Nightfall: Abou Elie’s bar, Lebanon’s last bastion of socialism.
Nightfall: the former fighters take refuge in poetry
Nightfall: “I went to film Abu Tok’s grave in the Chatila camp, but I couldn’t ... I found him more beautiful in his photograph.”
Tango of Yearning: Samar gently disabuses Soueid of his romantic obsession.
Nightfall: riding with Fadi, the would-be martyr.
Civil War: the radical disconnectedness of matter.
Nightfall: fragmentary experiences that can only be connected superficially.
Civil War: “a world of non-totalizable fragments.”
From The Prince Contemplating His Soul (2005) by Nacer Khémir.
From L’Alphabet rouge (1994) by Mounir Fatmi.
Nightfall: an earnest love of singularities.
Tango of Yearning: war, love, and cinema.
Tango of Yearning: real-life ramifications are felt at a distance from their causes.
Tango of Yearning: war, love, and cinema.
We feel very much that Soueid is drawn to obsessive characters, people whose neuroses and tragedies make them truthful historical subjects. “Subjects” in Soueid’s films are knots of tics, bad habits, and accommodations that allow them to deal (not without flair) with impossible situations. They are not so much psychological subjects as knots in a political field, their individual neuroses the manifestation of political traumas.
In Nightfall, the characters take the disaster of the Lebanese civil war deeply personally, as the failure of their political ideals. These former members of the Fatah Student Squad saw their secular, socialist, and pan-Arab goals crumble humiliatingly in the factional and international power grab that the civil war became. Now, they wonder at their decision to join the Palestinian resistance rather than the Communists or a Lebanese left-wing party, without regretting it. They recall the Student Squad’s Maoist politic that fighters must serve the people, and how this distinguished them from the militia bullies who would jump the queue in bakeries. Then, Fatah stood for the Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nnow, they carefully distance themselves from what Fatah has become (in 2000) “in the West Bank.” Ten years after the end of the war, they divert their frustrated appetite for justice into drinking, nostalgia, poetry, and tender unrequited love. Visiting the grave of a comrade, Bassem muses,
But, as is probably clear by now, Nightfall is not a documentary “about” the fall of Arab left politics. Even the romantic stance of the former fighter, alone with his ideals, is undermined when Abou Hasan, Bassem’s creative mentor, criticizes his friend thus:
The civil war trilogy is not looking for the causes of the war, or anything else, so much as observing its effects in the particularities of everyday life.
Soueid himself is the ultimate affective filter of all these lives, histories, injustices and frustrations. Tango of Yearning, the first and most personal of the three, returns obsessively to Mohamed’s unrequited love, narcissistically interviewing friends about himself, the absurdist television series he directed, “Fond of Camilia,” and their thoughts on love, and examining how it was possible to grow up a cinephile in wartime Beirut, as he did. His friends narrate his failed love story with “the real Camilia” with affection and frustration. An actress from the TV show, Samar, delicately wreathed in cigarette smoke, explains gently,
In Nightfall Abou Hassan tells how, over the course of forty years, he learned that it is a fine thing to hold a woman’s breast, but better still to hold an arak glass. Later he instructs Mohamed,
And in Civil War, a friend of the deceased Mohamed Douaybess tells how he used to take care of his camera so tenderly, as though it was his girlfriend.
Although just political causes like that of Palestine are give their due, Soueid’s trilogy suggests that war is a redirection of love, or at least erotic intention. Witness the prevalence of camouflage-patterned lingerie in Civil War, in which film Mohamed Douaybess’ survivors note that he suspected that sexual frustration was one of the causes of war. In Nightfall we meet Soueid’s friend Fadi. Whenever he has a fight with one of his girlfriends, he shaves his head and donates blood. If things are really bad, he vows to carry out a martyrdom mission for Hizballah (this is in 2000, before Hizballah renounced suicide missions) — in an impressive, if facile, translation of erotic passion to military violence. Soueid does not celebrate the freedom and anarchy that fighters enjoyed during the war years, as many former militia members do. His rejection of this kind of macho narcissism and nostalgia, his refusal to fall into that way of making sense of the world, is remarkable.
Each of these films is marked by a hesitation in the face of romantic attachments to women and a redirection of love to other things — not to violence, but to friends, the cinema, and “that dangerous toy,” the camera. There is a kind of feminization that happens, as though Soueid, rather than pursuing women, prefers to suffuse his films with them. In Civil War, it is women, real and fictional, who provide the most penetrating analyses of the complex political situation. In Nightfall, Soueid’s reminiscence of his years as a fighter and his postwar political disillusionment is spoken in voice-over by a woman.
The impression I get is not that Soueid is appropriating women’s voices — even when they are speaking his words — but rather that his insight and experience makes more sense when spoken by a woman. Soueid’s “becoming-woman” helps to make him less an agent of causality and more a surface or filter on which the many events he witnesses can play out. Thus even the almost embarrassingly intimate Tango of Yearning tells us less about Mohamed and more about the war, the cinema, and love. Soueid’s trilogy does not treat the filmmaker as a subject to be analyzed but as a field for the investigation of — something else. He offers himself as a “plane of immanence” in which to discover other things.
“In love as in war,” Soueid says in Tango of Yearning, “we utter slogans that fall meaningless when it’s over.” At the end of Tango of Yearning a close-up fixes a man at the wheel of a car that is not moving forward but jostling from side to side. The camera pulls back to show that the car is an abandoned wreck, and its unhabitual movement is caused by two other fellows rhythmically bouncing it and its passenger. Life is like that in Mohamed Soueid’s world: a ride that goes not go forward but moves at the whim of (not necessarily hostile) outside forces. It’s the trials of love, as much as the whims of politics, that frustrate intention, break down causality, and prepare us with a kind of humility in the face of the universe.
Long before modern philosophers such as Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze posited a continuous relationship of virtuality to actuality, Arab philosophers had posited a number of ways of conceiving this relationship (and indeed characterized the All-Knowing God as a kind of plane of immanence). Early Islamic thinkers, many associated with the Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad, established a number of philosophical tendencies that would go on to travel westward, transform, or dissipate. For the Islamic Neoplatonist philosophers (falasifa), such as Al-Kindi (d. 866) and Al-Farabi (d. 950), as for their Greek ancestors, things in the universe exist in a relationship of latency and manifestation, or emanation. Less known in the West are the Mu’tazili atomists, active especially in 9th-10th century Baghdad and Basra. The Mu’tazili sought to establish a rational basis for Islam (kalam). Their deductions led to the conclusion that the world exists only insofar as God commands it to do so, and indeed that He does so one particle at a time. While the falasifa emphasized the underlying connective structure of matter, the Mu’tazili atomists developed an extreme version of the randomness and disconnectedness of matter.
These atomist philosophers emphasized the unknowability of the relationship between the infinite, unknowable Deity and his finite creation. One of their variations, the "radical occasionalism" of al-Nazzam (d. 845), argued that things exist only because God commands them to at every moment. He could just as well say “Cease to exist!” and my chair would disappear from under me, my nose and ears would change position, or our entire universe would disappear. The atomists saw all things as concatenations of atoms and accidents, whose composition could shift and change in the twinkling of an eye if so commanded by God. Atomism in Western philosophy is similarly characterized by fragmentary experiences that can only be connected superficially, though it lacks the theological founding of Islamic atomism. Thus the knowable world of Hume is
Islamic atomism led to two radically divergent traditions. To simplify a complex history, one maintained the Mu‘tazili emphasize the need for rational inquiry, interpretation, and distinguishing between latent and manifest meaning. This tradition is more associated with Shi‘a Islam. The other, after the transformations wrought by al-Ash`ari (d. 965), discouraged attempts to interpret the meaning of God’s actions, emphasized community solidarity over argumentation, and tends toward mysticism. It is more associated with Sunni Islam.
Soueid’s trilogy makes numerous references to the Shi‘a resistance parties, both Hizballah and Amal, which in some ways inherited the secular politics of resistance that the Fatah Student Squad, the Communist Party, and other long-since eclipsed Lebanese parties. In Lebanon, Shi‘a Muslims have long been the poorest and most disenfranchised religious group, despite their large numbers. The interests of the Shi‘a have long been ignored by the Sunni, Maronite Christian, and Druze blocs that hold the majority of political power in Lebanon. It should come as no surprise that the political movement of the Shi‘a, now dominated by Hizballah, draws on an intellectual tradition of questioning, interpretation, resistance to oppression, and anti-quietism.
An Islamic aesthetics of cinema based on atomism, characterized by a dynamic of appearance and disappearance, has indeed been broached by a handful of writers. Jalal Toufic argues that such aesthetics are at work in the films of Paradjanov, for example. Khemais Khayati quotes the poet Salah Stétie that the
We might also see Islamic aesthetics at work in the jewel-like, magical fables of Tunisian filmmaker of Nacer Khémir, in whose cinema, such as the stunning The Prince Contemplating His Soul (2005), the actual and virtual intertwine to create “a world where the real and the magical become one and the same.” We come upon them in the videos of Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi, who animates words and letters to give rise to invisible being.
Atomism also characterizes many kinds of contemporary cinema in which loose causal relationships occur in a universe whose laws of causality seem unknowable. Atomist films, being unable to generalize, focus on singularity. Films that appear fragmentary, place emphasis on the singular, that refuse or seem unable to account for relationships between cause and effect, that resort to magic or alternative logic, may all be analyzed as atomist: films such as Martin Scorsese’s Casino, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, Julio Medem’s Lovers of the Arctic Circle, Miranda July’s You, Me, and Everyone We Know, and Tom Barman’s Any Way the Wind Blows. Atomism can “explain” the cinema of a world where real-life ramifications are felt at a great distance from their causes—from fads to famine to freakish weather. These causes, which include the investment of global capital and the formation of political alliance, are sometimes even opaque to their agents. A theory that arose in the ninth century to account for the inexplicable actions of an unknown and all-powerful God is newly relevant in our deeply interconnected, yet apparently fragmented, contemporary world.
Contemporary atomism might reflect a skeptical attitude toward the concept of immanence, whereby singular, actually existent things (such as concepts) emerge from a One-All. This One-All, which is not unlike the monotheistic God, is Deleuze and Guattari’s plane of immanence. The French thinkers, while denying that thought bounded by religion can be philosophy, acknowledge that every philosophy iterates the plane of immanence in a particular shape. Thus we can imagine that the plane of immanence of Islamic atomism is shaped by the tortuous difficulty, the humbling uncertainty, of trying to draw relationships between latent and manifest, virtual and actual, the plane of immanence and the singularities that arise. It adds a measure of deep suspicion, founded perhaps in atomism and its political upheavals, and confirmed in contemporary Arab politics. Again I emphasize that atomism, though it is an Islamic intellectual tradition, is not at all limited to discussing cinema made by Muslims. The fact that I am doing so here is — let’s call it pure chance.
Every “atomist” film is still atomist in its own way, in that it chooses its own principles to trace connections among all these fragments. Mohamed Soueid chooses a route among war, love, and cinema, making himself the membrane across which the connections play out. He shows an earnest love of singularities, especially people, their faces, their voices, their teeth; also of absurd coincidences. Despite his practical left politics, his work does not evince much faith in fundamental political principles, or any other large-scale explanation.
In Soueid’s work a sense of what is latent or immanent is given by the sense that the world of singularities is somehow disjointed. It is as though events could have been thrown up in a different order; as though the universe could turn over its shingles like one of those pixellated billboards. There we would still be confronted with a series of singularities, connected in some unknown way to a latent being that we cannot fathom. Our goal is not to submit to the unknown, underlying order, but to interpret its manifest signs. And if that fails — there remain the carefully fried fish, Sahar the dentist explaining the etymology of “filling,” the moist eyes of Bassem, a vigorous debate about the color of Anwar El-Sadat’s eyes, and the freshly washed shirts of a dead friend, hanging to dry in the breeze.