History as Social Critique in Syrian Film

Muhammad Malas’ al-Layl and Ryad Chaia’s al-Lajat

History is back in fashion in Syria. The last few years have seen a flurry of Syrian films and TV series treating historical epochs from Zenobia’s Palmyra to the French occupation (1920-1946). The latter has been especially well represented in this “return to history” (al-‘awda ila al-tarikh). In particular, two films stand out: Muhammad Malas’ al-Layl (The Night) and Ryad Chaia’s al-Lejat (referring to both the name of the region of Suwayda in which the film takes place and the black volcanic rock common to the region). Previously screened in Europe, both have appeared recently in US film festivals.

Youssef Chahine’s “Cairo”

An unemployed young man wanders into a mosque where an Islamist is calling for jihad against those who falsely claim to be Muslim. The “fundamentalist” quotes the Qur’an: “For he who lives not by my law is but an infidel.” Prayer. Voiceover: “Cut.” The fundamentalist and the unemployed man jump up and walk off of what we had forgotten is, after all, a mise-en-scene in Youssef Chahine’s film Cairo.

On the Right to Dream, Love and Be Free

Michel Khleifi, born in Nazareth in 1950, studied theater and cinema at INSAS in Belgium, where he currently resides. In 1980, Khleifi directed his first film, Fertile Memory (al-Dhakira al-Khasiba). Khleifi received international acclaim following Wedding in Galilee (‘Urs fi al-Jalil, 1987), which won the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. His other films include Maloul Fete sa Destruction (Malul Tahtafil fi Dimariha, 1984), Canticle of the Stones (Nashid al-Hajar, 1990) and L’Ordre du Jour (1993).

Nasrallah, On Boys, Girls and the Veil

Yousry Nasrallah’s new documentary film, On Boys, Girls and the Veil, touches on a paradoxical aspect of Egyptian filmmaking. Despite the ubiquitous hijab — the neo-Islamic “veil” — in Egyptian life, covered women are quite rare in the cinema. The reason for this is that both filmmakers and Islamists conflate the hijab with political discourse on the role of religion in politics and modern life in general. The topic of politicized religion — or religion in any manifestation that intersects with modernity — is not high on the agenda of the Egyptian film industry, and one therefore sees few covered women in Egyptian films.


Nouri Bouzid, Bezness (1992).

What happens when a poor Arab country with a high birth rate, an enormous youth population and endemic unemployment bases a significant part of its development strategy on attracting European tourism? In Nouri Bouzid’s film, Bezness, the Tunisian coastal town of Sousse is the site for just such an experiment, with disastrous consequences for the local population.

Terrorism, Class and Democracy in Egypt

During April 1994, armed actions of the radical Islamist opposition in Egypt achieved a new level of lethal efficiency. One Gama‘a Islamiyya (Islamic Group) hit squad killed Maj. Gen. Ra’uf Khayrat, who was responsible for conducting undercover operations against them; another assassinated the chief of security of Asyout province, the Islamist stronghold in upper Egypt; a third shot at a train transporting tourists to the Pharaonic monuments of upper Egypt; and two or three ordinary policemen were shot each week.

Gender in Hollywood’s Orient

From its very beginning, Western cinema has been fascinated with the mystique of the Orient. Whether in the form of pseudo-Egyptian movie palaces, Biblical spectaculars, or the fondness for “Oriental” settings, Western cinema has returned time and again to the scene of the Orient. [1] Generally these films superimposed the visual traces of civilizations as diverse as Arab, Persian, Chinese and Indian into a single portrayal of the exotic Orient, treating cultural plurality as if it were a monolith. The Arabic language, in most of these films, exists as an indecipherable murmur, while the “real” language is European: the French of Jean Gabin in Pepe le Moko or the English of Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca.

Constructing a Cinema of the City

Turkey’s much vaunted “return to democracy” suffered an embarrassingly visible setback at last year’s Istanbul International Filmdays when censors banned four of the 92 films invited for the foreign section: three on grounds of obscenity and a fourth — Georgian filmmaker Tenguiz Abouladze’s 1968 classic, Incantation — as an insult to Islam.

Wedding in Galilee

Wedding in Galilee (Michel Khleifi, 1987).

Gaza Ghetto

Pea Holmquist, Joan Mandell and Pierre Bjorklund, Gaza Ghetto: Portrait of a Palestinian Family, 1948-1984 (Icarus Films, 1984).

Van den Berg, Stranger at Home

Rudolf van den Berg, Stranger at Home (1985).

It is no small compliment to say that Stranger at Home is a film you want to see more than once (and should). Over the years — 19 to be precise — Palestine documentaries have become a veritable genre, but with few exceptions, they have hardly become an art. Rudolf van den Berg’s Stranger at Home is a very different enterprise. Richly nuanced in form and thought, it is a kind of double documentary, at once a film about the exiled Palestinian painter Kamal Boullata and his visit to Jerusalem, and a film about the making of the film, about the multi-layered relationship between Boullata and van den Berg, as friends, visual artists, Palestinian and Jew.

Document: The Mind of the Censor

Gaza Ghetto, a documentary film about a Palestinian family in the occupied Gaza Strip by MERIP editor Joan Mandell and Swedish filmmakers Pea Holmquist and Pierre Bjorklund, premiered in Stockholm in November 1984. In January 1985, a Palestinian theater company in Jerusalem, El-Hakawati, purchased a copy and screened it for the press. The theater then presented Gaza Ghetto to the Israeli Council for Censorship of Films and Plays, as required of all films before public screening. On February 6, 1985, the council for censorship banned the film in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Israeli lawyer Avigdor Feldman appealed the ban on behalf of El-Hakawati on April 15, but a lower court upheld the decision.

Arab Cinema in Exile

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.

Gitai, Field Diary

Amos Gitai, Field Diary (1984).

Rarely has the cinema verité technique, with its false naiveté, been deployed so strategically as in Field Diary. It looks as if it could have been made by your little brother with the family toy camera, and it is even hard to credit filmmaker Amos Gitai with the earlier filmmaking experience that his House testifies to. But Field Diary, gracelessness and all, refuses to leave you when you leave the theater.

Hanna K. and Farah H.

Michel Khleifi, The Fertile Memory (Marisa Films, 1980).

Costa-Gavras, Hanna K. (Universal Studios, 1983).

I didn’t make this film to judge, but to transmit the diversity of attitudes. And also, because I can’t forget that as children my brothers and I had to steal fruits and vegetables in order to live in our own land.

The filmmaker is Michel Khleifi, a Palestinian from Nazareth who now lives in Belgium, and his film is The Fertile Memory, a collage of experiences that begins, in fact, with the image of a bowl of fruit on the table.

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