Peter Limbrick, Arab Modernism as World Cinema: The Films of Moumen Smihi (University of California Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Peter Limbrick (PL): I began this book out of a sense of urgency at how much we do not yet know about cinema in the Maghrib and Arab worlds, and a desire to tell more complicated stories about its histories. Most immediately, I met Smihi when I helped program the San Francisco Arab Film Festival in 2007; we showed his film A Muslim Childhood/El Ayel/Le gosse de Tanger (2005). Here was someone who had been making films for forty years (fifty, by now!), who was deeply read in film and cultural theory, and who had written essays on cinema in French and Arabic, yet there was scarcely anything written on him in English. His work was not available in the United States and his name was only recognizable to Francophone or Arabophone cinephiles. Those lacunae tell us a lot about the politics and economics of film distribution, the Eurocentric and monolingual tendencies of Anglophone film theory and criticism, and the difficulty of pigeonholing his films. So, at one level, I wanted to rectify a major gap in our knowledge of world cinema by accounting for his long career, which I really began to discover in 2010 when I went to Tangier to see the rest of his work.

But there were bigger questions involved. As I wondered whether to embark on a book-length study, I realized that thinking about Smihi’s cinema allows us to better understand the diversity of film-making practices in the region. I wanted to find a way to account for the modernist and experimental elements of his films in ways that did not just read them as the product of some European film movements. I wanted to break the postcolonial axis of influence to show how these films are embedded in much longer histories of cinema and cultural forms that are Arab, European, and international—and that let us see the contributions of Arab and Maghribi artists to diverse histories of modernisms.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

PL: The book’s title means to get at a number of connected topics. First, I wanted to gesture to the excellent work that is going on around Arab modernisms of many kinds (poetry, literature, painting, and music) and to make an intervention in that field by arguing for cinema, too, as one of the places where we find expressions of Arab modernism. Second, I wanted the title to stake a claim that Arab modernism has an important (if overlooked) role in world cinema more generally. Whether we are thinking of the history of cinema in the Maghrib, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Egypt… there are Arab films and filmmakers that have pushed the boundaries of creative expression and deserve to be thought of alongside other more storied films and filmmakers from Europe or the Americas. Third, I wanted to argue that the relationship of Arab modernism to the world is one that preoccupies Smihi’s films at the level of form and content. As an argument about authorship, I claim that Smihi’s films enact the question of Arab modernism as world cinema by finding a vernacular in which to speak while always sharing ideas, images, and discourses across a diverse transnational landscape. In that sense, the book also cautions against a simplistic idea of national cinema: I am very conscious of the ways Smihi’s films engage a Moroccan cultural and political landscape, but they also show how we can never think solely within a national frame.

One of the ways that I address these questions in the book is by thinking about the unfinished history of the Nahda or Arab Renaissance. Picking up on recent work by Tarek El-Ariss, Suzanne Elizabeth Kassab, Jens Hanssen, and Max Weiss, and many others, I show how Smihi’s oeuvre is deeply engaged in the concerns of the Nahdawis—through ideas of language, translation, religion, secularism, feminism, and the development of an Arab modernity that is neither beholden to the West nor hermetically sealed off from it. These films reveal a legacy of thought that goes far wider than the world of film.

So, I am juggling a number of things in the study—authorship, national cinema, and ideas about modernity and modernism in an Arab frame—but I use Smihi’s work as a lever to better understand all of them.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

PL: There may not seem like an obvious connection, since my first book is on histories of settler colonialism and cinema in the wake of the British empire, in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand (where I am originally from). But what I do there points to my new book in a few significant ways.

First, Making Settler Cinemas thinks beyond some of the limitations of national cinema paradigms: what do we do with the bastard products of empire, the transnationally produced films about the settler colonies of Australia and New Zealand that no one really wants to claim as part of an “authentic” national cinema but that are an important part of the legacy of cinema there? Moroccan filmmaker Ahmed Bouanani tried to answer related questions when he made his film Mémoire 14 (1971) from the archives of French colonial actuality films, and he and Smihi both write about the films made at the Soussi studios, a French-Moroccan venture of the protectorate years that tried to rival Egypt’s productions. So, strange as it may first seem, issues like these connect otherwise disparate settings.

Second, the research for that book put me into a setting where I worked with the New Zealand Film Archive and Māori (indigenous) communities on the recirculation of colonial films with deep ties to local cultures, putting them in touch with new publics. Developing curation there as an integral part of my research practice led me to program a retrospective of Smihi’s films in 2013 and 2014, which premiered in conjunction with a symposium on Arab film and visual culture that I co-curated with a UC Davis colleague, Omnia El Shakry. And last but not least—I became an archive rat with my first book and that habit certainly continued for this book, with primary research happening in multiple trips to Morocco, France, and Lebanon.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

PL: My primary audience will certainly be scholars, students, and historians, though I hope that my writing will be accessible to an interested general audience, too. I am addressing film scholars and students who want to expand their understanding of world cinema. I also want to contribute to changing the ways that we approach Arab and Middle Eastern cinemas: not just reading them in terms of geopolitics or through the lens of Western theories and preoccupations, but by taking seriously the artistic and intellectual currents of the region itself.

I have also tried to make the book relevant to Middle East studies scholars and students, especially those interested in Arab intellectual history, artistic movements, and culture. In my experience, there is not a lot of disciplinary traffic between Middle East studies and cinema studies, and I have tried to bridge the deep knowledge of area studies approaches with some of the theoretical and formal foci that are particular to film and media studies.

J: Is this book written primarily for an English-speaking or Western audience?

PL: As I have worked on this project, I have become acutely aware of how much questions of language and translation continue to affect scholarship on Arab and North African cinema. Writing, research methods, and critical approaches do not always travel outside of particular linguistic communities and we are all impoverished by that, wherever we might be located. I work in the United States, so this book’s first language was always going to be English. But I know, because I have been asked so many times in Morocco and elsewhere, that there is a non-Anglophone readership for the book. The films and histories I address are not always well known in Morocco or across the region, either, and one of my main priorities now is to try to facilitate the book’s translation into French and Arabic. I have worked across all three languages in my research and nothing would make me happier than to see the book accessible to French- and Arabic-speaking readers.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

PL: I have started working on the legacies of the Moroccan filmmaker, artist, and writer Ahmed Bouanani (1938-2011) and his brilliant family: his partner, costume designer Naïma Saoudi Bounani, who collaborated on all of his film work, his late daughter, Batoul, and his surviving daughter, Touda, who is a video artist in her own right and is now his archivist. I am curious about the new contexts of his work and the collaborations that it is still prompting. There is not enough in my book on Smihi’s incredible documentary about Egyptian cinema, Egyptian Cinema: Defense and Illustration (1989), so I am working on a new essay about that, and I am also writing a paper for the next Middle East Studies Association conference on Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Oedipus Rex (1967), which was shot in Morocco. Further afield, I am starting to research an essay on Lebanese filmmakers Jocelyn Saab, Randa Chahal Sabbagh, and Heiny Srour.


Excerpt from the book

From Chapter Three: “Kan ya makan: Intertextuality and Arab Modernism”

The previous chapter, like the one before it, emphasized the domain of cinematic language as I considered the ways that Smihi’s uses of image and sound constitute an Arab cinematic modernism. That modernism, as a form of écritureor writing, is deeply concerned with textuality: how images and sounds render a world visually and aurally so that viewers might read, feel, and decipher it. This chapter builds on those arguments about language and form to address the realm of intertextuality in relation to Arab modernism and world cinema. As with many experiments of Arab modernity, Moroccan and Arab cinema have often been treated as reactive and beholden to other, foreign traditions: derivative of Euro-American forms and genres, or self-orientalizing if they adopt a perspective that critiques religion or social practices. Maghribi cinema, in particular, when its practitioners have veered away from more overtly commercial forms, has often been critiqued as overly Francophile, as if any deviation from popular forms must indicate a sullying of local authenticity by French influence; Smihi’s work has often attracted such a charge. Yet such perspectives overlook the degree to which an Arab cinematic modernism actively embraces intertextuality—not from an inferiority complex, but in critical and artistic engagement with other texts— and how, exceeding even intentional citation, the intertextuality of films like Smihi’s places them within the broader corpus of a modernist world cinema. Thus released from the demands to be read solely in nationally or regionally specific ways, these films show that many of cinematic modernism’s genealogies are left wanting to the extent that they do not take account of Smihi’s cinema and the films of those around him.

Smihi’s intertextuality is intimately related to the spirit of the Nahda that his work inhabits. As a movement of regeneration or awakening, the Nahda always involved an enthusiastic and multidirectional process of reading, writing, and translation. […] It is this generous sense of a Nahda with multiple points of translation and citation that I wish to invoke with respect to Smihi’s work and to Arab cinematic modernism more generally. In its desire to create a new, modern Arab subjectivity, Smihi’s cinema relies on a process of an intertextuality that is worldly and multi-directional, linking Arab and Islamic literary sources to European, US, Latin American, Asian, and Arab cinemas. In discussing his engagements with various kinds of realism or sound practice, for example, I have already shown the way Smihi’s films resonate with the work of others, like Rossellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Abu Seif, or Rouch in cinema, Pierre Schaeffer or Gnawa singers in sound, or Naguib Mahfouz or Tolstoy in the novel. This chapter explores those affinities and citations in an even wider frame to show that intertextuality is central to the way that Smihi’s films create a modern Arab subjectivity in the spirit of a new Nahda. Moreover, in so doing, I argue that accounts of world cinema that stress the qualities of the global and transnational might look, as seldom before, towards Arab cinematic modernism as a key site on which to understand the interplay of geopolitical histories, textuality, and aesthetics. Taking seriously these Arab discourses and histories of intertextuality and modernism, oriented as they are to sites outside the Arab world as well as within it, offers a way through the impasses that set Arab cinema and European cinemas in a relation of dependence and hegemony or that create separate spheres of belonging. As I will show, the deep engagement with Arabic sources—both cinematic and pre-cinematic— that Smihi’s films display is matched only by the affinity and love that his films show for other, non-Arab cinemas and sources. Such a relation, akin to what Laura Marks has termed hanan al-cinema or affection for cinema and its moving images, is not only central to understanding Smihi’s work but rather makes his films and their Arab modernism critically important to any full account of world cinema and its interventions.

As I established in the Introduction, as well as being embedded in the histories and lived experience of Tangier and of his knowledge of Arab and Islamic culture, Smihi’s creative practice also owes much to his time in Paris as a student of Barthes, Lacan, and Henri Langlois. It is thus instructive to examine the way that Smihi’s thinking draws upon the cinematic and literary theories of writing and intertextuality as they emerged from the European structuralist and poststructuralist projects, while also dwelling in more expansive contexts; European theory, along with the cinema and culture of Arab world, Africa, and the Americas, is part of the intellectual conversation of his films. As I have suggested already, Smihi elaborates a ciné-écriture or (cinécriture) that we might trace to Alexandre Astruc, one of the first filmmakers or critics to make the analogy between writing and the creative process of cinema through the concept of the camera-stylo or camera-pen. […]

Cinematic écriture thus becomes a vital way to engage popular and oral forms along with all manner of written and technologically mediated texts. The spaces of “the image-sound discourse” as [Smihi] puts it, are “the sites of joining and fertilization” in which orality, literature, technology, music, and other forms are jointly articulated. For Smihi, “Arab society’s access to modernity is rightly conditioned by this long and deep work of synthesis, of phagocytosis, of the interception and transformation of structures.” Arab modernity, then, is by necessity based on a process of intertextual and intercultural traffic of the type that the Nahda thinkers reinvoked: a relationship to Europe, certainly, but also to other elements within Arab history that had been buried or forgotten. Cinécriture is the practice that can, through its intertextual and synthetic character, establish a modernity built in difference and not self-sameness.

The metaphor of phagocytosis, or phagocytage in French, is one that Smihi uses more than once to describe such an intertextual practice. A biological term, phagocytosis refers to the process by which a cell devours nutrients or incorporates bacteria around it to sustain itself. Smihi uses it as a way to animate his understanding of intertextuality as a practice by which cinema turns to and incorporates other preexisting discourses in a movement that effaces origins or hierarchies in a practice of radical plurality and endless incorporation. Cinécriture for a Maghribi and Arab filmmaker, he suggests, requires a practice of phagocytosic intertextuality: the work of cinema that Smihi has in mind is both self-consciously and unconsciously—one might say uncontrollably—comprised of, intertwined with, and even consuming of other discourses. How else can the postcolonial Moroccan or Arab subject speak? For Smihi, indeed, for an Arab cinematic modernism more generally, cinema as a practice of research on culture, identity, and the self energizes cinematic form and language and shapes it in ways that are diverse and hybrid, raiding everything while creating something distinctive: cinema links orality to literature, technologies, music and other cultural forms. […]

Seen in this light, intertextuality in Smihi’s films reveals an operation that exceeds the terms of European theories or of writing as literature. Attending to the intertextuality of Smihi’s cinécriture leads us by necessity to an Arab modernism that continues the project of the Nahda and that forces us to acknowledge the worldliness of many of Arab cinema’s experiments, beyond the expected trajectories of postcolonial influence or debt. While one can trace a set of self-conscious cinematic and literary references in Smihi’s films—as one might expect given his personal erudition and breadth of knowledge—the intertextuality of his films finally exceeds his authorial grasp. For this chapter, treating these films seriously means assessing the roles played by, respectively, the history of Arabo-Islamic philosophy; popular memory and culture in the Maghrib; Arabic music and poetry; and, finally, of other experiments with Arab modernism and cinema as they have taken shape in literature and other art forms. For it is in this expanded sense of intertextual affiliation and history that we find Arab cinema in its most radical and modernist form, speaking linguistic, cultural, and local specificities while claiming its place within world cinema.