“I was just wondering about these people who travel across the world to come and see our heritage and how great our grandfathers were while most of us haven’t or aren’t even planning to see any of it,” an Egyptian character says, sitting outside the pyramids in Domestic Tourism II. The quote, appearing in the film’s clever mix of scenes from Egyptian films featuring the pyramids, seemed an appropriate epigraph at times for this past year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival, during which a largely expat audience watched Middle Eastern repertory treats that its home crowds had never seen before. Now the tables have been turned, as the Middle East comes to the West with “Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s to Now,” an ongoing tied-in program of Arab films playing at MoMA.
The three-part series’s earliest films begin around the time former European colonies like Algeria broke free of their masters. A reason many Arab audiences have never had the chance to see these prints (including a gorgeous restoration of the great Egyptian film The Mummy), according to series programmer Rasha Salti, is that their countries and territories haven’t developed full archives. The curators spent three years searching for films for the series, not just because they wanted a comprehensive show, but because several films were difficult to find. The results, like 1972’s Iraqi-Syrian coproduced tale of childhood torment Al-Yazerli, are often rewarding, enough so that you want to come back for the subsequent rounds.
Yet, despite the title date, the bulk of this installment’s films were made within the past decade, pointing to the freshness of film industries in countries like Libya, Lebanon, and Palestine. The series opened with the Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s trilogy of autobiographical features—“chronicles,” he calls them—tracing his family history alongside his increasing political awareness, culminating in the perpetual sense of loss in 2009’s The Time That Remains. Both the 2009 films We Were Communists (Lebanon) and Port of Memory (Palestine, the UAE, and others), concerned with locals fighting an intense sense of displacement, were completed with the help of Abu Dhabi Film Festival funds. Aside from the frequent, active reclamation of the “I” in several series films (either through voiceover or through close observation of a small number of protagonists), it’s tough to get a handle on the overall picture, perhaps because Arab film cultures themselves are still forming. Audiences throughout much of the Middle East have greater opportunities to see American and European films than to see films from their own countries. When the director of China Is Still Far, a smart Algerian documentary about current schoolchildrens’ inability to comprehend the Revolution, joked before a screening that he was comfortable speaking in French because it was his colonizer’s language, he was referring to cultural colonizers as much as political ones.
Don’t go to these shows expecting all masterpieces (though Al-Yazerli’s first several dynamic, disorienting close-ups of screaming kids are pretty great)—that’s not the point. Rather, it’s a chance to see new canons being formed, and then reshaped. In a city whose repertory culture is dominated by American, French, and Japanese output, the lineup marks a welcome change.
“Mapping Subjectivity” runs through November 22. For more information, click here.