In the long history of Egyptian cinema, experimental film has always been a rarity, overlooked by critics and ignored by art-house audiences. Produced in early 1970s, Nagy Shaker’s experimental film “Sayf Sab‘een” (Summer 70), was one of the few Egyptian attempts in the realm of avant-garde cinema and is now regarded as one of the pioneering films in the field.
For that reason, the film was selected by New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) for its film archive, becoming the first Egyptian movie to receive such an honor.
Last November, Shaker’s film was screened in MOMA under the three-year program “Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema, 1960s – Now,” organized by Jytte Jensen, the curator of the department of film in MOMA, and Rasha Salti, artistic director of ArteEast. After touring various parts of the globe, the series has reached the Tate Modern in London this month.
The series presents an outlook on the chronological evolution of experimental film and video made in the Arab world from the 1960s until today. Other Egyptian films included in the series include Maha Maamoun’s “Domestic Tourism II” (2009), and Shadi Abdel Salam’s classic feature “The Mummy/Night of Counting the Years” (1973) and his short “El-Fallah El-Fasseeh” (The Eloquent Peasant, 1970).
Shaker was studying in Rome where he met Italian artist Paolo Isaja. Using an old 16mm camera, each artist alternated between directing, filming and recording. Together, they created the 70-minute black and white silent film.
“It was a time when youth culture was so active and radical, as many decided to bail on the idea of money and became hippies.They wanted to change the world, although it was much better than now! We also choose to be rebellious but through our film,” explained Shaker at a lecture held in Helwan University in December following a film screening.
Gloria Mirlino, an American nurse of Italian descent, became the connecting point between the two, each forming his own subjective account of the model. The result is an expression of a certain youthful frustration packed with conflicting ideas such as freedom, familial bond and loss of identity.
“Isaja was interested in the effect of childhood on people’s personality and wanted to link the past with the present, while I wanted to link the present with the future,” Shaker said.
The two different segments were then edited to produce a film essay that runs like a conversation between the two directors where the voice of each is deliberately made undistinguishable from the other.
Running like a visual poem or a melodic stream of thoughts, “Summer 70” is a study of the language of cinema, an analytical experimentation in the vocabulary of the moving image.
Composed by Suleiman Jamil, the film’s soundtrack mixes electronic rhythms with instrumental beats. Jamil was interested in developing folkloric music and his sound score is an extension of this endeavor, acting like a link between western and eastern cultures. Rather than a direct interpretation of the picture, Jamil’s music contrasts at some times and harmonizes at others to add different level of connotation and vibrancy to the picture.
Watching “Summer 70” instantly provokes several questions concerning the anthology of experimental film in Egypt and the Middle East. One being that today’s much-discussed independent movement in film and video might have roots that are yet to be acknowledged, suggesting that there might be other undiscovered pioneering works.
The screening at MOMA encouraged many international critics, historians and curators to reconsider the contribution of Arab cinema to the global avant-garde wave, especially since the Arab world has always been excluded from the discussion of modernity and international film history.
What’s also remarkable is how this collaboration between two artists from different backgrounds produced in 1970 lacks the clichéd ethnic iconography or stereotypical categorization of the west and east that defined post-9/11 art, even when it indirectly tackles the issue of identity.
“Summer 70” will be screened at Tate Modern London on March 24 under the touring program “Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema, 1960 – Now.” For more information, visit http://www.arteeast.org/pages/cinema/series