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Three Films, One Spectator and A Polemic: Arab Documentaries and ‘Global’ Audiences

What do we mean by global cinema? There are multiple “we(s)” and multiple meanings. But sometimes the word “global” implies an illusive horizontality, a horizontality that also features in the term "world" cinema. Different nationals are not positioned horizontally on an equal "global" plane. There are obvious hierarchies between languages, bodies and places. Producing films intended primarily for global audiences does not necessarily mean that Egyptian films are going to be screened to Nigerian audiences or that Brazilian cinema will circulate widely in Japan. The world is really not a global village. It is only so for those who are able to go anywhere without visas, have almost all the world’s knowledge production translated into their language, and the most important art institutions just around the corner from where they live. The rest only live under this pretense of globalism, internationalism and many other ism(s) that conceal the way power works in the world.

Global circulation of film implies an even, multidirectional, utopian flow of media that does not exist. What exists is a hand-picking of a few films from all over the global south to be taken to world festivals to fulfill a quota of “world cinema,” African cinema, Arab cinema, Iranian cinema or whichever one is in vogue depending on the political climate.

The vast majority of film festivals that endow prestige, fame, and consecration on films are in Europe and North America. It is common sense for a director to want the world premiere of their film to take place in Berlin, Toronto, Cannes, Sundance or Venice. These festivals—among others of course—might promise a distribution deal and wider circulation. They promise a longevity for a work that doesn not have many chances to appeal to broad audiences through theatrical release in their countries of production, or in any other locale really.

But with these exhibition circuits in mind, many filmmakers consciously or unconsciously tweak their narratives to appeal to the imaginary spectators located in this ambiguous global realm. Strategies deployed include explaining that which need not be explained if the film was targeted primarily to a familiar audience (including a phrase such as “Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for 30 years” is an example), having the film speak in a language other than its subjects’ native tongue rather than just adding subtitles, and opting for the consolidation of a narrative at the expense of maintaining the almost always deeply fragmented political nuances of their story. These strategies often result in films that are simplistic, clichéd, and politically problematic.

Indeed, sometimes being simplistic, clichéd and politically problematic is exactly what a film needs to succeed. To appeal to an audience in the US or some European country as an Egyptian film or a film set in Egypt, there has to be some buzz, a hook. Many distributors like films that are easily marketable, and in recent years war, authoritarianism, sexual harassment, poor Arab burqa-ridden women, migration and, of course, the “Arab Spring” tend to work very well as selling points for ‘foreign’ films. Some filmmakers understand these rules and play accordingly. But by being posited as films that inform, educate and explain what is going on here to audiences over there, these films become central to a pre-existing East-West dynamic—a sphere of knowledge production and image-making that tries to translate the orient to an elsewhere—and so the questions they raise become deeply political.

German filmmaker Farid Eslam’s Yallah Underground (2015), US filmmaker Sara Taksler’s Tickling Giants (2016) and Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Siam’s Whose Country? (2016) are the three films that inspired this polemic, but there are many other films that belong to this genre, if we can call it one.

Yallah Underground follows several Arab musicians who talk about what it means to be an underground musician in this region—one that is filled with tension, as the film’s synopsis reads. The director started filming in 2009, but the subsequent revolutions made their way into the film. Throughout, musicians say things like, “It’s very hard to be an artist here, especially when you are a girl” and, “A lot of people in the Arab countries identify themselves with what we do–they kind of understand this message of modernity that we try to express,” and, “If a girl moves out in Egypt normally she would have bad relationships with her parents, but my parents are very cool about it,” and “Most women in this country—I am going to speak of this country—are submissive to their fathers, boyfriends,” and one young Egyptian woman speaks of the “sexual tension and frustration” in Egyptian men, claiming that it is all about religion in the end.

The narratives of these artists, and of this documentary as a whole, taken to their logical conclusions, could resemble what Somali-born Dutch-American activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali (who has reduced all violence within Islam to scripture) or Egyptian-American journalist Mona El Tahawy (“why do they do they hate us?”) have repeatedly said about their "own" countries. Both women occupy a subject position of the native informant, wherein their position as ‘insiders’ is capitalized upon to provide information to a curious western audience that reifies rather than subverts superficial beliefs about Arabs or Islam, in their cases implying that Muslim women need saving from their misery through the intervention of a more modern/civilized west. While their critiques of Islam and “Arab culture”—whatever that means—are not entirely unfounded, they lend themselves to be deployed in the affirmation of orientalist stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims which can be used to justify military interventions under pretenses of saving Afghani women or introducing democracy to the oppressed Iraqis for example. And we all know how these attempts turn out. These are discourses that seek to “save brown women from brown men” or brown liberal men from oppressive brown regimes, or basically to save the Arabs from their Arabness, with all the cultural stereotypes such a term entails.

While Yallah Underground is not likely to create another military invasion in the Middle East, it genealogically belongs to many “native” testimonies that have been deployed to do exactly that. It supports stereotypical depictions of the non-west and specifically the “Muslim world” as oppressed, backwards, and inherently inferior to a far more advanced West. As an unsophisticated examination of a deeply complex reality, which it deals with and expresses through fairly simplistic visual renditions, it is inevitably not only politically problematic but also formally lacking.

The case is not very different with the other two films.

Mohamed Siam’s Whose Country? features a first-person account of the filmmaker as he recounts Egypt’s 2011 revolution while providing commentary on his discussions with the main character of the film, a police officer deployed to give insights into the inner workings of the revolution’s “enemy.” In a thickly accented English, Siam says Mubarak’s rule “taught Egyptians to hate the police” and that “growing up in a repressive police state left me and many other Egyptians angry,” before telling us that he, as a liberal Egyptian, cried after Mohamed Morsi won the presidential election. For an Egyptian viewer, all this information is not only unnecessary but disorienting. Why is this Egyptian guy speaking to me in English about things that we both have lived through? Siam feels entitled to literally guide us through the revolution, explaining what happened, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. This is information that only two groups will find useful: those who know nothing about Egypt, and Egyptians who are going to be born in fifty years, for whom this would be an archive of the revolution. The chronology of when Mubarak came to power, what happened after 2011 and the tensions that led to the coup in 2013 are constituents of my lived reality to which I need no further introduction. But Whose Country? is not speaking to me. It is speaking to more privileged ‘others’ who the film needs to reach in order to be celebrated and consecrated as a politically committed work representing the Middle East.

In the first half hour of Tickling Giants, satirical talk show host Bassem Youssef says: “If I could do anything, I would have my own comedy show, be like John Stewart, make fun of New Jersey whatever the hell that is. I would make fun of politics the president. There is only one problem. I live in Egypt.”

The film, directed by Sara Taksler, executive producer for Stewart’s The Daily Show, thus begins by making Egypt the exception and Stewart’s free America the norm, which the exiled satirist deeply admires. Throughout the film Youssef reenacts a narrative of victimization and a fascination with everything American, apparently without pausing to think about the context in which all of this is placed — the larger framework of this east-west dialogue. The film sets aside the power relations inherent in the act of representation, and erases an ongoing history where the perceived “underdevelopment” of many parts of the world is used against them. Claiming the inhabitants of the former colonies as unfit to rule themselves has been a staple colonial discourse for decades. Combining a presentation of oppression and police brutality in Egypt for an American audience with a portrayal of an Egyptian satirist yearning to fulfill the American dream belies any awareness of such a history. And if Youssef’s problem was that he lived in Egypt, at least he should acknowledge that he came out of it with a brand that he can use to market himself elsewhere.

Can John Stewart get away with things that Bassem Youssef would go to jail for? Yes. Is police brutality real? Yes. Is it weird for women to leave home and live alone in Egypt? Yes. Then why is there a problem saying any of those things? There is no problem—but context is everything.

The problem with these films is that they ignore the interconnectedness of “developed” and “developing” countries, of authoritarianism in the Middle East and liberal democracies in the west, of Islamic fundamentalism and the Cold War, and of metropolitan centers of global capitalism and the dispossession of millions all over the world. The problem gets even more complicated when entitlement and ability to represent becomes unquestioned. The visibility of those films rests on the certainty if their narratives, a certainty that denies any form of reflexivity. Their visibility rests on making the Arab world screenable, commodifiable and marketable to an non-implicated audience. These films portray living stereotypes of actual people, focusing on the elements of their lives that are ‘interesting’ only in so much as they tell us something about clichéd versions of Egypt, Tahrir, Islam, women, art and war, conflict, poverty, dispossession and resistance. These topics are not interesting for those who live in war, conflict, poverty and dispossession, those for whom Tahrir was not a spectacle and resistance is a complicated act. In such a context these issues might be relevant, but they are only interesting somewhere else.

When confronted with cinematic works that seek to represent or explain freedom of expression, police brutality, failed democracy, women’s oppression, poverty and activism in Egypt, in a documentary form, I wonder how it is possible to narrate such overwhelmingly grand topics. How can one narrate an event such as a revolution with the insight of an insider? Insider to what exactly? Where does the authorial certainty needed to do that come from? I am skeptical of the act of representation itself, the provision of ready-made, easily translatable narratives about 2011 as if the revolution was a thing, and as if "Arabness" is also a thing. If postmodernism declared the death of the meta-narratives—teleogically oriented, totalizing worldviews that tend to put in a claim for the universal and promise utopian resolutions that are yet to occur—Arab Spring documentaries lie on the opposite side of the spectrum. The conditions of their existence, profitability, visibility and circulation depends first and foremost on their claims to a certain truth about “what really happened” over there. But neither the "Arab Spring" nor the "Arab World" can be explained through the sum of their parts. They are constructed, time and time again, through the very narratives that eclipse alternative imaginaries, historical renditions or analyses by foreclosing the realm of imagination all together.

[This article was published in collaboration with Mada Masr]

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