Ghosts, Griefs, and Lost Dreams
Visions of the City in Arab Cinema
Algiers, Cairo, Beirut, or Damascus are all cities that went through tremendous transformations over the last two centuries in ways that epitomise the ambiguities of modernity itself: from colonial division to postcolonial ventures of nationalising urban culture; from attempts to assimilate Arab cities into a capitalist economy centred around European markets, to socialist utopias of industrialization, and finally to neoliberal urban refashioning which has led to unprecedented levels of social stratification. Arab cities have been bombed, invaded, torn up by coups and civil wars, reshaped by waves of displacement and migration, remodelled by contested visions of restoration, infiltrated by political repression, and inhabited by fear. At the same time, their squares have witnessed revolutions that toppled dictators and staged various forms of resistance and struggles for justice and freedom.
Arab cinema has always been a key companion to these dynamics. It served as a tool for documenting urban transformations, providing testimonial accounts for their scope and effects, while also being a significant role player in defining the very features of modern urban life, in imagining the pasts and envisioning the future of cities. How do cities appear in Arab cinema? How have they been imagined, staged and deployed as narratory vehicles? And how have Arab filmmakers characterised, approached and critically engaged with the transformations of the city, with its destruction and reconstruction, with legacies of displacement and the urban afterlives of revolutions? The 14th ALFILM Spotlight engages with these questions in a program dedicated to the representation of Arab cities in classical and contemporary film productions.
From its inception, Egyptian cinema has documented the process of urbanisation, appropriating Cairo’s landmarks into space narratives of national mythmaking. The fascination with modern urban life was however often paired with scepticism towards its consequences and a sense of grief for a lost candour, trampled upon by the accelerating pace of modernity. Hayah aw Mawt or Life or Death by Kamal al-Shaikh (1955) was one of the first feature Arab films, whose majority of scenes, in the vein of Italian neorealism, were shot in the real streets of the city – not in filming studios. Despite the film’s celebration of urban manifestations of modernity in the growing metropole, Cairo appears in the film as a huge maze, inflicted with risks and ruthless evils, pushing life to the verge of death.
Youssef Chahine’s recently restored film Dawn of a New Day or Fagr Youm Gedid (1965) pays tribute to the urban metamorphosis of Cairo of the 60s. The film alludes to an optimistic future promised by the socialist Nasserist reforms while portraying the inevitable decay of the city’s bourgeois elites. It does so by featuring an impossible love story between Tarek, a young student and a much older bourgeois lady, who suffers the boredom of a meaningless life and sees her inescapable twilight mirrored in her lover’s spirit. Their love story is staged in panoramic scenes that wander through Cairo’s modern landmarks. Chahine’s envisaged urban utopia of the 60s, however, turns out to be a realist dystopia in Tamer El Said’s In the last days of the City (2016). Khaled, a filmmaker and the main protagonist of the film seemed to be seized in a constant state of powerlessness. All his attempts to capture the city fall short. He remains trapped between personal memories and collective griefs that transcend Cairo to Baghdad and Beirut in the face of myriad forms of violence that prevail them. The screening of the film will be accompanied by a Master Class with the director Tamer El Said on the possibilities and challenges of filming (in) the city.
The civil war in Lebanon and its far-reaching effects has, for decades, left Beirut a city of ghosts trapped between life and death. Jocelyne Saab’s Beirut, My City (1982) takes us back to the early years of the Lebanese’s civil war and poetically reflects on the magnitude of damage and the emerging ruins of the city. While both, Feyrouz Serhal in Tshweesh (2017) and Nadim Mishlawi in After the End of the World (2022) engage with the uncanny afterlives of the war as evident in the perpetual urban crisis of contemporary Beirut.
In Muhammad Malas classical masterpiece Ahlam al-Madia or Dreams of a City (1983) violence seems to be an immanent condition in the face of patriarchy and political oppression. Malas portrays the old city of Damascus in the 1950s, a turbulent time of political instability. In the film we accompany Deeb (Basel al-Abyad) in his coming-of-age journey and witness how the cruel realities of the city have turned his dreams into a nightmare.
The atrocities of the current war in Syria and the subsequent waves of forced displacement have ruthlessly transformed the daily life of the urban population in Damascus and other Syrian cities. Consequently, many Syrian filmmakers living in the diaspora have been compelled to re-imagine their home cities in new settings through different lenses. In Damascus Dreams (2022), director Émilie Serri attempts to reconnect with her family’s home city of Damascus through intimate conversations with Syrians who were displaced to Canada. The film seeks to performatively reenact, the features a lost city, through reconstructing memories and sensations.
This year’s spotlight program will invite selected film professionals to discuss the possibilities of re-imagining and re-creating their home cities despite distance, displacement and forced exile in a panel titled The Arab City Re-envisioned: Diasporic perspectives. The panel will try furthermore to reflect on the legal and political and hindrances filmmakers face when they embark on filming in Arab cities.
Palestinian filmmakers dwell also on imagination to recreate the impossible and reconstruct a Palestinian urban condition. In Port of Memory (2010) Kamal Aljafari lingers nostalgically on the remnants of a lost past as a mode of resisting the workings of Israeli occupation, gentrification and neo-liberalization. The film captures in a powerful language the rituals of the city, the mundane presence of its people and their struggles against the threats of eviction. While Tarzan & Arab Nasser in Gaza Mon Amour (2020) pay tribute to the power of love in maintaining the possibility of dreaming in a city in which living itself becomes almost impossible under an ongoing siege. Rather than presenting a candid document of Gaza’s realities, the film aims to create a fairytale-like world where love can bring about alternative possibilities of living in the city.
The legacy of colonialism, the subsequent corrupt regimes and political crisis have shaped the social fabric of many cities in the Maghreb region in radical ways. Particularly women and the urban poor have been suffering from excessive unemployment and social stratification and have been exposed to explicit and implicit forms of (gendered) violence. This led many of them to fall prey for radical ideologies and others to risk their lives for the sake of leaving their countries. Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets (2000) by Nabil Ayouch unravels the dark worlds of gangsters of the Moroccan coastal city of Casablanca. It tells the story of a group of homeless youth struggling under severe conditions in the poorest and most violent neighbourhoods of the city. Viva Laldjérie (2004) by Nadir Moknèche features the journey of two women in their quest for a self-determined life in Algiers. The mother aspires to restore her lost artistic grandeur and the daughter explores the horizons of love in a city under the grip of corrupt men and overshadowed by the threat of terror. Last but not least, the spotlight program will open with a stunning urban thriller from Tunisia. Ashkal, by Youssef Chebbi draws on the traditions of film noir and depicts in outstanding virtuosity mysterious murderous events that took place in an abundant site in wasteland before spreading throughout the city, summoning the ghosts of a pending revolution.