The smiling young actor posed on the cover of Cinematographe magazine this summer is Tunisian-born ‘Abd el-Kechich, star of ‘Abd el-Krim Bahloul’s 1984 film, Thé a la Menthe (Mint Tea). Jeune Cinema, meanwhile, is featuring Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, whose personalized retelling of the French invasion of Egypt, Adieu Bonaparte, premiered at Cannes in May and is now playing in the Latin Quarter. A few blocks away, another theater is showing Mehdi Charef’s Le Thé au Harem d’Archimede (The Tea in Archimedes’ Harem), which, like Thé a la Menthe, deals with the life of an Algerian immigrant in Paris. In mid-July, the 1980 Tunisian film Aziza turned up on TV, where it was followed by a panel discussion with the director, ‘Abd el-Latif Ben Ammar, several critics, and Palestinian journalist Raymonda Tawil.
To the American eye, so rarely given the opportunity to see such films outside of one-time festivals or, more recently, videocassettes of sometimes dubious origin and often dubious quality, the visibility of Arab cinema is Paris is quite striking. Youssef Chahine, in particular, seems to be the latest darling of the French critics. Chahine, whose career actually began with two years of study at the Pasadena Playhouse in the late 1940s, has always enjoyed more recognition in France than in the US (where his films have never been shown commercially, much less understood by the critics), but the response to Adieu Bonaparte has been something altogether different.
Some of the enthusiasm obviously stems from the fact that the film is a Franco-Egyptian co-production — the first — arranged through the efforts of France’s adventuresome minister of culture, Jack Lang. As Chahine has been quick to point out, though, the two governments together provided only one fifth of the $2.4 million budget, and the well-publicized “3 million” from Lang was 3 million francs, not dollars, and was a loan. In any case, ever since the shooting got underway in Egypt last year, “Jo” has been previewed, reviewed and interviewed in every major film magazine; Le Monde gave him a page and a half before the film was released, and the rest of the popular press followed suit. The film itself is one of Chahine’s more idiosyncratic confections, a kind of epic meditation (complete with a cast of hundreds, if not thousands, provided by the Egyptian army) that filters the French occupation through the prism of personal relations — in this case between one of Napoleon’s soldier-scholars, Caffarelli (Michel Piccoli), and a young Egyptian from Alexandria, Ali (Mohsen Mohieddin). For Chahine, the individual relationship is a microcosm of the larger historical event: “In the film,” he told Cahiers du Cinema,
there’s a panorama, battles; that was inevitable because it was about an expedition and an occupation. But what dominates the whole is the sentiment of wanting to dominate: What sentiment could push someone to go and occupy another country? I know, Bonaparte said it was for the glory of France…. I wanted to take this subject up again on a level that was more personal, more human: the domination and “occupation” in personal relationships, relationships of love.
French critics have appreciatively immersed themselves in the intellectual intricacies of this tale within a tale; at the same time, they are clearly fascinated by the idea of a native’s-eye view of their own colonial enterprise (no one has failed to notice, for example, that Chahine’s Napoleon, unlike the Abel Gance version, remains life-sized or even slightly smaller).
The reaction has been somewhat different in the Arab film community here. Chahine is tremendously respected personally, professionally, politically, and everyone is pleased at the recognition he is finally getting. But when they are asked about the film, eyes drop, voices drop, and an awkward pause is generally followed by some expression of disappointment. The problem does not seem to be political, which is to say, no one is suggesting that Adieu Bonaparte should have been more militant, but rather, a bit less muddled. The mix of events and emotions is an uneasy one: The characters tend to be conflated along with the chronology, and the subtleties of Chahine’s thought and intentions, conveyed so articulately in interview form, do not quite emerge from the pageantry on the screen. Chahine himself calls Adieu Bonaparte “probably the most personal film I’ve ever made,” and he sees it as a direct continuation of his last two works, Iskandariyya… Leh? (Alexandria… Why?, 1978) and Haduta Misriya (An Egyptian Story, 1982), both of which are autobiographical. But interestingly enough, the autobiographical character in Adieu Bonaparte is not Ali, the Egyptian youth, but Caffarelli, the European intellectual, and this peculiar juxtaposition may help to explain both the film’s success and its shortcomings.
In fact, the difficulties with Adieu Bonaparte are symptomatic of more pervasive disappointments among the Arab expatriates here. It is, after all, exile and empire that account for the Arab presence in Paris: The cinema subculture, like the larger Arab community, is made up of people who are here because they cannot function elsewhere, whether on account of war, political repression or social suffocation, or on account of the more prosaic realities of economic survival. The double discontent, with here and elsewhere, is the subtext of every conversation.
For a three-part series on “Arab Culture Today” which appeared in Le Monde at the end of July, Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun interviewed about a dozen Arab expatriates — writers, artists and academics. The collective assessment was devastating. “No one is celebrating,” Ben Jelloun writes in the first article, titled “The Malaise.” “The creators, like the consumers, are conscious that Arab culture as it appears today is in a bad way. There is talk of crisis, of emptiness, and even of decadence.” The causes of this “malaise” are not difficult to identify: for the most part, political pressures “whether through the ideological control of one-party regimes, through the commonplace system of censorship, or through the disappearance of the contemporary centers of culture like Cairo [since Camp David] and Beirut.” Nonetheless, for Ben Jelloun and the others that he interviewed, the Arab intellectuals also bear some responsibility for the “mystification of the Arab reality” (as Algerian scholar Jamal ed-Din Bencheikh puts it), the retreat into “subterfuge” that characterizes contemporary literature and that has the disastrous effect of separating writer and public, culture and society.
In the Arab cinema, Ben Jelloun notes, censorship looms especially large. When the film production is state-run, he points out, “blasphemy costs dearly, in every sense of the word.” The Egyptian director Chadi ‘Abd es-Salam, for example, waited seven years for the release of his highly acclaimed film Mummiya (The Mummies, 1970) and has never been able to get backing for another major project. Another distinguished Egyptian filmmaker, Tewfik Salah, who went to live in Syria in the 1970s and directed the outstanding film al-Makhdu‘un (The Dupes, 1972) based on Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, has now, according to Ben Jalloun, “lost all credibility” by making a film that glorifies Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Even Youssef Chahine, he points out, has had to resort to his share of musical melodramas to survive over the years — and he might have added that in March 1984 Chahine was sentenced to one year in prison after distributing another director’s film that was seized by the Egyptian government for its satirical attack on the judiciary system. “To create in our countries,” Lebanese filmmaker Jocelyn Saab told Ben Jalloun, “you have to be able to move mountains,” and her contention seems to be born out statistically. In 1981, Ben Jalloun reports, the total number of feature-length films produced in the Arab world was 70, compared with 1,770 in Europe and North America and 1,930 in the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Such dismal pronouncements find repeated echoes in the Arab film community in Paris. Hassan Daldoul, formerly the delegated producer for the Tunisian state film company, now operates France-Media, a distribution agency in Paris that handles a number of highly acclaimed features from the Middle East and North Africa. After 20 years in the film business, he says, he’s not cynical but derisoire — mocking, irreverent. In his opinion, the “New Arab Cinema” that emerged in the 1950s with Salah Abou Seif, Youssef Chahine and Tewfik Saleh, and then Chadi ‘Abd es-Salem, Saleh, Hussein Kamal and others, was finished by 1975 because the Arab governments failed to come up with financial support. Instead of subsidizing production, the state taxes distribution (up to 45 percent in some countries, including Egypt and Tunisia), effectively ruining the chances of developing an audience for quality films.
Lebanese filmmaker Borhane Alaouie, who is about to release his third feature, Lettres de guerre (War Letters), makes a similar point. “In these circumstances,” he says, “you can’t think about an audience because you don’t know who they’ll be, maybe in Europe, maybe in the Middle East, maybe elsewhere.” For him, the absence of a real social base makes the existence of something called “Arab cinema” a matter of luck: “If the individual filmmakers stopped shooting, there wouldn’t be an Arab cinema.”
Alaouie, who studied cinema in Brussels, won the Tanit d’Or at the 1974 Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia for his first film, Kafr Kassem, the recreation of a 1956 massacre of Palestinian villagers by the Israeli army. His second feature, Beirut al-Liqa’ (Beirut, The Meeting, 1982), is a moving evocation of the Lebanese civil war that chronicles a thwarted meeting between a Christian woman from East Beirut and a Muslim man from the south. The film is somewhat autobiographical, but he deliberately left ambiguities, he explains, whereas with Kafr Kassem “there is no ambiguity, no opening because I thought I understood what was going on.” At this point, he says, he sees himself as a guardian of memories: “You can’t experience life and analyze it at the same time, so I choose to live it and to record what is happening so that it will not be lost.”
Algerian filmmaker Mahmoud Zemmouri has directed two successful social comedies, Prends 10,000 balles et casse-toi (Take 10,000 Bills and Settle Down, 1981) and Les folles annees du Twist (The Foolish Years of the Twist, 1983), and he is the producer of a third film which is about to be released. Zemmouri, who came to France 16 years ago to study science and wound up at IDHEC, the famous Paris film school, feels that opportunities for Algerian filmmakers are better than elsewhere: the government makes funding available and officially, at least, does not impose censorship. In his view, the big problem in Algeria is self-censorship, the failure of a complacent generation of intellectuals to challenge received wisdom.
Zemmouri himself ran into considerable problems when he attempted such a challenge with his second film, which he co-produced with ONCIC, the Algerian state film company. Like the vast majority of Algerian films, Les folles annees du Twist treats the period of the revolution but, as the title suggests, with less than the usual reverence. Zemmouri’s satirical look at the anti-heroic side of the war rankled more than one government bureaucrat, with the result that various ministries withdrew the assistance they were committed to provide, at least one change had to be made in the script, and Zemmouri did his post-production work in hiding while one of his colleagues came to terms with the authorities. The revolution, Zemmouri observes, is still sacred; the film, which premiered at Venice in 1983 and was well received in France, has still not been shown commercially in Algeria. Zemmouri does not complain; his outlook remains basically optimistic, he says, “because I believe in my work.” But as he describes the obstacles he faces in funding, in production, in distribution, he also comments that it has taken him 12 years to make a total of three films.
Despite what seems to be a norm of personal and political frustration on the Arab film scene, there are some satisfactions to be had. One of the most interesting developments in Paris seems to be a local phenomenon, if not a movement: cinema beur. Beur is the word for Arab in the inverted French slang known as Verlane, and cinema beur, in the broadest sense, refers to the films made by and about the North African community in France. Michel Piccoli as General Cafarelli in Adieu, Bonaparte.
In fact, there has been a North African “cinema of emigration,” as it is also called, for the last 15 years, beginning with Mektoub? (It Is Written?), Ali Ghanem’s stark portrayal of immigrant life in France. (The title is an ironic allusion to faith and fatalism, with the question mark added, as Ghanem later told Guy Hennebelle, “precisely because, for me, what happens to Algerians in France is not mektoub.” Ghanem, then a 26-year-old Algerian immigrant, taught himself filmmaking by sneaking into production studios and reading technical books. Produced on a shoestring budget, the film was done entirely in French because there was no money for subtitling Arabic dialogue.
The tradition of a marginal emigré cinema has continued up to the present, accompanied, for better or worse, by an increasing number of French films reflecting the North African presence in the same two dimensional fashion that characterizes the treatment of blacks, Hispanics or Chinese in American films. But in the last few years, with the appearance of directors like ‘Abd el-Krim Bahloul and Mehdi Charef, screenwriters like Akli Tadjer, and actors like ‘Abd el-Kechich, Kader Boukhanef (the co-star of Charef s Thé au Harem d’Archimede), and Souad Amidou (who has played in several French films, including Francis Girod’s Grand Frere and Gerard Lauzier’s Petit Con), there is talk of a “second generation” which is bringing new attitudes and aesthetics to the Arab cinema of emigration. They have not necessarily been born in France, but they have grown up here, and as such, they represent a third culture which is neither French nor Arab but the inevitable fusion of the two. They write, direct and act from their own experience, with all the searching and struggling that entails, but also with a sense of humor that simply might not have been possible a generation ago.
When they talk about their work with the critics, the rejection of miserabilisme — the penchant for depicting the miserable side of life — comes up repeatedly. Mehdi Charef, for example, told Cinematographe, “I didn’t want to make a miserabiliste social drama. I was really afraid of that adjective miserabiliste, [so] I opted for a lighthearted chronicle rather than an accusatory film that was intended to systematically shock the viewer.”
At the same time, there is nothing escapist about these films. As Mahmoud Zemmouri explains, humor serves as a means of reaching an audience that would not otherwise respond. In his view, the cinema of the “second generation” has not simply provided a jaded French public with a new form of local color, but has genuinely succeeded in making that public aware of underlying social and political issues. Thé au harem d’Archimede is a case in point: It offers a dizzying panorama of hardships and hustles in a blighted industrial suburb of Paris, but at the core of the film is the friendship between the two adolescent anti-heroes, Majid the beur and Pat the red-headed French kid. In this way, a film that is totally devoid of slogans manages to reaffirm by example the slogan of the anti-racist campaign recently mounted in Paris: Touch pas a monpote, “Don’t touch my buddy.”
Charef himself came to France with his family at the age of 10, was placed in a class for retarded children (“a training center for delinquents” he called it in one interview), and wound up working in a factory. He took up writing screenplays as a form of escape from the immigrant life that was destroying the people around him; after Thé au harem sat around for seven years without any signs of becoming a film, he turned it into a novel which was published with great success in 1983. Within months, the film rights were bought by Michele Ray-Gavras, and under the sponsorship of her husband, Costa-Gavras, Charef went from factory work to filmmaking. After a premier at Cannes last May, Thé au harem received the 1985 Jean Vigo Award and, with the help of a distribution aid grant from the Apple Foundation, began a commercial run in 14 Paris theaters.
In his survey of Arab culture, Tahar Ben Jelloun singles out the cinema of the “second generation” for special mention: “These films,” he writes, “are in the process of changing something in the emigre landscape and even in Arab culture in general.” Mahmoud Zemmouri shares Ben Jelloun’s enthusiasm, and he points out that the young immigrant cinema is also contributing to the vitality of French culture. Jack Lang, he says, has started to come up with financial support, and the critics are beginning to take note — the occasion for ‘Abd el-Kechich’s appearance on the cover of Cinematographe was in fact a special issue on cinema beur — although there is still what Zemmouri calls a problem of “visibility” with the general public.
For other observers, though, the Arab component of cinema beur is open to question. According to distributor Hassan Daldoul, many Arab emigrés consider beur culture an empty phenomenon; in a word, it is not Arab. The beurs themselves (not to mention the French) are unlikely to agree with this judgment, but at the same time, it raises an important point about the inevitable evolution of the culture. Souad Amidou, for example, tells Cinematographe that in fact her own adolescent experience was not so different from the street-smart roles she’s been playing, but her hope for the future is that “a director will be more sensitive to my character, my temperament as an actress, than to my physical type, which boxes me into one kind of role.” Likewise, ‘Abd el-Kechich talks about his fantasy of doing Flaubert’s Education sentimentale: “I’m fascinated by the character of Frederic — a boy from the countryside who comes to Paris in search of his fortune. It’s kind of like me.” And Mehdi Charef, who has already made his fortune, notes that his next project is “a French film, with all French characters,” and he adds, “When I received the Jean Vigo Prize, I was very moved. That represented many things for me, notably all that I owe to French cinema, to French culture. I feel like I’m at least 50 percent French.”
In the closing lines of his series in Le Monde, Tahar Ben Jelloun expresses the hope that Arab culture will be able to regain what he calls its “universal dimension.” Film as moving image is an inherently universal medium, just as expatriation is an inherently universal condition. But the combination of the two is unlikely to yield the kind of collective universality that Ben Jelloun and others would like to see in the Arab world. As Borhane Alaouie observes, “You can’t reach the universal without going through the local.” The message from Paris would seem to be that until local conditions in the Arab world permit local production, and local expression, the Arab filmmaker who aspires to universality will establish his or her local identity elsewhere.