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FestBeat: Why you should watch Memories on Stone (Day 8)

I mentioned a few posts back that I would write a post about Memories on Stone (Shawkat Amin Korki, 2014). The very last screening of this film is on December 5, so if you are still deciding to watch it or not, this is for you.

In Memories on Stone, the past is reenacted in the present via film. We meet a young Hussein (played by Birhat Hussein) standing by his projectionist father in a projection booth, and the camera shows us old movie posters and a cinema full of people. But soldiers storm in and stop the projection, beating up Hussein’s father. Apparently Saddam Hussein has forbidden the movie, Yol by late Kurdish-Turkish filmmaker Yilmaz Guney (1982).

Memories on Stone then cuts to the present and we find a much older Hussein, now attempting to make a film of his own with childhood friends. This film within a film is about the infamous Al-Anfal massacre, when Saddam killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds. Hussein is himself a Kurd and so is the film’s director, Shawkat A. Korki. There’s an autobiographical undertone: Making a movie about Saddam’s injustice is an act of taking revenge on behalf of all the Kurdish people Saddam cruelly killed. It is also, for Hussein in the film, a way to honor his father who was beaten up for showing movies. A makeshift open-air cinema we see at the end, with its plastic chairs and poor power supply, becomes thus a site of political defiance, even after Saddam’s death.

There’s a fascinating self-reflexivity in Memories on Stone. It’s a film about the making of a film, but it also starts with a scene in which we see spectators, just like us, facing a cinema screen, just like the one we’re looking at (a so-called “mise en abyme,” in which a film or photograph becomes a meta-commentary on its own conditions as a medium). In these moments, the apparatus of cinema with all the control it exerts on your experience as spectator is revealed for you. You thus become freed, momentarily, from its grip. So in this added “political” layer, Memories on Stone attempts to disenchant us from the enchanting power of images, especially images as they appear on screen.

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There are many moments of self-reflexivity. In one memorable scene, the star, Roj Azad (Suat Usta), is shooting a very serious scene where he is hurt and bleeding. We see Hussein giving direction to the actors and cameramen. We are watching Memories on Stone. Then the film cuts to the actual film being shot, which has a different color tone from Memories on Stone. We’re now watching Anfal, Hussein’s film. Here we find the film within a film, but also an interesting play with temporality.

What does it mean to revisit past historical events and screen them, experience them, in the present moment and context? Is there a refusal here to think of time as a straight line that only moves forward? Can cinema be a space where we can experience the “redemption” Walter Benjamin has spoken about — can images offer us ruptures from the past that free us from the past traumas and allow us to reclaim our future?

I think the film has some shortcomings, especially in terms of its character development. But it is still a very ambitious project. Memories on Stone took “best film from the Arab world” award in Abu Dhabi IFF 2014, and it grapples with some of the questions I have found a number of Arab and Egyptian filmmakers interested in. It is worth seeing.

The Panorama of the European Film screens through December 5. See the full program here, our brief guide here, and all our film festival blog entries here.

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