Tunisian film director Nacer Khemir finds inspiration in heritage

“Today’s war is not only economic, religious or intellectual, it’s also a war of narratives as in who will impose their story upon the other," said Tunisian director Nacer Khemir.
Sunday 26/05/2019
A different take. Tunisian director Nacer Khemir. (Al Arab)
A different take. Tunisian director Nacer Khemir. (Al Arab)

Tunisian director Nacer Khemir is one of the few Arab film-makers to truly possess encyclopaedic culture, presenting films with fresh questions and original ideas. He is one of the foremost film-makers to have found inspiration in Arab oral and poetic traditions through pioneering cinematic works inspired by “One Thousand and One Nights” or the lives and ideas of Arab philosophers such as Ibn ‘Arabi and Ibn Hazm.

Before being a film-maker, Khemir is a sculptor, visual artist, writer and poet. He infuses his films with a deep beauty that makes viewers contemplate the soul of the images, with the idea that it is the soul that makes bodies and objects move, come alive and painfully or joyfully perform the dance of life.

One of the issues that Khemir’s films touch on is religion, manifesting it as love, spiritual elevation and love for others, with no room for violence or rejection of the other. From “Baba’Aziz” to “The Search for Muhi al-Din ibn Arabi,” Khemir’s films show an alternative Islam — the Islam of Ibn Arabi or that of Baba’Aziz.

Khemir said Islam “is of great importance as a civilisational reference point. Developing and conceiving of it as a political point of reference demonstrate retrogressive thought. Those seeing religion as politics are selling something and whoever sells something does not own it.”

In an interview with The Arab Weekly, Khemir said he regretted the existence of such “labyrinths,” saying they lead to “losing the path of modernity.”

“My interest in Sufism was philosophical and aesthetic,” he said. “Aesthetics in our civilisation has a strong relationship with Sufism. The great sheikh Ibn Arabi offered solutions to overcome religion as barrier because it is above different sects and factions.

“When we look at political Islam and its terms of reference, we find that it does not build for the ‘fulfilled man’ but rather exploits and converses with the unfulfilled man. It seems that Arab cinema did not take an interest in these subjects, despite their importance, since it did not take root in its own cultural milieu but rather took its cues most of the time from Western points of reference.”

“Today’s war is not only economic, religious or intellectual, it’s also a war of narratives as in who will impose their story upon the other,” he said. “We should not forget that the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ is narrative reference present in the imaginary of all of humanity, influencing writers from Japan and the whole world, while most Arabs looked at it with contempt and disdain.”

The problem lies within the Arabs’ and Muslims’ understanding of the reality of their cultural references and how they deal with them, added Khemir. He said he sees it as “a state of schizophrenia that makes the Arab man, unbeknown to himself, despise his most valuable possessions when he was the one to have enriched the very Western thought from which he seeks his truth.”

In addition, public education is built on wrong bases that preclude Arabs from understanding and dealing with civilisational problems, as Khemir put it. Current education drives young people into a “dead end.”

Khemir said cinema is an important tool that can revive heritage, which can be compared to a spring that must be freed from lingering residues and deposits polluting its source.

Before being a means for entertainment, cinema must be a “civilisational catalyst,” he said, and developing education using digital technology and writing is not enough. Khemir concluded that “our biggest problem is not developing our relationship with our culture.”

“The problem is that the formation of the post-independence generation in Western style and references has led to this generation losing touch with its natural tributaries,” he said. “After independence, the intelligentsia did not confront such a thing but rather accepted it, personified it and became it. Then they wedged us into a maze of mimicry and imitation instead of creativity. They then thought, along with the Left, that the solution could only be political.”

The solution, the director said, is in “work, thinking and creation that are greater and larger than politics.”

About his experience in poetry and the plastic arts and how they intersect with cinema, especially in portraying the desert, Khemir said: “The desert is the universe, a vast beauty, it’s the Arabic language, the abstract and the absolute. In this desert, I can meditate on questions of humanity and aesthetics, because it is a space for reflection and a space for the formation of our culture and heritage.”

“We gave up on a legacy that has grown too heavy for us to carry, and we tried to catch a ride on the West’s wagon. With time, we discovered that we did not have a place in the vehicle of the other,” he said.

“I’d rather walk on foot, step by step, instead of getting on someone else’s wagon, because I would not know to which station it would take me. Besides, I believe that our vision of life is linked to poetry. Poetry here is not just words but also as an exploration of life’s essence in architecture, in painting and in cinema as well.”

Such is the experience Khemir presents in his many works, which include books “Sheherazade,” “The Amorous Cloud,” “The Bewitcher of Geniuses” and “The Alphabet of Sand.”

It includes his first movies “The History of God’s Country” (1975), “Wanderers of the Desert” (1975), “The Dove’s Lost Necklace” (1989), and the short film “Searching for One Thousand and One Nights,” “Baba’Aziz” (2005), “Searching for Muhi al-Din” (2013) and his latest film “Whispering Sands.”

His films have received awards in major European and Arab festivals, such as the Nantes and Saint-Martin Festivals in France, the Valencia Festival in Spain, the Locarno Festival in Switzerland, the Fajr Festival in Iran and the Barcelona Film Festival.