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Issue 228

How Arab Filmmakers Investigate the Desert and the Peninsula

Roisin Tapponi looks at how contemporary Arabic filmmakers use thirst to inspire their practices

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BY Róisín Tapponi in Columnists , Features | 08 JUN 22

In the gulf, thirst is a paradigm: it is impossible to think about the desert without thinking about water. The Arabian Desert is also a peninsula, with countries formed from both deserts and ports. I propose thirst trap theory – derived from the slang for a selfie used to elicit an exchange between sexual bodies – as a way of reading this relation between desert and surrounding water, between drought and abundance, in cinema from the Gulf. Ranging from narrative cinema to experimental video, these films are as diverse – and extreme – as the landscape that inspired them.

Sophia Al Maria, The Future Was Desert, Part II, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Project Native Informant, London
Sophia Al Maria, The Future Was Desert, Part II, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Project Native Informant, London

Thirst Is Political

Using deep time and sweltering geological dreamscapes, Sophia Al Maria’s experimental videos The Future Was Desert I and II (both 2016) explore the political relations between nation states through the imaging of natural resources. We see sublime shots of oil, water and fire exploding across regional landscapes, taken from various scientific, colonial and geographical archives. In The Future Was Desert I, rapidly edited footage of infrared maps, purple moonscapes and ribbed sand dunes is narrated by a rhythmically disjointed, robotic-sounding voice, which relates a poetic history of human destruction, exposing the chasm between anthropological and environmental timescales. The film re-purposes these visual documents to highlight the toxic correlation in the region between politics and natural resources, particularly in relation to oil.

Shot on Oman’s rugged coastline, Scales (2019) is a feminist parable by Saudi director Shahad Ameen. The film tells the story of a village in which each family must sacrifice a daughter to the sea. She then becomes a mermaid, a mythological figure whose life is determined by those on land – a metaphor for the myths patriarchal society invents about women. One father refuses to sacrifice his daughter, Hayat, a bold young woman who fights to stay living on the land among men. Serving as an analogy for the issues around women’s emancipation in the region, this plot enables Ameen to explore political themes related to women’s rights, such as freedom and autonomy, which wouldn’t be as possible – or as interesting – to investigate explicitly. Hayat has to choose between land and sea but, in reality, she is fighting for something much bigger: the right to choose. She refuses a destiny pre-ordained by a patriarchal system, which imprisons women within a certain lifestyle, dictated by law and enforced by society, even before they are born.

Nadim Choufi, The Sky Oscillates Between Eternity and Its Immediate Consequences, 2021. Courtesy: the artist
Nadim Choufi, The Sky Oscillates Between Eternity and Its Immediate Consequences, 2021. Courtesy: the artist

Thirst Is Economic

The race to construct cityscapes across the region has led to a concerted effort to propel the growth of local film industries. This is only in very recent years, however: just a decade ago, Abu Dhabi refused permission for the crew of Sex and the City 2 (2010) to shoot there on location. Now, countries in the Gulf are doing a significant U-turn in a bid to attract the attention of Hollywood production companies. One notable exception is Qatar, where the Doha Film Institute was founded back in 2010. In Saudi Arabia, by contrast, cinema was banned until 2018; just three years later, however, location scouting services have now been launched. Film AlUla, for example, offers up AlUla as the desert backdrop catering to all Hollywood blockbuster needs. The economic extraction of landscape through film production is a less invasive form of urban development than, say, the construction of Neom – a new desert city in Saudi Arabia, complete with snowy ski-slopes – but it is still inevitably being co-opted as a key investment principle.

Ahaad Alamoudi’s NIUN (2018) explores the relationship between economic potential and accelerated futures in Saudi Arabia. The film depicts two extraterrestrial characters, one of them a Saudi woman (played by Alamoudi) and the other a white man (her collaborator, US designer Michael Mogensen). They are presented as the forefathers of a fictional civilization and, by extension, the urban developers of a desert-city utopia – presumably inspired by Neom, which was inaugurated in 2017. The film draws on the proto sci-fi text Awaj bin Anfaq by Zakariya al-Qazwini (1203–83), which is about an alien who visits Earth to study human civilization. Alamoudi’s interpretation equates human reproduction with the construction of cityscapes, envisaging both the womb and the desert as sites of creation and no return. In a light dig at the futures promised by urban planning, which never quite live up to their blueprints, the film’s vision of a futuristic home – a high-end tent – is intentionally farcical.

Monira Al Qadiri, ‘Holy Quarter’, 2020, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Haus der Kunst, Munich; photograph: Maximilian Geuter
Monira Al Qadiri, ‘Holy Quarter’, 2020, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Haus der Kunst, Munich; photograph: Maximilian Geuter

Thirst Is Cultural Tradition

In At the Time of the Ebb (2019), Alia Farid highlights the cultural interconnectedness between the Gulf and Iran, where the Arabian Sea has enabled an exchange of cultural traditions for many centuries. The artist travels 100km by water from the easternmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula to Qeshm Island in Iran for Nowruz Sayyad, an ancient annual ceremony that celebrates the beginning of the fishing season. Here, locals perform razif, the traditional sword dance that is supposed to bring peace, and dive into the seawater in order to protect themselves against disease. At the Time of the Ebb shows how the desert has its own distinct seasonal cycle, which connects communities across the Arabian Peninsula.

Ali Cherri takes a more critical approach to cultural exchange – and its imbalances – in his film Petrified (2016), which questions the fetishization of historical artefacts. At Sharjah’s Arabian Wildlife Centre, the artist investigates the value we place on provenance and authenticity, which often has commercial incentive. The cultural trade routes in the region are also used to traffic looted artefacts from conflict zones, which Cherri explores in his series ‘Fragments’ (2016). Both works revisit themes explored in his earlier film The Digger (2015), which follows the everyday life of Sultan Zeib Khan, the Pakistani caretaker who has been guarding the ruins of a Neolithic necropolis in Sharjah’s desert for two decades. Cherri takes ruins, corpses and dead objects as his subjects, questioning why we maintain cultural traditions and preserve heritage in a region constantly redeveloping and rewriting its past.

Ali Cherri, Petrified, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Imane Farès, Paris
Ali Cherri, Petrified, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Imane Farès, Paris

Thirst Is Social

Fatima Al Qadiri and Khalid Al Gharaballi’s video installation Mendeel Um A7mad (N x I x S x M) (2012) maps the dichotomy of social landscape through the ritualistic and gendered space of Chai Dhaha – the Kuwaiti tea ritual that offers women an opportunity to gather informally. The film casts young men in the role of middle-aged women, in homage to Abdul-Aziz Al Nimish, the Kuwaiti actor who, for decades, portrayed mature female characters on screen at a time when it was unacceptable for married women to act. The film reconstructs a fantasy, since very little documentation of these gatherings exists – certainly in comparison to the equivalent tea ceremony for men, Diwaniya. Toying with gendered spaces in society, Al Qadiri and Al Gharaballi show how such binaries are simultaneously upheld and dismantled in Kuwait. Even if Chai Dhaha is just a bunch of women drinking tea and gossiping, it quenches the thirst.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 228 with the headline ‘Thirst Traps’.

Main image: Ali Cherri, The Digger, 2015. Courtesy: the artist and Imane Farès, Paris

Róisín Tapponi is a film curator, writer and academic. She is the founder of Habibi Collective, SHASHA Movies, Independent Iraqi Film Festival and ART WORK magazine, as well as a recipient of a PhD Art History Scholarship at St Andrews University, Fife, Scotland.

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