Reading the Arab Image

This debate in the frame of the International Film Festival Rotterdam's Power Cut Middle East programme, takes a look at the images, both moving and still, that have come from the Middle East like a huge wave in the past few months. Due to the increase of mobile phone films and photos, we have a great deal of material whose origin is uncertain. It seems authentic, but who is coming to blows with whom? And who has made the films and taken the photos? Regimes are also aware of this, and use it to their advantage. Are we seeing actors, paid demonstrators, real people? How do we read and interpret these images?

In three lectures / performances, we investigate the role of the image in the present movements and how images help in the construction of identity in times of crisis.

With presentations by journalist Ferry Biedermann (The National, Elsevier Magazine, former Middle East correspondent for de Volkskrant - Dutch national daily), Egyptian filmmaker and activist Jasmina Metwaly.
And the lecture / performance "There is no Arab spring, it's all Photoshop" by Lebanese artist/musician Raed Yassin.

Moderator: Chris Keulemans (writer, director of Tolhuistuin)

Wednesday 1 February 19:30 LantarenVenster 5

Power Cut Middle East program:

Busy Making Revolution

Flashback to IFFR 2011: On the same day that the film festival in Rotterdam started, the first demonstrators made their way to Tahrir Square in Cairo and never left. Naturally, we had already seen the astounding events in Tunisia. On 17 December 2010, the 26-year-old Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself and this led to demonstrations and riots against the 23-year regime of dictator Ben Ali. In less than a month, the unheard-of happened: the dictator gave in and fled.

At the time, however, no one expected there would be such an immense knock-on effect. For the first time in decades, cracks - both large and small - appeared in regimes around the Arab world. That Hosni Mubarak would resign only a few weeks later in Egypt; that Saudi women would ignore the ban on female driving en masse; that the people of Syria would revolt; and that, after a prolonged struggle, freedom fighters in Libia would pose next to the lifeless body of Muammar Gaddafi - in early February 2011 all this was still unthinkable.

Naturally, this edition of the IFFR will pay attention to the Arab revolutions, whatever their outcome. As the IFFR has demonstrated for decades, filmmakers are the first to draw outside attention to the injustices in their countries - whether openly or concealed by metaphor.

Moreover, these contemporary revolutions are supported and fed by moving images. Thanks to the omnipresent cameras, such major historic events can now be, for the first time, experienced almost 'live' at street level. The moving image - the raw material for a film festival - plays an essential role. The filmmakers both record and participate in the protests. Egyptian artist Hala Elkoussy sent the following e-mail when she did not turn up for the première of her short film Mount of Forgetfulness. "I didn't make it to the screening because I was busy making revolution." And there are many others like her. 'Power Cut Middle East' intends to understand these moving images by turning them inside out. Because what are we really looking at? Not just the moving images that spread the Arab revolutions to neighbouring countries, or even farther afield, over the past year. But also the images of what went on behind the news cameras: the video footage filmmakers have been using to show the sentiments of Arab populations for quite some time.

Because one thing becomes abundantly clear from the films and installations that are part of Power Cut Middle East: this is not a sudden, Facebook or Twitter revolution. The new social media played an important part as did, for that matter, the rapid dissemination of news images, but large groups of demonstrators did not use the internet. Moreover: revolutions don't develop due to 140-character slogans.

There was a much longer run-up to these revolutions, as there will be a longer aftermath. Spring - even an Arab one - passes, and true democratic change takes time. People's dissatisfaction does not dissipate overnight. This is precisely the time at which a new, complex reality develops, which entails intense scrutiny of the new rulers. Power Cut Middle East does not focus on the entire Arab world, but on two countries in particular: Syria and Egypt. Syria, because - in spite of continuous massive demonstrations - the regime is the only one in the Arab world to refuse to see that things have to change. Egypt, because the revolution seemed to be over; until violence erupted once more.

Visual arts festival damascus in exile

Syrian film is often referred to as 'the best kept secret' of Arab cinema, even though national film production was, until only recently, entirely government funded. However, you cannot see this by looking at the works of pioneers such as Omar Amiralay, Mohamad Malas and Oussama Mohammad. Precisely because of the stringent censorship, Syrian filmmakers often developed extremely personal visual idioms in order to be able to still express themselves critically on social and political matters. The first edition of the Damascus Visuals Arts Festival took place in 2010 and featured exhibitions, film screenings, multimedia performances, lectures and debates which sought to create a dialogue between contemporary visual culture in the Middle East and that elsewhere in the world. The odds of another edition of the festival taking place in Damascus in 2012 are slim, however. This is why the festival will now take place 'in exile': at the IFFR. Suspended Dreams will screen documentaries by socially committed makers who artfully managed to avoid censorship. The restrictions stimulated the development of a rich visual language full of metaphors and symbols which enabled them to deal with subjects that would otherwise have been off-limits. Young filmmakers in particular have, since 2000, employed an idiosyncratic mix of fiction and documentary. Their films will be screened alongside the Syrian classic Dreams of a the City by Mohamad Malas, which dates back to 1983 and which inspired many young directors to invent the new, 'camouflaged' style of film. A debate will be held on developments in Syrian cinema entitled: The Road to Damascus.

Shifting Shores presents recent video works by Arab artists in which memory, identity and transformation are key concepts in individual quests for the manner in which historic background, collective memory and the transmitted images and stories influence the constantly changing Arab reality. Traditional views are critiqued; new perspectives are presented - issuing a challenge to reconsider ideas based on the media reality from before the Arab revolutions. The programme also comprises four installations at the Ai Weiwei Café / Power Cut Installations building located at Karel Doormanstraat 278.

Egyptian timelines

Over the past twelve months, a mass of images were sent into the world from Tahrir Square in Cairo that all spelled r-e-v-o-lu- t-i-o-n. But the essence of all the unrest and discontent, i.e. the demonstrators? real motives for being on the enormous square, can be found in the films from before 25 January 2011.

This socio-historical, visual and cultural context can be found in the Egyptian Timelines programme. A number of filmmakers also juxtaposed their own film with another Egyptian production which had inspired them. Their choices are films which have almost never been screened abroad.

Egyptian Timelines is an impressive selection of styles and subjects: from the dreamy, poetic walk through Cairo in which Hala Elkoussy makes the city's torn core tangible in In Search of a City (in the Papers of Sein) to the astounding banality of the executioner who explains how he cut short hundreds of lives in Dina Hamza?s documentary In/Out of the Room. From Abwab al khouf: el naddaha, an episode of the world?s first Arab horror series, to an exploration of silence in Emad Maher?s Neon Lamp. In the sobering Back to the Square, Petr Lom shows how the systematic use of violence from the Mubarak era continues to this day. Another exceptional film is the tragedy The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni about the imagined life of the famous Egyptian actress Soad Hosni. Edited together, excerpts from Hosni?s films (on VHS) illustrate a remarkable social move: whilst Arab women first became increasingly modern in the eyes of the outside world, their rights were increasingly being eroded by conservative social movements.

Besides screening films from outside of official Egyptian cinema, Egyptian Timelines also reveals a complex daily reality which the old regime preferred to keep under wraps. Stories of cultural repression; national identity pressured by internationalisation; poverty, prostitution and the abuse of power; but above all stories concerning the transitoriness of the city as a metaphor for cultural and economic decline, the arena for all frustrations.

Reading the arab image

During an evening of debate, Power Cut Middle East will comment on all these images utilising two lectures and a performance. What are the effects of the omnipresence of moving images? How do these influence the course of events? Has this put us in a constant, global loop of action and reaction? Which images do we or don't we trust?

The speakers will be Dutch journalist Ferry Biedermann, former Middle East correspondent of Dutch daily de Volkskrant who nowadays writes for The National and Elsevier Magazine; the Lebanese artist and musician Raed Yassin, with his new performance; and Jasmina Metwaly, artist, activist and one of the founders of Mosireen, a new, independent filmmakers? collective in Cairo which developed on Tahrir Square and aims to record the revolution and use the power and emancipatory strength of those images.

The English newspaper The Times named Tunisian fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi the most influential person of 2011. The American weekly TIME opted to name not an individual, but 'the demonstrator' in general as its 'Person of the Year 2011'. Over the course of a single year, a desperate, brave individual became a movement, a fearless mass. Power Cut Middle East demonstrates - in images, films, artworks and in visual culture - that this mass had been coming to the boil for some time.

Visual Arts Festival Damascus in Exile is curated by Delphine Leccas(Shifting Shores) and Charlotte Bank (Suspended Dreams and ShiftingShores). Nat Muller is co-curator for Egyptian Timelines.

Sacha Bronwasser, Peter van Hoof  


Egyptian Timelines

In the past year, pictures of the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and other cities in Egypt - both professional and amateur - have filled the newspapers, and our TV and computer screens. Somehow this has allowed us to feel close to the action, and given us a sense of the concerns, battles, hopes and worries that have played themselves out on the Egyptian streets. But is it possible to genuinely understand and contextualise those telegenic images at a superficial glance? How can we place what we are seeing within a larger socio-historical, visual and cultural context?

These are the ques- tions we aim to address in the Egypt Timelines programme. To this end, we have specifically chosen to show films and videos that precede the uprising on January 25, 2011, and asked our filmmakers and artists to juxtapose their work to another Egyptian film of their choosing, so as to create a ?dialogue?. No formal criteria were set, other than that the chosen film be of particular inspiration or importance to the filmmaker's practice. The programme's material zooms in
on different formats of cinematic poetics, thematic narrative strands, and issues that concerned Egyptian artists, feature film and documentary makers in the years prior to the Arab Spring. As this obviously is a personal selection, it can only offer clues, and never the full picture.

Timelines insists that January 25th did not occur in a vacuum but was a catharsis, brought on by the success of the revolution in Tunisia as well as the 2008 Mahalla bread riots in Egypt, the brutal death of Khaled Said at the hand of the Egyptian police in 2010, and more than half a century of economic grievances and repression and exploitation of the Egyptian people by its military rulers. All of the latent and bubbling tensions underlying the eruptions and protests of the past year can be found in the films: sometimes poetic and subtle, sometimes harsh and confronting.

As civic dissent was predominantly - and occasionally still is - played out in metropolitan areas, in city squares and streets and on the facades of buildings, the Arab Spring was as much about calling for political reform as it was about reclaiming the streets. The Arab world is undergoing rapid urbanisation and massive urban expansion, unfortunately not always with the population's interest at heart. It's no surprise, then, that so many films feature Egypt's two largest cities, Cairo and Alexandria, as their protagonists. In Search of the City (In the Papers of Sein) is Hala Elkoussy's dream- like ode to Cairo, in which the city functions as an imaginary construct. Her timeless protagonist, Sein, takes us on a journey through Cairo's urban history, reflecting on how the city has changed over the years and where it has remained marooned in time.

In Maydoum, Omar Robert Hamilton ponders the tensions between rural and urban life, land and family bonds, national belonging, home and homelessness. He questions the values of cultural and national identity in an increasingly globalised world. Tensions between the urban and the rural are also to be found in an episode of Ahmed Khaled's horror drama series for television, Doors of Fear. The first of its kind in the Arab world, the series translates old Egyptian folkloric tales into present-day mysteries. In the El Naddaha episode situated in the countryside, the 'Naddaha', a sea nymph-like creature dwelling in the Nile delta, calls men to their death. Whereas in Hamilton's film the countryside features as a place of innocence, honesty and rootedness, here the countryside holds dark secrets and seductions.

Filmmaker and activist Philip Rizk, on the other hand, shows us in his short documentary Sturm: Fayoum how rural areas suffer from Egypt's centralised governance, and how corporate capitalism and governmental neglect have cut off villagers from their water supply.

Repressive regimes control their subjects' experience of time and individual agency. Desires, needs and dreams are managed by the state and pitted against tired dogmas of patriotic sacrifice and false nationalism. This results in paralysis and eventually in anger. Sherif El Azma's Rice City is a claustrophobic film noir in which time is suspended and the air is menacing and stifling. The three protagonists never leave the apartment and seem imprisoned in their respective roles. This feeling of huis clos echoes the lethargy of a popu- lation subjugated by authoritarian rule. At times, the cycle of inertia ruptures and discontent boils to the surface, as is quite literally the case in Hassan Khan's Rant, but also in the form of pent-up sexual frustration and a stratification of social mores according to class differences in Islam Kamal's Local Copy, set in conservative Alexandria.

In order to look at the present and towards the future, the Timelines programme retraces a few steps and pauses, acknowledging the fact there are no immediate quick fixes for complex processes of change.

Nat Muller
Curator Egyptian Timelines