First published on BIKYAMASR
“Et si” – An Experimental Film
The status of films among the arts has been more or less settled for a few decades now. The verdict passed on the film industry as the seventh art, however, has little to do with the resolution of a century-old question as much as with a certain decline in the arts in general – both from the perspective of the practicing artists and the public on the receiving end.
The decline of art is today far from a death sentence, at least when compared to the death of art proclaimed by the 19th century – long before cinema – after which modern art was born. Decline here is not used as a moral adjective, but rather, it only implies a pendulum-like movement into a new field of experience.
Experience is the keyword here because what is cinema if not one of the most total experiences offered by art to the modern audience? While at the same time this experience never happens “totally” but in parts, cuts, shots and fragments. That experience is the central aspect of art, of course, would have never occurred to that same 19th century.
Film as such remains always impure; what is best put to words by Alan Badiou: “Cinema is the seventh art in a very particular sense. It does not add itself to the other six while remaining on the same level as them. Rather, it implies them – cinema is the plus-one of the arts. It operates, using them as its starting point.”
This is important for films because it was precisely at the moment when all this intellectual mumbo jumbo happened, that the film industry was born and one of the very reasons why it never really received canonical status – the very same criteria divinely ordained to grant status of holiness in art, were themselves falling apart.
It is not that art stopped being beautiful or that it became ugly but rather that the inner dynamics of art, demanded that it respond to the world in different ways. Some of the responses went as far as to imply that it is not necessary to resort to art in order to respond aesthetically to the world.
Films have been since then part of this response and it would be mistaken to say that all films are art. There’s little else to films but the process of cinematography as described by Soviet filmmaker Eisenstein: “Cinema is: so many corporations, such and such turnovers of capitals, so and so many stars, such and such dramas. Cinematography is, first and foremost, montage”.
The essence of cinema, says avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren, is the combination of real-life incident and artistic manipulation. In her canonical essay “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality, she puts forward the argument that cinema is the art of the controlled accident – a delicate balance between spontaneity and deliberate artistic design.
She speaks about the relationship of cinema to the other arts: “The motion-picture medium has an extraordinary range of expression. It has in common with the plastic arts the fact that it is a visual composition projected on a two-dimensional surface; with dance, that it can deal in the arrangement of movement; with theater, that it can create a dramatic intensity of events; with music, that it can compose in the rhythms and phrases of time and can be attended by song and instrument; with poetry, that it can juxtapose images; with literature generally, that it can encompass in its sound track the abstractions available only to language.”
But unlike other theorists and filmmakers she is set on a crusade to rescue cinema from its indebtedness to the other arts and wants to give cinema a “purer” place in art by releasing itself from the association with narratives and literatures – the essence of Hollywood – and from the strictly technical nature of cinematography:
“If cinema is to take its place beside the other arts as a full-fledged art form, it must cease merely to record realities that owe nothing of their actual existence to the film instrument. Instead, it must create a total experience so much out of the very nature of the instrument as to be inseparable from its means. It must relinquish the narrative disciplines it has borrowed from literature and its timid imitation of the causal logic of narrative plots, a form which flowered as a celebration of the earth-bound, step by step concept of time, space and relationship which was part of the primitive materialism of the 19th century.
Instead, it must develop the vocabulary of filmic images and evolve the syntax of filmic techniques which relate those. It must determine the disciplines inherent in the medium, discover its own structural models, explore the new realms and dimensions accessible to it and so enrich our culture artistically as science has done in its own province.”
At a time when the use of film has become institutionalized for all practical purposes – advertising, political propaganda, news – it surprising that any films appear in the market that try to rescue the elementary operations of film as an art – laid by Maya Deren – and not simply build upon elaborate filmic strategies to tell stories; what is not necessarily the task of film.
“Et si”, a short film by Lebanese director Alain Nasnas is one of those surprises, not only because of the success of the film in capturing the artistic dimension of film, terribly absent from the industry today, but also because of the adventurous lack of pretension with which that is achieved.
“Et si” is an artistic film no doubt, but it’s no film for connoisseurs and to the dismay of the critics – wherever they might be – it is a simple product and it lacks the complex theoretical drive and pretensions of much of what we call experimental film.
Let us begin by saying that it is not the film of an artist as much as it is the product of cinema-love by a cinema-aficionado. This is precisely what has been lacking for decades now not only in the industry but also in the public: A true love for whatever it is that cinema stands for.
Susan Sontag’s lamentation in “A Century of Cinema” about the state of affairs in the culture of cinema puts it better than we could:
“Each art breeds its fanatics. The love that cinema inspired, however, was special. It was born of the conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other: quintessentially modern, distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral – all at the same time. Cinema had apostles. (It was like religion.) Cinema was a crusade. For cinephiles, the movies encapsulated everything. Cinema was both the book of art and the book of life.”
This love of art, pure but free from intellectual enfranchisement, is precisely what is deployed by Nasnas in this film and the vision and reason by someone who does not come from the film industry or the now just as industrial world of the art and film schools is depicted accurately by Sontag once again:
“Cinephilia has no role in the era of hyperindustrial films. For cinephilia cannot help, by the very range and
eclecticism of its passions, from sponsoring the idea of the film as, first of all, a poetic object; and cannot help from inciting those outside the movie industry, like painters and writers, to want to make films, too. It is precisely this notion that has been defeated.”
After launching a career in animation in 2008 with Beirut Animation Network (BAN) having self-taught himself the animation processes, he decided to come up with a simple story that could be directed and made into a film.
As it is the case with art – and hardly with an industry of scriptwriters, managers, agents and copyrights – the script was written in one night straight and then storyboarded in animated 3D characters: A mute – but the movie is not silent – story that might be mistaken for a love story, but it is in fact, a curious and mysterious tale about chances, possibilities, openings, closings, and above all, about human encounters.
A man in a café. A melancholy woman. Cigarette smoke. Chance encounters. Crossed signals.
Dreaming that a movie would be possible: Head-hunting for actors Jessy Moussallem and Nadim Moufarrei, finding in them the naturalness of expression that is necessary for a film in which nothing is built out of dialogues or fantasies, but rather, wholly in terms of emotional subtleties – the viewer might be right, the viewer might be wrong; that emotion remains unchanged.
Cinematographed with a 5D camera without the pretension of the stage – decreasing the theatrical and increasing the filmic effect – at a random café in Beirut, with amateur actors, 10 days, 2,000 dollars and some simple musical samples.
One would think that this is the kind of films that are made by film students, posted to the Internet and that are merely exercises in performance, in which the technical limitations are compensated by a certain feeling or the attempt to master certain strategies. But this is hardly the case with “Et si”.
It is crystal clear to the audience that the film was carefully scripted and storyboarded – unmistakably produced by someone with a background in something as detailed as animation – and this perhaps might puzzle professional filmmakers because of the dialectical relationship of modern art to silence, improvisation and the controlled accident.
But the fact that there is so little room for improvisation and so much room for spontaneity at the same time, is what makes this short piece remarkable and would have certainly been the kind of films that Maya Deren would have watched and produced: A urban dream, carefully staged spontaneity, a lens into the world rather than into the studio.
The atypical and stunning beauty of Jessy Moussallem who manages to stir up so many emotions out of this feeling of sadness and sickness – and she had cancer at the time and no hair – makes it difficult to ignore the success of the actors and the director in bringing to life the greatest complexity that art desires: To portray the everyday with its inflected monotony but without the kind of abandonment that shuns off curiosity.
Alain Nasnas’ film succeeds where many ambitious projects fail: He tells a simple love story – and no film reviewer would be dumb enough to give you the entire plot of a mute film in a review – with simple technical strategies but yet he rescues the very basic elements of cinema: The dream, the fleeting moment, the passage of time, and yet all of it, here and of this world.
After finishing her film “Promised Lands” in 1974, Susan Sontag – who was not a filmmaker or theorist by profession but one another cinema lover – wrote for Vogue magazine a little article telling how it feels to make a movie:
“Filmmaking is a privilege and a privileged life. Filmmaking is nitpicking, anxiety, fights, claustrophobia, exhaustion, euphoria. Filmmaking is feeling almost undone by sentimental goodwill toward the people you’re working with part of the time, feeling misunderstood or let down or betrayed by them the rest of the time. Filmmaking is catching inspiration on the wing. Filmmaking is flubbing the catch, and sometimes knowing the fool that’s to blame is yourself. Filmmaking is blind instinct, petty calculation, smooth generalship, daydreaming, pigheadedness, grace, bluff, risk.”
This is the kind of cinema love that is deployed by Alain Nasnas in this modest film, and while it cannot compete either theoretically or conceptually with the industry or with the church of film religiously enshrined in art schools, it is an intense body of proof that whatever it is that cinema represents as an art, is still possible, and available to anyone who approaches films with the vision of the dreamer, the care of the artisan and the humbleness of the poet.