Revolution in Maghrebi Cinema by Jamal Bahmad
Mainstream narratives of the Arab Spring have been both simplistic and influential. The coverage of the uprisings in the Maghreb and the Middle East has been dominated by the notion that the events were as unforeseeable as they were sudden. But for the observer of social change and cultural production in North Africa, the 2011 uprisings were anything but surprising. In fact, from Egypt to Morocco, filmmakers have been predicting and projecting the growing wrath of youthful populations coming under increasing pressure from economic globalisation and have been projecting for decades. The attentive viewer will have glimpsed in these films the indigenous voices of disaffected youth and ordinary people. Contemporary North African filmmakers have painted remarkably subtle portraits of their changing societies.
In the early 1980s, the countries of North Africa began to implement the International Monetary Fund’s Structural Adjustment Programmes. What was initially perceived as a short-term strategy to tackle recession-induced public deficit and soaring international debt transpired to be a decades-long era of privatisations, austerity, high unemployment and low human development rates. Rapid neo-liberalisation engendered deep social and political transformations. Market forces consolidated the regimes’ hold on power while poverty levels soared, public education and healthcare deteriorated, and loss and uncertainty characterised the everyday lives of the people of the Maghreb. This is the world that has formed the region’s new generation; and this is the world that is depicted on the screen.
In the face of the rapid social change, political repression and economic hardship of the neoliberal era, North African filmmakers have resorted to realist representations of globalisation from the standpoint of its victims. With the exception of Egypt, which enjoyed a large film industry in the first half of the twentieth century, indigenous cinema in other countries of the region is largely a post-colonial affair. Upon the independence of their countries in the 1950s and early 1960s, indigenous filmmakers sought a cinema capable of articulating the postcolonial condition. In a seminal essay, Tunisian director Nouri Bouzid contends that the defeat of the Arab armies in the 1967 war with Israel brought home to North African filmmakers the need for a new realism in the representations of their societies. As Egyptian director Youssef Chahine puts it:
Confrontation — there must be confrontation; confrontation with the self... Where has all this started? How have we come to this? How have we been deceived and put in the wrong? How and where have we erred? Only then can we begin to settle the account with ourselves, so that we could possibly begin to accept ourselves, a necessary precondition for others to accept us.
Influential films by Egyptians Chahine (The Sparrow, 1973) and Shadi Abdel Salam (The Mummy, 1969), and by the Syrian Mohamed Malas (Dreams of the City, 1983), for example, found resonant echoes in the Maghreb. Bouzid places his own film Rih Essed (Man of Ashes, 1986) within the genre of New Realism that swept across North African cinema after the debacle of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. He coins the phrase ‘the cinema of defeat’ to describe this new wave of realism.
To post-colonial filmmakers across North Africa, 1967 brought home not only a sense of defeat but also, to use Bouzid’s own term, an awareness of the ‘decadence’ of their civilisation. Therefore, they perceived cinema as ‘a social necessity’ and ‘a vehicle for the spreading of awareness and a tool or forum for analysis and debate’. The new cinema’s politics are succinctly outlined by Bouzid: ‘Admitting defeat, the new realism proceeds to expose it and make the awareness of its causes and roots a point of departure.’ The filmmakers turned their lenses away from master narratives to the everyday life of ordinary individuals. It was a time of transition from the cinema of the collective hero, which prevailed particularly in the Algerian cinema of the 1960s and early 1970s, to a preoccupation with the embattled individual in Maghrebi society. Besides the 1967 disaster, rampant poverty, despotism, illiteracy and gender segregation were among the reasons behind what Hélé Béji calls ‘national disenchantment’ that led to a loss of faith in the meta-narratives of liberation and nationalism. In the film world, disenchantment turned into an uncompromising realism, and cinema became more conscious of defeat.