Trapped in the Scene, a showcase of six short films from Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, will screen in the Walker Cinema July 26, 2017, as part of the series, Reshaping Our World: Cinema Without Borders.
Two men, one young, one middle-aged, sit in the cab of a pickup truck. They discuss the process of smuggling—and, in particular, their plan to transport both a small package wrapped in a yellowed, Arabic newspaper and an old man named Mustafa across the Syria/Israel border into the disputed Golan Heights. This area once belonged to Syria, but has been under Israeli control and occupation since the Six Day War in 1967 and was officially annexed in 1981. As the two men talk, the shot catches a glimpse of this history in Mustafa, who eavesdrops on their conversation from the truck’s bed.
In this early scene in Ehab Tarabieh’s The Forgotten (2012), the camera, looking in from the front of the truck, reveals the film’s location by including an inverted decal—the Syrian flag in the shape of the country’s borders—stuck to the back windshield. Mustafa and the flag are positioned together but at opposite ends of the frame, and they are seen through the rear window behind the two smugglers, making the distance between them a visual manifestation of the separation between this man and his home, an old man nearing death and the place he was forced from decades before and to which he desperately wants to return. The filmmakers use tight shots, grey skies, and restrictive lighting to recreate Mustafa’s situation: the life of a refugee subject to the physical borders of nation and bound to the limitations of his waning memory.
Tarabieh’s The Forgotten is the final film in a series called “Trapped in the Scene,” which screens July 26 at the Walker Art Center. This program of shorts combines documentary and narrative footage imagined and transmitted by filmmakers living and working in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, some of the world’s most contested landscapes and countries threatened by war, famine, imperialism, and international and regional conflicts. The stories presented show people and lands that, like Mustafa, are hemmed in by historical encounters, continuing occupations, and physical borders—bodies and landscapes determined and translated by the lines on a map and the geopolitical whims of their neighbors near and far.
They are also “trapped in the scene,” in the sense that their stories are regulated by the narrative screenplays written and cast by someone else—their lives and lands viewed as continuous with the Arab and Muslim stories seen in the news media, Hollywood films, and mainstream television shows, which, more often than not, present Arab and Muslim characters as the infamous “other” to reinforce ideologies of “us-versus-them.” However, the films in this series consider the potential of cinema to “reshape our world,” a project that, among other things, revises stereotypes and over-determined representations, depictions that “trap” Muslim characters in an ongoing scene of oppression and violence. In his work, Arab American scholar Jack Shaheen—who passed on July 9, 2017, just a few days after the film series Reshaping Our World: Cinema Without Borders opened at the Walker—critiques the repetition of limited views into Arab and Muslim lives. In his comprehensive study, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (Olive Branch Press, 2001), Shaheen details the stereotypes Hollywood assigns to Arab and Muslim characters, highlighting several major character types for Arabs—caricatures, mockeries, and violent oppressors, figures that are repeated from the earliest days of Hollywood to the present. Now, nearly 20 years since the publication of Shaheen’s book, rather than change, we’ve seen only repetition, intensification, and a sinister shift as these representational archetypes converge into a singular figure: the post-9/11 extremist. And in a moment of (un)shockingly racist and xenophobic national and international policies, like Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, the entrenched consequences of Hollywood’s repetitive “vilification of [this] people,” of Arabs and Muslims, continues to affect real lives.
The countries targeted by Trump’s recent legislation—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—have been singled out to reinforce the “us-versus-them” mentality of US foreign policy, to codify notions of American freedom in opposition to Islamic terror, and to transform this binary into restrictive policies and procedures. This is what makes film so important. The works in “Trapped in the Scene” offer important alternatives to such limiting rhetoric: they are aesthetic attempts by people living in the Middle East who are affected by policies and decisions made elsewhere to take control of the camera and the script to represent themselves on local and international screens.
In The Forgotten, we see Mustafa’s fate through the visual clues and aesthetic choices provided by the filmmakers, who narratively represent the experience of a Syrian man living in exile seeking the impossible: a return to the past. In Amal’s Garden, another short from the series, director Nadia Shihab uses the documentary form to capture the resolve of her aging grandparents, a Turkmen couple who live in Northern Iraq. The film depicts Amal and Mustafa (another Mustafa), a lively and opinionated pair who decide to renovate their long-time home against the backdrop of an unforgiving war and an ever-shifting terrain. In an intimate portrait, Shihab exposes the complexities of Iraq’s history as it is experienced by those close to her, showcasing the various identities that constitute Iraq’s population and the effects of international intervention on the makeup of a diverse Iraqi town. Through Shihab’s lens, we see a family whose established roots become tangled by the unsustainable situation of Iraq’s present; yet Shihab’s grandparents continue to plan for their unknown future in this undecided land by trying to make their house a home.
These two stories, which depict alienation and survival, will screen alongside films that complicate the relationship between life, representation, and place. For example, the Oscar-nominated short Karama Has No Walls offers a rare cinematic look inside Yemen’s borders. The documentary depicts the after-effects of Juma’at al-karama (Friday of Dignity), a mass shooting of peaceful protesters in Yemen’s largest city, Sana’a. Sharing survivors’ stories, the film insists that karama, or “dignity,” has no bounds, and that it cannot be enclosed by sniper fire, oppressive politics, or ongoing war. Like Karama, the short films included in “Trapped in the Scene,” hold their images accountable, as their filmmakers understand the stakes of representing their own lives and struggles to foreign audiences. Rather than simply reproduce images of violence, struggle, and war to reinforce limited representations of life in the Middle East, these storytellers use cinema to demonstrate hope for a world that might be transformed through story.
In his work, Shaheen tackles overdetermined Hollywood representations—images of scheming terrorists, lazy Bedouins, and lustful, oil-rich sheikhs—to undermine their validity, but it is the implicit critique in his argument that I conclude with here, the distinction he draws between being represented and having the means to represent oneself. Consequently, his research asks two fairly simple questions with incredibly complicated answers: how does visual representation affect real people and real places? And how can it promote real change?
Through Shaheen’s work, the potential of cinema is evident, as he details the ways in which repeated images produce, embed, and modify our perception. What goes unsaid in his work is the importance of viewing cinema that is made outside Hollywood, the effects of screening films produced and directed by Arabs and Muslims living with the stereotypes that Hollywood thrusts upon their cultures and lands. The short films in “Trapped in the Scene” offer an opportunity to see Arab and Muslim stories made by the people who live them and through the landscapes that nourish and create their struggles. In a way, we are all “trapped” in a scene of someone else’s imagination, but new images and alternative views suggest hope for other possibilities, a way out, perhaps, from our limited worlds.