Situatedness: Accidental Archaeology of When and What
How can we recognize an accidental archaeological latency in a film work? Let us consider this possibility in Mohamed Rachid Benhadj’s 1980 film, Rakem 49 (eng. Number 49). In the film, an Algerian family from the slums goes for a picnic in the wilderness, on a lot designated for their future home. The family arrives at the site after passing by Algiers’s modern architectural monuments, elevating the family’s expectations about their future housing. They arrive at a site marked by a sign that carries the information about the housing project. The text on the sign is flipped [Fig. 1]. We cannot be sure if this is intentional or a mistake from the film’s reel or negative. The flipped sign signals an upcoming tension. I pay attention.
During the picnic, future objects suddenly appear, the family is visualizing the promise of a good life offered by the national housing project. These objects are everyday items that do not normally appear in the barren wilderness. No architecture is seen in this lot, but a bathtub appears with the mother bathing with her five children inside it [Fig. 2]. Few seconds later, she sits in a hair dryer chair, referencing not only the community services she expects in her neighborhood, but also the whimsical imagination of self-pampering possibilities she might enjoy [Fig. 3]. In another scene, her children sit on two rows of school desks, listening to a future teacher, referencing better education; and in another, they sit on a couch looking at a TV set on which a flower pot rests; the TV is only one more commodity in the house besides the knowledge, entertainment, and electrical services it signifies.
When the future neighbors arrive, they too start to imagine things, this time as if they were acting out scenes from fictional movies that might have aired on such TVs. For instance, the father and his son shoot at each other using loaves of bread as revolvers. When the son shoots the father, the latter acts as if he is collapsing to the ground before everybody giggles at the joyful cinematic re-enactments. The rattling irritates the first family. Each family can see and dislike the other’s imagination of the use of this site. Soon, the two fathers break into a real fight. The first father turns his anger to the construction machines that are not working on his lot; he is frustrated and the machines are not bringing him closer to the promised future either.
Knowledge resides within these scenes, articulating a vision of the future, but further knowledge manifests in sensing the alienation produced from the families’ imagination. Here, the competition between the two neighboring families, and the fight between the two fathers, forebode the violent war that would break out across Algeria a decade after the film’s release. Something was brewing in the society, perhaps as the film was being made; we can see the differences in class, opinion, or imagination, at least. But my accidental arrival to the film gave me another reading of the emotions that surrounded its making.
The 60-minute color film was produced by Radiodiffusion Télévision Algérienne, which owns Télévision Algérienne, and the primary media organization in Algeria. The sovereignty over this establishment was regained after the end of French colonization on October 28, 1962, following Algeria’s independence on July 5, 1962. Up until 1994, Télévision Algérienne was the sole national television channel in Algeria. This public institution is responsible for communicating and disseminating information in accordance with a set of guidelines that stipulate that it must monitor the official activities of state institutions by reporting and broadcasting in the best interests of the country’s citizens. To have a film that criticized the public housing shortage and futile promises of the state meant that the anger was too big to hold, perhaps.
Mohamed Rachid Benhaj has some critically acclaimed and committed works, but it is rare to find a text on Rakem 49. A copy appears to be in the archive of the British Film Institute, but Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art has a German-subtitled 16mm print, which survived in Arsenal’s film archive in Berlin after a Forum screening in 1981. As I watched the film on a moviola editing table in Arsenal’s archive, I was thinking of the how this film was commissioned as a critique of the government to be shown on its TV, but also of how the grains of the film eaten by the German subtitles were the reason that made this and other films in the Arsenal collection stay in Berlin after their screening. The film survived, and thus was made available, because it would not have traveled beyond the places that spoke its language or read its German subtitles. Similarly, I am in the archive appreciating while also aggravating these subtitles. For the same reasons of language, I ended up watching the Arabic films in the collection, which happened to be mostly from the Maghreb region; Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.
In the collection there were a couple of Egyptian films but I did not attempt to watch them. When I asked the Arsenal founders about this focus on non-Egyptian cinema, they said they favored the films from Algeria for Forum because they were more avant-garde and not market driven. Egyptian cinema was either commercial or obsessed with Cannes. Arabic is spoken differently in that part of the Arab world, but my subconsciously-accumulated knowledge of Wild West movies, and spending hours waiting in the neighborhood beauty salon, my questions on my training in architecture, might have allowed me more entries into this film. I could connect to Rakem 49 far beyond the Algerian context that made it, because its story related very much to similar films I grew up watching: films about the housing crisis in Egypt, the gradual fallout with the state figures, and miserable laymen scrutinizing a government’s failed promises that deteriorated their lives. These observations were paired with reflections on the nations’ self-image, futures that do not come, or come differently than imagined; the film could have been about any other place I knew or belonged to. But this was not enough to claim a link to Rakem 49. It was Algerian, and its surreal scenes in the wilderness made it stand out along with the flipped sign, challenging any simplified reading of the attempted historization or experimental documentary style the film utilized.
The film images or details were not accessible online at the time of viewing it, nor were the other Algerian and Moroccan films that I have watched on Arsenal’s moviola. I, therefore, felt I had a responsibility towards the film and its possible future enthusiasts. I started looking for and translating the printed matter that was issued with the film as part of the Forum, and was hoping to make a publication on the whereabouts of these films in this archive. I could not go beyond a few chapters, because I was revisiting the intention of my publication. Was it an exploration of my diverted route in the archive, led by language? Was it a catch-up of an incomplete Arab film history that I found a way into? Many like me would like to know about these films, and so I singled out a minor element in each film to build a theory of investigation on it. The imagined props instead of architecture in Rakem 49, the synchronized body movement instead of migration in Alyam Alyam (1978, Morocco), the uninterrupted news reports on Lebanon’s civil war in The Barber of the Poor Quarter (1982, Morocco), the educational posters in Wechma (1970, Morocco), the gas cylinders in El-Faham (1972, Algeria), and so on. I was making these minor appearances as accidental protagonists in the story that I am piecing across these film findings.
How special is my situated reading of the film, versus a general reading of the film? Was I too much affected by my own consumption of similar materials? Fredric Jameson argues that we will always be, even subconsciously, affected by the histories of the materials we consume, and thus “we are also generally inclined to think today that there is nothing in our possible representations which was not somehow already in our historical experience” (Jameson 2005, 170). This entanglement between what is being crafted and what is being aspired to is held captive to imagination. He writes: “The latter necessarily clothes all our imaginings, it furnishes the content for the expression and figuration of the most abstract thoughts, the most disembodied longings or premonitions” (ibid.).
My situatedness deduced knowledge from the threads of power relations between the political and the creative in these film productions. I chose to be represented by the minor and accidental, or by the prop that particularized the setting but did not change it, by the brewing feeling that produces a kinship between distant people or events. All coordinates, gestures, and movements describe an accidental arrival, an accidental archival arrival that might encapsulate an understanding of the present. They allow me to understand how things function, how states operate, how a ruling apparatus might self-corrupt, and how the unprepared plans of a future disruption might have been accidentally foretold in these very narrative fragments, documents, and statements.
Jameson, Fredric 2005. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London/New York: Verso Books.