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“Poverty of Thought” & “The Poetry of Cinema and Imagination” by Ahmed Bouanani


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As part of the “Carte Blanche to the Cinémathèque de Tanger” at the Jeu de Paume, the magazine offers two texts by Ahmed Bouanani, written in December 1995. They have been translated from French by Trista Selous on the occasion of Ahmed Bouanani screenings at Tate Modern, London, July 2011

Poverty of Thought

Commonplaces die hard. I want to talk about clichéd phrases, in both conversation and literature, and received ideas, those repositories of universal idiocy.

Clichés – tics in the case of stage and screen acting, for example – indubitably replace and eliminate thought. We stop thinking; we rely on memory and express ourselves in a pile of proverbs; we lumber our words with a plague of adjectives; we cultivate laziness. And laziness, these days, is the most peculiar flower in the creative domains. It is the use of the prefabricated in language, writing, music, painting and what are known as social films.

There are weeds in every art, good seed and bad. Since the dawn of time Holy Writ has enjoined us to separate them.

In painting – the writing of colour through colour, a world of silence in which light radiation still raises hurricanes that uninitiated or overly distracted ears cannot hear – hacks in ever growing numbers confuse daubing with writing in light. Listen to their jargon. It is nothing but words emptied of substance, bandied about left and right. They play with colours as others do with words – many colours, many words – in the hope that, one day, they might express, say, something. They remind me of chameleons, those reptiles that also have periods of colour – but naturally.

Even in brochures and articles you find literary presentations teeming with commonplaces and readymade phrases that are applicable to any painter. They drain painters of all originality (if they had any to start with), all individuality. Their features melt into a mess that closely resembles their paintings.

Make no mistake, I speak only of the hacks.

Inspired painters each express themselves in their own personal dialect. Their palette is a geography criss-crossed by unbeaten tracks, away from the marked paths.

‘What is that a painting of?’

This is no doubt a fair question, reflecting the disarray of a mind that feels secure only when looking at what is called figurative painting and – stupidly – naïve painting, as though there could be such a thing as naïve sculpture (African?), music (popular?) or poetry!

Laziness stops minds decoding, analysing.

The public want to understand first, and to think and feel afterwards.

This same public, now television viewers out of habit and laziness, and viewers by accident, enter a cinema as they would a restaurant. They are given their favourite dish made by the same cook with the same ingredients: ‘sex-violence-action’. It reminds me of the anecdote in which Satie imagines the ideal stage set for a play for dogs: ‘the curtain rises to reveal a bone’.

We have been told, for a very long time, that audiences are always right, that they are the only judges. Perfect for a distorted audience whose vocabulary is as limited as the cinema they like, that they have been insidiously habituated into liking.

For a show to succeed it has to contain talent. For my part I’d say, the audience also has to have talent.

Artists – in this case film-makers – are neither witnesses nor messengers, still less righters of wrongs or moralizers.

American cinema is in the image of trust McDonald’s.

Once again, I speak only of mass-market cinema, the cinema in which it – rightly – seems to us that we see always the same film with different actors. Readymade images with scenes of violence, endless chases and multiple stunts, before the happy end that reassures us that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Of course there are films in the world that reinforce our belief that the cinema is an art.

But mass-market cinema? It has banished dreams, which every human being has the right, duty and privilege to consume.

Required to define television, the great Welles replied that he had no more to say about that household appliance than he did about the refrigerator or cooker.

The same Welles also said that ‘Without poets, the vocabulary of the film would be far too limited ever to make a true appeal to the public. The equivalent of a babble of infants would not sell many seats. If the cinema had never been fashioned by poetry, it would have remained no more than a mechanical curiosity, occasionally on view like a stuffed whale.’

And in conclusion:

Film has never got any relation with life.
Film is a dream.
A dream can be vulgar, flat and amorphous; it may be a nightmare. But a dream is never a lie » Orson Welles

Ahmed Bouanani
December 1995, © Touda Bouanani

The Poetry of Cinema and Imagination

The Lumière brothers’ creation of the cinematograph marked the birth of a poetry of the moving image. This soon divided into two poetic forms, one of reality, the other of imagination. The former was linked to the simple but – for the time – miraculous fact of seeing life projected by light onto a white screen. The second was closer to written poetry, opening onto the wondrous, fantastical world of Méliès.

One day our era will be called the period of trompe-l’œil. Soon television will show us only a world that has been entirely manufactured, ‘which does not exist in reality’. We are already used to ‘seeing’ human beings who can fly, extraordinary monsters, cities on other planets, all that human beings once imagined in folktales, legends and crystal balls. True realism was never present in cinéma vérité, any more than it was in the news. The landscape of a ‘figurative’ painting does not show us the surprising things that habit stops us seeing. A Matisse or a Gauguin does not represent reality as it is; it synthesizes and recreates it, putting order into the sensation of colour. De Chirico painted cities, squares and metaphysical houses, settings taken from dreams which enthral us; whereas a postcard ‘shows’ us nothing. The former Place de France in Casablanca in 1920 affects us only because it shows us a square that no longer exists.

Let us imagine a street, painted or filmed in a realist style. Nothing that is shown or that happens there will remain in our memory, because no element of that reality strikes our imagination. In the streets we habitually pass through, we no longer see the facades of the houses. If one of these houses is demolished and replaced by a building site we will ask, ‘What was it that used to be here?’ and realize that already we no longer know. We do not remember things that make no visual impression. A no entry sign planted in the middle of a beach becomes an oddity. On a street corner no pedestrian would notice it (things are different for motorists).

It is sad to read the words ‘this is a true story’ in the opening credits of certain films. Audience members with some understanding will know that they are about to see merely an interpretation of reality. Boredom awaits. By contrast, an ‘encounter of the third kind’ enchants and captivates us because ‘this is not a true story’. Verist film-makers were inspired by the distant movement of 19th-century Italian literature and art, which drew on naturalism, and proposed to present reality (notably social reality) as it is, without concealing its sordid aspects. De Sica is a master of Neorealism. Yet in Bicycle Thieves, the two-wheeled machine is more than just a mode of transport. It is a symbol. In The Cry Antonioni films not landscapes but loneliness, a world where there is no communication. Reality here is transcendental, which is why it captivates us.

Where does poetry in cinema come from? In reality it is nowhere. I do not know what a poetic film would be. On the other hand I know that a filmmaker who strives to make a poetic film will succeed only in making a film from which poetry is absent. Catch at poetry and it will go off at a gallop, as the poet said. Poetry is born of chance. It is in the eye that sees or it is nowhere. A documentary on Marrakech shows the Koutoubia Mosque and Jemâa el Fna square. It is no more than an external view of things, a tourist’s view. I use the word ‘tourist’ with reservations, for this way of seeing sometimes catches things no longer visible to the native, because for tourists everything is new, ‘exotic’ and foreign to their world. Colonial cinema, so disparaged today by some obtuse minds, presented a commodity destined primarily for European audiences. The Morocco of its images is not the Morocco of the Protectorate, but a land of orientalism, with its harems, slaves, palaces, adventurers, fairytale princesses and so on.

I should like to open a parenthesis concerning Malek Alloula’s postcards in the style of ‘the colonial harem’. In reality the photographers of these ‘scenes and types’ show only clichés and their own fantasies. Just like the films, these postcards have caught only an unreal reality, more expressive of repression and many other secrets. As Paul Morand put it, ‘Photography is worse than eloquence; it proclaims that nothing is impenetrable, unutterable or veiled’. In the rhetoric of images snapshots are said to capture that which is fleeting. They can give rise, by chance, to poetry, that fleeting thing. A portrait photograph is simply a still life if it does not enable us to look inside the face. We will never stop wondering about the celebrated enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa.

For my part I will never stop wondering about poetry in the cinema. Why does it appear in a totally deserted boulevard when we are used to seeing only a boulevard full of cars and people? Is it perceptible only in expurgated versions of reality? Does it proceed only from expulsion? Let us take the example of biblical films, sacred stories portrayed on screen – stories that should never be read or understood at face value, in which miracles are kneaded into the daily bread. To work well, a film in that genre must be miraculous.

Ahmed Bouanani
December 1995, © Touda Bouanani