After being rescheduled due to technical problems on the first day, Mark Lotfy’s 20-minute Aamal Kida (Do As You Said, 2012) screened on the second day of the Cairo Video Festival. If you have been following Lotfy for the past few years, you’ll know that Do As You Said has had several successful local and regional screenings, including at the official shorts competition at Carthage Film Festival.
It is an experimental film, but with Lotfy we need to approach this category from the wide angle of films that broadly experiment with the language of cinema. Lotfy’s films play with narrative continuity, cause and effect relations, and the 180-degree camera rule for how to situate two characters in a scene.
Somewhat uncommonly for experimental short films, Lotfy’s works are heavy on dialogue. In You Bet (2010) two characters talk for almost the duration. The to and fro that happens as they play a game of chess is the film’s rhythmic anchor. In Minerva (2007), spoken words are points of access to the characters’ disturbed minds. In Lotfy’s films, which tend to be of an introspective nature, words become performative utterances that mold the space and, in the way they are spoken, their tone and pitch, they contribute to each film’s internal drive.
In Do As You Said too spoken language is an important layer. The film starts with a recitation of a verse from scripture, as words appear on the screen in the format of the written Quran. The so-called “voice of God” that is any voiceover narration does not appear again in the film. It is replaced by dialogues — between two filmmakers speaking about funding and, more occasionally, between two garbage collectors.
Why focus on language in a visual medium like film? There are many possible answers to this, but I think in Lotfy’s oeuvre verbal language is tied to an inquiry into the workings of fate, chance and God. In Do As You Said, the title itself suggests that words can become binding and project into the future a stipulation of what ought to get done. The words of God that open the film also have a binding force and in many ways shape choices and thus the world we live in. In You Bet, the chess game happens as much with utterances and silences as with chess pieces.
One can say that Lotfy faces a challenge similar to one Albert Camus notes in his 1942 essay Myth of Sisyphus: “if we are not artists in our language first of all, then what sort of artists are we?” Spoken language allows us to make sense of things, to give meaning, and so it is one of the first creative acts available to us. In a way, Do As You Said is about the acts of doing and saying, thus about activities that create actions or words.
But the film’s visual language contrasts with its verbal spoken language. The excesses of the image, which separate it from verbal language and liberate it at times from the control functions of language, become important. Perhaps this the reason for the sexual undertone in Do As You Said, which culminates in a BDSM scene. There is nothing that brings out the emotional and mimetic powers of the image more than sexual tension on screen, especially if it is drawn out, as in BDSM. While verbal poetry often struggles to engage emotions and the body, images can exceed in their power to communicate verbal language.
One of the perplexing, at least for me, aspects of Do As You Said is the static camera, which often confronts the performers directly. Perhaps this fixed position of capture is intended to make the spectator aware of the creative will behind the film. In fact, in one scene Lotfy as director steps out in front of the camera. This prompts thought about how performance can fit into a worldview where choices have to be made and utterances indicate a creative will manifesting itself in a dark abyss where fate, chance and human free will are at battle. These are some of my initial impressions, which might, in their immediacy, be useful.
Also on Saturday filmmaker Morten Dysgaard, who is on the festival jury, gave a talk. He showed excerpts from two of his films, The Presence of Another Door and End of the Face (both 2007), and explained that his work aims to deconstruct and reimagine Hollywood images. He believes that images, especially ones disseminated globally via Hollywood, construct cultural identities. Especially important for Dysgaard’s practice is the deconstruction and re-contextualization of the representation of the Arab in Hollywood cinema. He cited Jack Shaheen’s 2001 book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People as an inspiration. Surveying a vast number of Hollywood films, it brings us a very grim picture of how the Arab figures in the Hollywood repertoire.
I could try to play a game of free association and link questions about fate, chance and freewill in Lotfy’s Do As You Said with questions about the hegemony of the image and its function within propaganda machines, but I will spare you. I think, however, that both filmmakers are interested in how the image brings the spectator into being. This is to say, how the image constitutes and reconfigures the subject in his or her spectator position and thus influences his or her choices and actions.
The Cairo Video Festival’s screenings and exhibitions continue this week. Make sure to check out Marina Abramovic’s The Scream (2014), which shows on loop at the Contemporary Image Collective, and today at 7.30 pm at the French Institute, Ahmed Shawky’s The Crime (2015) and Omar El Zohairy’s Breathe Out (2011).
The Cairo Video Festival runs though December 24. See the program here.