Arab science fiction explored at London screening
London - Contrasting with Hollywood’s Star Wars, Arab visual artists have used science fiction to depict reality and address contemporary urgencies surrounding identity, conflict and the future, in Halcyon: New Short Films, which explored definitions of science fiction in Arab writing and film.
The event, curated by Rachel Dedman and presented in London’s Mosaic Rooms, featured four films by artists from or based in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Egypt.
In The Pessoptimist, Mirna Bamieh’s protagonist is abducted by aliens to mirror the miseries and horror of the occupation of the Palestinian territories.
In Nation Estate, Larissa Sansour imagined a futuristic solution to Palestinian statehood — an enormous high-rise building with the entire Palestinian population living inside.
Tom Bodaert’s pepsi, cola, water? shows Afro-American jazz pioneer, poet and philosopher Sun Ra and his fascination with outer space and ancient Egypt. He describes the disenchantment felt from Ra’s 1971 concert in Giza.
In Let There Be Light, Lea Najjar explores the effects of artificial light on society, its ability to affect and nurture the body and its use in a techno-commercial context to control the psychological wellbeing of workers.
Dedman said she wanted to discuss traditional definitions of science fiction in writing and film and how sci-fi might disrupt established narratives, present alternative views of the self and offer subtle negotiations of the future.
As stated in Edward Said’s Orientalism, the idea of Arabs seen as the other is shown in both negative and positive ways in the films. Palestinians are seen as others by Israelis and Ancient Egypt is shown as a positive other as an Afro-American is fascinated by Egypt’s history.
“Sci-fi is a way of making the other and with the Middle East especially, they are shown as the other,” Dedman said, arguing that science fiction may give artists and writers authority that other genres may not.
“Bogaert is aware somehow of the authority that science fiction has. He writes the text of the film in a very authoritative way. Even in its tone, it doesn’t feel it is self-authoritative.
“He creates images but intervenes in them as well. Science fiction has a legitimacy to play with audiences to shape or subvert expectations. Tom is doing this with history and myth-making that exists in the imagination particularly around Egypt and right across the region,” Dedman added.
Science fiction can be used mentally to escape conflict, the biggest issue faced by the Middle East, Dedman contended. “When the world around feels unbearable, the imagination can create a sub-reality, a place to take refuge, to escape reality and to create alternative futures,” she said.
Although there is interest in science fiction in the Arab world, few opportunities are presented to explore the subject mainly because of poor funding.
“Writing about sci-fi is much cheaper than creating films,” Dedman said. “People don’t easily want to fund sci-fi films. People like the idea of Middle-Eastern science fiction but they think they are not ready for it. This is not true because there are histories and legacies of science fiction in the Arab world since the 12th and 13th centuries such as Ibn al-Nafis or One Thousand and One Nights.”
Speaking about the vital use of language and translation in the genre, she said: “An incidental pun or slippage in language may be applicable to all kinds of translations as a process but when we think about science fiction, especially in and around Arabic, there is always this politics of translation that comes up again and again as something very urgent.
“There are so many scientific words that come originally from Arabic but are not really used in a vernacular sense anymore. Finding a new language or inventing things within a language is one of the really exciting elements of science fiction and in particular in Arabic where you don’t necessarily have science fiction literature and film,” Dedman added.
Alongside the fact that Middle Eastern landscape has often been the backdrop of sci-fi films, high-rise buildings in the Gulf countries are also popular for fictional movies such as Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
With the rapid development of the Gulf, artists have used science fiction to assess the changes the region has made at a vertiginous speed but Dedman argues that although Arab futurism could open more doors, it is hard to maintain.
“The Gulf futurism movement is very popular at the moment in the work of GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) (artists). They use science fiction to twist, turn back and reflect upon a technological context. Arab futurism may be something broader but it is very difficult to constitute.”
Dedman said “halcyon” has many definitions. Ancient writers say it is a mythical bird to breed in a nest floating at sea at the winter peak, alluring the wind and waves to be calm. It is also a tropical Asian and African kingfisher with bright-coloured feathers.
“Halcyon days are nostalgic happy days of a past that related to optimism and utopianism,” she said. “The word for me sounded chemical, like an element which seemed to fit for this project.”