Zawya Cinema is located in downtown Cairo and promotes “the work of young Egyptian and Arab filmmakers …. [giving] special attention to the concept of Education and Cinema”. On February 1st, Zawya began screening The Insult (Al-Qadeyya 23), Ziad Doueiri’s Oscar-nominated film. Doueiri is a Lebanese-French director who came under official and popular scrutiny in Lebanon four years ago for his last feature film, The Attack (Al-sadma), owing to the setting and direct cooperation of Israeli producers and actors. Doueiri’s current feature film is the object of controversy not just for the director’s statements and his history of what is called normalization (that is, normalizing the Israeli occupation of Palestine), but for the content of the film itself, which promotes a revisionist account of Lebanon’s war, reducing it to a narrative of conflict between foreign Palestinians and native Christians, represented in his account by the Phalangist mission. Doueiri and his films have been the subject of popular boycott not only in Ramallah but also in Carthage, and importantly, in his home city of Beirut, where a call for the isolation of the filmmaker and banning of his films emerged long before the 2018 Oscar nominations were released. It has likewise been the object of boycott calls from Egypt BDS, endorsed by a number of independent filmmakers in Egypt. Zawya Cinema’s decision to screen the film and then its insistence on going forward with the screening, complete with official and unofficial statements and justifications, betrays a deep-seated and understandable ignorance of cultural boycott and the broader solidarity movement that gives it meaning in different locales, and of the long history of normalization and anti-normalization efforts in the Arab world, including official and popular boycotts.
When confronted by BDS Egypt and a slew of critics for their decision to screen the film, the messy and multiple responses that came from Zawya and its network of supporters reflected a deep incoherence and negligence of responsibility on the part of the curators in light of their own stated mission as curators. Because this is symptomatic of a deeper disorientation, it is worth unpacking. The leading argument of Zawya both in its official statement and in its members’ and supporters’ posts on social media is that Doueiri’s personal views and the content of the film should be disaggregated, and that to ban the film based on the “person” of the director would amount to censorship and violate the spirit of BDS. They pointed out that The Attack qualified for boycott because of direct material support from Israeli institutions, but not this one. Zawya’s reference point here is BDS and PACBI guidelines, referring to the 2005 call from Palestinian civil society, which emphasizes that the boycott targets “institutions” and not “individuals”. The cinema’s second official statement dealt more specifically with the call from BDS Egypt, which argued, among other things, that Doueiri’s status as a normalizer, coupled with his public positions, is what qualifies him for boycott. Nowhere did Zawya address the popular Lebanese campaign and its calls for boycott, which likewise do not distinguish between the director and his films.
One of the most commonly cited differences between BDS and anti-normalization campaigns in the Arab world is that the latter, besides being older, also encompass a hard boycott that includes “individuals”. Zawya’s decision to substitute the international BDS guidelines for local ones, and to draw on PACBI’s language in explaining their disagreements with the local campaign, is thus significant, but it does not, in itself, justify the decision. For one thing, one of the major companies funding the film is Cohen Media Group, whose CEO has been twice honored by B’nai Brith and awarded the Israel Peace Medal at an event that raised $52.4 million for State of Israel Bonds. This is no accident, for it is difficult when you are Ziad Doueiri to avoid that kind of funding – in many ways, genre and money co-constitute one another. Doueiri’s filmmaking belongs to a long legacy of French production of “Lebanese” films which are characteristically neo-Orientalist and tend to follow an almost scripted set of formulae. So it is difficult for Doueiri to avoid that kind of funding because the Cohen Media Group follow the same interests in film – in this sense, “Israeli”, “American” and “French” capital mean very little when it comes to film companies founded by the global one percent to serve the interests of the global one percent. Those interests tend to include dissimulation and orientalist cliches about the Middle East that bypass the place of the occupation in the political economy of the region.
The PACBI guidelines cited by Zawya assert that institutions can be complicit without being directly linked to the state. But the issue here should not be reduced to debates over where the “state” ends and “society” begins. The porosity should be taken seriously for what it teaches us about who has stakes in the occupation: who enables it, and who profits. Since the end of the Vietnam war, the Israeli occupation of Palestine has been both product and progenitor of a healthy global arms and security industry, one that is in turn both the condition and the beneficiary of fossil-based profits and the financial regimes – both “Eastern” and “Western” – made of them. This is as true of the Camp David regime in Cairo that gave rise to Naguib Sawiris as it is true of the Bloomberg regime in New York City that gave rise to Charles Cohen.
In the chorus of back-and-forths that followed their official statements on Facebook, Zawya and its supporters appear to be aware of this, or a symptom of it, when they ask, for instance, what the difference is between this film and other Hollywood productions, particularly those with material support from Israel and which have been variously subject to boycott campaigns from Lebanon and otherwise in recent months. The challenge to BDS Egypt and other critics is why they do not or did not subject these other productions to the same campaign. The implication is that Zawya’s critics suffer from a lack of consistency. The accusation of “double standards” (why is Zawya being lobbied and not the Egyptian government?) assumes that political movements should follow the lowest common denominator or risk being seen as irrational.
Disorientation feeds disorientation. So it is worth asking, first, whether the team at Zawya take seriously the differences assumed between commercial cinema theatres and corporate-sponsored international film festivals (e.g. Sawiris’s El-Gouna Film Festival recently screened– and awarded– the film in question) and those that historically laid claim to “alternative”, “independent” and “art house” cinema. Independent cinema historically meant low-budget, non-commercial, and content-focused filmmaking on the filmmakers’ side and non-profit, purposeful, often educative curation of film on the distributors’ and screeners’ side. Today “independent cinema” is increasingly coming under the sway of the likes of Charles Cohen and his sister production houses in France, Israel and elsewhere in the global north who see a niche market in the making worth millions of dollars whether at the acquisitional, archival and curatorial levels or, increasingly, in production and distribution circuits. Indeed, it has become difficult to distinguish between “independent cinema” and “world cinema” given the frequent overlap in topics and funding lines. Where does Zawya see itself in this economy? And how does Zawya see itself in relation to its local audiences?
This is especially worth asking when Zawya’s defense is pitched with reference to the importance of “dialogue”, the threat of “censorship”, and the demands of a “market”. Moreover, in Zawya’s initial statement they describe, as part of their purpose, preventing the “isolation of Arabs from each other.” In other words, Zawya here appears to understand its role as one of preserving access to an apparently otherwise inaccessible film– indeed, elsewhere in the thread of debate that followed their statement, they discourage their audience from pirating the film once it’s available to download. More problematic, and telling, than the equation of “boycott” with “censorship” is the willed identification of Ziad Doueiri as an “Arab director” and the celebration, explicit and implicit, of this as an Arab film that has achieved recognition at the Oscars – regardless of why. Doueri’s status as an Arab director seems to take precedence over his status as a normalizing Arab director, and the criteria of normalization seen to pertain to his previous film seem to take precedence over the content of his current film. But Doueiri himself refuses to distinguish between his personal and political views and the content of his films. So the film is not financially “independent” in any recognizable sense, nor is it an apolitical work of art in anything but a nominal sense. The distinction between individual and institution, like the distinction between artist and art, repeatedly falls apart for them with every occasion they seize to question the “double standard” (why are they being lobbied and not the Egyptian government?). If they are aware of it, they either do not care or hope that no one will notice. So it is worth asking how these concepts are being translated.
That the PACBI guidelines emphasize a distinction between individual and institution is meant to ascertain that individual academics and cultural producers should not be punished for simply having been born in Israel or carrying Israeli citizenship. The point is to target the substance of the link between their work and the machineries of the occupation. Zawya interprets this to invest a work of “art” with some sort of autonomy over and beyond context and content while justifying the unjustifiable, which is the screening of an anti-Palestinian, Zionist-Phalange propaganda film in explicit violation of local and regional calls to boycott and isolate the filmmaker in question. The repeated incitement of critics to lobby the government instead of Zawya is therefore especially odd: does Zawya, or does it not, possess curatorial agency in its choice of what to screen? Should it continue to possess this agency? Is there a free market of ideas, or is there not? Are supply and demand phantom mechanisms of this “free market”? And if so, why does Zawya exist in the first place?
If PACBI distinguishes between individuals and institutions, Zawya’s incitement reinforces the hierarchy of the government’s censor office as the arbitrating institution par excellence to avoid any responsibility for its decision, while simultaneously performing judicious cinematic and artistic vanguardism and legitimizing the Oscars as a signal achievement. Zawya and other subsidiaries of Misr International Films may well be a symptom of the withdrawal and degeneration of public cultural institutions. But to simultaneously lament and rejoice in this absence while mirroring the decadence it offers up by way of “freedoms” is to engage in sophistry. To speak of “freedoms” as first principles without exercising them in a principled or ethical way is to plainly celebrate a will to power with no sense of purpose or historical accountability. It is to become the state itself, for in their insistence on giving Doueiri’s propaganda film a platform, they have themselves engaged in censorship: of what remains deliberately silenced by Doueiri’s work, on the one hand, and of what remains a live set of popular demands for resistance of a reality imposed on the people of the region. These demands are not reducible to the Egypt BDS campaign or its sister campaigns in the region, but they are embodied therein. More important still is the relative marginality of these demands: progressive movements and campaigns against normalization in Egypt have historically always been weak. This is all the more reason for elite institutions such as Zawya to consider their role in generating, creating, curating or even responding to “demand”. There are many demands in Egypt: some are bloodthirsty, ultra-nationalist ones. That does not mean they should be satisfied just because they sound a presence.
So what is in demand? What is it about Doueiri’s film that sells? Because it is true that Doueiri’s film is of a genre increasingly attractive to millennial art cinema circuits: high production value combined with controversial storylines that peddle radically localized narratives. Regardless of the city and the branding, the target audience grew up exposed to an unprecedented archive of polished “world cinema” and abundant resources for “independent” filmmaking. In a purportedly post-ideological age, the only thing that exists is ideas about ideas. Ideology as such does not exist. Auto-ethnography is the only reality, the politics of the self the only politics. Indeed, neoliberalism starts from the principle that “society does not exist” — only markets exist. Importantly, Doueiri’s approach to screenwriting starts from the same principle: simplify, simplify, simplify. Power exists in words: “words change everything”, indeed, as the film’s subtitle tells us. As Terri Ginsberg points out, not only are Palestinian and Phalange-identified Maronite placed on equal footing, the Palestinian “wins” only through the self-interested noblesse oblige of the rightful and righteous owner of the land. These methods were as definitive for settler-colonial Hollywood as they were useful for Israeli cinema, and they have been and will remain the preferred mode of globalization by Arab elites. That they have been given the cinematographic tint of a Lebanese cameraman trained by Tarantino does not change much in their symbolic economy. It does, however, co-constitute the kind of viewer targeted by the film and the demands and assumptions made by the medium on its audience.
PACBI guidelines state that a cultural product can itself be a form of normalization through its content and as such would be boycottable. So what is normalization? Zawya did not choose to curate this film as an artefact of the fraught nature – and stakes – of historical memory in post-reconstruction Lebanon. They did not curate it as an example of moral equivocation (or worse, nihilism) and a discourse of individual responsibility that feeds into a living narrative about Lebanon (and Lebanonization). Such a discourse bleaches the local of its global context (in other words, imperialism) and reproduces racist, ahistorical renditions of perennial sectarianism, civil war and “the House of Islam” that is the imputed Other of an otherwise progressive and dialogic universalism. Indeed, they chose to screen it as a work of “art”, however controversial, in the spirit of respecting “different viewpoints” and inviting dialogue and discussion. Two acts of fetishization in one fell swoop: the film is commodified and the director is Arabized. This despite, or perhaps because of, a challenge he explicitly issued to whoever was willing to listen: dissimulate or risk being the target of my next film. What is remarkable here is that Doueiri himself insisted on the indivisibility of his artistic content from his “personal” and political views. Zawya, however, confidently insists on its ability to take them apart, if only to make a spectacle of those, like myself and countless others, who will rush to put them back together again. If this sounds familiar, that is because it is vintage colonial modern: fetishize the thing, make it into an icon, and then accuse the native of idolatry.
Destroy a national liberation movement, assassinate its leaders, divide, cripple and place a population under siege, and then sit back and point to the fragmentation of resistance and hand-wring over the lack of a unified leadership or referent. Chase an indigenous population into camps, bomb them when they attempt to return, incite a civil war and then throw petrodollars at the country to maintain a permanently sectarian balance of power and a quasi-state primed for constant interventions in between one war and the next. Almost two decades later the French-Israeli-Phalange revisionism of Ziad Doueiri is the subject of “debate” about “different views” — first, in a Lebanon fighting to avoid the fate of Yemen and Syria, then in an Egypt marked by its own collective war on memory. As usual, the issue has been framed as a lack of dialogue or “free speech.” Doueiri’s film is a result of this, and to ban it would be to perpetuate it. This brand of liberalism is defined by neverending talk, but never about the terms of dialogue, speech and who gets to participate in it, with what infrastructures, at what price, on what conditions and in which language.
This challenge, to dissimulate, was issued to our generation long before Doueiri joined the battle against “BDS”. The challenge is to divorce the question of the Israeli occupation from the broader regional political situation in which we live, or risk being accused of a meaningless or largely sentimental “Arab nationalism”. Indeed, Doueiri is merely reflecting the right-wing version of a broader consensus in and about the “Middle East” that renews itself every few years in Lebanon, and which is sponsored by the United States and Saudi Arabia and in recent years renewed by Egypt: Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, are emotional, irrational, disorganized and inconsistent. Lebanon is perennially sectarian, hopelessly bigoted, and essentially a failed state.
Cultural normalization is merely the symptom and effect of the deeper political-economic normalization that was heralded by Camp David. This recent gas deal is just the latest installment in the storied history of direct collaboration between Egypt and Israel, which does not rest at mere cooperation in the siege on Gaza but plays a leading role in that siege. That Egypt has played a unique role in renewing and consolidating the current iteration of the coalition of the willing, on the eve of the American-Israeli aggression against Jerusalem and systematically buttressing, not least through unprecedented sectarian propaganda, Mohammed Bin Salman’s reign of terror against his own people and those of Yemen, is where Egyptian cultural producers purporting to be something other than Sawiris might want to begin their reflections on what counts as “normalization” when it comes to Ziad Doueiri. What is being normalized is not “Israel”. It is not even the normalization of Israel that is being normalized. It is the conditions of possibility of Israel: of Egypt, indeed, of a cheap essentialism, of a vacuous Arab identity made of passports and Hollywood brands and not politics; it is the death of politics as such that is being normalized. One might even suggest it is the Arab Spring on repeat that has been normalized.
The real insult is not the tropes in Doueiri’s film, but the confusion — by Zawya and its supporters — of cause and effect. For better or worse, the filmmaker in question is not confused: the world is made of ultimate good and ultimate evil, and for him – and many anti-BDS legislators besides – BDS represents the latter. ِAnd why should it not? It won’t be the first time colonialism made “evil” of its colonized. Bipolarity is the logical conclusion of a will to power armed with the right amount of violence: it demands the industrialization of thought itself. That is what Zawya appeals to in their decision, and it is what the global campaign against BDS aims for. Ideas have an invaluable capacity for capitalization. The kind of radical liberalism on display at Zawya this season is not especially mysterious or exceptional to the cultural salons of downtown Cairo. But it should be called what it is, because the privilege to speak– and to debate — comes with a responsibility, not just to the dead, but to those living in chains and camps that depend on historical amnesia. There are a lot of careers to be made from curating supply and demand and trading in trauma and opinions. But such gains and the palliative of recognition they offer are cheap and fleeting in the long run; they reify the insularity that conditions them, over and beyond the usual checkboxes of reflexivity one readily associates with failure. No one ever asked or expected spaces like Zawya to be part of the solution. The least they can do once they exist is avoid being part of the problem.