Tales of Mafrouza

Emmanuelle Demoris's epic collection of intimate stories
by Aaron Cutler  posted March 6, 2013
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Note: A version of this article was originally published in French in the magazine Vertigo. Thanks to Fabienne Duszynski for permission to reprint in English. The piece includes plot summaries of each of the five Mafrouza films, so readers who do not want to know details should read no further. 

From 2002 to 2004 the French filmmaker Emmanuelle Demoris lived in a slum of Alexandria, Egypt called Mafrouza. She had originally come as part of a trip through the Middle East to film people sharing their thoughts about the afterlife, but became so intrigued by Mafrouza residents that she changed her project into telling their stories, which soon included her own. A visit became an extended stay, and material for one potential film evolved into five realized ones, which will be screening at New York's Museum of Modern Art March 6–10, with a public Modern Mondays talk between Demoris and this writer on March 11. The films were shot by Demoris herself, whose only crew members were her translators. They were completed between 2007 and 2011, and are collectively called Mafrouza.

The Egyptian government tore down the neighborhood in the year of the first film's completion in order to make room for an expanded industrial port; the people were relocated to another neighborhood, also named Mafrouza, though clearly a replacement for the lost original. We know this happened because title cards at the end of each installment say it did, the only moments in which the camera looks beyond Demoris's stay. Otherwise, we're there with her.

Such is the fiction. We're always aware of the films' events having unfolded in past time, especially as we read and see continual news stories about Egypt's tumultuous political situation today. We're also always aware that it's only a movie(s), one that we're watching either in the cinema or (with increasing likelihood) in someone's home. Demoris distances us throughout the films, as obtrusive camera movements and even offscreen voices call attention to a person filming, reminding us that this is not a portrait of a community in general, but of a specific community at the moment it's being filmed.

By being a record of real people in a real time and place, the series is documentary, yet its narrative strategies are classically fictional, as peoples' actions and revelations occur over time in a carefully structured way, both within each stand-alone film and in the series overall. Demoris herself told me this, even citing Shakespeare and Brecht as storytelling models, while refusing to call Adel, Ghada, Hassan, and the other Mafrouza residents "characters." Instead, she insisted on them as "persons."

The notion of a fictionally structured story involving real people might seem contradictory, even though the fictional practice of building a character is based on what people do in everyday life. They define themselves based on what they see as their circumstances, abilities, and limits; they then build at least one character, and usually several (through choices of clothing, body language, spoken words, and other things), that they present to the world. As they encounter people, they define the characters others are presenting to them, and reshape their own in response.

I see these processes happening every day, in a world far outside Mafrouza, regardless of whether a camera is running. Yet the world Demoris presents/offers/gives (pick one, or all), where she shapes her own character, serves as a test case.

The Mafrouzas rebuke Orientalist practice as characterized by Edward Said, in which one speaks of the Orient generally and authoritatively without specifying a time or place. The opening installment, Mafrouza – Oh Night!, flips the expectations its title creates by beginning with daytime, through an opening shot that will become a series staple—a handheld camera movement down an alleyway. Here it seems that the camera is entering the community, but it is also, as it is each time afterwards, discovering and exploring it.

The film presents itself as a European archeological excavation in the Arab world by showing an actual archeological dig. The theme of the West preserving the East's history is immediately established, as ruins are being uncovered by a French archeologist and a local man, whose wife appears briefly, helping them. Demoris also establishes herself as a character by giving herself a name that we will hear throughout the series, with someone calling her "Iman" (the Arabic word for "faith," and the name the locals gave her in favor of the harder-to-pronounce "Emmanuelle").

As the camera moves between the outsider (the Frenchman) and the insider (the local man), Demoris places Iman as an outsider moving in. Unlike the man from her native country, she will stay here, and see what life there is. As the archeologist discusses a tomb, we hear offscreen voices first, then see a few community members walk across a path behind him; the film moves from the tomb door to a group of women celebrating a new house whose door is being opened for the first time.   

Then suddenly it's nighttime, and we're at a party, with people dancing in the streets. The young men who are the community's public voices stand in the center singing; the women, who provide the community's foundation, stand around the men, clapping. It takes a few minutes to realize that this celebration is a wedding party. After we see the bride and groom—both looking forward, silent, in a side view, as everyone else dances—we realize we'll barely get to know them. Their story is their own. A door closes on them less than 20 minutes later, and with that, they are gone from the film.

Iman's place at the wedding, at this part of her story, is a familiar one—the party guest who doesn't know anybody. So she does what single people do at parties, and looks for other singles to keep her company. Most immediately attractive is the wedding singer Hassan, a mustached, muscular youth who has gone from hated to liked in the area because of how well he sings. But there are others, too, whom she meets, each of whom comments in some way on the larger question raised since the women opened the new door: How does one make a home?
For the old man Abu Hosny, it's through working on a space and refusing to leave it, as he dumps out the water flooding his floor. "I don't like living in other people's houses," he says. "Either I have my own place, or nothing at all." For the old woman Om Bassiouni, living near him, it's through creating with the resources at hand, as she breaks planks of wood with bricks she picks up, then uses the wood to build an oven to bake bread. For the middle-aged Mohamed Khattab, it's through shaping a space to fit both public and private needs, with his newsstand doubling (with his family's help) as the place he sleeps each night.

Iman eventually returns to the first resident she met. Now that Adel knows her, he lets her into his house. It's nighttime, and the workday is over; he sits down, takes out a folder, and hands it to her. She films his drawings and poems. They're odes to ideal women, ones he's known in person as well as those he's imagined. They differ from his wife, Ghada, who's grown bitter with him over time. He dreams while she runs the house alone. They argue about this arrangement, as well as over how to raise their young daughter, Bassant, while a woman on TV sings, "I am waiting for you with all the fires of love." Reality and fantasy must live together, just as two people must, for love to survive.

It's self-evident that documentaries manipulate reality. Since filmmakers can't show everything, they must choose what to show. Demoris chose not to show Mafrouza's residents doing work outside the community, such as factory labor, since doing so presented them in subordinate positions and preferred to offer them in positions of power. She does present people working inside the community, including herself. This second installment, Mafrouza/Heart, begins four months after the first ended, with her facing Mohamed Khattab inside his shop; we learn that he's also the imam (religious leader) at the local mosque, making him a community spokesman. He combines a sermon with a judgment on her and her translator's place within Mafrouza: "The heart. What has God created it for? To love and to hate. Isn't that what it's for? If I didn't love you and Iman, you wouldn't be here."

The past installment ended with Iman, an outsider, considering what it meant to be loved; this one begins with Iman being told that she is loved, the exact meaning of which still lies open. One aspect of it is a greater responsibility to engage more directly with the other community members, including accounting for what she's doing there. She doesn't defend or argue for herself, instead letting herself be judged. A little while after Mohamed Khattab's approval, she receives a defense from a female leader. Om Bassiouni says, while preparing an oven to bake the bread, "she's not doing any wrong, any harm to anybody, she's not giving images to the press. . .  If I knew she was doing wrong, I would have broken her leg. She wouldn't be here." In response to hearing that Iman will cause a scandal, the woman replies, "This whole country is a scandal. . .  Garbage is a scandal in the country."

She talks while Iman films her breaking wood and building the oven with the help of younger women. The way Iman films—a person or people acting in the foreground, the potential tools of the trash heap behind—values work over misery. Yet the work is not just mindless labor, but creativity in action. The camera stays close to Om Bassiouni throughout the procedure of making the savory bread, which she kneads and bakes herself in order to share it with others. The old woman works delicately, demonstrating the care involved in achieving each step. Her work is part of a tradition, and as a result, a form of artistry.

It's tempting to think of Iman joining the group of women building the community. Yet her role is different from theirs. When Mafrouza natives discuss Iman, they mention her as a foreigner, whether a child crying, "Dad, I brought the foreigners to film you!" or a grown woman explaining to others that she comes from France. Even though Om Bassiouni accepts her, she never asks for Iman's help—Iman can eat the bread, but it's not her oven. She can grow close to the residents, but she isn't one. When a man she's filming laughs and says, "It's not a wedding. It's a documentary film," we remember the multiple wedding scenes in the first two films up to now, all presented in essentially the same way, with the camera outside the party.

There is an English-language expression, "always a bridesmaid, never a bride," that refers to someone who stands at the edge of a group without moving to its front. The wedding metaphor is appropriate for conveying Iman's place within Mafrouza, which by Heart's end can be seen as familiar, yet still distant. At one point she films a middle-aged couple whose members nearly divorced but have now reconciled, and as they hold hands they joke, "Iman will write the [marriage] contract."        

The officiator's role she's given here is also an outsider's role. A grown Mafrouza woman typically builds her own home, regardless of whether it's also her parents', husband's, or child's, and places herself at the center of it; it makes sense, then, that the outsiders Iman communes with are mainly men. Some, like Adel and Mohamed Khattab, are married, but spend the day alone while their wives work with children and other family members. Hassan, by contrast, is always alone. His parents are dead, and his current family is a foster one; he had a fiancé, but all we know further about her is that she died.          

When we meet Hassan late, he's with a new scar from a fight on his cheek, and has deserted another foster home, the Army. He passes time on a beach surrounded by kids, arrested between childhood and adulthood. He draws a heart that the sand will wash away, and leaves the beach singing about a wedding. "I wish the groom could have been me. . . . Make happy my sweetheart who has left me! Never mind if she left me, never mind if I have loved her."

The camera stays close to Hassan, throughout these scenes as well as later ones, even shifting from the alleyway to catch him at home; his friends anticipate our own doubts and questions by asking why Iman's filming him so much. Certainly he's compelling, but they're also two single people. By the time he invites her into his room, after a day out with his foster family, it's worth wondering whether they can make their own home together. He shows her his scars, and tells stories of how he got them; her hand enters the frame to accept his cigarette, exposing herself as well.

And then comes a last exposure—Hassan puts on a plastic hat his fiancée gave him. Its paper frills blow in the wind. As he sets the hat down on the couch, neither he nor Iman can break from it. His foot, inside a sock, moves up and down by its side. He reminds himself that she's dead, but she isn't, really. He lives with her.

The first two films raised questions, many revolving around the definition and construction of homes. The third film, What is to be done?, asks another question with its title, which begs a question in turn—what is to be done about what?

It seems there are as many answers as there are people to ask. By now the series's main characters/persons and their problems have been established, and this film and Oh Night! are the only films in the series to feature all of them. It is unique among the films, though, in spending a significant amount of time with each. Each struggles with his or her personal problems in this installment, and all of their struggles with their homes reflect on Iman's continuing lack of her own.

The film begins with repetition, with a difference. As in the first two installments, the opening shot is a handheld walk down an alleyway. This time, though, the walk is accompanied by Hassan's offscreen song. Iman has found a guide, perhaps a friend, perhaps a partner.

Her situation is different from that of Abu Hosny, whom we soon meet again. The old man is still dumping water out of his house, because "it always stays the same," and "emptying water all day long is very tiring." His actions are also exhausting the community, as he's taken 500 out of an available 800 bricks in order to raise his ground. The others, including Om Bassiouni, help him try to figure out where the water's coming from, but they're luckless. The sequence ends abruptly, as he sits wondering what to do next.

This is the last time we'll see Abu Hosny and Om Bassiouni, and their disappearances play into how this documentary uses fictional techniques. What happened to them in real life is unknown; the sense that we get upon leaving them is that these members of the old guard are stuck in their routines. The old woman, perhaps, will enlist others in helping her build structures; the old man, perhaps, will suffer alone.

The younger Hassan, perhaps, has more possibilities in front of him. Shots of him on an outdoor fair swing suggest he's still a child, inhabiting the part of childhood that does not yet assume responsibilities. He and his friends wander town at night, then stumble back into Mafrouza in the morning, the sequence playing on and on in tune with people who seem to have an endless amount of free time. Iman hangs out with them until another woman comes. She asks Iman to stop filming, and when the camera doesn't turn off, the woman laughs and asks Iman to film her posing with her son.

Iman switches from goofing around with the boys to following the mother's request; a cut soon follows to Mohamed Khattab, dressing in robes to go to mosque. Iman's camera draws closer to him as he preaches the story of Mary, whom God told to speak to no one, and instead let baby Jesus speak on the community's behalf. Khattab himself is a good speaker, though far from the best model of a community organizer; alone with Iman later, he says that he's visited 17 doctors with fears of anything from back pain to cancer, all of whom have dismissed his hypochondria.

After seeing these potential partners, Iman returns to the couple of Adel and Ghada, now expecting their second child. Still playing their roles from the first film—he soft, she hard—and still a little awkward with each other, they're also building something together, which we sense during an ensuing beach trip. We see them each alone, and think they'll both always fundamentally be, even glimpsing Ghada glimpsing Iman, the closest two women have come to a shared private moment in the films up to now. The camera wanders. Then suddenly an offscreen female voice cries, "Iman! Come here!" and she turns to see, from a distance, the couple hurling sand at each other. Ghada herself has called Iman to watch her. Iman does, and then watches them more closely, until their bliss is disrupted by the need to call their daughter, Bassant, back from the water.

Iman returns to watching Hassan, now a local celebrity, from a distance as he performs on a stage; she draws closer to him after the public performance ends, and he sings directly to her. As he praises the value of humanity over money ("All Aaron's treasures are not worth the life of one man"), his friend, and then a child, gather around him, a group forming like in a film musical number. We sense that it's possible, perhaps, to be happy with another person, though happiness must always exist alongside real-life complications; and it's possible, perhaps, to live happily as two among many.

Demoris kept a quote near her while editing the Mafrouza series. "The stage arts should face the task of developing a new form of transmission of artwork to the viewer," Bertolt Brecht wrote. They should encourage him or her to take "an attitude of criticism or contradiction." We can see this with the development of the Iman character, and with the way her development allows us to view a Western construct of the Orient through a mediated, self-aware, self-critical distance. But we can equally apply Brecht's words to the way Demoris uses ellipses, arriving late to major events in peoples' lives (Hassan's Army desertion, Adel and Ghada's reconciliation) and focusing on the people's belated reactions to the events. For each Mafrouza resident, the events of the exterior world give occasion for them to meditate and develop their own internal worlds. 

This also happens frequently in Shakespeare, another of Demoris's models. Hamlet, for instance, is a person whose most decisive actions consist of addressing an audience in order to help himself articulate his thoughts. Yet we can additionally look away from Hamlet's monodrama and toward Shakespeare's multi-part, multi-character works like the History plays (both the War of the Roses and the Henriad cycles), which seem even closer models for the Mafrouzas in the ways they show people changing in rhythm with each other. Characters like Falstaff and Prince Hal tell each other what they are thinking and, by doing so, discover it for themselves.

The five-act structure of any individual Shakespeare play typically introduces the characters and conflicts over its first two acts, throws them against each other and creates confusions in the third, then resolves the characters over the last two, usually either by pairing them off into romantic couples or by banishing them offstage. This is exactly the Mafrouza structure's cycle, and its last two installments accordingly attempt to resolve the series.

The structure of the fourth Mafrouza film, The Hand of the Butterfly, seems to resemble a Shakespeare play's the most of any of the individual installments, beginning with Hassan introducing the action with a song. "I'll tell you the story/It starts at the beginning and finishes in the end," he sings, as Shakespeare's jesters might. Like Feste in Twelfth Night and the Fool in King Lear, Hassan is unique among the drama's characters in his ability to shift between participating in the narrative and commenting on it. For this film he will recede into the background, and mainly stay there as a chorus figure.

The story will mainly be about Adel and Ghada, who are awaiting the birth of their child. Our two protagonists appear as part of a crowded larger group, consisting mainly of older female relatives making extreme overtures ("A mother can give a kidney to her daughter") and laying anxieties on top of one another ("I swear I have shitty dreams. A grave opens and my three brothers haunt me"). A problem has set this group in motion—Ghada's delivery is already 10 days late. Everyone is worried, and growing more worried. The little girl Bassant cries, "Shitty baby!"

The comedy of accommodating the motley crew, whose members include Iman (someone asks if she'll be sleeping over, and Adel says they all have to work it out for themselves), plays against the dramas of our leads. Ghada tries to teach Bassant why she should love the new baby, patiently explaining that he is her brother; Adel shaves quietly, and seems lost in thought. The point is not the birth, but how the people feel about it, which is perhaps why we ultimately don't see Ghada's delivery. The news of new life comes with a close shot of Adel holding the baby outside, staring at it. The lone man among a group of women now has a son to keep him company. We learn that Ghada is still resting, and that Adel was crying, "Father, I had a baby!" in his sleep.

A subplot emerges that mirrors the main plot. We meet Gihad, a young woman in Hassan's foster family, who's both a female wrestler and engaged to be married. The first time we see her, she's concerned that her fiancé won't like her wrestling. Later, well after her engagement party has passed, we see her very happy. He refused to let her train, she says, and so she broke off the engagement; now she's preparing for international competitions. As with the ellipsis of the childbirth, the focus is less on action than on reaction. By choosing to leave her fiancé, Gihad has chosen not to leave her family, nor her neighborhood, nor her vocation. By breaking her engagement, she is realizing her dreams.

Adel and Ghada's dreams entail building their own small community within Mafrouza's walls. Ghada holds her new baby, a boy that she calls "my girl" so as not to offend his double of the opposite sex, one of which everyone has, and which Ghada calls his "sister underground." She cares for the new baby while Adel who, excited, talks about having 12 children, raising them all in the same building, driving them to school and then to work each day, and marrying them off. The couple's conflict from the first part has reached an accord. At this moment, they're happy making a home together, with each person giving the other private space.

At one point during The Hand of the Butterfly, Hassan's spiritual father, Abu Ashraf, describes how an engagement process works in Mafrouza. Engagements last anywhere between several months and several years before a couple weds "so that each party may study the other. So that each may show their true face." He's speaking about the choice two people take to spend their lives together, but he's also speaking about Iman's engagement with Mafrouza's inhabitants. The question of how that engagement will result is resolved in the last film, The Art of Speaking, though the series-long development of the wedding metaphor has hinted at it. The first three films presented wedding ceremonies, with Iman's camera filming them at an increasing distance; the fourth film showed an engagement ceremony, then the engagement breaking before the wedding. The fifth film won't show any ceremonies.

The Art of Speaking instead shows the dissolution of the larger community, one way being through a growing absence of public gathering spaces. Another is through the decreased presence of women, who appear onscreen less frequently in this installment than in the others. When they do appear, for the most part, they are not building homes or caring for families, but watching television. Older women pass nights indoors with the TV on; a few young girls we haven't seen before tell Iman that they don't go out with friends or to mosque so that they can stay at home watching films.

As the community dissolves, so do the chances of Iman holding a place in it; if other people seem less familiar to her, she also seems unfamiliar to them. One of the film's first lines referring to her is "There's a foreigner whose name is Iman," a kind of referral we haven't heard since the second film. But Mohamed Khattab, who didn't appear in the previous film, is also becoming foreign here. We see him watching TV with his family; although a later scene shows him discussing how to distribute rice among the poor of Mafrouza, it's clear he's losing his leader's place at the mosque. Fundamentalists are moving in, replacing Khattab's more approachable brand of Islam.

We're told this not through scenes of the new ceremonies—Iman, as a woman, can no longer enter the mosque—but through people in close-up talking about it. In the major interview with a woman who's not watching TV, named Aziza, the woman seems to be praising the fundamentalist preachers. One can assume that she is praising them blindly, but Aziza actually complicates her praise with criticism. The fundamentalists are providing valuable resources for the Mafrouza community, she says, such as education and health care (gifts that she herself does not accept, since doing so would revoke her ability to criticize them), but are providing them in order to win favor with the people. They are building no greater communal structures, she says, and help people not for Allah's sake, but for their own.  

The film and Iman's place in it narrows to the point where direct communication only happens between her and Khattab. Her other potential partner, Hassan, no longer addresses her in private. The last time we see him, he's outside playing a football game with young boys. He tells the others that "Emmanuelle" and her translator were recently accused of and arrested for spying, a revelation to us. Then he says that if he can avoid being arrested for desertion until he turns 30, he can obtain a discharge certificate from the Army. The first fade in the series arrives, followed by its first title card—"Six Months Later." Hassan has disappeared. His foster family tells Iman that he has been caught and imprisoned.

This would all seem despairing, except for that communication is still possible between individuals. The film's original title in French, Paraboles, refers to storytelling. Its English-language title can refer to public oratory, but more often in the film the art of speaking is shared between two people. Its last scenes begin with Khattab in his newsstand; he's been accepted back into the mosque, we learn, and gives Iman a sort of private sermon, interrupted by customers, on topics ranging from what's wrong with al-Qaeda (they're too rigid) to the nature of hope. "If there were no hope, we'd be destroyed," he tells her. "You say, ‘I'd like to be this' and you might not be, but there's hope."

The hope for keeping one's own private self alive in public carries over to both the film and series's last scene, where Khattab receives a shave in a barbershop. He offers Iman a cigarette, and her hand enters the frame again, as it previously did in intimate moments with Adel and with Hassan. Then we see Iman's reflection in a mirror—her full body holding the camera, an image that lasts seven seconds. She's smiling, and moves down to show Khattab smiling. She's revealed herself fully, and ends with a partner who loves her.

That's where the fiction ends. In the real world, he will return to his family, and she will return to Paris. A title card reminds us for the last time that Mafrouza was destroyed in 2007, a knowledge we carry after the 2010 film's screen goes black. Yet we're seeing documentary as well as fiction before that title card appears, mirrored in the split figure of the character Iman, who is also Demoris, the filmmaker behind the camera.

Demoris is only one of Iman's mirrors in this moment, though. Another is Khattab, the imam. Seeing them face each other reflects on how many people have assumed the role of imam throughout the series, sharing stories with themselves, with each other, and with us. The Mafrouza films turn what could simply be straightforward, distanced ethnography into multiple tensions between multiple consciousnesses, all simultaneously inhabiting multiple moments in time. There are the relationships Mafrouza's born—there inhabitants have with themselves, as they interpret past events in the present; the contradictions emerging when the residents present their interpretations to each other; the way in which their thoughts evolve in relationship with Iman; and our own shifting relationships with all this material as time goes on. A storyteller needs an audience. Iman and Mafrouza's many imams build a community together by making storytellers and audiences of each other.

More information on the Mafrouza films can be found at the series website.            


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Aaron Cutler is a writer in São Paulo. His film writings can be found at http://aaroncutler.tumblr.com.

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