Published on October 6th, 2011 | by Cassady Dixon0
“Mapping Subjectivity” runs from October 5-23 at MoMA
Part II of MoMA’s series “Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s to Now” promises a great selection of interesting finds. The wide array of Middle Eastern films is mostly alien to the West, and MoMA’s three-part, three-year chronicle seeks to help remedy that.
“Ouarzazate, the Movie” (2001) is a documentary about a small town in central Morocco, populated mostly by Berbers, and a popular holiday stop. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ouarzazate house Atlas Studios, the largest film production site in the world by area. This is the place to go when you want that lived-in, stereotypically Saharan vibe, from “Lawrence of Arabia” to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s “Legionnaire.” The film brings a whole new level of reality to the old standby of Hollywood outsiders clashing with locals. The workers come from all over, confusion abounds, and the contrast between the sheen of entertainment and the harsh reality of the developing world is captivating.
Complimenting that nicely is “VHS Kahloucha” (2006). The documentary follows Moncef Kahloucha, a Tunisian filmmaker, as he hardscrabbles it through the process of low-budget production. Slick, the finished product is not, but with a title like “Tarzan of the Arabs” it’s just hard not to love Kahloucha’s all-or-nothing spirit. He may not be making art, but his passion for life is no less inspiring. All the more uplifting is Kahloucha’s decision to premiere the film to a gathering of Tunisian immigrants in Sicily, which makes for a heartwarming moment of countrymen and women bonding over an all-too-rare moment of levity.
Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina’s “Chronicle of the Years of Embers” (1975) was the very first Arab film to have been awarded the Palme d’Or. It tells a tale that shows the seeds planted for the Algerian War of Independence. It follows an Algerian peasant who fights for the Allied forces in World War II, yet upon returning home takes up arms against the French. Ironic as it may be, the bitterness and savagery of the conflict are more at the forefront here. Highlighting this dichotomy, though, are scenes like the one in which an Algerian man is seen listening to Hitler on the radio, his reasoning being that he knows the German leader to also be against the French like he is. Naturally, this would make a fitting companion to Pontecorvo’s classic tale of the war, “Battle of Algiers.”
Beyond these highlights are many more pieces of note. The Algerian short “Dashboard” (2006) hurdles through the bowels of, again, Algiers. Seeking to capture the city firsthand, the documentary’s POV is entirely through the eye of a camera fixed to the dash of a taxicab. The documentary “My Heart Beats Only for Her” (2008) tells the story of a Lebanese revolutionary who fought on behalf of Palestine in the 1970s, and also his son who in the present day retraces his controversial father’s legacy and his struggle’s historic connections with the North Vietnamese fight for independence. Making its New York premiere at the exhibition is the 2010 Lebanese drama ‘The Mountain” (2010). A big draw at Toronto this year, Ghassan Salhab’s dream-like film follows one man’s apparent attempts to isolate himself completely from the cruelties of the world around him.
All-in-all, this is a fruitful and diverse lineup, and it begs to be accessed as much as possible. There is a healthy mix of light fare as well as challenging looks at the problems that persist in much of the Middle East. Either way, this wonderfully scheduled saga is a cultural eye-opener that meshes perfectly with MoMA’s revolutionary and risk-taking spirit.