Movies & TV

Three odes to vacant houses

BERLIN: What do an archaeological ruin, Noh Theater, and a deserted social housing project have in common? Berlin, of course.

For the programmers of the Berlin International Film Festival, the most interesting Arabic cinema these days is being made by the region’s artists. Anyway, most of the Berlinale’s MENA content tends to be clustered in The Forum and Forum Expanded – sections dedicated to unconventional approaches to cinema and the dialogue between film and contemporary art.

The sections’ curators don’t assemble Arabic-only programs, happily, but cluster works with formal and thematic affinities. A good example of this sort of curatorial bundling was the Forum Expanded program projected at the Arsenal this week, comprised of works by Lebanon’s Akram Zaatari, Finnish-born artist Jona Kina and Egyptian filmmaker-artist Ahmed Elghoneimy.

Thanks to their overlapping themes, these three dissimilar pieces comprise a program that contemplates different formal approaches to cultural heritage and technology, landscape and music, and more.

Elghoneimy’s 19-minute fiction “Al-Maw’oud” (The Promised), 2020, is located in a sector of Cairo where the informal settlement of Al-Izba sprawls alongside and atop the ruins of old Fustat – aka “The Metropolis of the Tent,” the historical cornerstone of Cairo.

The short opens with a segment capturing a gang of youngsters among Fustat’s seventh-century ruins, playing a local version of Cowboys and Indians (it might be called “People fleeing the State”).

The story centers on an encounter between one of the state-appointed guards who oversee the site and Al-Izba residents, whose looting and casual appropriation of the site as a road makes for an amusingly fraught (yet familiar) relationship with the guards. Thanks in part to the characters’ fragmented dialect, which the program moderator Maha Maamoun equated with the ruins of Fustat itself, there’s no shortage of humor in this exchange.

With most of the action playing out within a fixed-frame, “Al-Maw’oud” concludes with a drone-mounted shot overlooking Fusat’s ruins and Al-Izba’s unfinished, yet lived-in, red-brick structures, underlining the proximity of neglected past and derelict present.

Residential spaces and heritage are combined into different cocktail in Kina’s five-minute “Akiya,” 2020, inspired by Japan’s ever-growing number of abandoned residential buildings. Uninterested in simply filming derelict structures, the artist embeds her story in a nest of nostalgia.

She’s taken snippets of contemporary newspaper reportage and poetry on the subject and had them translated into a Japanese dialect from the 14-16th-centuries – the language of Noh, the country’s traditional theater form, which a performer sings. The work’s media is as deeply nostalgic as the subject. Rather than capturing the performance on video, say, her work shows it being played back on reel-to-reel tape player, which she’s recorded on 35mm film.

“Akiya” ends when the reel-to-reel runs out of tape.

Tuesday’s program concluded with its longest work, Akram Zaatari’s hour-long “Al-Houbut” (The Landing), 2019, which embraces aspects of Elghoneimy and Kina’s works.

The piece was shot in the now-deserted site of Shaabiyat al-Ghurayfah, a public housing project the UAE built in the ’80s for the newly settled Ketbi Bedouins. The location marks a departure in the artist-filmmaker’s practice, most of whose oeuvre has been shot in Lebanon.

Though DP Talal Khoury makes good use of the place’s landscape features, portions of which have been devoured by the desert landscape, “Al-Houbut” literally instrumentalizes the abandoned settlement. The work’s “plot” focuses upon the efforts of three men (experimental musicians Sharif Sehnaoui, Ali Hout and Abed Kobeissy) to “play” the settlement’s remains, which they retool as improvised instruments.

After an establishing shot of sand being whipped up from a desert landscape, the film begins with Sehnaoui sauntering toward the camera, dragging a miked stick behind him. Finding an abandoned metal water tank, he improvises a drum beat, concluding when Kobeissy emerges from a hole in the tank.

Somewhat later, the camera finds Sehnaoui suspending three ropes between two buildings. He hangs a wooden seat from two of them to make a swing and affixes a portable music device from the third. The artist and the boom box – now playing a joyful, feminine-voiced pop tune – oscillate back and forth out of synch with each other, like a Doppler Effect demonstration on a kids’ TV show.

Hout commences digging a trench in the sand, pausing every now and then to blow on the end of the hollow metal shovel handle – the sound we hear resembles that of a didgeridoo. Later he takes an interest in the sound of stones landing upon the (well-miked) sand-covered ground. (In one of the film’s several playful asides, the musician is later seen standing cautiously over a pile of rocks with a boom microphone, as if waiting to see if they’ll emit sounds on their own.)

Kobeissy runs taut lines between two structures and proceeds to pluck it, “bow” it and strike it, to hear what sounds issue forth. Later he adds a second string alongside the first and bows them until – like a fiddle in mid-concert – one of them breaks.

This sort of thing seems too fragile a structure to sustain an hour-long film, yet the work is buoyed by its sense of humor – whether Hout’s tentative experiments with the boom mike (after listening to the stones, he approaches some ornery camels grazing on an acacia) or the drone that’s as likely to enter the frame as a comic character as it is to ferry a camera through the site.

For audiences curious about experimental music, of course, “The Landing” has a more intrinsic appeal. These performances – sometimes experimental, sometimes post-produced – have a playful charm about them.

This aspect of Zaatari’s work is inspired by work of Hassan Sharif (1951-2016), the Emirati artist whose performance works (most of which are known only through photographic documentation) playfully engaged with his country’s landscape in a way that anticipated much contemporary practice in the region. Some of the vignettes the film captures restage Sharif’s work and “Al-Houbut” is, appropriately, dedicated to him.

For more about the Berlinale, see:





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