2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007
cinema of immanence
by Laura U. Marks
Near the beginning of Mohamed Soueid’s Nightfall (2000), the voice of the filmmaker’s old comrade Bassem recites a poem he has written, while another friend prepares them a meal in an underground auto-repair shop. As tiny fish sizzle in oil the poet intones,
“I am Bassem, the sad smile – I am the conscience of the people, the wound of the city.”
Soueid’s camera attends to his friend’s careful hands squeezing lemon and carefully garnishing a dish of hummus, as the gentle voice continues,
“I am the thirst of the glass, the wind of the sail....”
What matters in this carefully edited scene, we feel, is this meal, this poem to be savored and critiqued, these little fish from the depleted Mediterranean, laid to drain on today’s newspaper. The long slow passion among these old friends, unified around the dismal failure of their political ideals, gathers around and is expressed through acutely experienced micro-events.
“Have you tried these peppers — called the lady’s clit?...No? ...
Why don’t you get hemorrhoid surgery...?”
Mohamed Soueid’s passion, compassion, love of lost or unlikely causes, and taste for slapstick are all aspects of a certain approach to the virtual that this filmmaker embraces in his personal documentaries. Soueid is a central proponent of the experimental video documentary movement, which is perhaps Lebanon’s greatest contribution to contemporary Arab and world cinema. This movement has played a significant role in the Lebanese creative renaissance that has taken place since the end of the civil war.
Soueid himself became a filmmaker under the twin pressures of necessity and desire produced by the Lebanese civil war. By necessity, he trained as a news videographer during the war, gaining a fluency with the medium that made Soueid one of the first Lebanese filmmakers to make personal video. By desire, as he recounts in the film Tango of Yearning, Soueid passed countless hours in the movie theaters of downtown Beirut during the war. The shapelessness that wartime gave to Lebanese daily life took for Soueid the form of cinema, from European classics to kung-fu movies. Soueid has since helped a generation of filmmakers to find their voices and tools, including as a founder of the grassroots media production company Beirut DC (Beirut Development and Cooperation, co-founded by Soueid, Dmitri Khodr, and Hania Mroue in 1999), and documentary producer for the Dubai-based production company O3.
Equally a writer, Soueid has published books on Lebanese cinema, fiction works, screenplays, and journalism. Recently he collaborated with Lebanese writer Elias Khoury and Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah, to adapt Khoury’s novel Door to the Sun into the screenplay for Nasrallah’s stunning 2004 epic, by the same title, on the Palestinian dispossession and its aftermath.
Soueid’s effort to assist the circulation of other Arab works is defined by the same obstacles that shape his own oeuvre. He has a deep love of the cinematic but is usually forced to content itself with the cheap video medium. He has an urgency to democratize the Arab media, but his work here is shaped by the circuitous and by no means evident path by which Arab alternative media reaches its audiences.
In the following essay, I introduce Soueid’s Civil War trilogy, the feature-length experimental documentaries Tango of Yearning (1998), Nightfall (2000), and Civil War (2002). I also venture to qualify as “atomist” Soueid’s particular method of summoning the virtual from the actual. Namely, as though through a tissue of sentimental absurdities, he is able to draw the outline of political and philosophical truths that otherwise would not be recognizable.
Soueid’s rich trilogy invites many kinds of reflection and emotion. It could be interpreted through a psychoanalytic optic, as a mapping of the unexpected sites in which the repressed in Lebanese society pops up to assert itself, while the narrative is structured by a symptomatic slalom course of declarations and disavowals. The trilogy would respond to an archaeological analysis how certain discourses deform the horizon of the Lebanese thinkable, if only to crumble into one another. These films are also not unfamiliar with Benjaminian practice of interpreting the failures of ideology from the ruins of its demise.
But Soueid’s “Civil War” trilogy — and indeed the city of Beirut itself — is already performing a psychoanalysis. It is already archaeological. It knows all about ruins. These critical methods speak alongside his work as much as they interpret or excavate it. Here, I invite you to think about this work in terms of a model of virtuality and immanence, that is drawn not only from Western philosophy but also from Islamic atomism, a now-dissipated philosophical tendency that nonetheless leaves traces in Islamic thought. In doing this, I do not mean to pull Soueid’s work into an Arab intellectual genealogy. Soueid certainly wouldn’t wish that. His cinema has as much in common with Franz Kafka, the Dada poets, and his beloved Nicolas Ray as with concepts from Islam, if not more. Similarly, the historic movement of Islamic atomism is as useful for analyzing non-Arab arts, such as contemporary computer animation or “neo-Baroque” cinema, as it is for describing tendencies in Lebanese documentary.[open notes in new window] The connection between the two is neither arbitrary nor exclusive.
Thus what follows is an account of how this fascinating documentary trilogy shows a tendency to avoid attributing root causes and to favor this-ness, fragmentariness, indirection, all while pursuing themes of love, war, and cinema. Then I will introduce the tradition of atomism in order to propose a strong analytical model for Soueid’s trilogy, and indeed for many other films of our time.
Lebanon is a country whose vulnerability to outside powers (including Israel, the United States, Syria, and lately Iran) and internal divisiveness make it impossible to assert a unified narrative of the nation’s history or confidently to draw causal connections between historical events. There has been no agreement as to the facts of what happened during the civil war (1975-1990), no Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and no official strategy for healing from the war’s savage effects. The political upheaval surrounding the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2005 and the subsequent Syrian withdrawal continued acutely to test Lebanese people’s ability to narrate history in a linear and non-contradictory way. In July 2006, Israel criminally bombarded civilian targets all across Lebanon, in an attack supposedly against Hizballah that demolished the infrastructure that, during Hariri’s rule, had begun to unify the country geographically. This attack divided Lebanon's population even further along religious lines, and further underscored the country’s utter vulnerability to the whims of international powers.
In the post-civil war era, it was already impossible for documentary filmmakers to identify historical events and fix blame. Now this situation is only exacerbated. Insofar as Lebanese documentarists are able to continue to function at all, they continue to work by imaginatively stretching the truth, mixing documentary, fiction, personal and conceptual approaches. They confront the country’s history like a plane of immanence. There acts that are known and demonstrable are less politically salient than the teeming sea of virtuals, events that have been bulldozed over, witnessed only by the dead and disappeared, forgotten in the official history that seeks to reinsert Lebanon into the global economy, and even forgotten by the participants in the war, for who can afford to live with a gaping wound? Here I am referring to the civil war, which was perhaps just one configuration of the deep external and internal conflicts that continue to tear this little country apart. Mohamed Soueid’s trilogy deals with the shards of the civil war, the unfinished nature of which is only more apparent after the conflict of 2006. I can only hope that he and other Lebanese filmmakers have the will to continue their important work after yet another calamity has befallen their country.
Soueid’s Civil War trilogy tickles the actual in order to make the field of virtuals from which it appeared briefly perceptible. He lays a sound track of growling, howling animals over his shots of Beirut pedestrians, as though to suggest the bestial nature under the city’s civilized veneer (in Civil War). He draws out the packaged evening news by pairing a female announcer with a male “sign language interpreter” who gives the sense of political events, namely hypocrisy, greed, senseless sacrifice, drinking, and boobs (in Tango of Yearning).
Immanent in all Soueid’s films is the cinema itself. His video documentaries are practically deformed by his love of cinema — laboriously sound-image montaged, crammed with cinematic references, and bursting with histrionic performances by real people. For Soueid, cinema is always trying to be reborn in Beirut. After the wartime destruction of the downtown movie palaces, there was a postwar relocation of theatres to the Christian city of Jounieh in the north. Here, for Souied cinema is always borrowed, from Hollywood, Europe, Bollywood and Hong Kong, tentatively held, and all the more passionately cherished. It's a cinema about whose slight but passionate history in Lebanon Soueid himself wrote the book. (He has also written on the old movie theaters of Hamra Street, and includes in Tango of Yearning an interview with the owner of the Cinema Dounia, who kept screenings going during the war, complete with ladies-only afternoons.) As in many fiction and documentary films from countries that do not have a film industry, the struggle of making the film is itself the subject of the film, especially for the first work of the trilogy. Tango of Yearning is about Soueid’s thwarted love, broken heart, the short-lived TV series he directed, “Fond of Camilia,” and the attempts to maintain a culture of cinema in Beirut after the war.
Mohamed and war
In Nightfall, Soueid with due modesty presents himself as a former member of the pro-Palestinian Fatah Student Squad. Membership in this militia during the civil war signified solidarity with the Palestinians living in refugee camps in Lebanon since 1948, as well as with the PLO and Arafat, who had decamped to West Beirut after being expelled from Jordan in 1970. It signified pro-Palestinian and secular pan-Arabism. It ran counter to Lebanese nationalism, and other Lebanese parties, especially the Maronite Christian right-wing Phalange (Kata’ib) party, who attributed the origins of Civil War to the divisive presence of the PLO in Beirut. Having belonged to the Fatah Student Squad marks a person for the hatred of nationalists and (many) Christians, the wariness of those associated with Muslim militias, and the ridicule of all who abandoned wartime idealism for a more survivable strategy of realpolitik.
Now, having moved to Ashrafieh, the largely Christian neighborhood in East Beirut, Soueid acknowledges the strangeness that “I live in a building I used to shoot at.” In Ashrafieh he confronts the Frenchification of much of Arab life, summarized in the fact that a local shop has renamed kneffeh, the heavy, quintessentially Lebanese breakfast cheese pastry, “Galette du matin.” This absurd term, for a snack that could never be mistaken as French, indicates the French colonization of Lebanon, particularly Christian Lebanon; the disavowal of the simplest ingredients of Arab life, even a kind of Arab self-hatred. He relates that his neighbor refuses to respond either to an Arabic “sabah al-khayr” or a French “Bonjour,” instead cranking up the anthem of the Phalange militia on the stereo. Soueid observes the elderly denizens of Ashrafieh, hatted and coiffed and walking little dogs, with compassion as though for an endangered species. Through the singularity of “galette du matin,” Soueid teases out tensions that underlay the war and persist to the present.
These tensions also animate the third film of the trilogy, Civil War, which investigates the mysterious death of Soueid’s cinematographer friend Mohamed Douybaess. (As Soueid remarks, “There are too many Mohameds.” Indeed, when he calls the name “Mohamed” on the street in Beirut, five people turn around.) The film gently skirts the memory of this shy man, who took care of his siblings after the death of their father, smoked five packs a day, and didn’t like to be photographed. Five months after Mohamed Douybaess disappeared, his body was found in an abandoned building, and he had to be identified by his dental records. A terrible irony is that this Mohamed was obsessed with his dental hygiene and retained at least two dentists. Soueid interviews these and listens as they expound on the teeth of the Lebanese people, circumlocuting the cause of Douybaess’ death. According to the dentists, Lebanese have the highest rate of tooth decay in the world. Thoughtfully smoking, the lady dentist Sahar tells how stress causes a sudden “explosion of caries” in mouths that were healthy just six months earlier.
Sahar’s observation shows that it is not the speaking mouths, but the mute and painful teeth of the Lebanese people tell the story of their postwar experience: stress (as do many languages, the Arabic adopts the English word “stress”), fatigue, living with uncertainty. Indeed, people come to her office to break down and cry because there is nowhere else they can do it. The famous Lebanese sociality is not strong enough to bear the waves of suffering in the war and its aftermath. Though a vast proportion of Lebanese have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder during and since the civil war, few seek psychotherapy because of the associated social stigma. So the symptoms of stress all come to the surface in the dentist’s chair.
The explosions of caries in Lebanese teeth is certainly a collective symptom of the unfinished trauma of the war and its aftermath. But Soueid treats it as more, and less, than this. That teeth can lead to a diagnosis of the causes and effects of war is not the answer to how to understand the history of the civil war. It is one of a potentially infinite number of paths among seemingly unrelated singularities, from which a pattern emerges.
In Soueid’s universe, relations of causality are pervasive and indirect.Actual events are laid in atom by atom like tesserae — a slight shift of the kaleidoscope, and relations among these fragments shift as well. So on the 11th of September, 2001, Lebanese people were mourning the death of beloved Egyptian actress Souad Hosny. An excerpt of one of Hosny’s films is keyed in to a window, alongside shots of everyday activities in Beirut like watering plants and emptying a bucket of suds. On the sound track the filmmaker calls to his dead friend “Mohamed! Souad Hosny is dead!”, and his voice carries over footage of the devastation of the World Trade Center. Over the mushroom cloud of dust and the survivors weeping in the street, Soueid calls out urgently “Mohamed! Mohamed!”
Soueid’s montage hints that the event that for many Americans demarcated history into a before and an after, was for others, especially peoples who had seen massacres carried out on their own land, a day like any other day. Tragedies occur on different scales, everywhere and always. Woven through it all are Mohameds; perhaps the filmmaker is also pronouncing the name of Mohamed Atta, the first identified of the September 11 terrorists. This startling juxtaposition is followed jarringly by a shot of a lithe woman in a camouflage bikini rappelling onto a concert stage. It’s the Lebanese pop singer Katia Harb, who, after a glitzy and acrobatic dance number, intones the slogan of the Lebanese National Forces: “Honor, loyalty, and sacrifice.”
A theme begins to arise among these kaleidoscopic fragments. Earlier scenes showed a militarized Lebanon, dourly presided over by portraits of the late Hafez al-Assad and his rather less magnetic, but living, son Bashar, still maintaining the Syrian presence in 2002. Mobile shots of busy downtown Hamra streets reveal an astonishing number of Beirut women wearing some version of camouflage print. Lebanon has not ceased to be at war, these shots indicate, and Katia Harb’s pneumatic patriotism underscores. Soueid’s method calls to mind the paranoid-critical method of Salvador Dalí — whereby everything that the subject perceives is analyzed to be, in some way, about the subject. This method is also common in Lebanese popular discourse. Since official history conceals more than it reveals, since the news media must be read between the lines and since nobody divulges all they know, a touch of paranoia (an analytical skill lacking in North America) aids in daily negotiations of the world.
In the single fictional segment of Civil War, a woman approaches the filmmaker in a café and proposes that he adapt the 1000-page novel she is writing about her life. Elegant and emphatic, neurotic yet profoundly insightful, she typifies the atomism of contemporary Lebanese society. A wealthy, divorced woman, deprived (like many Lebanese divorcées) of access to her son, she now trusts only the fidelity of “Maro” — a man who sounds like her lover but is in fact, we learn, her chauffer. In her fast-paced monologue to the unseen filmmaker, the woman makes deft connections between overindulgence in sweets, repressed sexuality, poor dental hygiene, and the eroticization of violence. No political analyst need be called in to explain the myriad causes of the civil war and the reasons it is not over: it is there to be read from a dish of profiteroles at Modca café.
Mohamed and love
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,
“We aren’t orphans of Fatah but of ourselves.”
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:
“You hug your poem so tightly it crumbles away. Your best poetic quality is that you recite the poem foolishly.”
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,
“You bestowed so many traits on her she couldn’t take it any longer.”
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,
“Hold the camera like a daughter born to a woman who’s been sterile for 20 years — with that much love and tenderness.”
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
“a harlequin world of multicolored patterns and non-totalizable fragments where communication takes place through external relations.”
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
"the conception of Islam is well represented in a film as prestigious as ... Last Year at Marienbad.”
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.
1. On neo-Baroque cinema, see Sean Cubitt, “Neobaroque Film,” The Cinema Effect (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 217-244, 395-396. To demonstrate an Islamic genealogy of contemporary computer-based arts is the goal of my current research. See “Infinity and Accident: Strategies of Enfoldment in Islamic Art and Computer Art,” Leonardo 39:1 (Winter 2006): 37-42, and “The Haptic Transfer and the Travels of the Abstract Line: Embodied Perception from Classical Islam to Modern Europe,” in Verkörperungen: Patient Embodiment, ed. Christina Lammer and Kim Sawchuck (forthcoming).
2. I discuss a number of Lebanese experimental documentaries, using a Deleuzian approach, in “Signs of the time: Deleuze, Peirce and the documentary image,” in The Brain Is the Screen: Gilles Deleuze's Cinematic Philosophy, ed. Gregory Flaxman (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2000). 193-214.
3. Mohamed Soueid, History of Silent Cinema in Lebanon (Cairo: Arab Artists Union, 1996; in Arabic); History of Movie Theatres in Old Beirut (Beirut: An-Nahar, 1996; in Arabic); Littérature et scénarios au pays arabes (Paris: Institut du Monde Arabe, 1995); Cinema Legislation in Lebanon (Cairo: Arab Artists Union, 1993; in Arabic); and Suspended Cinema: Lebanese Civil War Films (Beirut: Institute of Arab Research, 1986); in Arabic).
4. Walid Ra’ad is perhaps the Lebanese artist who has most consistently pursued a psychoanalytic understanding of the Lebanese historical trauma.
5. As in Su Friedrich’s Rules of the Road (1993), in which the filmmaker, having been deserted by her lover, sees the latter’s wood-paneled station wagon all over town and captures several of these cars in a single mobile shot; so Soueid observes camouflage garbing women of many shapes and sizes, living and plastic, in a single deft pan of the busy sidewalks of Hamra Street.
6. See Oliver Leaman, An Introduction to Classical Islamic Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
7. See Alnoor Dhanani, The Physical Theory of Kalam: Atoms, space, and void in Basrian Mu’tazili cosmology (Leiden, New York, and Köln: E.J. Brill, 1994).
8. Yasser Tabbaa, “The Muqarnas Dome: Its Origin and Meaning,” Muqarnas, vol. 3 (1985): 69.
9. Gilles Deleuze, Pure Immanence, trans. Anne Boyman (New York: Zone, 2001), 38.
10. Jalal Toufic, “Middle Eastern Films Before The Gaze Returns to Thee—in Less than 1/24 of a Second,” in Forthcoming (Berkeley: Atelos, 1999), 115-136.
11. Quoted in Khemais Khayati, Cinémas arabes: topographie d’une image éclatée (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1996), 61-61; my translation.
12. Maggie Awadalla, introduction to Khemais Khayati, “A Wanderer Seeking the Words of Love in Impossible Cities: Nacer Khemir,” trans. Maggie Awadalla, Alif 15 (1995): 252. Viola Shafik notes that Khémir’s oeuvre is one of the few in Arab cinema that pursues the aesthetics of Islamic art, particularly of the Persian miniature, in Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998), 53.
13. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy? trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Grahame Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 35-39.
14. Ibid., 92-93. Some historians contend that the Mu’tazili atomists constituted a strand of free philosophy within religious thought and despite its transcendentalism: indeed some were avowed atheists. To the degree that this is so, I would argue that they can be considered among philosophers who work the plane of immanence as such.
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