In the Arab world, youth are a constant hot topic in political and economic policies and discussion. As the world population officially reaches 7 billion this week, children make up the vast majority and are widely celebrated as “the future.”
But in this context, the experience of actually being a child is secondary. Not so for Nadira Ardjoun, the French-Algerian curator of a program of short films screened at the Goethe Institute’s Arab Shorts 2011 festival. “Everywhere in the world, children are born equal,” she writes. “A child…must, all by itself, grasp reality as it is and often without explanations from adults.”
Ardjoun selected a set of five films, which screened back to back on the second night of the yearly festival. Under the title “Childhood: Innocence,” the directors of this selection attempt to put the audience in the place of a child, through the pacing and emotional triggers of the narratives.
In “Checkpoint,” director Ruben Amar portrays scenes in the life of a young Palestinian boy from Gaza, who accompanies his father to a destroyed village. The shots are often from the boy’s perspective, asking the audience to take in the basic emotional elements of the scene outside of their political and historical context.
In “Amal,” by French-Moroccan director Ali Benkirane, a young girl dreams of becoming a doctor, playing with a stethoscope as she lies in bed. She sits in a classroom and interacts with her family, but the only real event in the film is when her family tells her they can no longer afford her schooling. In a sustained shot of her face, Amal learns of her future, and we voyeuristically watch as her eyes grow teary. We are thrown into the bewildered and yet overwhelmed emotional experience of a child who cannot make decisions for herself, but is left with the consequences nevertheless.
The Lebanese film “Short Memory” by Marwan Khneisser similarly portrays a collage of childhood emotional experiences against the backdrop of the Israeli bombing campaigns.
In Tunisian Shiraz Fradi’s “Album,” these childhood emotions are taken to an unlikely realm. Instead of matters of economics or war, Fradi fearlessly explores sexuality. A seven-year-old girl, Nada, asks her mother how she and her brother were born, and only receives slaps in return.
She channels her confusion by imploring her younger, and even more confused, brother to dance in a suggestive, yet powerfully naïve set of movements. “Move your waist better!” she instructs him. The mother finds them and becomes enraged. “You’re just like your father,” she screams, hitting Nada. We learn that the history of this family is traumatic and involves an absent father, but like Nada, we are ignorant of the real and very adult story.
All four of these films lack a real narrative drive, and I found myself wanting more of the classic cinematic experience, craving to know how things will resolve. But Ardjoun, with her curatorial decisions, is telling us that children don’t necessarily experience the world that way. “Children always find guidelines, despite everything, to make themselves a place in the universe where they grow up,” she writes in her program note. Those guidelines, as the films argue, are not necessarily the traditional narratives of cinema. They are partial but charged snippets, fully immersed in an emotional realm but unable to grasp the reasons behind the emotions.
Ardjoun relieved this tension by choosing, for the fifth and final film, a well-crafted story by Palestinian-American Bassam Ali Jarbawi, titled “Roos Djaj” (Chicken Heads). A young boy named Youssef loves his pet gazelle, and is told by his father not to play with him. He does so anyway, and the gazelle kills the family’s prized sheep. Youssef frames his brother’s dog. The father instructs Youssef to poison the dog, as his blameless brother looks on in horror.
The feeling of having done something wrong, but not knowing what exactly, is of course a classic childhood experience, and one of the few with the elements of a great story. Jarbawi tells the story like a television serial: Will Youssef confess? Will the dog die?
Youssef does confess, only to find out that the father had not really intended to poison the dog. The resolution of the story is as archetypal as the young protagonist; the only way to resolve the tensions of youth is to grow up.
Ali Benkirane’s Amal.