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Departure poetry
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 25 - 04 - 2019

The Algerian-French director Hamid Benamra contributed the only feature-length Arab film in the 41st Moscow International Film Festival (15-25 April): Timelife, in the World of Arts section. Syrian director Soudade Kaadan participated with her short film Aziza, but no other Arab filmmakers were selected. The second oldest film festival after Venice — and initially a major Soviet cultural beacon — the festival, which was founded in 1935, has been steadily picking up speed since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Timelife is a lyrical piece of art in which the director uses his personal life as a springboard to deeper, more meditative spaces. It is visually compelling with images of the sea and agricultural fields but like every film by Benamra its more important aspect is the unique, unconventional language in which it communicates. It is impossible to classify as either fictional or documentary. Concerned as he puts it since his first film For a Better Life (1981) with “the quality of life and what separates and connects people”, his work is deeply aware of mortality and time. “Because I don't use life within a naive religious or contemplative mould but rather try to deconstruct the idea as it unfolds, making sure no part of its essence that I can use is lost.” A kind of fluidity, more recently informed by an irregular heartbeat and so more rhythmically fitful here than in previous films, remains his principal inspiration and modus operandi. Timelife is its own process.
“I set out from the accumulation of images in an endless queue,” Benamra says. “When I clicked open the editing application, the timeline looked like a train without beginning or end, like an artery of life's pictures – ‘the time of living' in Arabic. I know the word is incorrect in English but poetry and cinema can make up new words. It derived from a stack of thick and intense layers of events, feelings, ideas. Everytime you pulled the mask off one shot you found another nestled within it. This can be a complement, but it can also be a continuation or the start of a new sequence. There is living time and cinematic time, but for me they are one because I don't make a distinction between the eye with which I go through life and the frame of the lens with which I capture faces and events.”
The film opens with a shot through a plane window during landing, and the voice of Benamra's wife Stephanie. She provides a more or less continuous narration through the film, though what she says is in fact poetry she wrote in which she expresses her feelings as she expects her second baby while Benamra leaves France for Algeria. The film focuses on this state of affairs, underlining Stephanie's concern that Hamid's journey will prevent him from being present at the birth. The film progresses in non-chronological fashion, combining footage from various points in time reflecting Benamra's life with his family as well as his conversations with artist friends, Arab and African as well as French.
“Ten years separate the first and last shot of this film. All that time I was filming Reveries of the Solitary Actor and Hizam,” both released in 2016, “as well as another film that will see the light later on. Style is like walking, it stays the same from adolescence to old age. The image is a space for precise expression, whether it's still or cinematic, and that's why I never film until the idea is whole and mature. There is no spontaneity in the film whatsoever. In ballet the dancers' movements appear effortless, it's as if they just woke up, but achieving this smoothness requires continuous daily toil. There is not one scene in the film that was not written and designed in advance, except the moments of genesis which I did not interefe with though Stephanie and I had outlined them and agreed not to discuss them further.”
Most of the film's sequences revolve around movement into and out of the house, generating a space in which many characters interact, reflecting and refracting the state of expectation which Stephanie's pregnancy creates: waiting, solitude, dreams and desires. One example of this is Benamra's fantastical depiction of the great Syrian director Mohamed Malas (whom he has described as an older brother) carrying a ladder, then appearing on top of it chanting his desire for freedom and to make a film. Malas also appears interacting with the Benamra family in more mundane settings, reading or speaking of his childhood as he watched Palestinian refugees in 1948. Other figures who appear include dubbing actress Maik Darah, Jordanian director and critic Adnan Madanat and Benamra's fellow karate player and friend, the cook Sébastien Benoist.
“There was a window of opportunity in which the various conditions necessary for Malas to enter the film obtained, and so he added this luminous, vital presence. Afterwards, to prepare for his next film, he stopped travelling and so could not be filmed in France. If I was a day late it wouldn't have been possible. The same is true of Maik Darah who lives between France and America and answers the phone only once every two years. I managed to capture her for exactly two days, and haven't been able to inform her of the film being in Moscow since. But I wanted her and not any other dark woman. As the film says, I filmed her for the first time 20 years ago and I'd remained faithful to my desire to film her again. She is Whoopi Goldberg's French voice and is known to millions of children through The Lion King, in which she gave the hynea Shenzi a savage and sly tone. You can see her in the film quickly telling my daughter Hanaa how a vocie adds to a character. I wanted to stress dubbing because it reflects French racism towards Arabs and Africans who are not allowed to appear. The song she performs is about a young woman who was found frozen to death after hiding in the luggage of a plane travelling from Africa to France. I don't try to cover immigration in a journalistic way, but I deal with it from an emotional perspective since I myself am an immigrant. My question in this regard is not why did you leave but why did you not stay...”
Benamra uses various elements to communicate deeper ideas. The African man dancing on the beach, for example – Brice Poma-Packotto – draws connections between the sea and immigration as well as life and death. The narrator states that the dancer is nameless because he could be any one of us. He is an extension of Hizam and expresses himself only through movement, since Africa is too big to summarise in a single set of elements. He symbolises the glittering, deadly mirage. Maik meets Malas, Benamra explains, in order to connect the two continents that live inside him. He stresses his dual Arab and African identity, he says, since Africa needs Arabic and Arabs need Africa. “The abstract image is poetry and philosophy at the same time and the greatest gesture towards classicism.” Here as elsewhere Benamra does not so much connect concepts as allow ideas to brusg against each other. No doubt the absence of traditional narrative can make Timelife challenging to the average movie goer.
“The question of how easy a film will be to watch doesn't come into the process. I'm always working on three or four films at the same time and each feeds into the others, opening up horizons. So I don't feel I am shooting a topic like someone installing a wall but rather making a film like someone building a city. The cook doesn't set out to make one but ten different dishes at the same time, using different degrees of heat and different cooking durations. In Hizam Assia Guemra says a dancer is like a chef. My cooking is a secret even if the dance or the characters' presence appears effortless. And that's why the intimacy comes through so intensely. The family in the film is a gesture towards every human cluster. I sought ways to make a credible icon out of Stephanie, who provides love, freedom, time, power and life, so that others will believe that love and friendship exist and that sex is a positive power, not a taboo to be ashamed of. I wanted her to star in her life, not in a film, and to live, not act her pregnancy. Stephanie is family and homeland and nationality and all the women in the world. That is how the personal allows me to do philosophy and poetry.”

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