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New Texts Out Now: Kamran Rastegar, Surviving Images: Cinema, War, and Cultural Memory in the Middle East

[Cover of Kamran Rastegar, [Cover of Kamran Rastegar, "Surviving Images: Cinema, War, and Cultural Memory in the Middle East"]

Kamran Rastegar, Surviving Images: Cinema, War, and Cultural Memory in the Middle East. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Kamran Rastegar (KR): I tend to agree with the adage that all (or perhaps, the best) scholarship is in one sense or another autobiographical, and my own childhood experiences in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war certainly set a backdrop for a long interest I have had in war and post-war themes in cinema and literature. Cinema has been central to my passions for some time: I recall how, as an undergraduate studying abroad in Cairo in the early 1990s, I attended a film festival of old Mohammed Abdel Wahab films on the old American University of Cairo Greek campus, which totally enchanted me, and which sparked a long love for classic Egyptian cinema. More recently, I was among the many who became fascinated with post-revolutionary Iranian cinema in the 1990s, which also led to my exploring other non-Western cinema traditions. As a result, I pursued cinema studies as a field of my training during my graduate work and have continued to work in the field since then. During much of the last decade or more, I have continued to have fairly intensive experiences with cinema culture—in part through my non-academic work of composing film soundtracks for several films—but also in intensively studying films, organizing film festivals and symposia, and of course reading widely on cinema studies topics.

Given the major regional events of the last decade (US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel’s wars on Palestinians, the 2006 Lebanon war, and of course now the wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen), I felt a rising urgency to work through how cinema has historically been a vehicle for the development of cultural memory around war and social conflict—in a sense, to establish a continuity between current and ongoing practices and those of earlier moments in the prior century. In a context where traditional historical writing—and certainly, for the most part, political scientists—have overlooked the critical role that memory serves in identity formation (an exception of course is Laleh Khalili’s wonderful first book), cinema and literary studies can do much to illuminate and critically engage with this question, both as a historical dynamic and also as it provides a framework for understanding contemporary events.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

KR: The book is organized as a set of case studies, beginning with the French-Algerian context and Rachid Bouchareb’s films Days of Glory and Outside the Law, which I use as a foil for exploring the broader issues of cinema’s relationship to the colonial imaginary, and the presence of trauma discourse as a means for articulating or developing cultural memory.

Through this discussion, I argue that cinema has from its origin been implicated in colonial (and later anti-colonial) discourse as a means for establishing claims or interpretations that are rooted in cultural memory. Next, I explore the colonial context more carefully through a discussion of the Mahdist revolt and its representation in the narrative of The Four Feathers, first as a novel (1904) and later in seven film adaptations spanning from 1915 to 2002. What draws me to these works is the peculiar continuity that may be observed in all versions of the novel: celebrating the memory of colonial masculinity as an antidote to the national trauma that the Mahdist victory symbolized for British imperialism. After this, I compare the cultural memory of women’s participation in the anti-colonial struggle in post-independence Egyptian cinema (focusing on the 1950s and early 1960s) to how this memory is re-articulated in Moufida Tlatli’s Silences of the Palace (1990). The latter film is a wonderful example of the introduction of trauma discourse in the development of cultural memory, here as a form of feminist critique of the manner by which postcolonial regimes have appropriated, and ultimately occluded, women’s presence in the development of cultural memory of the anti-colonial struggle.

I then explore the question of how Palestinian cultural memory of the Nakba has developed from the 1960s to the present, and study Elia Suleiman’s trilogy (Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention, and The Time That Remains) in some detail. The Palestinian case offers a fulsome challenge to the mourning-versus-melancholia debate that is central to discussions of cultural trauma. Suleiman’s work does this by positing post-Nakba Palestinian cultural memory as trapped in a purgatorio, unavailable to models of either resolution or of repression. I then move to the Iran-Iraq war to explore the development of “sacred defense” cinema as a state-sponsored and hermetic discursive field that is subject to various forms of contestation from within (for example, the films of Ebrahim Hatamikia, such as From the Karkhe to the Rhine, or Minoo’s Watchtower) and without (for example, Bahram Bayzai’s Bashu, The Little Stranger and Amir Naderi’s The Runner), and from there to post-1991 Lebanese cinema, with discussions of Ghassan Salhab’s The Last Man and Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas’ films A Perfect Day and I Want to See, among other films. Comparing the Iranian and Lebanese cases, one discerns the way by which state avowal or disavowal of war memory impacts the setting of a discursive field for cultural memory of the war.

The final chapter looks at the notion of perpetration and the parallel developments of human rights and trauma discourse through the example of the Israeli film Waltz With Bashir, in dialogue with American post-Vietnam War cinema. There I argue that in some cases the move to trauma discourse has served to dilute or obscure ethical lines—often, in my view, deliberately—leading to the mythologization of war experience, and, consequently, the depoliticization of memory.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

KR: My research has encompassed two broad areas that, while related, are somewhat distinct. My first book is a study of the concept of modernity in the literary field, exploring the role of what I term literary transactions (circulations across different fields) in conceptions of the modern in Arabic, English, and Persian contexts. More specifically, I discuss nineteenth and early-twentieth century literary works, moving between literary analysis and intellectual and cultural history. There are subtle links that connect these interests for me: both projects are at heart works that push against the essentialization of culture, particularly in national terms. Both projects link intellectual history to aesthetics and to politics. Both projects are dedicated to a recovery of what appears to be fading or lost in the shifting grounds of cultural discourse from the Arab world, Iran, and beyond.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

KR: The book is purposefully written in such a way as to be accessible to a general readership while still engaging with specialists in several fields. Primarily, my intention was to contribute to the steadily richer body of film scholarship on postcolonial cinema, and I would be delighted if the book is read by other scholars and students working on comparative projects and on topics drawn from colonial and postcolonial themes. Of course, those with more particular interests in cultural studies of the Middle East may also find this work of interest. Finally, perhaps the most ambitious goal is to present a intervention into predominant trends in trauma and memory studies, and to join in an ongoing debate in that field relating to what I would term the sacralization of trauma in the work of some scholars. This is a trend that serves to render social trauma as a site of myth rather than politics. Clearly, my intention is to recover a notion of the productivity of traumatic memory as a site of political contestation.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

KR: I have an interest in a project that in some way engages 1960s-1980s postcolonial internationalist currents, and the cultural circulations across leftist resistance groups of that time. In part, what I am interested in is the role of cultural memory and also trauma discourse, both as part of internationalist cultural currents and in terms of how they are memorialized—for example, in Mohamed Soueid’s documentary My Heart Beats for Her Only or in a film I have reviewed for Jadaliyya, Ahmad Ghossein’s My Father Is Still a Communist, among other works. This project, if it develops sufficiently, will be a critical evaluation of a sort of nostalgic memory I myself feel for these works, through which I hope to both recuperate, but also reevaluate, the legacy of transnational leftist solidarities. I hope to do this not through the traditional lens of intellectual history, but rather through a study of the circulation of aesthetic and formal innovations brought on by political solidarities.

J: How do you see your emphasis on cinema and cultural memory as providing an opportunity to think through the colonial and postcolonial contexts and struggles that you write about?

KR: As a cultural form, over the twentieth century and in many societies, cinema played a very significant role in the establishing of cultural memory, and continues to do so (although other cultural forms have increasingly challenged the privileged place of cinema as the arbiter of cultural memory in these societies). Much has been written about cinema’s role in articulating memory discourse of historical experiences such as World War I or the Holocaust, but little has been written on colonial and postcolonial experiences. What is remarkable about this is the very central role of cinema in the spread of colonial discourse in the early- to mid-twentieth century, and indeed cinema’s role as the privileged medium for cultural imperialism as well as resistance to cultural imperialism. Why does the field of trauma studies so often occlude the colonial? Just as a generation of postcolonial scholars took on the denizens of high theory for their blindness to the multiple forms of colonial and postcolonial struggle and solidarity, so may we criticize the major figures of cultural memory and trauma studies for the lacunae in their work as concerns the colonial context. There are some recent correctives to this—for example, Michael Rothberg’s work seeks to bridge a gap, and does so in a way that is both very provocative and very promising.

So, very simply, my work contributes to these efforts to recover what is missing in cultural memory and trauma studies as they pertain to coloniality. Cinema offers a very rich archive for conducting this work.

Excerpt from Surviving Images: Cinema, War, and Cultural Memory in the Middle East

From Chapter One

Black and white newsreel footage of crowds celebrating the liberation of France in Paris on 8 May 1945, crossfade into black-and-white staged footage of what seems at first a similar parade. A title card reads, “Sétif, Algérie, le meme jour.” The second parade is a demonstration for Algerian independence. French colonial troops, assisted by armed settlers, emerge to block the progress of the demonstration. The troops open fire on the demonstrators, before running through the town and killing the Arabs they encounter.

This scene, the opening of French filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb’s Outside the Law (Hors-la-Loi, 2010), is a flashback, establishing how the film’s protagonist, an Algerian liberation militant who later lives in Paris, survived what would become known as the Sétif Massacre.

Screening at the 2010 Cannes International Film Festival, Outside the Law enjoyed a rather unconventional form of publicity. For perhaps the first time in the festival’s history, riot police were deployed to guard against a political demonstration protesting a film selected in the competition, making its world debut at the festival. The protest on the edge of the red carpet drew approximately a thousand angry marchers. Inside the theater, the filmmaker was protected by bodyguards as he addressed the controversy in his comments to the audience: “It is for sociologists or other experts to say why in France people find it difficult to journey into the past” (Hoyle 2010). The past to which Bouchareb referred was that of the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962), the subject of his film. While perhaps none of them had in fact seen the full film, the protestors, who included a variety of media personalities and politicians, had mobilized in reaction to the clips and synopses of the film released by the distributors. They may also have been motivated by their presumptions of what a film by a French director of Algerian origin may say about this historical period, doubting little that it would be an affront to their own memory of the war.

Reporters described the demonstrators as being largely made up of elderly people, most of them drawn not only from among the ranks of veterans of the French-Algerian war, but also members of the pieds-noirs community, as well as pro-French Algerians known as harkis, who had fought on the side of France in the war and resettled in France after Algeria’s independence in 1962. Elderly veterans festooned with medals argued angrily with the festival-goers attending the screening. Benjamin Stora, a noted French historian of the Algerian war, suggested that the controversy over the film indicated that the war “hasn’t been sufficiently named, shown, come to terms with in and by collective memory” (Marquand 2010). The protestors represented themselves as the forgotten victims of the conflict, their injuries rekindled by “the herald of a one-sided and hateful reading of history” (Marquand 2010). In other accounts, Bouchareb was “accused of falsifying history” (Enjelvin and Korac-Kakabadse 2012, 170). In the intersection of these competing narratives—those offered by the protestors, the commenting media, and the film itself—it becomes clear that interpretations of the cultural memory of the War of Independence remain a major point of contention in French society. But perhaps more importantly, this encounter shows the degree to which cultural memory has come to be an instrument in the encounter between differing interpretations of histories of social conflict. What is most at stake is identifying who has the right to interpret this history, what forms of cultural memory are given legitimacy, and whether it is possible to arrive at a resolution of the putative traumas of the various claimants.

The events surrounding the Cannes premiere of Outside the Law are perhaps more significant, and found greater resonance in the public arena, given the festival’s high profile. However, conflicts concerning cinematic works on contested historical events are neither rare nor inconsequential. Events such as these testify to the social capital that cinematic works afford, even those by auteur filmmakers who are institutionally outside of the commercial mainstream; they evince the manner in which cinema is often deemed to play a role in developing a consensus in the historical interpretation of socially traumatic events. The controversy that Outside the Law generated is emblematic of how cinema may tread into the fraught arena of what I will here term “trauma production,” counteracting the cultural memory claims of some groups while enhancing those of others. In the following pages of this chapter, I intend to contextualize this phenomenon by historically reviewing the colonial presence throughout cinema’s centurial history, examining the pre-independence colonial film as well as the rise of the anticolonial and postindependence cinemas of the postcolonial world. Having established the centrality of colonial themes to the rise of the cinematic medium, I argue for the need to better apply the frameworks of social trauma and cultural memory to the colonial context. I lay out shortcomings in the more dominant, psychoanalytically oriented, trends in trauma and memory studies, and show the greater applicability of more sociologically oriented approaches to the contexts which are my focus here. Through this discussion, and by returning to Bouchareb’s works, I show how such debates are crucial to the articulation of ideological formations (whether colonial or anticolonial) and to the development of various forms of identity (such as national, gender, or ethnic identity) for societies in the Middle East and the broader postcolonial world.

Prior to directing Outside the Law, Bouchareb had already entered the fraught grounds of cultural memory as relating to French colonialism in his earlier film, Days of Glory (Indigénes, 2006) which concerns North African soldiers fighting in the Free French army in the Second World War. As one French reviewer noted, the film is highly effective in its objective of “overcoming the amnesia concerning the role of the former fighters from the French colonies, and denouncing the injustices they suffered until today” (Thénault 2007, 205, my translation). The film focuses on the discrimination North African soldiers faced while serving in the French forces, as well as systematic efforts not to afford recognition to their service after the war, including the cancelation of their military pensions in 1959. The film, which was a significant box-office hit in France, opened a public dialogue that led to an official apology issued by President Jacques Chirac and a restitution of pensions for surviving North African war veterans (Sandford 2006). Here, a cinematic work played a productive role in addressing a historically traumatic context and advancing a particular interpretation into public discourse concerning the war. While drawing praise from a president of the Republic and effecting a major governmental policy change is perhaps a rare form of achievement for a cinematic work, nonetheless Days of Glory also serves to note the manner in which cinema memory—understood here as written into both the text and the social circumstances that qualify the reception and aftermath of a film’s public screening—may fundamentally change public discourse and consciousness of a historically traumatic event, and to rework the interpretive limits of cultural memory around that event. Days of Glory’s themes of sacrifice for the nation established its claims’ legitimacy by using French nationalist themes as “the emotional catalyst to real political action” (Norindr 2009, 126). Given this, the film was largely immune to attack from those who would otherwise oppose its integrative and multiculturalist aims, a politically astute approach that was perhaps a primary reason for the direct political outcomes that resulted. Interestingly, as Ayo Coly (2008, 154) notes, “The overwhelmingly positive reception of this film in France was not echoed in Algeria,” and given its incitement of French nationalist sentiments, the film, “does not...offer a counter, Algerian memory of the event.” However, as Norindr (2009, 127) notes, “part of the movie’s success can be measured by the way it fulfilled its role as a militant film that demanded urgent action from the government, its enduring legacy may be its ability to transform French public perception by re-inserting these tirailleurs into France’s collective memory and rewriting these forgotten men into history.” Thus setting aside the question of the Algerian reception of the film, important as that is, nonetheless the work must be deemed an accomplishment as an intervention into French cultural memory of that war, as well as of colonialism.

In contrast, Outside the Law treads into more sensitive territory, raising questions that are not easily reconciled within the French nationalist imaginary, which may explain the rather different reaction to the film seen at its premiere. French cinema representations of the Algerian war have failed to establish what may be termed a “national” narrative on how the conflict should be remembered. The comparison of these two works and their respective receptions illustrates the manner in which cultural memory is situated within wider sociocultural fields and the ways in which it contributes to or is defined by prevailing political dynamics and conditions of possibility. As this episode illustrates, the function of cultural memory of conflict in contemporary political and ideological formations is complex, but highly significant to setting the parameters of public discourse on disputed historical episodes.

The intersection of cultural memory and social trauma has been subject to different methodological and theoretical treatments. While the present study focuses on the Middle East, these questions are recurrent in many postcolonial settings and contexts. The concept of trauma as a social force is usually traced back to the late nineteenth century via the trenches of the First World War, with socio-psychological phenomena of “shell shock” pulling the formerly individualistic diagnosis of trauma—“as an epidemic of male hysteria”—into broader social understandings (Leys 1994, 623). Scholars have suggested a similar mapping of cultural memory and conflict over the emergence of “cultures of defeat” and an attendant phenomenon of “defeat empathy,” which dates to nineteenth-century wars such as the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 (Schivelbusch 2003, 4). Schivelbusch argues cogently that nation-states, especially in Europe and North America, have since their inception been able to make productive use of the experience of defeat, and to harness it for their particular political ends. However, what this astute analysis leaves out is the role of similar evocations of trauma—often in the form of what were seen as “crises” or “defeats”—within the colonial imaginary. Moments of imperial crisis, such as the 1857 Rebellion in India, the Boer Wars, and the routing of Gordon in Khartoum (which is discussed further in chapter 2), appear again and again as settings for spinning the colonial tale, as do defeats such as the “last stands” of General Custer or Davy Crockett in the American context. In fact, these and many other historical episodes that similarly led an imperial or colonial force to come to terms with the experience of military defeat serve as popular backdrops for novels, poems, and films as often as any of the many triumphal victories of these colonial systems. One may say, in fact these defeats come to feature as necessary sacrifices so as to continually prove the essential merits of the colonial project.

I discuss further the relationship of defeat, shock, crisis, or trauma to the formation and evolution of the colonial imaginary later in this chapter. What I am here most interested in is the manner in which these historical moments are represented in cultural activity, and how these representations change and evolve as the colonial project evolves. In this sense, the question we are facing is: What role do cultural productions—such as cinema—play in elaborating and disseminating particular conceptions of traumatic histories and experiences? Before considering this, it will be beneficial to look back at the historical relationship of colonialism and cinema, and follow this relationship through to the postcolonial context.

[Excerpted from Kamran Rastegar, Surviving Images: Cinema, War, and Cultural Memory in the Middle East, by permission of the author. Copyright © Oxford University Press 2015. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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