Akram Zaatari’s latest documentary, '28 Nights and a Poem,' is an ode to photography and its tools that help preserve memory and offer an understanding of the present through tangible traces of the past.
In his film, Zaatari, who is also co-founder of the Arab Image Foundation, tells the story of Scherezade, a photographic studio that opened its doors in the 1950s in the Lebanese city of Saida, and its owner Hesham El Madani, who claims he photographed more than 90 percent of the city's population, and how his studio played a role in spreading visual culture.
The filming of the documentary began in 2007. However, the lebanese director says the work started in 1999, when he met El Madani, and lasted until 2009.
Across these years, Zaatari studied El Madani’s collection thoroughly and learnt the stories behind the people in the photographs; the shy woman who walked in and asked to be photographed naked; the men who came in for pictures with their guns; and young boys who came to kill time at his studio by dressing up and having their pictures taken as bride and groom.
The film is divided in two parts; the first goes through Zaatari’s black and white photos juxtaposed with old Arabic music videos, songs and segments from plays. The second part is more focused on audio and the evolution of it in this part of the world.
"I was interested in the idea of the evolution of sound, fashion ... the image as something contagious — not necessarily a negative thing. The image is not only static, it's moving ... through it everything transfers like a visual or cultural contagion," said the Lebanese director during a Q&A that took place after his film was screened in Cairo last Monday as part of the AFAC Film Week, held in downtown Cairo's Zawya cinema.
Zaatari believed he had to tell the story of the importance of the studio at the time, which he says contributed to spreading the culture of the image.
"We can’t talk about film history without talking about tools and photographers," he said.
In Arab cities, the photographic studio was multi-functioning until the 1980s and 1990s. It was not limited to photography, says Zaatari, explaining that studios also sold lamps, video tapes and had photocopying machines.
"When Super 8 was introduced, studios rented cameras and developed film. They also rented films shot in Super 8 for people who had projectors in their homes," said Zaatari
Zaatari says he was motivated to make the movie to emphasise a sense of duality between the city of Saida and the Arab Image Foundation.
He added that most of El Madani's work is now displayed at the foundation in Beirut, visited by the photographer himself every other day.
Instead of digging into pre-gathered archives, Zaatari says he is always interested and more concerned with gathering materials and having it become his own archive.
"We are lucky the works took place through a medium that leaves a trace, and that there is a negative for each photo," he said adding that the archive — an embodiment of the past — is a place where we can understand ourselves.