Culture

Mohamed Malas reflects on his work

Muhammad Malas in a scene from Nezar Andary's “Unlocking the Doors of Cinema.” Photo courtesy of CIFF

CAIRO: Mohamed Malas is among this region’s pioneering cinema auteurs. Like many of his “third world” contemporaries, the Qunaitra-born writer-director studied cinema in Moscow. After five years in Soviet film school, in 1974 he released his first professional film, the TV short “Qunaytra ’74.” As Malas tells Nezar Andary in “Unlocking Doors of Cinema,” the Lebanon-born scholar’s debut film, “Qunaytra ’74” was not meant to record how the Israeli army razed his home town, but to recall the impact of that destruction.

The film, which had its world premiere last month in the Panorama Special section of the Cairo International Film Festival, is situated in a historic country house that Malas might have chosen as a shooting location himself.

It opens to impressionistic close-ups of Andary’s subject - apparently listening to an antique radio, at one point wistfully gazing up at fireworks - juxtaposed with snippets of audio and video clips.

“Images were part of a reality that is still stuck in my memory,” Malas recalls in voice-over. “Radio was the source of sound. Reality was the image. They contradict each other.”

He remembers the opening of Qunaitra’s lone movie house, and how “the first time I entered the cinema, I was mesmerized.”

It was this state of transfixity that Malas recalls bringing to his teacher, Soviet master Igor Talankin, not knowledge of cinema. At the end of their time together, Talankin himself told his student that he’d taught him relatively little cinema technique.

“I didn’t teach you cinema!” he remembers Talankin informing him. “I taught you to see yourself, to hear your inner voice!”

Malas honors his teacher, yet his graduation film, “Everything is Alright Mr. Police Officer,” appears to have been equally informed by the fact that his flatmate in Moscow was Sonallah Ibrahim - the writer who went on to become the face of Egypt’s ’60s generation.

When he read an early draft of Ibrahim’s first novel, “The Smell,” Malas says he immediately recognized his brilliance, and knew that (thought the author knew nothing about cinema) he would be the central figure in his first film.

Running a brisk 60 minutes, “Unlocking Doors” doesn’t follow the “ponderously encyclopedic” model of biographical documentary. The film complements “The Cinema of Muhammad Malas,” Andary’s recent book on the filmmaker’s oeuvre.

Perhaps because his book does much of the intellectual heavy-lifting, Andary’s doc aspires to do more than arrange a chronological series of film clips juxtaposed with his subject’s sound bites.

Andary does afford Malas the opportunity to reflect upon individual works in his oeuvre but the fabric of his film suggests a more creative venture, a relationship that’s much more collaborative than it might be - if Malas weren’t such a seasoned filmmaker himself, say, or if this weren’t Andary’s first film.

Traces of director-subject consultation linger prominently (and amusingly) in the margins of the film. Malas’ formal influence upon this doc about his oeuvre is most evident in the way “Unlocking Doors” references the filmmaker’s most-recent work, “Ladder to Damascus.”

Like his first professional film, Malas’ fifth feature depicts destruction. Unlike “Qunaytra ’74,” though, “Ladder” isn’t seeking to remember another country’s historic destruction of a village, but a sclerotic regime’s ongoing assault upon its youth - as experienced by a clutch of creative, idealistic young adults in the first year of Syria’s revolution.

“Always on my mind,” his voice-over reflects, “is how my generation failed to know what was going on in Syria over the past 40 years.”

Thoughts of the younger generation give Malas an opportunity to introduce his son Nawar - playing Beethoven’s “Sonata Pathetique” on an upright piano badly in need of tuning. “This generation lives and communicates and expresses itself fundamentally differently than we did,” he reflects. “This generation has the capacity, vision and openness to see things through, to resist.”

Among Malas’ cast of characters in “Ladder” is a film student who obsessively projects moving images upon any surface he can find - whether hung bed sheets or the bodies of his housemates.

During the shoot of “Unlocking Doors,” Andary and DP Yann Seweryn playfully borrow the visual language of “Ladder,” projecting Malas’ work upon his body as he muses on his body of work. “I wish stopping my work in cinema would end my pain,” Malas is heard to say, “so I could get some rest.”

The now-stern-faced auteur now signals “Cut!”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 21, 2019, on page 8.

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