Archival Appropriation in Arab Experimental Film and Video at MoMA’s Mapping Subjectivity

Toward the end of Mohamed Soueid’s 2008 documentary My Heart Beats Only for Her, a young man writes to his father that “revolutions and resistances are enraptured with narrating what came before them, but never what came with them and after them.” For the son it is a difficult realization about his estrangement from his father, an activist in the Lebanese National Movement whom he has barely known. In attempting to capture the complex legacies of the Arab socialist revolutions, Soueid uncovers many such severed connections, fractured narratives which he tries to reassemble from the memories and personal documents of his interviewees.

Such an intervention into memory and documentation is the task of many of the films in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Mapping Subjectivity” series, a program of experimental Arab film and video from the 1960s to the present. Co-curated by ArteEast’s Rasha Salti and MoMA’s Jytte Jensen, the series comprises three parts to be screened over three years. This second installment places particular emphasis on archival documentary: work that engages with and appropriates the documents found in institutional or personal archives in order to disrupt received historical narratives and reimagine new ones.

Hand-Me-Downs. 2011. Morocco. Directed by Yto Barrada.

Often the effort of reconceiving history represents a desire to bridge lacunae, to fill in the historical gaps, forcing a specific kind of creative intervention to which cinema—and especially video—seems particularly well suited. Ahmad Ghossein’s new film My Father is Still a Communist draws upon his personal archive of audiotaped letters from his mother to his father, separated for a decade during the civil war in Lebanon. Using deliberately awkward video effects, Ghossein digitally reinserts his estranged father into wedding videos and family photographs while his mother’s archived monologues, coated in a thin sonic layer of tape hiss, suggest romance, longing, and ultimately desperation. Employing a similar form of disjunctive narrative, Yto Barrada’s Hand-Me-Downs recounts her own imageless childhood in Morocco using dozens of clips from French tourist films she appropriated from an archive in Marseilles. The often luridly colored images of bourgeois Europeans crossing the Mediterranean offer a strange counterpoint to the series of hilariously violent and strife-filled tales of a mythologized post-colonial upbringing, which Barrada narrates in voiceover. And offering contrast of a much different kind, Ali Essafi’s Wanted also attempts to overcome a historical blackout, employing comic books and cop movies to help recount a former activist’s memories of hiding from the police during 1970s Morocco’s “years of lead.”

My Father Is Still a Communist. 2011. Lebanon/UAE. Directed by Ahmad Ghossein.

In a panel discussion entitled “Archives, Appropriation, and Montage: Rewriting History and the Personal in Arab Film,” hosted at the museum on October 13th, French film critic Jean-Michel Frodon noted the way in which many of these films instantiate an “interaction between collective and personal memory and pre-existing images.” For Frodon, the kaleidoscopic reassemblage of these images of official and personal histories and popular imagination testifies to “the difficulty of dealing with the inherited past and the remains of history.” These filmmakers contend with the challenge of adequately representing the past through a vast accumulation of images, which he placed into three categories: archival moving-image documents, both institutional and individual (television news, home movies, family photos, and propaganda), popular cinema (mainly Hollywood films, but also classic Egyptian movies, and even some Bollywood), and what he called “mental images,” especially what might be considered “clichés related to love, to women, to male power, to childhood and family, and also to revolutionary movements and to resistance.”

This received history of the Arab revolutions is precisely what Soueid attempts to remap in My Heart Beats Only for Her. By following a nomadic path from revolutionary Lebanon to Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam and back to present-day, globalized Dubai, Soueid intersects historical images of revolutions and new interviews with veteran activists with clips from Bollywood films and views from inside the emirate’s monolithic Business Bay, locating an unexpectedly intimate, even melancholic tone across the many geographically and culturally diverse narratives. We find this tone in his earlier work, as well: the startlingly self-revealing Tango of Yearning (1998) mourns the twinned losses of old Beirut and a departed love in the wake of the Lebanese civil war. Here, Soueid seeks out images of his lost lover in dreams and old video recordings, as well as through extremely intimate—and comically narcissistic—interviews with friends about their memories of him. But the destruction is physical as well as emotional: with documentary glimpses of everyday life in Beirut and traces of the old, destroyed movie palaces where he and friends took shelter from bombings—posters, clips from James Bond and Bruce Lee films, old songs, a Godfather towel hanging on a clothesline—Soueid uses the ephemera of cinema to mark the before and after of a conflict that left his city completely destroyed.

In Soueid’s film, history is found among the ruins; in Akram Zaatari’s In This House (2005), it is literally dug up. Using a multi-screen database-like interface, Zaatari’s film provides documentation, photographs, and maps in various panes that support the main image: the laborious process of digging an enormous hole in the garden of a suburban home in order to find a letter buried there since the days of the Lebanon-Israel conflict. Zaatari’s film makes tangible a project that he, as founder of the Arab Image Foundation, has long been concerned with: that of unearthing those images that disturb rather than confirm dominant historical narratives. In an earlier film, 2001’s Her + Him Van Leo, he conducts this search slightly closer to home, after discovering, in his mother’s closet, a risqué photo of his grandmother taken in Cairo in 1959 by famed portrait photographer Van Leo. What starts as an attempt to solve a family mystery (if not to satisfy a little prurient curiosity) soon becomes an affectionate portrait of an aging artisan, as photographer and videomaker sit down for a series of discussions on the advent of video technology and photography’s threatened future. Zaatari conducts an almost Farocki-esque analysis of Van Leo’s images, with special attention to his retouching techniques, but he also playfully editorializes with lush period songs and all-cap onscreen text, emblazoning his discoveries of Van Leo’s nudes with the pithy epigram, “GRANDMOTHER IS NAKED.

Her + Him Van Leo. 2001. Lebanon. Directed by Akram Zaatari. Images courtesy of the filmmakers.

With its own rigorous attention to images, Rania Stephan’s remarkable The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni presents a fragmented portrait of the titular Egyptian superstar through a dizzying collage of footage from her film career. Currently on view as a video installation at PS1, Stephan’s film draws from various VHS, DVD, and VCD copies of Hosni’s films, appropriating or even bootlegging the star’s image and undermining claims of ownership. Stephan’s film plays with popular representations of Arab femininity through one of its tragic icons, but like Zaatari’s Her + Him Van Leo it also evokes the malleability of identity through media. In this regard, The Three Disappearances is not at all dissimilar to Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu, but with more sequins, chintzy studio sets, and immaculately coiffed hair. And with all of the blurred colors and distorted tracking of an old video dub, the film also takes on a feverish, oneiric quality, with intimations of trauma arising in dream sequences and psychoanalysis sessions that wittily mash up the smoldering diva’s 83 films and three decades of musicals and melodramas into a neat 70 minutes.

If, for Stephan and Zaatari, these works invoke cinema’s power to mold reality and multiply identities, they also testify to what Frodon calls “the accumulation of references, emotional, though often misleading strands, eternal contradictions, [and] the excessive richness of imaginary production during this period of time.” Zaatari’s video work and his work with the Arab Image Foundation often concern the circulation of popular images throughout the Arab world, and while this imagistic proliferation is a crucial means of understanding the cultures that produce, consume, and even suppress them, Frodon also speaks of an accretion, a layering of images and narratives that, according to him, “can be projected only on what I would call a fragmented screen.” The cracked mirror itself implies a multiplicity of perspectives and interpretations, but it also demands the effort of these filmmakers to try to unify the pieces, if not into linear narratives, then into more complex, more vivid wholes.


Leo Goldsmith

LEO GOLDSMITH is co-film editor of The Brooklyn Rail, an editor at Not Coming to a Theater Near You, and a Ph.D. candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University.