My friend Jacques got as far as a screenplay when he died. He was Palestinian (Armenian) from Jerusalem, a photographer by trade, and after his family moved from occupation to Australia, Jacques made his way to the States on a tourist visa. Settling in New York, he found work in a series of custom photo labs where employers were more than willing to overlook his illegal alien status if he was willing to take the midnight shift. At the last job, there was a vague promise that something could be done to get him a green card; in the meantime, he lived his inverted life on the margins of the margins.

Still, he was determined to make films. In the free hours that he shared with the majority of the waking world, he managed to take a few courses, sit in on lectures, haunt movie theaters. After a while he found he could reclaim his weekends by simply not going to sleep on Saturday morning. But this perpetual jet lag was taking its toll — with everything from isolation to eye infections. Besides, the screenplay was finished, and he needed time — daytime — to take it around.

Finally he gave up hope for a residency card through the photo lab and turned to the other option for normalizing his status: marriage. I no longer remember which came first, but in remarkably short order, he quit the job and found a bride. When he called to invite me to a party in celebration of this modern-day marriage of convenience, he told me how he’d woken up on the day of the wedding unable to move because of strange pains in his abdomen. According to the doctor, the problem was nerves. Three weeks later, before most of us knew he was in the hospital, Jacques Kehiyan had died of hepatitis and complications of pneumonia.

Perhaps it’s a personal indulgence to approach the subject of Arab filmmakers abroad through recollections of a friend who never made his first film. But in filmmaking as elsewhere, the aura of the rare success has a way of obscuring the norm of failure, along with the processes by which that failure becomes the norm. On the spectrum of real-life scenarios that confront Arab filmmakers abroad, the non-film may be the least visible, but it’s hardly the least common.

Arab filmmakers abroad — the term is purposely vague, neutral, in ways that others are not. Indeed, the vocabulary of uprootedness is quite rich in connotation: we think of the exile or the refugee, for example, as someone who has been driven out, with political overtones, while the expatriate (“outside the homeland”) or the emigré (who “wandered out”) seems to have had more choice in the matter. And then, for those whose imperatives for leave-taking are neither strictly political (and unwilled) nor personal (and voluntary) but the result of economic and social necessity, there is the lowest common denominator of immigrant or migrant.

In a wide-ranging essay on the varieties of uprootedness, lived and literary, another Jerusalemite, Edward Said, points out that the origins of exile lay in the ancient practice of banishment, and no matter how collective the phenomenon, as in the case of the Palestinians or the Chileans today, we tend to think of the experience in specific, solitary (and somewhat romantic) terms. [1] The anonymous exiles, those who have not attracted individual attention at one end of their displacement or the other, are the refugees. Expatriates and emigrés, like exiles, unlike refugees, and regardless of the nature of day-to-day life abroad, enjoy their own cachet.

In the end, what is interesting about all of these categories is that they really tell us a great deal more about how the uprooted are perceived by their “hosts” than about who they are and how they came to be that way. The uprootedness of Arab filmmakers has very little to do with timeless Western patterns of movement; rather, it reflects the particular kind of displacement that has been the legacy of the Third World in the wake of the colonial encounter. Geographical dislocation, whether it is called exile, emigration or migrant labor, is perhaps the most concrete expression of the absurd discontinuities that pervade the post-colonial state, with its illegitimate bureaucracy, its dependent economy, its nonexistent civil society, its deformed cultural identity. This, in short, is why we have Arab filmmakers abroad.

Varieties of Leaving

Let us begin with half an example: the case of the distinguished Egyptian filmmaker Tewfik Saleh, who has only recently ended 17 years of “voluntary exile” within the Arab world. Born in Alexandria in 1926, Saleh (like Youssef Chahine) was educated at Victoria College; after completing a degree in English at Cairo University, he made his way to Paris and the Cinematheque. Already the makings of a well-colonized expatriate, had he so desired. But Saleh chose to return to Egypt and threw himself into a cinema of social and political engagement. Between 1955 and 1969, he made five features: one, a thinly veiled attack on the state bureaucracy, was banned for two years; another, again looking at government corruption, was rescued from the censors only through the intervention of Nasser (who nonetheless had its release delayed until after current elections); and a third, treating the exploitation of a fishing community, was censored beyond recognition for alleged pornography.

At that point Saleh went to Syria. One project (on the Palestinians) was abandoned by his producers when they discerned its political implications, but in 1971 — after Black September — he succeeded in making Al-Makhdu‘un (The Dupes), his magisterial adaptation of Ghassan Kanafani’s Rijal fi’l shams (Men in the Sun). The film received prizes at the Damascus and Carthage festivals and gained Saleh recognition throughout Europe, but its commercial run in Syria was limited to two weeks, in Damascus only, and it was never shown publicly in Egypt or Iraq. And ten years of silence followed, broken only by a biography of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, made on command in 1981. Seven films in more than 20 years — a sad commentary not only on exile but on states that cannot support their intellectuals politically, economically or otherwise. [2]

The majority of those who leave go outside the Arab world. There are as many variations on the themes as there are Arab filmmakers in one European city or another.

The war in Lebanon, for example, has now created a whole subgroup of migrant filmmakers — Borhane Alouie, Jean Chamoun and Mai Masri, Maroun Baghdadi, Jocelyne Saab. They go back and forth — back to observe, to record, to struggle against the obliteration of memory, and then out to edit…and to breathe. In a 1982 interview Saab recalled how she began working on Ghazl al-Banat (The Razor’s Edge, 1985), a feature that took her four years to make and a three-year court battle to get released commercially:

First I wrote my film in Paris; the ideas were coming very quickly, but in a rather schematic fashion. Then I returned to Beirut, I threw myself back into my country, with an extended sense of time, another way of taking things. Now I come back to Paris to work with a professional scenarist, to restructure what I've written a little. Then I'll take the whole thing up again and put back my personal touch. I have to go back there for the dialogues, the colors. [3]

Seven years later, the coming and going is much harder. Chamoun and Masri “went” for three months, stayed for more than a year, and came back with an extraordinary documentary, Beirut: The War Generation (1988). Saab herself recently completed a documentary, The Murderess (1988), about a Phalangist sharpshooter turned nun. But Alaouie’s latest film is shot in France and Belgium and unambiguously titled Letters from a Time of Exile (1989) and Baghdadi, back in Paris after two years in the US, has just completed a biography of Marat for the French bicentennial.

Then there is Michel Khleifi, Palestinian from Nazareth, ostensibly a case apart but representative of another sub-group, those who have settled somewhere outside. Khleifi now lives and teaches in Brussels, where he himself studied. But he too is a migrant filmmaker. With his Belgian travel documents, he returned to Nazareth and the West Bank in 1980 to make Surat min mudhakkirat khusbah (The Fertile Memory), that personal and profoundly original exploration of the Palestinian experience through the lives of two women. Six years later, after returning several more times to make documentaries for Belgian TV, he managed to complete his second feature, a Franco-Belgian-Palestinian production, ‘Urs al-Jalil (Wedding in Galilee, 1987). This modern pageant play of Palestinian life under occupation brought him international recognition, a string of festival prizes and the money for another production. This spring he went back to the West Bank and Gaza to develop a film from the intifada.

Then there are all the North Africans in Paris, drawn to the metropolis by the cruel mix of history and language, close enough to call home, or film home, but unable to live home. Some were emigrants before they were filmmakers. Mehdi Charef came to rejoin his father, an immigrant worker, at the age of 12; he grew up in a slum outside of Nanterre and the Gennevilliers housing project where he shot part of Le Thé au harem d’Archimède (Tea in the Harem, 1985). Ali Ghanem, whose Mektoub? (It is Written?, 1970) was the first full-length feature to treat the situation of immigrant workers in France, arrived in the mid-1960s and taught himself filmmaking by watching films, sneaking into studios and reading books. Others came as students. Mahmoud Zemmouri, for one, began in science and wound up at IDHEC. Still others — including Merzak Allouache, Farouk Beloufa, Brahim Tsaki, Nacer Khemir, Taieb Louhichi — have arrived as representatives of the growing emigré cinemas of Algeria and Tunisia. Alongside this markedly male cast of characters is also Assia Djebar, a well-known Algerian writer who turned to film in the mid-1970s because she thought it would be more accessible to women of her country. But after two highly original films made for Algerian television — La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (1978) and La Zerda et les chants de Voubli (The Zerda and the Songs of Forgetting, 1982) — she has not been able to make another film and for the moment at least has abandoned filmmaking.

Dual Culture

This cultural migration of labor has its benefits, to be sure, not simply in terms of financial or technical opportunities (one also has the opportunity to work in a factory, as Mehdi Charef did for most of his adult life, or to operate a restaurant in the fifth arrondissement, as Mahmoud Zemmouri still does), but in terms of vision and growth. On a very basic level, as Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun acknowledges in his otherwise unrelenting indictment of French racism, Hospitalité française, “There blows in this country a breeze of liberty that is particularly lacking in the Third World.” [4]

There is also the undeniable cross-fertilization of cultures, the sparks of insight that any new experience ignites, the special reflectiveness stimulated by distance, and for those who stay long enough, the sense of a double heritage. Algerian filmmaker Abdelkrim Bahloul, who came to France at the age of 20, is someone who sees himself as a mixture of Arab and Western culture. “I lay claim to this dual culture,” he says. “For me, it’s an asset that can let me shed a more contrasting light, a different light on subjects that dont necessarily concern Algerians but preoccupy me.” [5] And at the same time, for those like Borhane Alaouie who maintain their base at home, “The more time I spend in France, the more I feel myself preoccupied by the problems of Lebanon.” [6]

But the terrible costs of uprootedness must be considered as well. The personal dimensions need not be reiterated, and they are hardly the sole prerogatives of filmmakers, or intellectuals in general. “Of immigration,” writes Ben Jelloun,

I know only the face and its memory. This is a body which was obliged to exchange the material misery of its native land, for a hope at first, and then another grey sketch made of devaluation and solitude. Its work force is its capital, its children a revenge on forgetting, its life a long process of exploitation and exclusion. The country is lacking. The homeland is found neither in the language nor in a territory, but in memory and waiting. [7]

But the geographical displacement of the Arab filmmaker is not only a mirror of existing dislocations within the society. The cinema itself becomes uprooted. Attentions, if not allegiances, are suddenly divided. The international production implies international distribution, international audiences, international thinking as well. Jocelyne Saab comments, “I don't have any more complexes about the openness [of Lebanon] to East and West; as filmmakers, we are the synthesis of these two poles, and if that translates itself into the image, it’s fantastic. But it’s dangerous: when I get financing of five million francs from France, I run the risk of having to change my scenario.” [8]

Not always, but frequently enough, changes are made. The Western viewer becomes a major factor in the filmic equation. In the worst instances, the director-as-guide is suddenly conducting an audience of tourists through his or her culture. “This problem,” Merzak Allouache told one interviewer, “has to do with the demand for the picturesque. In relation to us, Third World filmmakers, the demand for the picturesque emanates from Europe.” Allouache described an excursion he took with other filmmakers at an African film festival:

We went off in a coach and visited villages, huts, African villages, and I saw this amazing image: African filmmakers getting out of the coach, taking their cameras. And I asked myself: What is this relationship? They weren’t going off to see this village as something that would touch them, but as something that would permit them to fabricate images later, in Abidjan or even in Paris. [9]

Genre Traps

Emigration too can become a genre. When the setting switches from home to “host” country, the picturesque takes on a sleazy side as well. The desert sands give way to urban blight, but the dynamic is the same: fulfilling the stereotypical expectations of Western audiences. This is perhaps where my outsider’s eye is most jolted by some recent images. One by one, each slice of immigrant life offers a certain interest, a certain satisfaction in seeing the culture on the screen. But after a while the collective repertoire of hustlers, dope dealers and women chasers seems terribly limited and embarrassingly similar to the local color that French directors have also taken to injecting into their films.

How then does the migrant/emigrant filmmaker escape one genre trap or another? The problem is ultimately not one of subject but of vision. Discussing his own Tangos, L'éxil de Gardel (Tangos, The Exile of Gardel, 1985), Argentinian filmmaker Fernando Solanas observed,

The eternal battle that an author engages in is that of inventing his own cinema. He has images, many images, not always coherent ones, but they are in reserve. He must make some order out of this disorderly and capricious parade of ideas. He must find a structure for the film, something new.

But it is one more irony of uprootedness that its singular states of consciousness are made all the more difficult to capture by its miserable state of being.

Of his own 10 years in exile in Paris during the military junta, Solanas says,

I lost part of my life, a part of the human beings that were the most dear to me, my friends were dispersed throughout the world, and I died several times over. And I am not speaking metaphorically. It is this life, mine and theirs, that inhabited me, that became the sustenance and matter that carried my vision to fruition. [10]

Tangos was five years in the making and remaking as one production package after another fell through. Ultimately, this most extraordinary expression of the exile experience — a play-without-an-ending within a film-without-an-ending — was completed precisely because the filmmaker’s own exile came to an end and he was able to set up a coproduction in Argentina…and go home.

Obviously, for those who remain outside, the solution must be sought elsewhere. The two words that seem to punctuate the discourse of displacement are internationalism and universality. “No matter what nationalism, if it is well understood, will have to arrive at internationalism,” explains Abdelkrim Bahloul. “A good film, it if describes the people of a given country well and in depth, becomes universal.” [11]

In practice, it is precisely the relationship between nationalism and internationalism, or between the particular and the universal, that remains problematic. As Borhane Alaouie points out, “You can’t reach the universal without going through the local.” Indeed, when Merzak Allouache’s Omar Gatlato was screened at a New York film festival in 1977, one enthusiastic critic began his review with the observation that “There is no such thing as the international film: there is only the local film made honestly.” He went on to observe that Omar Gatlato “ finds its national soul…by identifying with a young man coming to terms with the local culture.” [12] Ten years later, Allouache’s fourth film bore the title Un amour a Paris (A Love in Paris, 1987), and his Omar Gatlato had given way to Ali the Beur (as second generation immigrants are known in French slang), fresh out of jail on a robbery charge and bent on becoming an astronaut in Houston. “I’m a filmmaker in transit,” Allouache says, “not an emigré. A filmmaker who wants to make films where they can be made. My own dream is to say that I’m someone who just makes films. As for my Algerian-ness, it’s in my images that you have to see it.” [13]

A similar sentiment is echoed by Mehdi Charef: “I don’t have any desire to be labeled immigrant filmmaker. I’m a filmmaker, that’s all.” [14] In the glow of success surrounding Le Thé, Charef indicated that his next project would be “a French film with all French characters,” adding, “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.” [15]

But two films later — the “French” film in question, Camomille (1988), was actually preceded by a hybrid called Miss Mona (1987), which paired up an Algerian immigrant with an aging French transvestite — Charef was talking about a visit to Algeria for the first time in 20 years. “Until now, I’ve managed to hold on to my roots, in terms of emotions, a different sensibility,” he says. “But I can’t stay in France for much longer, because I’m going to wind up thinking and seeing like here. My eye, my ear are going to get used to it and I don’t want that to happen. Your native soil is meant to be walked on.” [16]

Ten years into his own exile, Chilean filmmaker Miguel Littin (himself of Palestinian origin) observed, “One’s homeland is where one is born, but it’s also the place where one has a friend, the place where there is injustice, the place where one can contribute his art.” [17] For the Arab filmmakers abroad, there is no reason to doubt the presence of friends or injustice at home, but the question remains, where are they to contribute their art?



[1] Granta 13 (Winter 1984).
[2] One has only to think of Saleh’s compatriot, Chadi Abdel-Salaam, who remained in Egypt, and died there in 1986, 17 years after completing Al-Moumiya’ (The Mummy) and without ever finding backers for the Akhnaton that he dreamed of making all that time.
[3] Interview with Gaston Haustrate and Corinne McMullin, Cinema 278 (February 1982), p. 57.
[4] Tahar Ben Jelloun, Hospitalité francaise (Seuil, 1984), p. 157.
[5] Press packet.
[6] Le Monde, January 7, 1983, p. 7.
[7] Ben Jelloun, p. 155.
[8] Cinema 278, p. 55.
[9] Interview with Lizbeth Malkmus, Framework 29 (1986), p. 38.
[10] Press packet.
[11] Press packet.
[12] Tom Allen, Village Voice, October 17, 1977, p. 53.
[13] Interview with Said Ould-Khelifa, Horizons (Algiers), July 7, 1986.
[14] Revue du cinema 406 (June 1985), p. 45.
[15] Cinematographe 112 (July 1985), p. 12.
[16] Le Monde, December 29, 1987, p. 16.
[17] American Film (January-February 1986), pp. 43-44.

How to cite this article:

Miriam Rosen "The Uprooted Cinema," Middle East Report 159 (July/August 1989).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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