INTERVIEWS Apt Pupil: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Blake Williams I Like America and America Likes
By Gabe Klinger
In a crowded, tiny room lined with packaged goods, a woman prepares a meal. The TV is on. Sitting below a window is a man in a plastic garden chair. He watches an Egyptian comedy show intently. The woman serves the food. An ellipsis. She pours tea. The steam wafts through the air. The pace of life as it’s presented in this scene—the first in Paraboles (The Art of Speaking)—is markedly different from the frenetically edited and histrionically acted story being depicted on the TV. Indeed, much of what we see in the next two-and-a-half hours of Emmanuelle Demoris’ film is not particularly dramatic in the ordinary filmic sense. It’s about the daily tasks of the people one encounters in the underprivileged Alexandrian neighbourhood of Mafrouza. Many of these tasks involve waiting: waiting to eat, waiting for prayer, waiting to get married, waiting to get older.
Winner of the Filmmakers of the Present prize in Locarno, Paraboles is the culmination of Mafrouza, a five-part, 12-hour documentary cycle by Demoris that was shot from 2001 to 2004 and edited over the next six years; the prior parts are Oh la nuit! (Oh the Night!, 2007), Coeur (Heart, 2007), Que faire? (What is to Be Done, 2010), and Le main du papillon (The Hand of the Butterfly, 2010). In this panoramic project, where characters and stories intersect as dramatically as in a densely scripted drama, an anchor and spiritual figurehead emerges: the preacher and shop-owner Mohamed Khattab. Each of the five parts of Mafrouza is designed as a stand-alone piece, but to watch all five films together provides a richer experience, and allows for an important structural evolution that leads us to the charismatic Khattab. He’s irrefutably one of great protagonists of recent cinema, and the strength of the film is largely reliant on his warm-spiritedness in participating (he is even seen constantly offering smokes to Demoris, who is referred to as “Iman,” an Arabic name but also an abbreviated and easier-to-pronounce version of Emmanuelle).
Khattab also figures prominently in Que faire?, where we see him sermonizing at a local mosque, something that’s carefully elided from Paraboles. By part five, Khattab is dealing with a new but not entirely unfamiliar dilemma: the arrival of a fundamentalist group to the neighbourhood. The fundamentalists are also never seen, and the reason for this, Demoris explains, is that Khattab himself advised her not to attempt to approach them. There were two practical factors: the group did not speak to women and were potentially dangerous. But as Demoris has also indicated, Khattab wanted to maintain a “space of freedom” between the two of them. As a piece of the film’s overall design, and its emphasis on the importance of informal oration, these structural devices emphasize Demoris’ role as filmmaker and shaper of the material.
“I’m interested in how a painting can say ‘I’,” states Demoris. “How can there be a subject in painting by using perspective?” Her intimate framing of the characters stages them frequently addressing the camera head-on, often from just a metre away. Demoris comprised a crew of one (not including translators she employed at various stages of the shooting), much like Pedro Costa with In Vanda’s Room (2000). Unlike Costa, whose films have become a prominent referent to the subgenre of films about poverty, Demoris’ camera is nearly always handheld, indicating a human presence. As a circumstance of the local interaction, which, as portrayed in Coeur, was sometimes hostile, Demoris decided to acknowledge her role in all of this as a character (again, unlike Costa, who has both documentary and fiction on tap). Khattab’s deep affection for Demoris, for example, becomes one of the film’s essential narrative threads.
Paraboles takes place over a single three-day period, with a coda filmed six months later. The element of waiting is evident from the beginning: the people of Mafrouza are fasting on Arafa, a holy day on which the past year’s sins are atoned for. The dramatic apex of this first part, at least in terms of western standards of the spectacle, comes when three sheep being raised by a neighbour are slaughtered in preparation for an end-of-fast feast. Kids gather around as a local butcher slices the animals’ throats, and the blood is spread around for good fortune. At one point, Demoris’ camera pans away from the act of slaughter to focus on the expressions of the families watching. “I filmed more direct images, but I knew if I showed them that people would only remember this from the whole film…I was more interested in the reactions.” An intensely moving, if almost invisible, moment surges from this scene: the complex reaction of a boy with a blood-smeared hand who, at one point, has a sly look on his face, as if he’s about to make some kind of prank, but in the next second also looks as if he’s aware, even slightly horrified, by the presence of death. Quintín, writing online, remarks on “the violence and also the tenderness of this strange moment,” suggesting that it’s “revealing of the limits and the roots of our daily experience, of the ambiguity of religious experience, and all that we are.”
Once again, the act of eating is excluded. It’s an anti-climax to the carnage, but that may precisely be Demoris’ point. Instead, the act of packaging the lamb becomes the focus, a profound observation on the mercantile aspect of surviving being converted into ritual. This also points to Khattab’s position as local grocer and sheikh, separable activities and yet both fulfilling a spiritual duty. (Khattab refers to the institution of family, and the necessity to make a living). The confines of Khattab’s store—as opposed to the mosque—are also the backdrop for most of the religious and philosophical musings in the film. In this setting, Khattab begins to voice his discord about the fundamentalists. “I have to make a living too,” he says, referring to the inordinate amount of time neighbourhood people want him to spend in the mosque, which only his extremist counterparts can afford to do. In an earlier moment, a neighbour says that Khattab has a good voice and that his sermons are easy to follow; in terms of reverence, she adds, “With Khattab, it is like being before the pyramids.”
By strategically placing these interviews at intermittent points in the film, Demoris contextualizes Khattab’s position in the neighborhood and his recent non-attendance at the local mosques. One certainly takes away that Khattab is a community leader and moral advisor, but it would be an exaggeration to say he is unique. His shop also functions as the only public space in the neighbourhood for communal activity (the coffee and barber shops in the film are located in public housing blocks slightly outside of the area). In Paraboles, we do not see or hear any opposition to Khattab, and in the end one could say that the film is told largely from his perspective. In addition to being constantly referred to in all local matters, it’s ultimately Khattab who offers the most pluralistic point of view about Islam. While others are speaking strictly about devotion and tradition, Khattab gives definitions, boundaries, and offers constructive actions in light of separatism. In his parsing of the different sects, he’s careful to state the fundamental values of Islam, but offers a memorable tangent on how al Qaeda is the severest group, criticizing them from condemning Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd to death for letting in American military bases. Khattab’s gentle position, which closely aligns with the Egyptian government’s attitudes, is confirmed when he tells the camera: “If you really have to let them in, avoid letting them into the holy places they might tarnish.”
And here is where Khattab’s sternness finds a finite but entirely realistic and reasonable dimension. Far from a radical, the governing powers of Western society would do well to listen to him. The nuanced version of Islam offered in Paraboles—speaking, of course, must be accompanied by the willful act of listening—is a rarity in a media landscape in which the reporters at Fox News pose a much greater threat to the world than the citizens of Mafrouza.
Nonetheless, to refer to Demoris’ achievement as some kind of instrument for international diplomacy would be a devaluation of her artistic aims. A more productive approach might be to analyze the question of time through the image of the television in Paraboles. Instead of attending sermons in mosques, people across the Muslim world now stay at home and watch “prayer channels” in addition to movies and series. “We used to watch TV for Palestine,” says one young woman in the film, adding that now they’re “enthralled by [the] movies” offered on satellite. A TV always seems to be on in every room in Mafrouza, making time more bearable to its citizens in this slow-moving place. As it has proliferated in developed society, the luxury provided by entertainment is now taken for granted, so it’s bracing to see TV analyzed by Demoris’ subjects. “The base of religion are stories,” says Khattab, a statement easily applied to TV drama. More important than the youngsters of Mafrouza speaking about their favourite film genres and programs, Demoris is clever to show not only the act of actively watching TV but also the context in which that interaction happens: in cramped offices, living rooms, storefronts, while eating, before prayer, etc.
The aspect of time leads us to the secret heart of Paraboles. Khattab might be the central focus of the film, but Hassan Stohi, a local hanger-on in the neighbourhood and a protagonist in every Mafrouza film since Coeur, is its tragic figure. Seen close to the beginning of the film singing in an impromptu street performance, and shown later playing with Khattab’s sons, Stohi reveals that he is a military deserter. If he’s able to bide his time until turning 30, Stohi will be exempt from his service and won’t have to go to jail. Stohi is quite literally haunted by the passage of time—for him, it’s the heartrending reality that plagues him every day; time can’t go faster, even if he wills it. In the film’s coda, we learn that Stohi has been found and sent off. Stohi’s fate is unknown, and can’t help but linger in the viewer’s minds as we return to the supremely confident Khattab.
In the film’s final sequence, Khattab sits down for a leisurely shave in a barbershop. He has a cigarette and offers a light to Iman. A knowing smile from Khattab, directed at Demoris, takes us back to the child at the slaughter scene. Even an everyday smile, preceded by two-and-a-half hours of being immersed in this community, is automatically rendered complex. It’s an image that may be read as an expression of how we, as human beings, process suffering, deal with age-old questions of forgiveness, and, finally, how it is that we console one another with these internalized, child-like gestures. Historically one knows that our fate, at the local level as well as on a larger global scale, can be narrowly determined by acts of violence, which are less surprising with every passing year, or acts of compassion, which are still and will always be the subject of astonishment. Khattab’s smile may be symbolic of all of this, or it may mean nothing. But as long as there’s unrest in the world, it’s an image that has the power to send us searching.