Telling compelling stories about dissenting voices that would otherwise be silenced is one way of pursuing political resistance.
Two thought-provoking films from the Arab world exhibit this type of resistance. They bypass circulating discourses, and avoid the usual methodological and ideological pitfalls of orientalist representations.
Samt el Qusur (The Silences of the Palace), Moufida Tlatli’s 1994 film about the lives of women in the palace of the Ottoman Bey, is set at a key turning point in Tunisia’s history. Sukkar Banat (Caramel), a more recent film from 2007 that received worldwide praise, is about the lives of several women in contemporary Beirut as they navigate their way through an urban landscape in search of love and happiness.
Neither film focuses on representing an Arab identity to non-Arab viewers, on ‘correcting’ representations, or providing authentic flavor. Rather, they are films meant to entertain audiences by touching on universal themes.
Both films successfully defy the prevalent and overwhelmingly common discourses surrounding war, colonialism, and Arab women by addressing those narratives in a manner that is not dictated by Euro-American standards.
Portraits of a “Third World Woman”
Edward Said wrote and spoke eloquently for decades about the causes and effects of colonialism. A discussion of these films would not be possible without the framework he introduced.
In Permission to Narrate, Said writes, “Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain, and circulate them.” Said was concerned with the Palestinian (and Israeli) interest in “origins…history of suffering… [and] need to survive” that overpowers their respective national narratives.
Although he was focused on Palestinian and Israeli politics and societies, Said was interested in history-transcending universalism that speaks to a greater audience. For Said, the lack of a framework in which such universalist representations can circulate was a problem. Even when media are not Orientalist, universalist messages cannot circulate effectively because underlying discourses do not support their accurate reception and circulation.
In Under Western Eyes, Chandra Mohanty analyzes the production of the “Third World Woman” as a singular, monolithic subject in western feminism. This discourse has largely facilitated propaganda that justifies military intervention and vilifies Arabs living in Europe and the United States.
Arab women are specifically framed as universal dependents. Ironically, while intending to stand in supposed solidarity with these women, western feminists have done harm to those they hope to help. Mainstream representations continue to display non-Western women as mute and lacking agency.
Samt el Qusur does not submit to the narrative of women as universal dependents. The Tunisian film is set in the 1950s. As the country’s post-independence chapter is just beginning, the film flashes back to a time when Tunisia was still ruled by Beys and colonial governors. As the country comes into its independent self, the film presents a coming of age story about Alia (Hend Sabri), a young Tunisian girl.
The film does not overly concern itself with events outside the private world of the women working in the palace. While there are many nationalist allegories and themes of independence in the film, the relationships and characters of the women themselves are the most interesting. The support these women provide to one another is central to Samt el Qusur.
These women are one another’s enablers and defenders. Khadija (Amel Hedhili), who was sold to the Beys as a ten-year old child and knows no other home, mothers the main character, Alia. We are never told who Alia’s father is, but it is implied that he is one of the Beys.
Khadija dies just as Tunisia’s colonial period comes to an end. Seeking independence, Alia runs away with Lutfi, her nationalist lover and a man full of failed promise.
Throughout the film, the women at the bottom of the house (and the social ladder) challenge their burdensome world in small ways that display their humor and compassion. These are women trapped in a colonial order, rigid patriarchal system, and class setting that it many ways seem to render them helpless.
However, as the system around them crumbles, these women deftly display agency and resistance. In a visually stunning scene shot as Khadija is dying, Alia dares to sing a nationalist anthem to an audience made up of the Tunisian aristocracy, who are horrified by the performance. Alia tells us that her life has been a series of abortions and that her beautiful songs are stillborn. Although she was unable to break out of Tunisia’s class-based, patriarchal system, she is able to break out of the palace.
The multi-faceted film tackles colonialism, class, and gender from several perspectives. Tlatli does not try to ‘speak’ to a particular audience, or paint a particular picture about Tunisian women living in harems or elsewhere.
As such, the film does not display the trappings commonly found in Western feminist projections onto the lives of women in the Third World. Of course, there may be viewers who watch this film and see nothing more than a message about Tunisian women being victims of Tunisian men. Tlatli’s film is, however, far more complicated, and those viewers are not her audience.
Sukkar Banat also turns away from traditional depictions of Arab women. This Lebanese film was Nadine Labaki’s directorial debut and reached a global audience, even receiving some Oscar buzz.
In this film, five women of different generations and backgrounds who work at a beauty salon in Beirut share their lives with the audience. Their conversations revolve around sex, love, and marriage in a light-hearted combination that allows the viewer to easily connect with the characters.
Remember, the movie is set in 2007, as Lebanon is just coming out of its latest encounter with the Israeli Defense Forces.
Beirut is a city haunted by terribly imagery, from the legacy of its extended civil war to the Israeli invasions and massacres. Labaki subverts the tragic imagery of Beirut by not addressing it in any specific way.
Her story is in many ways about love and, as such, easily touches a global audience through its endearing theme. It simultaneously challenges representations about Beirut and about Arab women without explicitly addressing stereotypes.
Labaki’s film tells a real and compelling story by speaking about Beirut, its women, and their lives separate from any pre-determined narratives.
Rather than developing the characters as Arab or Lebanese, the film presents its female protagonists as facing problems similar to those faced by with women around the world.
Menopause and clandestine affairs are hardly concerns that are specific to the Arab world or are faced by one cultural group more than another.
Although what some may see as local issues—like virginity—are raised, the storyline does not focus on these topics and explores a multiplicity of themes through a variety of multi-layered characters. This is a not a universal sisterhood, but an artistic humanism.
Sukkar Banat successfully dislodges itself from western narrative by neither submitting to nor opposing orientalist imagery. Humanity and humor are unmistakably universal; difficult choices, romantic pain, and friendly banter need no translation.
Recognition: Stories vs. Stereotypes
In the New York Times review of Sukkar Banat, A.O. Scott wrote: “… Ms. Labaki is less interested in breaking new ground than in providing her audience the kind of comfort and catharsis that her characters give one another… Those qualities, and Ms. Labaki’s evident affection for the battered panache of her native city, make ‘Caramel’ hard to resist.”
That this review neglected to mention stereotypical imagery of Arab women or war-torn Beirut, but addressed the film as an artistic work is a testament to Labaki’s achievements.
Both Samt el Qusur and Sukkar Banat are not concerned with battling ideology, per se, but with telling a story. Through their storytelling, these films escape a dominant narrative that victimizes Arab women and assaults the people of the Middle East.
The two films are set in different periods of the twentieth century, treat very different social issues, and show the lives of women who have virtually nothing in common.
They were released fifteen years apart. Yet, they both defy an overarching discourse about Arab women. While at first the two films appear quite different from one another, they both reject representative hegemony and display a commitment to making films regardless of western expectations or discourses.
These stories, and those like them, generate historical agency by creating full, versatile characters facing complex problems. The directors behind these films have created the movies they wanted to make, and paid no attention to external narratives.
In presenting a story about five women living their lives, Sukkar Banat depicts strong independent Lebanese women walking down the street in short dresses and halter-tops.
Samt el Qusur presents the colonial palace as a place of silence. In her film, Tlatli shows her viewers the generational differences between the women in the palace, whether they are the ruling colonial class or the servants in the kitchen. The film makes no excuses for colonial subjugation or male oppression. This is a lens into a world that no longer exists.
As a consequence of their indifference to Western interlocutors, both films deal with real issues that are understood by local audiences, while maintaining a sense of universality that makes them appealing globally.
In speaking to their local contexts, the two films divert their attention from that of the Western gaze. In other words, both filmmakers refuse not only to address western perceptions and narratives, but also western actors.
In Post-Orientalism, Hamid Dabashi suggests an end to the idea of Euro-America as the principal interlocutor of the world. Dabashi’s contention is that both Said and Gayatri Spivak over-emphasize the importance of the West, and that the time has come to change the manner in which ‘we’ [the periphery] speak to the ‘world’ [the center]. Although the imperial ventures of Euro-America accompany that discursive domination, this does not dictate that the West remain the principal interlocutor of all those who speak around the world.
Changing the interlocutor does not mean that those in power will stop thinking that oppressed groups are ‘talking’ to them; their position in power requires that they assume command over all conversation. Nothing can be done about this perception. The work of media makers around the world, and third world women especially, is to continue producing great work that speaks to themselves and their audiences despite those discourses rather than because of them.
Redefining the center is now the task of media-makers like Tlatli and Labaki, who resent and defy the imposition of periphery-status to their voices and work.
In Post-Orientalism, Dabashi outlines how changing the interlocutor and re-defining the center are a necessary approach to finally destroy the myth of Euro-American dominance. This myth only perpetuates itself if the so-called periphery panders to it by addressing a Euro-American narrative instead of producing its own. Dabashi continues, “The task is not to create yet another intellectual ghetto. The task is to occupy and redefine the center, and thus eliminate the fabricated peripheries.”
Colonial domination is hardly a reality of bygone eras. The global movement of capital has many shortcomings, but that does not mean there is no opportunity for better self-representation in a global public sphere.
The swift movement of information via Facebook, Twitter, and blogs means that many groups are speaking from different corners of the globe to a truly global audience. Groups from the peripheries that were once speaking amongst themselves are now using these platforms to represent themselves to everyone in the world. There are, of course, growing pains, but a shift is taking place and it is tremendously significant.
Groups from the Third World need and, in fact, already do enjoy global solidarity, but the question of who ultimately gets to narrate their story remains a contentious one.
For decades, as Hollywood cinema pervaded non-Western theaters around the world, the rest of the globe was denied the opportunity to represent itself on Western screens. Shifts in this flow of information are beginning to occur and foreign films are beginning to be viewed outside the festival circuit and in conventional theaters in Euro-America.
The “Arab Spring” is one manifestation of this process. While the reasons for access may not be egalitarian, the opportunity and scope are more widespread and unobstructed than ever before. As time goes by, and communication technology advances, the playing field will continue to change. These changes are to the benefit of those who were not heard in the past.
In focusing in this article on two female filmmakers, one Tunisian and the other Lebanese, readers may come away with the notion that there is such a thing as an authentic cultural representation or that only members of a particular group have the authority to represent themselves. This is not the case. Rather, to create a truly global and representative flow of information what are needed are defiant voices that tackle both the imperialist project and other issues.
Neither pandering to Western mania for Third World literature, nor defying the West by trying to convince and appease a Western audience is necessary. By producing excellent films that are both specific to their contexts and universally accessible, Tlatli and Labaki demonstrate that it is possible to defy Western centric narratives and have the value of their artistic productions recognized internationally.
Creative cultural production need not be reactive, but can and should be proactive thereby releasing the artist from overarching discourses.