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Arab Documentary Cinema: Identity and Optimism
14-15 May, Birkbeck Cinema

As Henry Siegman put it in a recent article in the London Review of Books ‘Virtually overnight, the Arab Middle East has been irrevocably transformed’ (LRB 17 February). The exact nature of the transformation is still a little hazy. What is the constitution of the social and popular movements that have taken to the streets? How sustainable are they, and indeed who is sustaining them?

The future shape of the region remains very much in doubt, as do the implications for current policies and long-established diplomatic trade-offs. In all this analysis with which we are now bombarded the historical assumptions, and wishes, of the post-colonial powers and Washington remain the dominant voice. The strivings for ‘democracy’, if that is indeed what it is, are more accurately seen as a will towards autonomy: Autonomy as individuals (citizenship), and autonomy from the fag-end of colonial history.

We don�����������������������t really know what is happening. And this is because we do not have any sense of the precise situation in which these developments are arising. That is, the lived, subjective reality of those who are doing the moving, rather than commenting upon it. The history of the region and the everyday existence needs to be experienced before we begin our geopolitical digressions. Perhaps we should take the variegated nature of the actions, for precisely what they are, the expression of a history that has run counter to our own, and remains largely unintelligible.

The more we wish that the movements are towards ‘democracy’ then the closer it might feel to be manageable, to remain within a comfort zone of standard political concepts, and useful rhetoric. We would be ‘on the same page’. But, blatantly the script is not being so conveniently written and this is why the response from the West and Washington have ‘responded with a mixture of trepidation, fear and hostility’ (Shatz, LRB, 17 February 2011).

How do we interpret this shifting geopolitical landscape? If this is a genuine social movement then the changing realities in the Arab world can only be understood if it is reduced to the experiential. How does someone from Egypt, or Lebanon, or Syria experience their lives, and how does their identity shift through the course of the day, let alone a lifetime. What are the horizontal and vertical ties that bind and shape multiple identities? What are the calculations, rational and otherwise, that determine action, and upon what are they based?

While watching the events on our TV how much time do we take to imagine what it must be like not simply to react to a situation, to become an actor on the stage set by a camera, but to live through it – that is the before and after. Only by understanding this lived experience can we manage the first, flimsy, glimpses of how and why social movements may arise. Rhetoric is not what is now needed.

And this is why we have chosen to put together this strand on Arab Documentary Cinema. The term is not meant to suggest a homogenous, manifesto led cinema. Instead, it is witness to a plural and fragmented reality. The views expressed here are also partial, but at least we can begin to understand them on their own terms.

Viewing these films cliches, and certainties, about Islam and the Arab world are shaken. Undermined because the films proceed from individuals who question and criticise the dominant media and political narratives. Whether the focus is on the small details of everyday life, the contradictory retelling of the past, or the mass collective mobilisations, this cinema reveals a humanity struggling against the challenges of contemporary history. This focus on Arab documentary is not exhaustive. It offers an introduction to a dynamic field of creation and experimentation, questioning it’s modes of production, is aesthetics and it’s forms of engagements. The richness of the portrait presented is that it blurs national and religious identities, and it represents the history and problems of the region as interpreted by those involved face to face with a certain materiality, as opposed to the interpretations too willingly given by those who are not.



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