Hanan al-Cinema: Caring critique of an Arab filmmaking rebirth
Yousry Nasrallah's Gate of the Sun

If you’re fascinated by the possibility of a critique that cares about its object, not the scavenging, rampaging one so common today (as Bruno Latour tells us in Why Has Critique Run out of Steam), you’ll find Laura U. Marks’ new book Hanan al-Cinema: Affections for the Moving Image a delight.

Marks starts with an optimistic tone. She claims that we are in the “midst of a cinematic nahda” in the Arab world. As the word nahda (rebirth, written in transliterated Arabic throughout the book) suggests, many of the works examined are attempting to grapple with tradition and the past to open new grounds of possibility. Hanan al-Cinema expands on Marks’ “enfolded model of the image,” a model explained in her 2010 book, Enfolded and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art:

In the aesthetics of unfolding and enfolding that I am proposing, three levels — image, information, and the infinite — enfold each other and unfold from each other. I borrow the term enfoldment from quantum physics, where it was most beautifully expressed in the writings of David Böhm, who observed the behavior of subatomic particles that are far apart but act as though they “know” what each other is doing. He concluded that beneath the quantum level, all matter is interconnected. But now and then, certain aspects of the infinite unfold and become actual as images.

I think a key addition in Hanan al-Cinema is how history comes to figure prominently in this model. A neat description of the enfolded-unfolding image in its relation to history comes when Marks writes about Lebanese filmmaker Mohamed Soueid. He is “determined to fish the teeming sea of enfolded experience and to hoist his catch up to the level of image as a kind of absurd, barely significant information.” Soueid, known for his war trilogy, has always been interested in how history is lived by individuals as memories. Tango of Yearning (1998) and Nightfall (2000) take an autobiographical approach, while Civil War (2002) traces the death of a friend of his. He sees images, whether photographs or the moving images he creates, as material. They do not just bear history’s marks as scratches or glitches but are themselves influences within its progress.

For Marks, the moving image is a body — a material capable of brushing against our skin as spectators — caught in the fluxes of affective, or sensorial, engagement and the thinking process grounded in that singularity of experience. Moving images can either limit our understanding of history by giving us clear narratives of the past or open up new spaces as the ambiguity of the image, brushing against us, frees us to reengage with the past in a realm richer than what Marks calls “the material and the discursive.” In Marks’ writing, the moving image is a relation between experience and information (Charles Sanders Pierce) and between the sensible and the thinkable (Jacques Ranciere) — a dynamic space where networks of further relations are woven.

In Hanan al-Cinema, Marks maps some of the contours of the unfolding space of Arab experimental film and video. Given how little is written on the subject, the book’s breadth is impressive. Works by over a hundred filmmakers are mentioned, with whole chapters dedicated to five of them. Chapters are organized thematically, with titles like: “What Can a Body Do?” “Asphalt Nomadism,” and “Communism, Dream Deferred.” Some of these sound familiar from Marks’ previous articles, but there is a significant number of new ones, chief among them “Archive Romances,” which takes us into the rabbit-hole that is the archive, assuring us that in the encounter with history’s material traces we can find new horizons.   

Across the chapters, the underpinning argument is that the affective constellations forming the Arab world today are unique. It’s refreshing to see how Hanan al-Cinema presents the works of some Arab filmmakers and artists as interventions into current thinking about embodiment and embodied resistance, where bodily experience has been seen as offering a release from the alienation of capitalism. Marks tells us that “[Jalal] Toufic’s Ashura reminds us that memory and spiritual experience require abstraction, or distance from the body. Noble Sacrifice [Vatche Boulghourjian, 2002] conveys the experience of an embodied state as terrifying, overwhelming, and also normal and then critiques the capture of embodied affect for political ends.” Due to their unique histories, Arab filmmakers and artists arguably have access to a new mode of experience that can add nuance to our understanding of embodiment’s relation to history and power.

According to literary theorist Tarek El Ariss, “the Arab affect post 1990s” is characterized by disillusionment with the world, a withdrawal from it. After the Gulf war of 1990-1991, Ariss described, as Marks writes, “a new affect, a deep disillusionment and disgust that are not even powered by solidarity in defeat.” So for Marks, films like Toufic’s Ashura: This Blood Spilled in My Veins (2002), Hala Elkoussy’s We’re by the Sea Now (2006) or Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Lebanese Rocket Society (2012) take from our disillusionment with the world the bases of a new type of engagement with it, each working in its own way. She tells us in her introduction that: “Apparent dilettantism or frivolity … can be an effective way for creativity to sneak up. With a slight shift of energy, apathy converts into play, possessing a speculative lightness that might survive when more earnest attempts get bogged down under the weight of good intentions and ideology.”

Take Yousry Nasrallah’s epic Bab al-Shams (Gate of the Sun, 2004). The experience of smelling thyme or tasting oranges, activities that bring back memories of Palestine to those now in exile, are moments of intense collision between past, present and even future. Time collapses and history reveals itself through the inscription it has left on the sensorium in a moment of connection with the “infinite.” Resistance in this film is coupled with a longing for a sensory experience. Like Khalil at the end of Bab al-Shams, when he attempts to dive into the river of history as it connects past, present and future, we remember why life is worth living as we access our embodied memories in the encounter with the skin of the film. This has potential to change actions and realities.

I saw Marks for the first time when she attended the book’s sadly under-publicized launch at Cairo’s Townhouse on December 7. She showed us a 20-minute video (Grahame Weinbren’s Affections) as a primer for her book on the moving image and its power to make present what is otherwise hidden. It allowed for an interesting play with some of the ideas about “dispersed subjectivities” that underlie the book: With Marks sitting only inches away, we looked at her image representation, her mediated, ephemeral presence, on the folds of the screen. There was not only one image of her but two: In the video Marks interviews herself, asking questions she anticipates someone could raise about the book and giving answers.

One question that stood out was about the extent to which the book could be accused of cultural imperialism. This is also a question Marks engages with in her introductory chapter: “Within the past twenty-year time period this book mostly covers … Arab filmmakers have been asked to turn westward and explain Arab situations to them. In part, this consultative role has been laudable, a riposte of Western imperialism and Orientalism.” To be honest, since Edward Said’s writings this concern about how knowledge is converted to increase the power of already dominant Western states and cultures has been perhaps over-used, but here I think there’s something worth mentioning.

Can a loving critique like the one Marks offers in Hanan al-Cinema resist assimilation into the networks of cultural imperialism, which further oppositions and antagonisms? In other words, can it allow us to engage with the films she writes about on their own terms? In Marks’ poetic prose and unique theoretical assumptions we face a type of critique whose potential in today’s world is yet to be fully discovered. Marks has always been a champion of critique that protectively attempts to peel through the layers of meaning its object offers as a “thing among things,” as one material among many in the folding fabric of life. Her writing does not confine its objects to theoretical frameworks, whether taken from specific European, Muslim or other intellectual traditions. It attempts to weave ideas around the objects it engages with so that these objects’ points of contact with the spectator increase in intensity. The nexus between moving image and spectator thus becomes full of possibility and a sense of playful freedom.

Hanan al-Cinema, published by MIT Press, is available in hard or soft copy here. *Correction: The quote about the “Arab affect post 1990s” was misattributed and corrected on December 16.

Nour El Safoury 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism