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Experimentation In Arab Cinema From The 1960s To Now: Painterly 'Buried Secrets' (Tunisia)

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by Tambay A. Obenson
November 14, 2012 4:32 PM
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Currently running at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) here in NYC is a three-part film exhibition titled Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s to Now, which aims to highlight a largely unknown heritage of experimental cinema from the Arab world.

The works selected for this 3rd edition of Mapping Subjectivity hail from AlgeriaEgyptMoroccoTunisia, and more, reflecting a diversity and richness of voices.

I've been giving access to all the films in the series, and I'll be giving you a brief look at each of them in individual posts.

The series funs through the 25th of this month.

Yesterday, I profiled Fidaï, an algerian doc.

Today, from Tunisia comes Anonymes (Buried Secrets), from Tunisian filmmaker Raja Amari.

What was most interesting for me, and that I didn't even really think about until I'd finished watching the film is that I watched it without English subtitles (the screener I received didn't have that option, although it may have just been a problem with my DVD player), and yet, I understood just about everything that happened that comprises the story.

It's a Tunisian drama, with characters speaking in Arabic, and the only subtitles available were French. Granted I can read a little bit of French, but I'm FAR from what you'd call competent in the language; however, I was able to follow the drama as it unfolded, because the filmmaker (Raja Amari) adhered to that old film school principle, one of the first things you learn, which is show don't tell. 

Amari clearly understood/understands what that means, as she does such a wonderful job of telling the film's story using the images primarily; after all, another term used to describe cinema is the moving image. 

As my mother would probably say, it's what's in front of you stupid! The words the characters speak complement the images; they don't/shouldn't overwhelm them. Of course this isn't a steadfast rule, since it's constantly broken. But it's so rare to watch such a quiet film (not only is the dialogue minimal, there's practically no soundtrack), and be able to understand, appreciate and be moved by it all.

The painterly images, thanks in part to the location (a beautiful rustic mansion, with adornments that give it a striking visage), the production design, the costume design and cinematography, definitely help in holding your gaze; the frames are at times busy, but not-so much that you're distracted. Instead I found myself wanting to watch the film again just to take in all of the scenery, and just live in it for a little while.

The entire film takes place in that mansion, and centers on 3 women living in what they believe to be an empty house; they're essentially squatters. Their lives are considerably disrupted when a young couple moves into the house - a couple that initially isn't at all aware that there are squatters present with them. So what we have here is a peculiar coexistence that develops in the house, because the women don't want to reveal themselves to their unwanted new house-mates, and they have no intention of leaving either; and so begins the dance as they try to continue living out their lives in this house, while trying to ensure that the young couple doesn't become aware of their presence.

There's a definite nod to what I'd call traditional values versus modernity, in the form of the youngest of the 3 women, all over them seemingly strict adherers to the old ways of living, especially when it comes to the role of women, and how they carry themselves in a Muslim country. The youngest envies the life of the woman half of the young couple that moves in - a seemingly modern-day professional, who wears the kind of clothing that the 3 squatters consider "whorish" if you will, even though we're just talking jeans, tee-shirts, hair down, dresses that are above the knee, jewelry, etc - essentially what many others would consider everyday attire. 

There's an attempt by the two older women to shield the youngest from that other reality, as they live these really secluded lives. But the young "rebel" clearly won't be denied that which she craves, which leads to a rather shocking ending that I didn't see coming at all!

It's a fascinating character study, and a window into these dueling ideologies, and while curiousity doesn't exactly kill the cat in this instance, it still kills, and the message seems to be that modernity wins.

The film screened in the gala selection of last year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival; I missed it then, and glad that I got to see it now. 

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