First published on BIKYAMASR
CAIRO: “All films are the same.” That is what Um Salman (Huda Sultan) told her husband Bu (Mubarak Khamis) on a certain night while watching a film on TV, after he had asked her if they hadn’t seen that movie before.
The question is two-fold: On the one hand, haven’t we seen all the movies before anyway? They’re vaults of memory and consciousness, expand upon them and are only limited by our experiences; on the other hand, the movie that they are watching is nowhere visible or perceptible and on a Truman Show fashion, the screen of their TV is unknowingly allowing them to peer into the world of the audience – that is, our world.
The scene takes place in “Huna London” (2012), a short film of Bahraini filmmaker Mohammed Rashed Bu Ali, a joint Bahraini-Emirati production that was just released on April 12 in the course of the 5th Gulf Film Festival, and the 6th production of the talented filmmaker.
In line with his previous work from “Absence” (2008) through “Under the Sky” (2011) the film draws on the language and cultural codes of Bahrain’s traditional life, but unlike the commonplace genre of “tradition” film, vastly popular in the Arab world, the project of Bu Ali is a lot more ambitious technically and conceptually.
Tradition films are usually seen as battlegrounds where the conflicts and struggles between traditional ways of life and the advance of modernity are staged and often ambiguously solved in a poetic manner, but also the center stage of radical criticism of society and nostalgia over a past already buried or forlorn.
Bu Ali’s films present a different strategy to stage the theater of consciousness in which the purely filmic finds its expression in storytelling rather than in history. The storytelling at work in these films isn’t the well-known strategy imported from literary prose in which a plot – whatever it might be – comes to a happy or moral resolution of the struggle of the hero, in a linear sequence.
The abstract poetics of his earlier films that were reviewed recently on BikyaMasr.com, nevertheless, gave way to a more mature process of filming and editing in which the experimental, poetic and highly realistic qualities of his films did not have to be sacrificed in order to conform to a more normative and linear film.
His previous work, that drew heavily on the idea of loneliness – without falling into gaps of consciousness and alienation – is somewhat left behind in “Huna London” and replaced by a more spoken, dialogical and whimsical film bordering on comedy; a genre today swallowed up by Hollywood and nearly forgotten in Arab cinema. Once again, Bu Ali manages to surprise and innovate.
The story of “Huna London” is rather simple: The couple of Bu and Um Salman are on a mission to have a photograph of them taken and sent to their son, who has left the homeland to go and study in London. What could have been easily done at a studio in the city becomes a movie-long adventure when the wife refuses to go to the studio, and a young photographer has to think of a way to capture the shot.
This could have never been the subject of a movie – let alone a comedy – hadn’t it been the case that something keeps getting on the way and preventing the simple task. A number of parallel stories unfold: The couple chasing after a rat, a cloud of indecision and the religious precautions on the part of Um.
Day after day, the couple stages another attempt to have their photo taken and after a series of predicaments, difficult positions, change of photographer, dress, background and a lot of laughter, the mission is accomplished in a singular manner.
As it is the case with Bu Ali’s film, the excellent music score provided by the great Bahraini composer Mohammed Haddad, heightens the dramatic effect of the whimsically written movie and what was a long series of meditations and silences in his previous films, becomes here a fairy tale, a legend, a chronicle and a parody.
Using the same visual configuration – and spatiality – of his previous films, the shift from an abstract dialogue – sometimes bordering on insanity and incommunicability – into a fully spoken narrative film is very smooth, and provides a natural continuity into a film that appeals to a more commercial audience and retains all of the aesthetic and thematic richness of his earlier films; in particular the creative use of “tradition” and “traditional life” without falling prey to the limited plot-resolution dialectics, normative of Arab films that make use of visual and social realism in their making.
Limited as the number of productions is in the emerging cinema of Bahrain – consisting of one full-length motion picture and a good number of short films – the tiny Gulf kingdom made a singular appearance during the Gulf Film Festival with a larger number of short films than that of many other countries and a broad range of topics and styles.
Mohammed Bu Ali continues being one of the youngest and most active filmmakers in the Bahraini scene and “Huna London” is a prime example of precise development and maturity, heading towards a new kind of cinema in the Arabian Gulf.
The region has managed to turn the genre of short films into a fully developed genre of cinema that is available also to an audience less specialized and less familiar with experimental and documentary films. At the same time that they are carrying out successfully the transition from cinema with specific social and historical messages and conflicts, into a home-grown cinema with universal themes and motifs, disenfranchised from political polemics and into a purer cinema, opening the way for a professional industry with limited resources and unlimited raw material.
The re-birth of cinema in the Arab world and its birth in the Arabian Gulf is an indicator of the democratization of culture in which cinema is not only the expression of conflict or the off-shot of a mass-media driven film industry in which the region is nothing but a geographic trope.
As more filmmakers and titles begin to emerge, films such as “Huna London” explore not just technical possibilities but also the identity of a new cinema – both artistic, global and regional – at the crossroads of turbulent transitions, not necessarily political, but mainly of consciousness and perception, in which cinema has played a pivotal role for over a hundred years, as one of the most vivid and immediately available vehicles of transmission.
Perhaps it is true that all films are the same. That is why we continue watching them, producing them, passing them under the lens of criticism. It is one and the same struggle always: Travelling without moving.