Kurrasat Al Cimatheque: Some beautiful, if not yet groundbreaking, film writing

It is exciting writing about a publication in its first issue. And an Arabic-language magazine that comes out of a young writers’ workshop holds the promise of introducing fresh voices and writing styles into local film criticism.

On this front, Cimatheque’s new non-periodical magazine Kurrasat Al Cimatheque does not disappoint. It transmits a strong concern with the craft of writing about film. With its abundance of frame grabs and writings that experiment with a form between personal diary and essay, the possibility of new ideas emerging in the nexus between image and word is a thread that runs through its 84 pages.

Kurrasat Al Cimatheque is the culmination of a film criticism and programming workshop of the same name that ran on and off at the downtown Cairo alternative film center from June 2014 to March 2015. After a first, unpublished attempt, this issue was released on May 28 this year.

It is edited by Mohamed Masry and the bylines belong to 10 aspiring critics: Maged Nader, Amany Ali Shawky, Ahmed Refaat, Fatma Amer, MF Kalfat, Ahmed Abdel Wehab, Laila Arman, Ahmed Aboul Fadel, Mamdouh Salah and Masry himself. Printed on glossy paper and mostly monochrome, it is not particularly sticking aesthetically, but there is a comforting familiarity about the font that has been chosen. 

The issue contains three main dossiers. The first is titled “In Search of a Purer Image: The Influence of Photography on Cinema,” the second “On Three Documentary Filmmakers In Egypt,” and the third “Films, Cities and Drafts — A Writing Workshop with Rima Mismar.”  

In addition, there’s an extended two-part close analysis by Masry on the role of locations in Mohamed Khan’s films and a similarly in-depth piece by Ahmed Aboul Fadel covering the first scene of Sergio Leone’s landmark western, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). In between is an essay titled “What makes an experimental film experimental?” by Arman and a translation of Jason Coyle’s “Crime Scenes in Suburbia,” which was first published in Senses of Cinema, an Australian online journal, in 2013.

Despite all this variety, I have the sense that Kurrasat has not come into its own yet. Articles battle with old questions about the tools of the medium and the nature of the cinematographic image, but they do not quite reach new frontiers.

Although the workshop aimed at developing new talent in criticism and programming, as the last page states, Kurrasat does not start with any grand proclamation of a new vision for film criticism in Arabic or a manifesto about what cinema is or why it matters. Often, I would argue that this is a good thing. In this case, however, the magazine would have benefited from a clearer position on what theory-informed film criticism — criticism that goes beyond a journalistic review — can do and why this is useful. Most articles invoke age-old abstract questions about the relationship between the moving image and reality or the ontology of the cinematographic image, yet do not give enough context for raising such questions.

It often feels like reading a school exercise, an application of a formula to an object of analysis. In the first dossier, for example, Maged Nader pairs three photographers — Robert Capa, Saul Leiter and William Eggleston — with four filmmakers — Chris Marker, Wong Kar-wai, David Lynch and Vincent Gallo. Nader’s eye for detail is admirable, but I find myself wondering why such a cross-match between photography and film matters. Outside of a brief introduction with some ideas around the image as a record and the relation between time and the moving image, I cannot discover the motivation behind this investigation. Is it a starter for a conversation yet to come in Nader’s future writings, or is there perhaps something relevant at stake in his own practice as a filmmaker? I could turn to my own opinions as to why exploring the relation between photography and cinema currently matters, but I would really like to read Nader’s arguments on this front.

Similarly, Mohamed Masry’s detailed dissection of locations in Khan’s films is a joy to read — the commitment to films as complex and beautiful objects is palpable throughout Kurrasat — but he leaves the reader hanging. Starting with the claim that locations play an important role in how Khan’s films navigate the relationship between fiction and reality, Masry proceeds to offer a sort of list on how locations like bridges, seashores, rural areas and cities appear in Khan’s oeuvre and what ideas they help communicate. There is no conclusion given to the fascinating vignettes that Masry dissects with his well-crafted prose, but a final tying together would have helped the reader to better understand the import of such an investigation and to build on it further.

In some articles, the addition of one sentence would have sufficed to highlight the fruitfulness of the investigations undertaken. In others, a well-defined argument is lacking.

The most enjoyable moments are those that involve some historicization, in addition to theory. Taking the reader closer to the times when the films were produced allows both the theoretical ideas and the films to open up in new ways that the theorizing alone could not have done.

I found Ahmed Refaat’s pairing, in the second dossier, of an article arguing for the position of Attiyat Al-Abnudi as a revolutionary documentary filmmaker with some theoretical reflections on her 1972 graduation project Sad Song of Touha highly productive, for example. Similarly, Amany Ali Shawky’s discussion with Ali Al-Ghazouly followed by a close look at his 1990 documentary Afternoon Fishing situates Ghazouly’s style within a larger sensibility. Both pairings open new avenues for thought, especially around the relationship of production and funding structures with the development of new film practices. 

There’s a lot to admire about Cimatheque’s new, non-periodical film magazine. It is because the writers of this issue of Kurrasat show noticeable talent that I expected a little more innovation. And certainly, even if no new territory is marked, Kurrasat shows that film criticism is alive and well.

Kurrasat Al Cimatheque is available for LE20 at Cimatheque and other locations. Check their Facebook page for more information.

Nour El Safoury 

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