- Arab Modernism as World Cinema: The Films of Moumen Smihi by Peter Limbrick
Pressure has been placed on Arab film scholars to "delink" from Western and Eurocentric frames of intelligibility in the name of decolonial epistemologies. The ensuing debate is not new in academic circles, but it is undergoing a contemporary reconditioning as postcolonial states in the Middle East region turn to hybrid forms of nationalism fostered by neoliberal investment imperatives dominated by the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia in collaboration with the United States and Israel.1 The contemporary call to break with the West claims a different structural base than a similar call issued over thirty years ago by Egyptian political scientist Samir Amin, for whom "delinking" from the West was a revolutionary matter of transitioning from capitalism to socialism and carried no rejectionist position vis-à-vis European theory, in particular Marxism.2 For Amin, dismantling neocolonialism would require a radical internationalism, not today's reactionary isolationism whose interests lie in consolidating local and regional entities into competitive blocs within the global capitalist system. [End Page 214]
The importance of Peter Limbrick's Arab Modernism as World Cinema: The Films of Moumen Smihi becomes evident within this context. Limbrick focuses his text on the overlooked Moroccan independent filmmaker Moumen Smihi, whose entire cinematic oeuvre and artistic life stands as a counter to contemporary currents. Smihi was born in Tangier, attended a French lycée, and frequented local ciné-clubs before pursuing higher education and cinematic training in France. There he was exposed to existentialist philosophy and poststructuralist theory, including works by Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and Roland Barthes, and to the revolutionary writings of Karl Marx. Smihi interpreted the significance of these works in the context of twentiethcentury Nahda (Arab Awakening) intellectuals such as Taha Hussein, considered by many the founder of Pharaonism, and Tawfiq al-Hakim, both giants of modern Egyptian literary culture, and in light of medieval philosophers of Islamic classical thought, such as the ninth-century theologian Al-Jahiz, who theorized evolution from the perspective of anti-sectarian rationalism, and the twelfth-century philosopher and novelist Ibn Tufayl, who argued for the interrelationship of religious and rational thought. Smihi went on to make films almost completely outside of the commercial structures and neocolonial state funding and distribution networks that continue to overdetermine the political aesthetics of Arab cinema. He has thus been able to formulate a cinematic intertext that integrates European modernist modalities—the neorealism of Roberto Rossellini, the ciné-ethnography of Jean Rouch, and the poetic realism of Pier Paolo Pasolini—while emphasizing their Arab influences and articulations. These include the Egyptian new realism of Salah Abu Seif and, especially, the literary arabesque.
Through what amounts to a deconstruction of European modernism, Smihi's films enable what Limbrick calls a radicalization of Arab subjectivity: a renewed sense of Nahda founded upon an uncanny illumination of the proverbial Western civilizational narrative as it bypasses Islamic classicism and dissimulates its European scholastic appropriation—a tack now being followed on its obverse by the reactionary calls for delinking. Limbrick reading Smihi advances this "new Nahda" as against contemporary irredentism as a means of restoring European modernism to its historical moment—the intellectual legacy of Islamic rational philosophy. In turn, modernism and its profoundly transnational character are redeemed for Arab, not only Moroccan or Egyptian, cinema.
Smihi's deconstructionism appears most saliently at the formal register of his films. For Limbrick, Smihi's films reconfigure Alexandre Astruc's caméra-stylo for the purpose of reconciling modernist ciné-écriture with the Defeat-conscious realism famously advocated by Tunisian cinéaste Nouri Bouzid as a remedy to the Arab world's cultural colonization.3 Such reconciliation is facilitated by intellectual montage, noncausal digressions, and a cinematography that resists omniscience and moral absolutism, recalling both early Soviet filmmaking and a certain immanentism attributable to some forms of Islamic textuality—for example, those related to Sufism. In this [End Page 215] way, Smihi's...