From ‘Scenes and Types’ to Shehrazade and El Sham: studio photography in the Arab world
The value of a photograph – its principle charm, at least – is its infallible truthfulness. We may have long revelled in the poetry of the East; but this work enables us to look, as it were, upon its realities1.
So said the 19th century Orientalist, Sophia Poole. Poole’s perception of photography’s unique ‘claim to truth’2 was widely held by early photographers from the West, to whom the colonial realms of the Middle East provided their principal training grounds3. In her seminal book, On Photography, Susan Sontag challenged the ‘presumption of veracity’ that had long been associated with photography, arguing that photographs are ‘as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings’4. But to what extent is this appreciated today? Whilst many claim to have developed their understanding of the art from the idea of a visualised ‘truth’ to a moment of representation, people continue to search for realities within photographs, particularly withinarchives. How useful is it to mine such documents for historical and social ‘realities’? Can these momentary representations of individuals, as captured in a photograph, be extrapolated to speak of an entire society, time, or people?
The Nour Short Film Night was a showcase of young Middle Eastern and North African film talent, offering eight short films screened in the resplendent Leighton House Museum. A treat for both enthusiasts of Middle Eastern film and those encountering the cinema of the region for the first time, these shorts have all been released in the last two years and are fresh off the festival circuits, with many prizes to their names.
Speaking to the Nour Short Film Night curator, Yasmin El Derby, the desire for inclusivity was raised as a central theme in her selection process, trying to incorporate “as wide a range as possible of film genres and of countries of origins.” In this, the Short Film Night is very successful: genres range from documentaries and docu-dramas, a satirical comedy and a horror film, to more experimental art films. The directors are indeed equally diverse, hailing from Jordan, Egypt, France, Libya, South Africa, Tunisia, Lebanon and the UK, and many of them representing the Middle Eastern art diaspora.
The issues that each film deals with are also incredibly broad but when one looks a little closer it’s possible to see that each is in dialogue with another. For example, My Dreams in Granada (2015) poetically documents the struggle of a Libyan artist working in Granada, Spain, and speaks directly to both Coffee (2014), a simple but powerful artistic short that looks at how belonging to two different cultures influences the visual style and cultural views of a storyteller, and Facing the Sea (2014), about a Tunisian artist who is secretly hiding his sexuality from his sister and worrying about his position in society. Pyramids Hostel (2015) has issues of conflicting post-revolution sentiments in Egypt lightly woven into its script, whilst documentary The Runner (2014) faces the issue head on.
The standout film is undoubtedly Hotel Zaatari (2014), a docu-drama that captures the lives of four Syrian refugees – two adults and two children – living in the Zaatari camp in Jordan. The deep voiced, winding narrative that overlays haunting images of everyday life in the camp, sounds almost like poetry and adds to the feeling of aimlessness that is depicted in the film. The main soundtrack to the piece is the whistling desert wind, which only adds to the feeling of desolation and hopelessness visually portrayed – as the film states it is a story “with no beginning and no end”.
The run of films is certainly a journey. In fact it’s almost cyclical, with the first film, A Cold Morning in November (2014), opening with a mournful wake and the last, Ceci n’est pas une menace (This is Not a Threat) (2015), ending with a gun pointed directly at the camera. Ultimately, through the framework and lense of the Middle Eastern region, all of the films dealing with issues of life and it’s fragility, it’s legacy and it’s diversity.
Six multi-generational characters, three interconnected stories, one overarching theme that binds them together… Sounds familiar? New Egyptian film Cairo Time(Betawqeet El Qahira, 2014) is a classic multiple-storyline film. It’s a winning combination that is increasingly used in popular contemporary film, showing a cross section of life in one place, at one time, and the inextricable connectivity of life in our modern world. It can be found in the seamlessly interwoven British film favourite Love Actually(2003) and in Arab films such as Merzak Allouache’s The Rooftops(Les Terrasses/Es-Stouh, 2013) and the cult classic The Yacoubian Building(Omaret Yacoubian, 2006). Such an approach to film-making has the ability to highlight the spectrum of a human and societal difference as well as a variety of pertinent issues and concerns.