BEIRUT: Casual consumers of MENA region cinema sometimes remark on the sameness of its images. It’s not just that all those Arab Spring docs resemble one another. The contemporary Middle East and North African experience, it seems, could be summarized by a single extended montage.
It might start in a sprawling, designer-brand accented shopping mall, jump-cut to a popular street protest (met with swinging truncheons and lobbed teargas canisters), fade to online beheadings and barrel bombs falling, with a slow panning shot beginning with a hijab-clad mother weeping with a dead child in her arms, through a refugee camp upon an arid landscape, and small, overloaded boats setting out across the Mediterranean. The montage might end with knots of sweaty youngsters (of any age) partying in a cramped bar or private beach.
Finding a clichéd Middle East in such visual tropes, others might suggest, underlines how much this region’s image, at least, has become interchangeable with those of other parts of the world.
Nour Ouayda and Rami el Sabbagh see things differently. The film researchers have been invited to curate a selection of Lebanese shorts for the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival (streaming 1-10 May). The program is staged as part of “Goethe-Institut presents...” a partnership between the German state’s cultural association and the festival.
“Prophecies from the Sea” is comprised of shorts and miniatures emerging between 1976 and 2021. What unites them, the curators write, is their being “made in moments of transition, in spaces of transformation that follow catastrophes. Made ‘after’ these incidents, the assumption is that these works only speak of past experiences, but we know that they also conjure future events.”
The program draws upon work by several generations of filmmakers and contemporary artists, a number of whom have found international renown. It includes a 1976 short by Jocelyn Saab, and samples one of Walid Raad’s formative Atlas Group works, as well as pieces by Maher Abi Samra and Ghassan Salhab that emerged after Israel’s 2006 war. While acknowledging Lebanon’s catastrophic heritage, “Prophecies” isn’t an exercise in nostalgia. It includes several videos from 2020-21, including the “Insecure” series, commissioned by Beirut Art Center and centering on security camera footage recorded on Aug. 4, 2020.
“We started by looking for films made after catastrophe,” Ouayda said, beginning with Lebanon’s several civil conflicts (1958, 1975-1990), foreign military assaults (1982, 2006) as well as the ongoing disaster of 2020. “It seemed that the films’ very materiality had been sickened by the events that inspired them.
“We looked for motifs – the sea, walls, destruction, rubble, the gesture of recording itself,” she continued. “It was a mix of looking for filmmakers’ work and proposing that these works are not only about their subjects but also prophetic of coming disasters.
“[Liana Kassir and Renaud Pachot’s 2017 short] ‘Nahr al-Kalb,’ for instance, is not related to any specific event, but the sickened body and how to deal with the body.”
“Aside from looking for these types of films, we were interested in a feeling of shock,” Sabbagh said, recalling the disorientation he felt while first watching Walid Raad’s 1998 video “The Dead Weight of the Quarrel Hangs.” “That was the first piece of video art I’d seen where the object of the images isn’t simply to relate a story.
“We’re looking at movies that address catastrophe [and also create] s shocking transformation.”
“What does watching the film give you access to?” Ouayda added. “What you’re talking about is the body of the film opening up and expressing not only what has happened, but what is becoming.”
Asked whether the “prophetic” quality of filmed catastrophe simply reflects the limited language of film and video in capturing and depicting disaster, the curators disagree energetically.
“Only experimental video has the language to address the liminal world of the catastrophe,” Sabbagh said. “The medium has limited tools maybe, but the language is much wider.
“Maybe it’s not cinema that that’s limited. Maybe it’s the human perception of these moments of catastrophe that’s limited. We’re not saying all wars, all victims are the same ... The experience of an earthquake in the developed world is not the same as of an earthquake in a less-developed part of the world.
“It’s our experience, maybe, that’s limited.”
Ouayda agrees with Sabbagh that the limitations don’t reside in the media.
“The limitation is in how they form meaning,” she said. “The impossibility comes from our desire to express something in its totality, but how is that even possible?
“This is what I love about the work of Jocelyne Saab ... Approaching things from a multiplicity of perspectives, speaking to as many people as possible, you may not understand everything, but you do capture aspects.
“The films must accept their stuttering, because we don’t have the words. We must accept the impossibility ... That’s why the films stutter.”
The challenges of capturing disaster in photography, film, art generally, was among the central themes in the work of those Lebanese artists who emerged after the civil war, a florescence documented, in a sense, in the writing of artist and author Jalal Toufic.
Ouayda and Sabbagh have differing perspectives on this heritage.
“This entire constellation, this generation of the ’90s, is important,” said Sabbagh. “It’s the contradictions among these different voices that make me feel that I’m getting closer to understanding, and misunderstanding, their meaning.”
“I don’t know Toufic’s work so well,” Ouayda said. “I access this generation through the work of [film scholar] Ghada Sayegh. “I come from a different place.”
In addition to the shorts themselves, Oberhausen’s online platform will stream Sabbagh and Ouayda’s prerecorded discussion with Ghada Sayegh and artist Danielle Davie, a participating director in the “Insecure” series. The conversation will serve to introduce viewers to the works and the ideas shaping their selection.
Goethe on Demand will also stream a commissioned audio work by sound artist and researcher Urok Shirhan, who re-edited the soundtrack of Christian Ghazi’s seminal 1971 film “A hundred Faces for a Single Day.”
Films of the “Prophecies from the Sea” selection will stream in two programs: the first runs May 3-5, 8pm; the second May 4-6, 8pm (CEST). For more, see: www.goethe.de/libanon