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History of Our Present (1)
New Arab Film and Video

Jayce Salloum

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1. This essay first appeared in the catalogue for an exhibition of Arab film and video curated by Jayce Salloum at the Argos Film and Video Festival. The program featured his own work and the work of Ammar Al Beik, Walid Ra'ad, Elia Suleiman, Hassan Khan, Danielle Arbid, Rashid Masharawi, Azza El-Hassan, Annemarie Jacir, Tawfik Abu Wael, Azza Al Zarouni, Hassan Khan, Mahmoud Hojeij, Sobhi al-Zobaidi, Akram Zaatari, Mounir Fatmi, Mona Al Khamis, Belkacem Hadjadj, Nesrine Khodr, Jamelie Hassan, Mohamed Soueid, Zineb Sedira, Brahim Bachiri, Sherif El-Azma, Omar Amiralay.


There was once a crazy one, a crazy one who was brought to see a doctor. This man believed that he was a little bean and was going to be eaten by a chicken. So, he was very afraid of chickens. After a year of treatment, he was cured, and to make sure that he was cured, the doctor brought in a chicken ... to see if the man was still afraid of it. When the doctor brought the chicken in, the man ran and hid behind the doctor. So the doctor asked him, "I thought you were cured." The man replied, "I know that I am not a little bean, but why don't you try to convince the chicken of this?" (2)


2. Abu-Bischarra in the videotape, This is Not Beirut/Kan Ya Ma Kan (There Was and There Was Not), Jayce Salloum, 1994.




How do you represent the unrepresentable – unrepresentable due to overexposure or lack of exposure? How do you represent that which has been drained of meaning, misrepresented to the point of over-saturation, yet under-appreciated and neglected to the point of absurdity? Is it even futile to attempt such an endeavour?

Silence, like time, stretches eternally. When the Arab subject speaks, who listens and with what preconceived notions constricting the interpretation of these words and images? We do not perceive without a massive amount of baggage informing or misinforming us. We cannot perceive as neutral subjects, we are too far gone for that, it confirms the fact that we are true creatures of habit in that we insist on trying to fool ourselves that we can be objective, as if there was such a thing.



We have (too) many images for this place/this region and as many names, but none of them are accurate or adequate - the Middle East, Near East, North Africa, the Magreb, the Levant, the Holy Land, the Arab world, the Muslim world, the Orient ... You can add others ... We have too few names for the people of these places, there is a certain violence in not naming (non-recognition) as there is a violence innate in the limited naming (i.e. of terrorist or prisoner) that we engage in. If you don't recognise a people they do not exist (as in absence) and are treated as such as whether as individuals, a community, culture, or nation. Naming can embody the essentialising nature of reductive parameters, recognising us for being something that we are not. We also have this place that has been over- and under-reproduced throughout the history of its representation by its visitors (along with a few privileged inhabitants), its conquerors, its 'allies' and those that are passing through or situating themselves on these lands for various parts of their lives. These representations are ours, like the image of ourselves that we hold so dear to us we have constructed them knowingly or unknowingly so that we can concretise our aims and ambitions be they as simple as a supposed understanding.

We are implicated within these constructions, our histories are present there (recent and past) and our projections firmly entrenched. Whether we acknowledge this or not is not the point, trying to come to terms with the identity and cultures of others is an act of fiction as we are so far removed from being in touch with our own identities, or at least being able to alienate ourselves enough to critically analyse how we are constructed. Don’t worry, understanding is not possible, the ‘subject’ can never be ‘known’, as far as the Western viewer understanding the other culture, from a film, videotape or an exhibition program. The most we can ever hope for is some form of awareness (in the case of receiving basic information) of the situation on the ground, a kind of empathy, and a sense of the subjectivities at stake. As viewers and consumers of culture(s) we are required to challenge one’s existing assumptions/preconceptions/perceptions. That is what we need in order to begin an engagement with the recent Arab film and video.

This project seeks to provide an audience with a range of new video and film productions/practices of independent Arab video/filmmakers living in this (impossible to name) region for those outside of it. It includes the work of those in exile – as are many Iraqi filmmakers, or in dispossession as in the case of Palestinian video/filmmakers inside and outside of the occupied territories. This is a selection, this text, these works. It is not a survey, which is outside the scope of this project. The films and videotapes are the work of established, little known, and completely unknown artists, they deal with an array of issues, including takes on specific local histories and events, interstitiality, living between communities/countries, cultures, politics, ideologies, and subjectivities. They utilise a blend of genres, critical stances, and traditional (filmic and cultural) influences.




How do you represent the unrepresentable – unrepresentable due to overexposure (made banal or sensational due to facile coverage), effacement, omission, repression (self and external), pain, unfamiliarity to self or viewers? For instance, how do you represent the Palestinian condition/state/state of being – to even write it this way seems damaging – and, as if there is one Palestinian condition exclusive to living under Israeli occupation (which will soon be the longest military occupation in history), in a refugee camp, or in the diaspora, ‘Al Nakbah’ providing a common legacy and overwhelming encumbrance for all. The same can be said for the Lebanese ‘case’, the Algerian ‘situation’ or any other over-determined geographical, cultural, ideological, or sexual categorisation. The categories themselves doing violence in the name of representation. Then how do you communicate the stories, the paths that have been taken, the lives lived to someone who hasn’t lived them and, further afield, to someone who hasn’t been near the lives that are represented, obliquely or directly?



These videotapes and films – video art, fiction, personal essays, and experimental documentary – strategically blur the distinctions between conventional genres, not for stylistic, formal reasons of innovation or technique but in an attempt to find an appropriate form of representation for the issues and narratives they are tackling. Whether resurrecting a form from the ashes of tradition or inscribing their own tendencies, they carve out a landscape of their own. The personal often intervenes: the reflexive mirroring that takes place when the making of the object collides with the responsibility to the context of production, the histories involved, and the subjectivities implicated or included. The resolution of these questions or positions is not always necessary, but what is necessary is that the tactics used are appropriately tweaked to reflect the nature of the complexities and layers embedded in the reality of the film/video, that reality which it creates for itself.

There is an added weight here besides the burden of histories (aligned or conflicting), it is the tradition of storytelling; the oral tradition, and the lyrical, musical, theatrical and filmic traditions that resonate in Arab culture. In extracting or extricating oneself from these streams of influence, whatever decisions are made are evident in the films/videotapes. We can see this process at work and the extensions that are made in building a set of visual/textual vocabularies from the dynamic warehouses of material that infuse the quotidian.

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Receiving ... film/videotapes ...

These ‘petite paquets’ often took circuitous routes getting here – if they made it here at all, sent with friends or family from a third country (France, Italy, UK, US, Canada), and occasionally ... sometimes even direct routes by accident of fate or some strange logic, turned back in France, passed through "Amn’el Aam" censors in Lebanon, prevented from sending in Syria, denied exit by the Egyptian "Al musanafat al fanniyya", delayed in the West Bank, held/opened by Canadian customs, sent from Jordan ... getting married in Morocco, relayed through San Francisco, sent via Chicago ... disappeared between here and elsewhere ...



Include Date: Thu, 5 Jul 2001
12:01:54 PM Eastern Daylight Time
original text
From: Hassan Khan <>
in Reply.
To: Jayce Salloum <>
[Reply to Sender]


The package i sent you has returned to me today ...
written on it was that it was refused export by
the "artistic categories commission"!!!

I am travelling on Saturday to the US-
will send the tape to you from Washington-
Reply All


sorry don't know karim gamal Edine...
apologies for the delay
[Address Book]
Address Book
take care
hassan khan

Send a cool gift with your E-Card


i plan to send you the tapes (also sherif's)
from outside Egypt- through someone who is
travelling. it is ridiculous, frustrating and
annoying how bureaucrats decide things ...
i await your confirmation
take care





How do we know each other when there are vast distances and seemingly solid political borders between us, even when there is an apparent proximity? Is there any sense of community or constituency outside or even inside the regional? When there is so much that can separate us is it only by chance that we ever come together in a project such as this? Beyond our own immediate community is there an abstract community that crosses borders and becomes translocal, such as the art world and other globalist industries insist, something beyond the marketplace of objects, culture, and resources. In small webs there is a connective tissue of sorts formed/forming, fragile, prone to external and internal pressures and prone to dissolve at any moment. If community is so difficult to establish and maintain, developing a constituency of viewers of these objects is an equally severe task, a precariousness that links this project to the videotapes and films to be seen.

Yet there is a fluency and fluidity between specific media cultures, even more so than in the general culture. Film/videomakers (who are also viewers/users/consumers of culture) travel peripatetically, outside of their regions, to the ‘west’ and elsewhere, bringing back, leaving, and exchanging approaches to content and form, formulating recent practices out of pre-existing ones. The films and videotapes in this program display many examples of these connecting threads and the endpoints of their individual discoveries, whether bouncing off each other or heading obliquely out on tangents, some having an apparent likeness, others having an apparent life of their own. None of this is coincidental, these relationships, these bodies of work, these films/tapes/their makers and the influences they have on each other. Still, we are divided, we live on the same turf or variations of it, and when drawing back within this particular region the possibility of a debate on developing a pan-regional discourse of new ‘arab’ cinema/video (‘cinema’ because whether working in film or video the approach is predominately informed by cinema history) may not even be possible or desirable, the failure of pan-Arabism haunts us, but also the fear of authoritative monoliths is all too menacingly present. Local discourses are possible and do exist. These pockets of intellectual and creative sustenance serve to generate a level of production surpassing most communities in depth, breadth and scope that feeds off each other and, not surprisingly, develops into sub-discourses, branches, or more discrete entities still related in dynamic and meaningful relationships such as the current scene in Beirut starting or recommencing in 1992 and the post-1987 Intifada production in and out of Palestine.

There is a sense of interstitiality, between places/countries, cultures, times/periods/events, influences, politics, ideologies, and subjective dispositions/dispossessions. In some cases the material recorded is close to being a document of the time spent – not precious, just time denoting an aspect or specific life. Sometimes it is a dialogue or a series of conversations, an intense intimacy at a close and unbreachable distance, or a direct telling, a speaking of things. If this is occasionally holistic it is even more often fragmented or dismembered, severed into fractions, sutured together by a conceptual underpinning, a nuts and bolts logic developed for the moment or a dialectics of experience engaging a viscerality of substance.



How do you represent the unrepresentable – unrepresentable because the rhetoric that has been employed to describe the events, conditions, and how we interpret them, is one that is familiar to our ears, a European one, an Israeli one, an unquestioned one, the point of view we recognise in the West as being our own? This is no accident, acknowledging those that speak and look like us as being our own, withholding our sense of doubt, our distrust in the fabrications set aside because it is the language we know; representation as a form of suppression.



  Living life, land/territoriality, loss, love, histories and the failure of justice, home, memory, metaphor, control/repression, power, occupation, neglect, rejection, resistance, youth, gender discrepancies, the body, sexuality, violence, ego, patriarchy/authoritarianism, representation, retrospection, fragmentation, displacement, exile, otherness, image, identity, struggles of self, will, survival, commitment, and responsibility are the dominant motifs found in these works, the trajectories traced and tracked within composite movements, singular subjectivities and a multiplicity of methodologies practiced. In lieu of being silenced and having one’s existence ignored, challenged or obliterated these works account for marginalised voices of experience, composing a history denied and substantiating a presence, a concrete discourse or body of work.  



possible titles:

acts + demarcations
breaking power
cartes de visite
cartographies of presence
confronting borders
contingent geographies
denied spaces
discursive realities
dialogical interventions
(dis)orienting the orient
engendering the ‘orient’
ephemeral _________
facing/framing cartographies
grounding site
history of the present
image and existence
in a logic of the senses
(in)tangible geographies
lessons of the future
making history
making matter
mapping our past
mapping the present
mapping the illusive
marking the present
material lessons
out of time
out of place
pictures from afar
preclusions and presence
quotidian topographies
suspending images
tactile cartographies
to be continued (à suivre)
unidentifiable imaginings
visible _________
what is said/what is not




Zahra 1

If I simply wanted to refuse, I would not be doing this interview. But if I don’t do this interview, I cannot express this refusal.
You put me in an uncomfortable position, because even this refusal you will use to your advantage.


  Zahra 2

Excuse me, but your question is arrogant. This arrogance is consistent with the West’s relations with the Arab world.  


  Zahra 3

Your question is actually an accusation. You are demanding that I behave well. I reject this demand.  

3. Zahra Bedran from the videotape Up to the South (Talaeen A Junuub), Jayce Salloum & Walid Ra’ad, 1994.   Zahra 4

Your question relegates me as either terrorist or hero. Why do you simplify the issues? (3)  


Zahra refuses to be constructed as a victim and declares her agency to the videomakers and the viewers of the tape; thus engaging with the essential binding paradox of being viewed/viewing or producing images of subjects. She states her position further and rejects the relationship of power that is imposed in the dominant representations that circulate between West and East, East and West.




Zahra 235


There’s something I reject. I reject considering the Lebanese people or other people from the Third World as a research laboratory for the West to analyse how we live, eat, think, and behave, and whether we are legitimate or not in waging our armed struggle. As if the legitimacy of our struggle is a matter for the West or you to decide.




4. Ibid.


Zahra 237



The most important thing though is this issue of being a research laboratory. Why should I become like a specimen, analysed like a rat or a smoker for example? I reject this. But by talking to you today, by explaining my situation, I am not automatically refusing this position, and I am not trying to improve my image in front of foreigners or what have you. I am not after improving my world image. I’m quite satisfied with my way of life. (4)



  How do you represent the unrepresentable - unrepresentable due to the history of its representation, how the image of a region has been fabricated for consumption elsewhere, this production of 'knowledge' and how it circumscribes the subject found in the accounts of the invading crusaders and other pilgrimages to Jerusalem, The Arabian Nights translated into French by Antoine Galland (1704), Napoleon's engravers on his flagship to conquer Egypt, the Orient (1798), the colonial/national exhibitions at the World's Fair… this line of continuity unbroken by contemporary mass and popular media. The films and videotapes in this program offer a sophistication that won't be found in most daily media reporting which carries on the facade of pretense in asserting the claims of balance and objectivity, as if there is a place where context is equivocal or neutral, or that there is a parity of voices and access to an audience. This is not only a naive position (often the work isn't shown because of the overt politics of the films/tapes or because programmers can't find an opposing voice to 'balance' it out) but this is a very narrow and simplistic understanding of media and of representation. There is no such thing as objectivity in this domain, you have to look to and through the subjective for whatever truths you find. Balance has to be looked at in a greater context than what you are seeing in one particular moment, we forget there is a whole history of misinformation, misrepresentation and blatant lies accepted as truths in the West and elsewhere especially considering the history of the Middle East, and the more recent Israeli and Western aggressions there.  


The films and videotapes presented weave together two prevalent strands in a composite form of indexing. One strand could be called the private-personal-subjective-visceral and the other a public-ostensibly-objective thread. The arbitrary separations of these two strands stem from film history (i.e. the discursive split that writers made when taking on and comparing Eisenstein and Vertov, or Méliès and the Lumière brothers – this age old reductive polarisation of documentary and fiction) when in fact they have an intrinsic unity which is visible throughout the program. Often the film/videomakers occupy at least two positions at the same time being documentor and inscriber, surveyor and subject, the two positions building on one another and relying on each other to literally or metaphorically fill in where the other can’t. This inherent hybridity may appear seamless or could be exaggerated; in all cases the interconnectedness of both threads creates a specific integral space of a contextual objectivity arrived at through the subjective responsibility to the issues and subjects at stake.



  This is how you represent the unrepresentable.
These films, these videotapes ...


  These works are interpretive, they have a voice and they enunciate, they are speaking from specific histories to non-specific locations. The dialectical relationship of the speaker and those spoken to is highlighted, the speech laid bare and layered between the story, the fields of images, the suggested frames and the construction process. Look closely, there is a locating, a site-ing, taking place that is firmly rooted. These inquiries and provocations carry with them a chance for responses to be determined within a more problematised field. This is not just to counter what passes for information or representation by others, but to produce work (in whatever guise it takes) that challenges our perceptions, and reclaims and reconstructs an agency that is complex and self-determining.  

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© Jayce Salloum and Rouge 2003. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors of Rouge.
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