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The Arab films exposing the 'polite fiction of society' through cinema at Berlinale Open in fullscreen

Giovanni Vimercati

The Arab films exposing the 'polite fiction of society' through cinema at Berlinale

Running from March 5-9, the Berlinale of 2021 marked a low-key digital debut

Date of publication: 25 March, 2021

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At this year's Berlinale, four Arab films brought forward the painful complexity behind the façade of society.
Now that with the ongoing pandemic our computer screens have become a surrogate for reality and human relations, to an even greater extent than they already were, the need for the big screen of cinema feels more pressing, its function possibly clearer.

Cinema not only as a public space for the collective socialisation of film, but also as a way to reflect on, rather than merely mirror or convey, the world we continue to inhabit, even behind a screen.

At this year's Berlinale, whose first part recently took place online, four Arab films paid (in)direct testament to the ability of cinema to expose the polite fiction of society and bring to the fore the painful complexity behind its façade.

Cleverly built on the ineluctable interconnectedness of virtual and physical reality, Ayten Amin's Souad explores the limits of digital avatars measured against the constraints of sexual segregation and repression.

The titular character is a 19-year-old girl whose existence is split between what society expects her to be and what the internet allows her to pretend to be. Chaste in real life, Souad (Bassant Ahmed) has a virtual relation with a guy she met online but will never meet in person.

Far from impersonal, her romance with Ahmed (Hussein Ghanem) occupies an important emotional place in her inner life. When tragedy strikes, her younger sister Rabab (Basmala Elghaiesh) will embark on a journey to discover who the person her sibling was dating online really is.

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Though hardly ever straying from the protagonists with her camera, the director is able to perceptively outline the fault lines of a social dimension that tacitly condones the existence of double lives and standards.

Faced with Souad's parallel existence the spectator gets a vivid and empathic glimpse into the schism that defines the life of many young women like her, one where the public and private sphere never collide, let alone match.

Within this scenario, which is by no means an exclusive prerogative of Egyptian society, social networks and media create the illusion of being able to be someone else, to cross geographical as well as class barriers.

What Amin's film subtly reveals, avoiding any moralism whatsoever, is that the digital delusion of another, different self is one inevitably bound to dissolve at some point.

What Amin's film subtly reveals, avoiding any moralism whatsoever, is that the digital delusion of another, different self is one inevitably bound to dissolve at some point

It is not only women who struggle to be in touch with their veritable selves, men too, despite living in a society fundamentally catered to their needs and egos, are assigned roles they do not necessarily want or fit.

In George Peter Barbari's Death of a Virgin, and the Sin of Not Living a group of friends in Batroun, Lebanon, is on the way to lose their virginity with a prostitute, hiding their fears and insecurities behind a barrage of jokes.

In this coming of sexual age tale each protagonist is afforded, through an inner monologue that we hear in voiceover, a glimpse into his own future.

Thanks to this ingenious narrative expedient, before they reach symbolic adulthood we learn of their future lives right until death.

Imperfect lives of compromise, of pragmatic calculation in order to "settle down" that cacophonically contradict the idealism of youth. Interestingly, in their inner monologues the idea of romantic and sexual fulfillment is never even mentioned, marriage is a duty, something to do for the exclusive sake of social respectability and positioning.

Sex, always and only heterosexual, is a performative task that needs to be carried out in order to prove your masculinity, even if you are gay, as in the case of the taciturn protagonist of the film, Etienne (Etienne Assal).


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His self-effacing presence in the midst of the loud group of friends is quite eloquent, evoking the uncomfortable space reserved to people like him who do not confirm to the hypocrisy of "traditions."

At the same time, his friends' braggadocio shouldn't be taken at face value for what it compensates for is far more telling than its ostensible confidence.

The vehemence with which they obsessively assert their virility is directly proportional to their existential fragility, something we sense during their inner monologues where stentorian swagger gives way to introspection and self-doubt.

Etienne's final encounter with the prostitute is staged in all its awkward squalor, devoid of both prurience and allure. A lapidary sequence that ends the film with the heaviness of a tombstone.

Etienne's final encounter with the prostitute is staged in all its awkward squalor, devoid of both prurience and allure. A lapidary sequence that ends the film with the heaviness of a tombstone

Even more visceral, and painfully so, is As I Want by the Palestinian director Samaher Alqadi. Literally armed with a camera, the director documents and confronts harassers in the streets of Cairo and partake to the organised response of Egyptian women.

On the second anniversary of the uprising that overthrew the Mubarak regime, on January 25, 2013, a series of sexual assaults took place in Tahrir square immediately followed by angry demonstrations led by women.

As the director starts filming these protests and her daily struggle in the streets of the Egyptian capital she becomes pregnant.

Her reflections on what it means to be a woman and a mother take her back to her childhood places and traumas.

Though deeply personal in both tone and form, Alqadi's film is never indulgent nor self-referent. Quite the contrary, the director manages to elevate her personal struggle to a collective dimension that involves her peers but calls also into question everyone else involved.

As I Want proves and articulates what Angela Davis has termed the "indivisibility of freedom", that is the impossibility to fight against one form of injustice while overlooking others.

As Egyptians returned to the streets to vent their frustration against the Muslim Brotherhood which had won the election just a year earlier, the director and her comrades have to fight on multiple fronts as women. They have to fight for their right to the city, to public space, to walk freely and dressed as they please.

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Rather than rhetorically, let alone didactically, the director makes the spectator feel this urgency almost corporeally, this undelayable need to abolish the daily policing and abuse of the female body.

Yet not once is the spectator emotionally blackmailed or manipulated, the empathy the film sets off is directly political, unfiltered by any intellectualism whatsoever.

We side with the director not out of cinematographic identification, but thanks to her aesthetic capacity to build a film that exceeds her personal sphere in spite of its very intimate essence.

As I Want proves and articulates what Angela Davis has termed the 'indivisibility of freedom', that is the impossibility to fight against one form of injustice while overlooking others

The connection between the private and the public, between the personal and the historical is also the narrative thread that runs through Memory Box by Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige. Their multi-disciplinary work has always been characterised by repressed and missing memories of which the history of modern Lebanon is tragically dotted.

Their latest film is no exception, though possibly infatuated with more canonical forms of filmmaking.

Maia (Rim Turki) has left Lebanon during the Civil War (1975-1990) to build a new life in Montreal, Canada. Her painful and unresolved past was left behind never to be dealt with again, until one day, on Christmas Eve, she receives a box containing tapes, photos and diaries she had entrusted to her best friend.

Determined not to open it, Maia will have to confront her past after her daughter Alex (Paloma Vauthier) goes through the content of the mnemonic box learning about a past her mother had never talked about.

Alex's encounter with her mother's "previous life" is symbolically charged. On the one hand it represents a generational suture between two generations divided by the experience of war but still trapped in its unresolved legacy, on the other is the encounter between two modes of cultural elaboration, the digital and the analogical.

The film tries to plastically render the historical encounter between the daughter's online nativism and the mother's analogical souvenirs by digitally animating old photos and memories.

What in the film remains a personal story acquires in the Lebanese context a national significance for the lack of shared historical memory in Lebanon is an open and contradictory question.

Partly inspired by the diaries Joana Hadjithomas herself kept from 1982 to 1988, the film cathartically ends with the mother reconciling with her past.

A bitterly fictional ending, for the weaponisation of memory and its selective manipulation by different sectarian forces remains in Lebanon a matter of daily political course. And while scars from the past awaits to be healed, new wounds are being inflicted on the fragmented and exhausted body of this tiny Mediterranean country.


Giovanni Vimercati is a freelance film critic and a graduate student at the American University of Beirut. Follow him on Twitter: @CLF_Project

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