Cinema, an outdoor screening space conceived and designed by filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul and architect Ole Scheeren a few years back at the behest of the Sharjah Art Foundation, its own atmosphere in spades. The Platform’s opening shorts screened here. Abdulrahman Al Madani’s Laymoon and Mohammed Al Hammadi’s Maryam both evolved out of Sharjah Art Foundation grants and commissions (a rare source of financial backing in a nation without a film institute, where most work is made independently.) The first, about a neglected housewife trying to win back the attention of her distracted husband through unorthodox means, was intriguing as a cultural window but in its conservative sexual politics is probably not a film that would connect widely abroad. The second short was stronger. Also about an Emirati woman trying to assert her needs for personal fulfilment within rigid societal conventions of gender, it follows a budding actress as she prepares to pursue her career in New York – against the wishes of her mother that she stay home and marry.
The UAE’s emergent film industry and notion of what defines Emirati cinema came up in an on-stage conversation between Variety critic Jay Weissberg and director Abdulla Al Kaabi about his film Only Men Go to the Grave, which opened out to dialogue with an engaged audience. Al Kaabi expressed frustration around the common expectation that a film of an Emirati director should in some way be taken to represent the whole nation – when that same burden is not put upon a director from the United States. “I am Emirati, so by definition so is the film I made,” he said. The plot of his film turns on taboo aspects of gender identity and sexuality, such as cross-dressing and having children out of wedlock. He said freedom for artists to tackle any subject they want is essential: “I represent my own vision, not my country.”
A commitment to the significant films of the MENA region’s past was evident in the curation. Three restored films of Egyptian auteur Youssef Chahine, commemorating the ten-year anniversary of his death, were shown in the impressive Africa Hall theatre, programmed by Hind Mezaina and Dr Salah M Hassan. I managed to catch Bab el hadid (Cairo Station, 1958), in which Chahine himself plays underdog anti-hero Qinawi, a newspaper-seller ridiculed for his limp. He becomes obsessed with vivacious drinks vendor Hannuma (played by screen icon Hind Rostom – dubbed the “Marilyn Monroe of the east”), who also works at the train station and is engaged to another man. The film draws on elements of Italian Neo-realism and Hitchcockian suspense to foreground the impact of disenfranchisement on an anguished psyche. Our positioning in regard to the plot drivers of leery stalking and women-targeted violence is enough within Qinawi’s point of view to feel problematic and dated. But the film, in its concern with the way in which power abuses replicate themselves throughout society and its unique merging of genres (melodrama also has a hand), remains a fascinating, peculiar challenge to visions of propagandistic utopia.
Documentary Spaces of Exception had its world premiere on the Mirage’s outdoor screen. Co-directed by Malek Rasamny and Matt Peterson, the film is part of a wider multimedia project The Native and the Refugee. It was shot over four years with the intention of drawing parallels and opening lines of communication between indigenous people confined to Indian reservations in north America by white colonisers targeting their ancestral grounds, and Palestinians in the West Bank and Lebanon pushed into cramped conditions by Israeli settlers.
Rasamny, who is based between New York and Beirut, spoke on a panel called “Documentary Expanded” at Sharjah Film Platform before the premiere. He set out his vision of documentary as a tool for community mobilisation and a transmission conduit able to not only take stories from but deliver them to the territorially oppressed, aiding transnational solidarity. To this end, he said that he hopes with his crew to use his privilege of free movement to take Spaces of Exception back to its multiple locations for screenings so that its stories can reach beyond the film festival circuit to where they will resonate the most; an antidote to the kind of quarantine of resistance forces and crushing of the mental tools for autonomy through isolation imposed from above.
The term “spaces of exception”, coined by German pro-dictatorship thinker Carl Schmitt, refers to the normalisation of extreme deviations from the law in spaces where inhabitants have not been accorded equal status as citizens and humans. The impact upon an oppressed people of being fractured systematically from a sense of place tied to its collective identity and spiritual cohesion is a devastating refrain throughout the film. “In Navajo there is no word for relocation; to relocate means to disappear and never be seen again,” says one Native American. Mohawk and Sioux reservations also feel the psychic violence of erasure. A shuttered casino on a Mohawk reservation in New York state stands full of disused slot machines. It’s been a source of internal tension between traditionalists and assimilationists who endorse gambling, illegal outside, as a business “for survival”. It’s a stark image of strangulated options for an ostensibly self-governing people deprived of the life source of their lands. Instead, they’ve been cynically saddled with colonial corporate models unsuited to their cultural frameworks which are not accompanied by the transmission of the relevant tools for imitating these prosperously.
Reservations are juxtaposed against impoverished conditions inside Palestinian refugee camps, where hanging electrical wires cause not infrequent deaths in a general atmosphere of insecure subsistence. It’s a conflation of experiences of oppression that is reductive in its broad sweep, with the specific, highly complex context of Israel’s establishment and the role played by European antisemitism in the region’s ethnic divisions cursorily glossed over. Nevertheless, the film powerfully makes its point that the modes by which dehumanisation is enacted are all too typical among oppressors, and as such solidarity can be found for global resistance among all oppressed. Visibility and life itself become forms of resistance, under a politics of erasure that sees one’s very existence as a provocation – “the mere fact of my breathing in the heart of the camp,” as one Palestinian woman puts it. Alive and breathing then, under the moon in Sharjah too – packaged for our consumption, or released into a new form of virtual freedom?
Sharjah Film Platform
18–26 January, 2019
Festival website: http://sharjahart.org/sharjah-art-foundation/programme/sharjah-film-platform