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Reorienting the Middle East: The Gulf as Method between Area and Film/Media Studies

RoundTable XI-2, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am

RoundTable Description
Stories of cutting-edge film production facilities, generous tax incentives, and lavish film festivals often dominate perceptions of film and digital media on the Arabian Peninsula, but there is a much longer and more complicated history that connects it with the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean. This history extends to the present in which many Gulf states have heterogeneous populations of citizens and residents, who perspectives have often been marginalized. This workshop proposes that by focusing on film and digital media in the Gulf, new frameworks, which we call “the Gulf as method,” become evident. Many films that circulate in Western film festivals offer a highly selective image of the Gulf that largely conforms to Western-defined regions in area studies and Western-defined national, regional, international, and world cinemas in film studies. As a consequence, the Gulf often only comes into focus in relation to autocratic governance, kafala, “petrodollars,” rentier system, fundamentalism, “veiled” women. The same phenomenon extends also to television and visual arts. This roundtable reorients scholarships and debates on film and digital media in the Middle East by looking to the Gulf for how it can help us to unsettle assumptions. It does so by recognizing the Gulf as a fluid and transcultural space, whose interconnecting histories and migrating cultures as a conduit between multiple overlapping cultures whose complex identity exceeds the limiting imagination of regions and nation state borders in area and film studies. Panelists consider a wide variety of material (cinemas, films audiocassette letters, television performance art, videos on file-sharing platforms) that focus on what can be learned by considering oft-forgotten spaces between regions and disciplines in film and visual media.
Media Arts
  • Prof. Elizabeth Derderian
    My presentation will focus on the role of film and new media artwork in creating networks of artistic critique that stretch from the Arabian Peninsula to South Asia as well as to Europe. Film and new media are particularly well-suited for artists based in the Arab Gulf for a few reasons. In their deterritorialized form, video works and digital performances can strategically transcend or avoid local laws, their lack of material or physical sitedness providing an (ostensibly) supranational, supralegal space. Facilitating artists’ critical commentary that touches on taboo, forbidden, or illegal topics, new media work often resides on servers outside the confines of the state’s jurisdiction. While these works may highlight particularities of life in the Middle East, they become broadly legible given their medium. The questions raised by both the content and medium of these artists' work echo with broader contemporary debates about censorship, expression and the liberatory potential and perils of documentability inherent in the internet.
  • Over the two last decades, Meshal al-Jaser has emerged as one of Saudi Arabia’s and the Gulf’s most important artistic forces with global reach. In the words of Bahraini film blogger Mohamed Sultan, Al-Jaser’s “only competition” among the region’s emerging creative class “is himself.” Shocking, hilarious, and wild, Al-Jaser’s videos, music, and films blend artistic genres along with a series of oppositional cultural references from the Kingdom and the world. During his career, the US-educated Saudi director has found innovative and visually stimulating methods to tackle many of the most sensitive issues facing his homeland and the wider world—the types of troubling subjects that, in his words, have been “normalized” by Saudis and others. Although Al-Jaser asserts that he does not “care about the opinion of others,” he rarely assigns meaning to his work; he leaves that up to the audience. As he observed in 2018, many Saudis loved his video Ṭaz bi al-Kuffār (Screw Infidels) because they “understood that it was a ‘sarcastic’” attack on religious extremism, while countless others, not realizing the video’s multilayered messages, “liked it because it was racist.” Despite the popularity of Al-Jaser’s work, they and his ideas have largely been overlooked by leading scholars of Saudi society, many of whom continue to focus on religious, socio-economic, and strategic topics. Using extensive in-country and online research, this roundtable presentation aims to fill that gap by exploring the appeal of the Saudi director’s artistic vision—as revealed in his short videos, longer films, and music. I will build on Sean Foley’s "Changing Saudi Arabia: Art, Culture, and Society in the Kingdom" (2019) along with the insights of writers as diverse as Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. I stress that Al-Jaser’s blending of global cultural norms with Saudi ones allows him to reach a wide section of the domestic audience while serving in a role that Foley has observed other artists in the Kingdom now fill—individuals, who, through the language of culture articulate the feelings that the masses cannot easily articulate. At once mirrors and lamps, reflections of society and leaders, Al-Jaser and colleagues stand at the forefront of social change, offering innovative ways to approach an increasingly complex world.
  • Parisa Vaziri
    Contemporary discursive and visual representations of slavery in the Persian Gulf are often limited to state narratives and heritage project initiatives. Otherwise, the histories of slavery in the Persian Gulf and Indian ocean are policed by historiographical positivism, saturated by ideological residues of the “good-treatment thesis,” or compulsively contrasted with well-worn limit tropes of American chattel slavery, whose own complexities and nuances are flattened in an attempt to cement the difference between two purportedly unrelated histories of slavery--whose ultimate distinction rests upon the presence and absence of “racial” blackness. In this presentation, I examine figures of blackness in Iranian films about the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), known collectively as Sacred Defense cinema. Understudied and undertheorized in relation to the broader corpus of Iranian cinema, the best of sacred defense cinema is known for its ideological didacticism, literalness (its being concretely about the Iran-Iraq war), but also, counterintuitively, its cinematographic inventiveness. I argue that two of the most celebrated sacred defense genre films, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 1989 Marriage of the Blessed (Arūsī-yi Khūbān) and Ebrahim Hatami-Kia’s 1998 The Glass Agency (Āzhāns-i Shīshayī) draw upon figures of blackness to articulate mythical ideals that rationalize, while deeming impenetrable, the suffering of war. In doing so, Sacred Defense cinema brings together two enigmatically connected chains of meaning: militarism, and more vaguely, military slavery in the Persian Gulf, and blackness, a fraught site of unresolved (and unresolvable) semiosis that clouds the purity of slavery’s historicity in the Indian Ocean. In Makhmalbaf’s and Hatami-Kia’s films, blackness, conceived as both a geopolitical and mythological referent generates plural and contradictory signifiers: triggering recollection, consolidating identification, and softening the antagonistic religio-national distinctions that animated and legitimized the war. In attending to the explicitly cinematic ways in which Sacred Defense cinema draws upon blackness—in particular, through chronic repetition, deceleration, and fragmentation of the image— I show that cinematic blackness ultimately undermines the security of referentiality altogether. By extension, I argue that in its resistance to knowledge, even to claims of perceptibility, blackness flouts the traditional historiographical procedure and positivist grip upon the truth of the past of slavery and its racial legacy.
  • Dr. Bindu Menon
    Since the 1980s, numerous Gulf Cooperation Council cities have hosted film festivals by the Indian diaspora, including Doha, Dubai, Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi. The culture of film festivals among the diaspora, particularly the Malayalam diaspora, developed through the nodes of diasporic film collectives after being first established by the Indian cultural ministry in Doha (1984). These collectives drew on the state-sponsored infrastructure for cinephilia, which encouraged cinephiliac exchange and geographic expansion, in keeping with Kerala's long history of the hobby. Enlivened by the cinephiliac legacies of consuming global art cinema, many of these film collectives and cultural organizations introduced new genres into the local Arab viewing culture, which had previously been dominated by Hollywood and Arabic-language films from Cairo and Beirut. The presentation will place this history within an emerging field of academic film scholarship that aims to make sense of the distinctive cultural economies and significances associated with cultural institutions like the film societies by using accounts of film collectives from collaborators, workers, migrants, and local audiences.Alongside the changes in cinema, the film festival and cinephilia scenes have changed. Film festivals have expanded and encompassed a range of special interests and the internet has provided new options for engagement with films and platforms for cinephiles. These have had a significant impact on the practices and approaches of diasporic visual practices and they have opened up the future as something to be investigated, not as a distant possibility but as an active agent in the production of now. In this complex transnational cinephilic dispositif in the contemporary moment, we can identify the confluence of problems transnational cinema publics present. Sites for cinema such as film festivals not only represent the history of cinematic exhibition, galvanizing source of dispute about the proper nature of the cinema— they nonetheless, also express aspects of cinephilia’s technological and affective touchpoints ( Sreedhar Mini, 2021) I propose to marshal this material to deepen the framework of alternate histories of Gulf as contact zone ( Hudson)