I became acquainted with the work of Mounir Fatmi a few years ago while curating a program of Moroccan experimental shorts for the San Francisco Cinematheque. It did not take repeated viewing to locate a wide range of unsettling formal strategies and a rather unusual avant-gardism in his singular videography.To be sure, these strategies constitute a daring move considering the cautious nature of Moroccan Cinema, and indeed a mere criticism of Fatmi's work inevitably transforms into an internal cultural critique and an assessment of the practice of film and video making in Morocco. Fatmi's non-totalizing pedagogy of the frame, to borrow a phrase from Gilles Deleuze, complicates narrow definitions and official claims of 'Moroccanness' and ushers a rethinking of anthropological categories commonly associated with Morocco. Said differently, Fatmi's video work foregrounds the all-too known paradoxes of naming and belonging, in that, on the one hand, it eludes integration into what is imagined and re-imagined as a Moroccan (film) community and a national cinematic tradition, while on the other it persists in roaming agonistically nearby its representational shadows. In this sense, I find Fatmi's work to be a humble and non-heroic attempt to cast off the specter of origins; indeed, the specter of the nation with its official language, gender, god, and history. Profoundly modern by displaying a fearless —though bound to repeated failures—attitude towards bastardy!!
Fatmi's carefully crafted videos suggest another problematic by painstakingly addressing concerns of accessibility, illiteracy, and the tension between 'global' and 'local' forms of image consumption. Nonetheless, the artist's integrity and creative space seem to be spared by way of both a complex autobiographic mode and a choreographed marginal positioning that interrupts ascribed modalities of identification, official uses of technology, and a host of other subjective constraints. Fatmi composes a vernacular videography. Take for instance the following titles: SURVIVAL SIGNS or THE RED ALPHABET. Fatmi's choice of titles is not incidental; it clearly points to the politics/ethics of communication and in/commensurability in a very specific socio-political context and endeavors toward the inscription of a radical tongue. His questions : 'How do I speak?' and 'Who can I speak to ?' 'Who does not want me to speak to you ?'
The viewer will find in some of his videos several devices—experimental writing techniques, citations, interview questions—referring to the work of A. Kilito, M. Dib and other Maghribi social theorists who have consistently labored to emancipate language from official(ized) underpinnings. In the preface of the celebrated issue of Les Temps Modernes du Maghreb, Khatibi and al. embraced a provocative definition of the (then 'unthinkable') word 'radical' that straddles two tendencies buried in the semantic recesses of the term : one toward the 'root' and the other pulling toward 'rupture' (1977. October, 5).
'SPEAK, SPEAK, SPEAK
SPEAK SO THAT I CAN SEE YOU.
DEEP IN THE MOUTH, THE TONGUE IS NOTHING MORE THAN A MUSCLE, SO IS SILENCE.'
The role of the Moroccan artist at odds with his cultural context is one among several questions implicitly raised ill Fatmi's work. Consequently, this dialectic produces a tension that translates into a marginalizing solitude, which is an overriding feature in his work. Repeated viewving of his videos reveals a number of recurrent tropes evoking a state of dis-integration : murmurs and a shyly hidden first-persoll voice over; multiple layers of separation between video maker and audio-visual evidence; framing the seemingly trite; still lives; decentered portraits; slow motion; fragmented enunciation, utterances and a spare use of words. In sum, these devices operate a strategy of ambivalence grafted on a thick layer of immobility and silence. An homage to ordinary things and other micro-historical traces, Fatmi's videos seem to be pulsating at the pace of remembrance, of reflection, suspended on a methodical uncertainty, a provisional subjectivity.
Fatmi's work activates a form of exilic paralysis independent of geographic displacement as this frame of mind is (apparently) experienced within the boundaries of Morocco, ensnared by the moral discourse of societe civile. For instance, the consistent use of slow motion in several works may indicate a will to create temporal shelters as a strategy to curb the space time compression associated with the globalization of affect, aesthetic distinction, desire, i.e. of the shear material constitutive of identity and difference, of 'self' and 'other'.
[Whispered over footage of Paul Bowles (silent) during a press conference in Tangiers. ]
'I WANT WORDS WHICH WELCOME THE FOREIGNER IN HIS COUNTRY OF EXILE,
WORDS WHICH RETURN FROM EXILE, WORDS LIKE THIS EXTRAORDINARY FOREIGNER.'
Fatmi wrestles with two violent alternatives while never envisaging either one : the abdication of one's ascribed identity and the construction of a new subjectivity from a tabula rasa. This dialectic of solitude articulates both a sense of entrapment and a fierce determination to compose a viable subject 'in order to live in meanings and bodies [and images, my emphasis] that have a chance for a future' (Haraway 1991,187). Fatmi points to a complex relation between form and belonging, and mobilizes a host of rhetorical devices to convey a state of (artistic) alienation. For instance, scientific images such as ultrasounds are a constant in his work.
Signifiers of a fragile and uncertain liminal stage, between conception and birth and performed in the interstices of Moroccan society, Fatmi's ultrasounds convey the tension between a radical aesthetic sensibility and prevailing forms of image production/ reception in Morocco. His videos therefore function as diacritic signs that disrupt imposed socio-cultural texts in an effort to generate new readings and meanings. In SURVIVAL SIGNS for example, the viewer experiences images of mutilation, animation of amputated fingers, images that argue against self-censorship and other internalized fonns of social control.
While the guestion of self-expression is central to Fatmi's methodology, his videos cannot be construed as self-indulgent nor can they be accused of being divorced from their context of production. For this reason they stand in sharp distinction to a number of autoethnograhic works. In genealogical fashion, his videos are committed to a history of the present and collectively engage the audience to probe larger political processes of subordination and domillation. He is particularly brilliant in doing so in SURVIVAL SIGNS. This video, presented first as an intellectual exposition and as a reflection on language, gradually unfolds as a moving tribute to (and identification with) the children of Iraq whose 'tongues have been cut off.' When the conclusion erupts as a text on the screen with the message, 'Seven years after the laying down of arms on the morning of February 28 1991, the Gulf war continues,' even the most skeptical viewer is urged to confront the injustice and the human tragedy caused by the U.S sanctions on Iraq. By successfully interweaving and reconciling (self-referential) theoretical means and a call for political action, Fatmi transforms video practice into what can be called an act of double intervention.
These fragmentary notes are an attempt at sketching the contours of Fatmi's work, and follow from a broader effort to acknowledge exile as experienced by many Moroccan artists who, as internal migrants, negotiate and contest their modernities. Mounir Fatmi certainly rewards this attempt. His videos invite a reexamination of conventional theories of exile, and it would be safe to claim that Fatmi's videos function as ethnographic texts fueled by a critical auteurism (a provisional definition of autoethnography). Few Moroccan video artists show this particular tendency, that is, one that dis-articulates prevailing visual habits and one that inaugurates a much-needed critical attitude to the present-a necessary step to imagine a radical Morocco.
'All. THE FRAGMENTS IN THE WORLD CANNOT MAKE A SINGLE WORD
NOT EVEN ALL THE WORDS IN THE WORLD CAN SPEAK OF SOLITUDE.'
Solitude and fragments.
Tarek El Haïk
"Intoducing the video work of Mounir Fatmi" dans Frameworks, n°43, 2002, New-York
Tarek Elhaik co-curated the San francisco Arab Film Festival from 1998 to 2000 and was Film series curator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley from 2000-2002. He has taught Arab Cinema at San francisco, State University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in socio-cultural anthropology at UC Berkeley.