From Film Quarterly, Winter 2021, Volume 75, Number 2
To Amal, to whom I still owe an apology.1
The Arab Spring, the wave of popular insurgencies that spread in that region between 2010 and 2012, springs from a solid history of large-scale political mobilizations that coalesced outside (and sometimes against) the framework of such established and enshrined political organizations as political parties and unions. This is a history that has been recorded, archived, and studied yet still represents a marginal, counterhegemonic scholarship within the study of or engagement with the Arab world. That history is also recorded and transmitted in song, poetry, literature, and film, which in turn have become a repository of the memory of struggle and dissidence rising up against tyranny. The memory and history of political and social dissent are also embodied in the film production of the Arab region, but—unlike songs, poetry, and novels—Arab films travel and are exhibited with far greater difficulty, for the dissemination of film was, prior to the advent of digital media, constrained by contingencies that curtailed movement and access. Therefore, sadly, only researchers or passionate amateur students of Arab film are today cognizant of this rich, subversive, and captivating patrimony.
This essay is neither an attempt to evaluate the immediate political consequences of the Arab Spring (and its ensuing so-called winters) nor a discussion of its recording and representation in cinema. Rather, it is an exploration of certain consequences of that event—specifically, on cinematic expression—while acknowledging broader artistic and cultural resonances. Obviously, the Arab Spring comprised a spectacular series of political events, heavily mediatized and embattled, that lent themselves to “virality” to an unprecedented extent through social media.2 Such a virality is fundamental to my arguments here. Regardless of whether regimes were successfully overthrown, whether protests took place in this or that country in 2011 or in the years after, the virality of images, stories, and the new media vocabularies that the Arab Spring produced have been circulated throughout the Arab-speaking countries and have had an irrevocable impact on political subjectivities and imaginaries.
The advent of lightweight digital cameras and postproduction software democratized film production drastically, in the Arab region as well as in the rest of the world. With smartphones furnished with increasingly sophisticated cameras, the capture and production of moving images became even more salient. At the same time, the policing and control of events, as well as the production of film, was tightening in the region as social and political rancor erupted more frequently. These prohibitions also extended to the media, both audiovisual and print.
Prior to January 25, 2011, for instance, local, regional, and international media outlets in Cairo were absolutely forbidden from reporting on, or filming, the protests staged by the Kefaya movement. These protests were never large: a mere handful of fifty to a hundred activists, who were allowed to march or stand in front of the building that housed the Syndicate of Lawyers or the nearby Syndicate of Journalists, or around symbolic sites like Talaat Harb Square. This small group was usually confronted with national security decked in riot gear and twice or thrice their number. Only residents of the area, or those who happened to be passing by, would become aware of them. Even radio reports on traffic were not allowed to mention them, even though the assembly of riot police disrupted traffic greatly.
It is likely that the archives of national security from Moubarak’s era hold the largest and most thorough record of these protests, but for average Egyptians, they are forever recorded in two narrative films. Ibrahim el-Batout’s Ein Shams (Eye of the Sun, 2008) and Yousry Nasrallah’s Genenet al-Asmak (The Aquarium, 2008), two very different films, released in the same year, point to the despair overwhelming quotidian life and film protests in the Wust el-Balad neighborhood, one of Cairo’s many “downtowns.”3
Ibrahim el-Batout was a well-known photojournalist and cameraman who had covered several wars in the former Yugoslavia and Sudan, as well as the First Gulf War.4 He did not complete his assignments unscathed, and upon returning to Cairo he began to work as a cinematographer with independent filmmakers and directed several documentary films. In Eye of the Sun, his second narrative feature, he intentionally links together stories from his own experiences, the sorrows he witnessed and documented: the morbid consequence of the depleted uranium left by US troops in the first Gulf War, dwindling living conditions for the working poor in Cairo, lack of access for treatment from cancer for a taxi driver’s eleven-year-old daughter, and the devastation from the avian flu epidemic.
El-Batout shot the film, produced on a shoestring budget, on digital video without official permissions, blending documentary with fiction and inviting actors to improvise in reaction to their surroundings. He enlisted a cast willing to take the risk of facing reprisals. The film was censored from screening in Egypt and elsewhere in the world with the threat of retribution against the director and crew. The Centre Cinématographique Marocain (under the directorship of the late Noureddine Saïl) offered to endorse the film by claiming it as a Moroccan production and enabling the fabrication of 35mm prints that made it possible for the film to travel to festivals, and eventually to screen in Egypt after censorship was lifted.5
In a pivotal scene, one of the characters, a taxi driver named Ramadan (Mohamed Abdel-Fattah), is driving a customer to Wust el-Balad when they come upon a protest.6 As he negotiates traffic gone awry, he witnesses the police beating a protestor who then manages to escape, bludgeoned and in need of immediate medical care. Shocked, Ramadan takes him into his taxi, overcoming his fear of violent punishment, and rescues him. El-Batout shot the scene by bringing his actors and props into a real protest that was ongoing. Knowing protests’ frequency, he could envisage that a minimum of planning was needed to seize the opportunity.
Yousry Nasrallah’s The Aquarium is an entirely different story: the film was an international coproduction between Egypt (Misr Films), France (Archipel 33), and Germany (Pandora Films), with additional funding from ARTE France and the World Cinema Fund. The film cast Egyptian stars Amr Waked, Gamil Rateb, Bassem Samra, Ahmed el-Fishawi, and Tunisian-born Hend Sabry. 7 The film’s plot tells the story of the encounter of two listless souls: Laila (Sabry), a radio host for a late-night talk show who listens to people’s woes and provides advice; and Youssef (Waked), a loveless and emotionally numb anesthesiologist who is coming to terms with his father’s slow and impending death from illness. In the buildup to their encounter, secondary characters that intersect with their lives speak directly to the camera, almost in confessional mode. The film’s central theme is the profound mal-être of Cairenes, with an opening sequence that is especially stunning: the camera hovers above the nighttime landscape of Wust el-Balad as a man says in a voice-over: “I am scared.” In a long monologue, he then proceeds to list all that scares him. The film includes scenes of poultry farms, in direct reference to the avian flu, as well as scenes of the recurring protests in Wust el-Balad.
When the strike broke out at the Gafsa Phosphate Mines in 2008 in Tunisia, the government imposed a very tight media blackout. Eventually Internet services were shut down momentarily to prevent activists from sending reports to Tunisians and to the rest of the world. Images of actions captured by striking activists emerged a few days after they started using untraceable circuitous networks furnished by international hackers. Similarly, video footage captured by the striking workers of Misr Spinning and Weaving Company were “smuggled” through networks of activists in defiance of a total media blackout imposed by the Moubarak security forces. Some of the videos attested to the previously unimaginable political acumen of the striking workers: one such video documented workers occupying the space of a factory that mostly employed women, who were refusing the new management regimes. They had chained themselves to their machines, while their husbands brought them meals accompanied by their children, visiting mothers voluntarily locked on-site.
At the most basic level, the Arab Spring consisted of protests that mobilized hundreds of thousands of people, in capitals and provincial cities, who stood and squatted in public spaces, demanding political freedom and economic justice—or “a life of dignity,” as several of the uprising’s slogans relayed. In other words, this political event was physical. They marched, stood steadfast, and sometimes even danced in public spaces in defiance of prohibitions from despotic regimes that demonstrated time and time again an unrestrained license to resort to violence. They gathered voluntarily and of their own will, free of coercion, fully cognizant of the risks they were taking. Across genders and generations, the groups belonged to different social classes, different ethnic, cultural, and community groups. Their only protection lay in their numbers. Together, day after day, in lending their bodies to an act of political defiance, they were creating a new kind of body politic, and reclaiming civic spaces. This essentially physical-political experience stripped regimes of their legitimacy and validity, but it was first and foremost, for the protestors, an act of emancipation from fear, complacency, and nepotism.
The body was the first site of reclaiming agency and subjectivity. Since 2011, representations, narratives, and dramaturgies of the body were also emancipated in cinema: for the first time since the early 1970s, actors appear in the nude, sexual acts are enacted explicitly (within the norms of mainstream cinema), and queer identity is represented in all its complexity, liberated from judgment or moralizing.
One of the first films to emerge from Syria, right as the pacifist civilian uprising was coerced into a violent sectarian conflict, Lina al-Abed’s medium-length documentary film Damascus, My First Kiss (2012), began its international festival tour. Ten years later, the film is unduly forgotten, although it incarnated an important foretelling of the profound changes in what filmmakers perceive to be urgent subjects for making films, and the ways in which they narrate and represent bodies in film.
A Palestinian-Jordanian, Lina al-Abed studied journalism at the University of Damascus and started to direct documentary films shortly after her graduation. Damascus, My First Kiss was her third film. She was motivated to probe the subject of Syrian women’s rapport with their sexuality in the conservative environment of Damascus. She chose to focus on Lina Shashazi and Asma Khashtaro, two seemingly very dissimilar women whose life experiences nevertheless overlap in unexpected ways. Blond, luscious, and skimpily clad, Shashazi hails from one of the most well-known Christian families in the city, while Khashtaro, a Koran teacher, is the granddaughter of the former mufti (the highest rank in the Sunni clergy) of Syria.
Their testimonies confirm that patriarchal mores and traditions overrule religious difference, as both women were unable to control their destinies when they were young, and both accepted being filmed because they wanted to avoid having their daughters endure the same fate. They speak unguardedly to al-Abed’s camera: Shashazi describes her wedding night as rape, while Khashtaro dreams of riding a bicycle with her daughter, in defiance of the prejudice that prohibits observant Muslim women from cycling.
In the past three decades or so, there have been several important documentaries centered on the condition of women in Arab societies, among them Hala Lotfy’s ‘An el-Shu‘ur bel Buruda (On Feeling Cold, 2007), Hala Galal’s Dardashah Nisa’iyyah (Women’s Chitchat, 2004), and Omar Amiralay’s Al-Hubb al-Maow’ud (The Sarcophagus of Love, 1984), all with an attention toward the social, political, and affective aspects of women’s lives. Yet the relationship of women to their sexuality and the erotic imaginary was systematically avoided. Released in 2012, Damascus, My First Kiss was in fact shot shortly before the revolution and briefly became an emblem of its spirit.
Nabil Ayouch’s provocative Zin Li Fik (Much Loved, 2015), an audaciously realist dive into the underworld of escort girls and the commerce of sex in Marrakesh, was the outcome of years of documentary research that the director had undertaken, listening to sex workers and recording their experiences. The narrative film was banned in Morocco to appease conservative and religious mores flouted by the film’s transgressions of morality. Hailing from a wealthy and protected family in Morocco, Ayouch is one of the most internationally acclaimed filmmakers in the country, so it was surprising that he would knowingly expose himself to the ire of authorities and put his actors at peril. For him, as for them, there was an urgency: to denounce the hypocrisy that shrouds the commerce of sex in his country and to give voice to defenseless young women. One of the most provocative elements in the film—and likely the undisclosed reason for incensing the Moroccan officialdom—is the character of a Saudi jet-setter who repeatedly fails to be aroused by his Moroccan temptress; after she catches him watching gay porn in the bathroom to inspire an erection, he proceeds to beat her senseless.
Two years earlier, critically acclaimed novelist and writer Abdellah Taia, also Moroccan, had adapted his own autobiographical coming-of-age novel, L’armée du salut (Salvation Army, 2013) into an eponymous film for the big screen.8 Salvation Army transposes elegantly the story of a fifteen-year-old youth from a working-class family in Casablanca. Overwhelmed by his troubling fancy for his older brother, he comes to understand that he is gay and has several erotic adventures with older men before he can leave Morocco to study in Switzerland and come into his own.
In a country where homosexuality is penalized as a crime, Taia’s success in obtaining permission to shoot the film was unexpected, but the film was nonetheless banned from theatrical release in Morocco. After a successful tour at international film festivals, it was allowed two screenings at the Moroccan National Film Festival in Tangiers in 2014.9
Perhaps what is most relevant to note here is that both Ayouch and Taia were able to enlist a cast and crew to produce their films: in other words, professionals from the industry, disinhibited from the fear of reprisals and mobilized by the necessity to bring the film to life, were willing to take the risk because they endorsed the films’ missions.
The most radical figure in this regard is doubtless Selim Mourad, an openly gay Lebanese actor and filmmaker, whose trilogy Linceul (Linceul , Linceul II: Cortex , and Linceul III: Moss Agathe ) and personal nonfiction film Imbarator al-Namsa (This Little Father Obsession, 2016) flagrantly transgress the boundaries, codes, and conventions surrounding nudity, queer representation, and narrative structure. This Little Father Obsession is a hybrid film that travels between the filmmaker’s attempt to reconcile his family’s history with prospects for the future and his baroquely styled fictional scenes in which he enters into dialogues with the ghost of his deceased sister and confronts old lovers. As his parents’ only surviving child, and a gay man with decreasing fertility, he faces up to the responsibility that the family’s lineage will end with him.
Other questions are laced throughout the film: dark spots in the family’s story, living with the sorrow of heartbreak, grieving his sister’s death, and leaving the family nest. The film’s opening sequence is at once allegorical and comical. The camera is placed inside the family’s washing machine, as in voice-over Mourad is negotiating with his mother to stick her head inside it so he can film her; and she complies. The father, on the other hand, refuses vehemently and becomes angry when his son insists. In the next sequence, Mourad has invited a professional photographer to take a family photo; at his urging, his parents have donned their Sunday best, but when he enters the room stark naked, his father storms out, furious at his son’s affront. Eventually, they reconcile, fight again, and reconcile again. The provocation of appearing naked is bold but entirely consistent with Mourad’s allegorical intentions; in the photography scene, the filmmaker’s body is barely seen; it is only in the scenes that address a former lover that his body is revealed.
Mourad decided to push things further in his Linceul trilogy. The first of the three medium- or feature-length films was inspired by Roger Salardenne’s Le culte de la nudité, a reportage published in 1929 extolling the virtues of the nudist experiences that were popular during Germany’s short-lived Weimar Republic.10 Mourad invited five actors (across gender) to lock themselves with him in a house and explore the limits of “nakedness” physically and allegorically. At the same time, not far from the apartment where the film experiment was unraveling, ISIS combatants were rampaging through northern Iraq, throwing gay men from the top of buildings and raping Yezidi women and women from noncompliant religious and ethnic minorities. The contrast between the interior of the apartment and the outside world could not have been starker, or more painful.
In the sequel, Linceul II: Cortex, the experiment continues, but now with fewer actors. The film opens with a text that reads:
Beirut, summer 2017. Some individuals were meeting in a house to pursue an experiment they had started before. Tensions arise. It is 29 degrees in the shade. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead. Thus opens the time of the initiates.
Blending black-and-white with color sequences, the film shows actors who are all unclothed, their genitalia exposed, and filmed masturbating. Eight minutes before the end of the approximately forty-minute film, Mourad declaims in direct address to the camera, as the two actors who have remained in the experiment stand behind him (their faces cut off by the frame, with only a part of their bodies visible). In full disclosure, and smiling facetiously, he acknowledges the necessity of “staging” and of the mise-en-scène of the “initiation process” in the sequel. He then proceeds to list those who have left the experiment, and what remains: nodules growing on a testicle, a cyst on the pancreas, and other body ailments. His smile becomes wider, forced, disturbing, while the two actors shave his head.
Elliptical and more abstract, Linceul III: Moss Agate begins with Mourad again addressing the nodule on his testicle, then evolves to reflect on death, resurrection, and art. The moss agate is a rare semiprecious stone, one in which moss has been trapped inside an agate stone, petrified forever.
I expand at length on Selim Mourad’s work because it incarnates such a wild and novel cry from an emancipated imaginary. It deliberately and poetically transgresses taboos, the unsaid, the unsayable, and the forbidden to representation, soaring to a space of freedom precisely at a moment when despair might have shut down the ability to regenerate a dismembered political body. This Little Father Obsession was censored in Lebanon, while the trilogy (also produced on a shoestring budget with very little funding) was made “under the radar.” All four films traveled to international film festivals, This Little Father Obsession screening at the Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage and at the Cairo International Film Festival with a “18+” warning for viewers.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the body as a site of political regeneration and erotic emancipation is neither glorified, idealized, nor aestheticized. The revolution did not produce beautiful and bright new men and women. The marks of years of tyranny, poverty, repression, and frustration are exposed, and sometimes even amplified. A dark parable on the toxic lure of power, Néjib Belkadhi’s Bastardo (2013) tells the story of Mohsen (Abdel Moneem Chouayat), who was raised by Am Salah (Issa Harrath) after he found him as a baby discarded in a trash bin. The film takes place in a poor and merciless neighborhood, where gangsters roam free and from which there is no way out. Rejected all his life because he was a “bastard,” Mohsen finds his fortune changing when the cell-phone company installs a relay tower on his rooftop, but he transforms into a vindictive and power-hungry monster. The only lucid, kindhearted, and altruistic character in the film is Bent Essengra (Lobna Noomene), a dejected woman on whose skin suddenly appear hundreds of swarming insects. She lives in serenity with the insects while they inspire horror in anyone who sees them, except for Mohsen, especially before his fortune changes.
This fantastical element is one of several metaphorical motifs that Belkadhi infused the film with throughout, as all its characters have ambiguous, almost repulsive, exaggerated features, in their physique or disposition. These aesthetic and narrative motifs find echo in several novels, published around the same time by a new generation of Arab novelists, that redefined the noir and the fantastical genres at once, such as Nael el-Toukhy’s Women of Karantina (2015), Mohammed Rabie’s Otared (2017), and Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018), as well as Hassan Blasim’s short-story collections The Madman from Freedom Square (2009), The Iraqi Christ (2013), The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories (2014), and God 99 (2019). While each has its distinctive singularity, it is possible to follow a thread from the texts’ resonances and depictions of worlds that come undone, ruled by despots and tyrants, where temporality is elastic, agile, moving back and forth between present, past, and future, where characters bear the markers of physical and psychological abuse overtly and explicitly, and in turn reciprocate it. The texts also contain uninhibited depictions of eroticism and sexuality that are more often than not steeped in violence and cruelty, shown with attention to detail.
Hicham Lasri’s “dog trilogy” neither offers narrative sequels nor concerns itself with dogs, but Lasri casts dogged, offbeat, provocative, and dysfunctional characters whose disposition or behavior transgresses the codes of realism. Morocco’s most maverick, punk, and prolific filmmaker, Lasri has also authored novels and graphic novels where these motifs are even more striking. What he refers to as the “dog trilogy” includes Hom al-Kilab (They Are the Dogs, 2013), Jawwe‘h Kalbak (Starve Your Dog, 2015) and Jahiliyyah (originally titled Jahiliyyah Dog, 2018). The title They Are the Dogs is an unambiguous expression of contempt, although it is not explicit who is accusing whom. Starve Your Dog is the first part of a popular Arab proverb that says, “Starve your dog and he will follow you,” and here too, the reference is to contempt. And lastly, Jahiliyyah, which refers to the period preceding the advent of Islam, is also used in Moroccan dialect as a synonym for “hogra,” or contempt. The trilogy is about rule, power, abuse, impunity, submission, and material and spiritual despair.
They Are the Dogs follows a crew of indolent journalists whose coverage of a protest goes awry. Afterward, they stumble on a haggard old man, Majhoul (Hassan Ben Badida), who has just been released from a secret jail where he served a thirty-year sentence for having participated in the bread riots of 1981. Disoriented by the changes in the city and the protests past and present, Majhoul (the name is the Arabic word for “unknown”), who has forgotten his own name, is hounded by the guileless journalist who is eager for a “story.” They Are the Dogs and Starve Your Dog represent a stark portrait of Casablanca as a sun-drenched but sinister city, inhabited by folk the state has abandoned and who have become shamelessly self-interested, offset by a cynical, self-censoring, and complacent media. In both films, ghosts surge from the past to derail the present. Majhoul is the emaciated, almost toothless, pathetic ghost who incarnates a past no one wants to recall or excavate.
In Starve Your Dog, the ghost is the character of Driss Basri, resurrected from oblivion, who in real life was minister of the interior in the 1980s, during the country’s “years of lead,”—its years of state-imposed terror, unbridled repression, and torture against political dissenters. In the film, a television newscaster who’s nearing her fifties, and whose career has become lackluster, receives a call from Driss Basri, who explains that he did not die but only lapsed from view, and that he will grant her an exclusive tell-all, no-holds-barred interview a few hours after the call. This proposal wreaks havoc among her crew, who are afraid of reprisals from disclosures about a past everyone wants to forget. Meanwhile, his lascivious, nymphomaniac daughter roams the streets offering sexual favors to passers-by.
Set in 1996, Jahiliyyah harks back to the near past, to an event that shocked the country: the ruling monarch (Hassan II at the time) decided to cancel Eid al-Adha (the feast of sacrifice) that year. An Abrahamic religious holiday that involves the slaughter of sheep, it is a day that offers poor Moroccans a rare occasion for celebrations and satiation from eating meat. Jahiliyyah is a choral film that laces the lives of six characters embattled with humiliation and despair in spite of wide social and economic backgrounds. A small boy is stubbornly looking to eat meat despite the king’s ban, while a young woman pregnant out of wedlock is desperate for a resolution as her blind father, concerned only with racial purity, rejects her suitor, who, in turn, attempts suicide. Two of Lasri’s other films, Al-Bahr Min Ouaraikoum (The Sea Is Behind, 2014) and Dharbah fi al-Ra’ss (Headbang Lullaby, 2017), are traversed by these same motifs, but it is in his graphic novels Vaudou (2015), Fawda (2017), and Marroc (2019) that he goes much further, with transgressive and psychedelic storytelling and characters, and with unhindered depictions of sex.11
Two of Ala Eddine Slim’s feature films, Akher Wahad Fina (The Last of Us, 2016) and Tlamess (Sortilège, 2019), paint stories of social and political outcasts whose bodies transform visibly to incarnate a willed and final excision from society and its contracts. The Last of Us follows the journey of a migrant from south of the Sahara to Europe, crossing desert, sea, and other obstacles, until he is lost, absorbed into the forest. Gradually, as each milestone in his crossing is achieved, he rids himself of possessions and even the attributes of humanity eventually, merging more intricately with the natural environment around him. Slim did not intend a parable with his film, though, given that his principal motivation is to affirm the right of movement of bodies across borders,
[t]here are three possible outcomes of the clandestine immigration in Tunisia: there are those who manage to reach a country, those who perish in the crossing, and those who are declared as disappeared. The protagonist of the film represents a lost body.”12
Slim’s next feature, Sortilège, again draws the fantastical transformation of a man, this time in an absconding army soldier who finds refuge in an abandoned concrete structure in the middle of a forest. Hirsute, covered in rags, when the pregnant woman he has kidnapped delivers her baby, he finds his own breasts growing plump with milk and is able to feed the newborn. The Last of Us and Sortilège become increasingly silent as their central protagonists (who are nameless to begin with) have fewer and fewer reasons to speak, instead communicating through other means, making sounds and signs and using their bodies. In Sortilège, Slim resorts to the genial device of ocular titles that magically fade in and out of the screen.
One last film is important to reference here. In Abou Leila (2019), Amin Sidi-Boumédiène’s gritty noir first feature, two protagonists drag one another deeper into psychosis until one eventually shape-shifts into an instance of a now-extinct species of desert lion and ravages the other. Drawing very liberally, back and forth, from the years between present-day Algeria and its “decade of terror” (1992–2000), Abou Leila centers on two childhood friends, S. (Slimane Benouari) and Lotfi (Lyes Salem), the first a psychologically scarred municipal policeman and the other, Lotfi, a steely-nerved antiterrorism-squad officer, as they embark on a journey together southward to the Sahara to nab Abou Leila, a notorious and dangerous Islamist terrorist who traumatized S. during the decade of terror.
As they track the terrorist’s trail of massacres, the motive of their so-called mission becomes increasingly confusing and sinister. By the film’s halfway point, it is no longer clear which one of the two suffers from psychosis, whether one of them might actually be Abou Leila, or whether Abou Leila exists at all, and if not, whether one of the two is committing the trail of murders. The film ends not with answers to any of these questions, but rather with the shape-shifting fantasy. Sidi-Boumédiène intricately incorporates allegories about the hauntings of an unresolved blood-drenched past that is repressed but remains resiliently alive in memory. The film explores the legacy of violence as it has endured and been transmitted over generations in Algeria, and the reference to the Algerian desert lion is deliberate, for it is a species that became extinct from overhunting by French colonists.
Ten years later, the trope that the Arab Spring produced “winters” is pervasive—and not without reason, given the conflicts that have destroyed Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and the iron-fisted controls over freedom of dissent and expression imposed in Bahrain, Egypt, and Morocco. Jails in these countries are packed with activists, journalists, and artists, as censorship rules have tightened drastically.
At the risk of hubris, this essay wants to argue that though political systems were not overturned, political imaginaries were emancipated, beginning with the body as a site of repression and self-censorship, expressions of sexuality and eroticism. Taboos shrouding representations of nudity, sex, and subjectivities have been transgressed, and in fact, filmmakers have advanced much further in their criticality—of autocratic power, of states failing their citizen, and of the legacies of decades of submission through fear, terror, and economic precarity. They depict a lacerated, dismembered social body politic, a monstrous system that reproduces small monsters, a guileless authority that has no legitimacy. These filmmakers invent a string of allegories to represent the real, lived experience, with provocative lucidity, and in particular, they play dexterously with the structural collapse of temporality between past, present, and future.
Do the films, novels, and stories circulate enough to have an impact on transforming political imaginaries?
To some extent, they do, within the limitations of distribution for art-house Arab films in the region, where film festivals and artistic events are the chief occasion for their exhibition. In principle, books travel more easily, but they are accessible only in boutique bookshops in major cities. However, I prefer to recount an anecdote that offers the real answer to that question. In 2012, as the Netanyahu government illegally maneuvered to build settlements near Selwan in an area known as E1, at the outskirts of Jerusalem, activists from all over the territory of historic, pre-1948 Palestine squatted on the land overnight and built a camp that they called Bab el-Shams (The Gate of the Sun), deliberately borrowing the title of Elias Khoury’s epic novel, the backbone of which is the story of a Palestinian refugee stranded in Lebanon who infiltrates the border and returns home. That event incarnates one of the most significant outcomes of the Arab Spring.
While this essay is dedicated to the late, beautiful Amal Kenawy, I end it here by referencing one last film that caused a great deal of tumult: Nadia Kamel’s personal documentary Salata Baladi (Egyptian Salad), released in 2007. The daughter of communist and pro-Palestinian militants, Kamel filmed the journeys of her parents to Italy and to Israel, as they visit her mother’s family members who had migrated to both countries in the 1950s. Kamel’s maternal grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine who had fled the pogroms at the turn of the last century; her grandmother had been raised a Catholic within the community of Italians settled in Egypt. After the tripartite aggression (also known in the West as the Suez Crisis) against Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1956, his government compelled Christian Europeans (mostly Italians and Greeks) and Jews (both European and Middle Eastern) settled in Egypt for decades to return to their “homelands.” Meanwhile, the Israeli government, realizing that Israelis were demographically outnumbered by Palestinians, launched campaigns to compel the Jewish communities of neighboring Arab countries to move to Israel.13 Seeing her parents’ health deteriorate, Kamel thought that both journeys were timely, and filmed them to bring to the surface the complex and forgotten history of a plural and diverse Egyptian society.
Kamel shot the film without the requisite permissions, knowing they would be summarily denied. As soon as the news of its premiere at an international festival was announced, it was banned. Her membership in the union of filmmakers was revoked, she was accused of being an Israeli collaborator, and she received threats. Prompted by government officials, the media waged a ruthless campaign against the film and against all those who endorsed it. And yet, in spite all of this, in the year 2009 Kamel received more than twenty-five invitations from associations and nonprofit organizations to screen the film and engage in discussions afterward. The film runs slightly more than two hours, an unusually extended duration for Egyptian audiences, especially for documentaries, yet on average, the discussions afterward extended the audiences’ experience an hour longer. Her film and the public’s level of engagement with it, I believe, should also be considered a part of the narrative and chronology of the Arab Spring.
1. I begin this essay with a dedication to Amal Kenawy, an Egyptian visual artist who succumbed to cancer in 2012. I will forever live with the regret of not having fully grasped, and thus supported, the prescient power of the last art work she produced: Silence of the Lambs, a one-time performance that she orchestrated in the streets of Wust el-Balad in 2010, and which roused fury and rancor among witnesses, passers-by, the authorities, and even some artists and filmmakers. Kenawy’s practice was very much located around questions of the body—the female body specifically. In Silence of the Lambs, she paid a group of actors to cross a wide street in Wust el-Balad crouched on their knees and hands. Several cameramen were filming the performance at her behest, but there were none of the signposts of a film set in production. She stood at one end of the street, shouting instructions. Car drivers were incredulous, as were passers-by, and finally someone accused her of filming propaganda to defame the image of Egypt abroad and humiliate Egyptians. The actors, crouched on all fours, were attacked and summoned to stand up; a brawl ensued, continuing until the police arrived, disbanded the scene, and arrested Amal and her brother, the producer of the performance. Predicting that there would be trouble, Amal had asked friends, artists, and filmmakers to be present on the scene to protect her. I happened to be in Cairo that day and attended the performance and brawl. At the time, the performance seemed to me unduly gratuitous, self-indulgent, an all-too-easy provocation. After the Tahrir uprising, I realized how wrong I had been. She passed away before I could apologize to her, before I could express my admiration for her visionary and courageous last act.
2. See Donatella Della Rata, “Shooting 2011–21: Violence, Visibility, and Contemporary Digital Culture in Post-Uprising and Pandemic Times,” in this issue of Film Quarterly.
3. The name “Wust el-Balad” is Arabic for “center of town,” and although the sprawling megalopolis that is Cairo has many centers, the neighborhood known as Wust el-Balad was built during the khediviate era in emulation of European modernity. It was also the site of the Egyptian revolution of 1919, and the names of the major figures of that movement are emblazoned on the streets of Wust el-Balad.
4. Ibrahim el-Batout earned several awards as a photojournalist, cameraman, and documentary filmmaker covering sites of conflict in Sudan, Pakistan, the former Yugoslavia, and Gaza. He worked for several international media organizations, including ZDF, Arte, and WDR in Germany, where he received the Axel Springer award twice: in 1994 and in 2000. He abandoned journalism and shortly thereafter and in 2005 directed a low-budget experimental first feature, Ithaki, that blended documentary footage with scripted fiction. He shot Nadia Kamel’s groundbreaking documentary Salata Baladi (Egyptian Salad, 2008). After The Eye of the Sun, he directed Hawi (2010), more or less in the same vein. And after the revolution, he directed Winter of Discontents (2012), starring Amr Waked. The Eye of the Sun lists Tamer el-Said as co-screenwriter, Ahmad Abdallah as editor, and Hala Lotfy as producer. In fact, they were all close friends and were mobilized to support el-Batout in his adventure and to shoulder the artistic as well as political risks. Each of them went on to direct award-winning auteurist films in the years that followed.
5. Noureddine Saïl was trained in philosophy but was a passionate cinephile and was widely known as a film critic. He founded, in 1973, the National Federation of Cinema Clubs in Morocco, which he presided over until 1983 and which was a fulcrum for clandestine activities of political dissenting. After working in television as director of programming, he directed the Centre Cinématographique Marocain from 2003 to 2014. He passed away from COVID in 2020.
6. Mohamed Abdel-Fattah is an actor, playwright, and theater director who hailed from Ain Shams. He worked with a group of amateur actors, presenting independently financed theatrical performances across the country. His troupe had taken over a performance space in Wust el-Balad known as Rawabet, where they also programmed an independent film festival.
7. Amr Waked is an Egyptian film, television, and stage actor, one of the few to have managed to work in Hollywood. He was considered a star years before the 2011 uprising, and when it erupted he joined the protests wholeheartedly. After army general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi engineered the coup d’état that ousted president-elect Mohamed Morsi, Waked, like all the other film stars who supported the revolution overtly, fell into “disfavor” with the regime, and thus the industry, and had trouble finding work. Some had to publicly apologize and renege on their “misguided” statements. Waked was sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison by a military court in 2019 for insults to state institutions and spreading fake news. He has lived outside Egypt since 2017.
8. The film was funded entirely from international sources, without any Moroccan funds involved.
9. The screening raised a furor in the Moroccan media, but eventually turned out to be only a tempest in a teacup.
10. Roger Salardenne, Le culte de la nudité: Sensationnel reportage en Allemagne (Paris: Éditions Prima, 1929).
11. Hicham Lasri, Vaudou (Casablanca: Éditions Le Fennec, 2015); Lasri, Fawda (Casablanca: Éditions Kulte; Paris: Les presses du réel, 2017; Lasri, Marroc (Casablanca: Éditions Le Fennec, 2015).
12. Sarah Imsand, “Black Movie: Rencontre avec Ala Eddine Slim pour ‘The Last of Us,’” Le Billet, February 17, 2017, http://lebillet.ch/rencontre-ala-eddine-slim-au-black-movie/.
13. Dvora Hacohen argues that in 1946, after the European Jews wishing to settle in Israel arrived, the Israeli government presented to the Knesset a plan to increase the Jewish population, still notably less than the Palestinian population living in the territory of historic Palestine. The proposal was to bring to Israel six hundred thousand immigrants, chiefly from neighboring Arab countries, in the span of four years. Critics of the proposal at the Jewish Agency counterargued “that there was no justification for organizing large-scale emigration among Jews whose lives were not in danger, particularly when the desire and motivation were not their own.” Hacohen, Immigrants in Turmoil: Mass Immigration to Israel and Its Repercussions in the 1950s and After, trans. Gila Brand (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2003), p. 46.
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