Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Darwish Celebrated in Film

From the Daily Star

The late-Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was one of the towering figures of late-20th century Arab cultural production. Among Palestinians, Darwish’s stature was unrivaled.

Recognized as one of the great Arabic-language poets in living memory, he was also an
unreconstructed nationalist with a long record of critically minded activism within Yasser Arafat’s PLO.

To follow his decades of output is to find poetic expression of the urgency of Palestinian militancy and the accumulation of Palestinians’ despair and anger at the ineffectual political classes that have claimed to represent and support their right to retain possession of their ancestral lands.

Straddling the worlds of art and politics, it’s no surprise that Darwish has cut such a heroic figure in the cultural life of his countrymen – whether they reside in ’48 Palestine, the Occupied Territories or among the Palestinian exile community.

His poems are memorized and recited by elementary school children, set to music and performed by Arab artists throughout the MENA region and have been translated into 30-odd languages, including Hebrew. From time to time, Darwish’s work is adapted to film.

“As the Poet Said,” the latest feature-length film by Lebanon-based Palestinian documentarian Nasri Hajjaj, is one of the more ambitious efforts to bring Darwish’s poetry to the rest of the world through film.

The premise of the film is simple, setting out to take the audience on a tour through the poet’s life. Accompanied by Darwish’s work, Hajjaj takes the camera to some of the places the poet lived in the Middle East and Europe. The journey is linear but in execution the project is
multi-layered. The filmmaker has assembled a distinguished group of colleagues, friends and admirers to participate in the tribute.

Several Palestinian poets – Ahmed Dahbour, for instance, and Dalia Taha – are augmented by cast that include Nigerian writer, poet and playwright Wole Soyinka, dissident Israeli poet Yitzak Laor, Iraqi Kurdish poet Sherko Bekas, American Michael Palmer, Lebanon’s Joumana Haddad, former French Prime Minister (and, it seems, poet) Dominique de Villepin and a troupe of school students from Sidon’s Ain al-Hilweh camp.

The camera (wielded by Jocelyne Abi Gebrayel) captures this cast of characters in a dozen or so different locations, within Palestine, around the Middle East, in Africa and Europe, places loyal to the memory of the poet and to which the poet was loyal – his favourite room in Paris’ Madison Hotel, for instance. Whether by design or happenstance, many of these locations are in a state of repair, or disrepair – an abandoned railway station, a university auditorium filled with scaffolding, an abandoned theatre.

For the most part each setting affords these figures an opportunity to read lines of Darwish’s poetry. They do so in several languages – Arabic, of course, but also English, French and Kurdish.

The poetry can be interpreted in other terms as well, of course. A weighty piano piece, composed and performed for Hajjaj by Lebanese composer Hiba al-Kawas, opens the film and is revisited throughout. This pounding score is augmented by the work of harpist and composer Tara Jaff, and dancer Lorca Sbeiti can be seen navigating various derelict spaces at certain points in the work.

The effect is to testify to the wide range of people that have been moved by, or at least exposed to, Darwish’s words. This approach gives the film an oddly selfless aspect, since Hajjaj’s cast is given so much latitude to interpret Darwish’s work in his or her own terms.

Moving literature between genres is challenging work. No few lines of film criticism have complained about how some hack scriptwriter or director has tried to adapt a much-loved novel or short story to the screen and made a hash of it. If adaptations of prose works to film are hard to pull off, translating poetry to film is inestimably more difficult. It has been amply demonstrated that the shooting and editing of moving images, whether proper film or digital video, can be “poetic.” It is difficult, though, to approximate the impact of written poetry – the resonance of words and their breadth of meaning within individual readers – even within
other languages, let alone in visual media.

Filmmakers are still compelled to try. One compulsion, presumably, is the desire to secure increased exposure for the poetry, liberating work that, if left between the covers of a book, might languish in obscurity. There is less danger of that being the case with the work of
Darwish, which is probably better known in the non-Arab world than that of any other Arab poet. The desire to free Darwish’s work from its genre, and its appeal to both filmmakers and audiences, was nicely illustrated at last December’s Dubai film festival, where “As the Poet Said” enjoyed its world premier. It wasn’t the only Darwish poem in competition.

Lebanese filmmaker Talal Khoury’s “9 August,” his second effort to render a Darwish poem on film, screened in DIFF’s short film competition. Furthermore the trailer that DIFF’s production team worked up (to project before the festival’s gala screenings) was drawn almost exclusively from a particularly effective passage of Hajjaj’s film. That sequence sees a deaf actor sign a passage of Darwish’s poetry – an avalanche of verbs the poet deployed as if grappling to depict
the complex range of feeling his lover, and country, evoked in him. Audiences invariably applauded generously. It wasn’t odd to hear the word “beautiful,” in various languages.

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