The alphabet of water

Hani Mustafa , Tuesday 20 Jun 2023

Hani Mustafa quizzed the Algerian-French producer, scriptwriter, and filmmaker Hamid Benamra about his latest

Kyoko: The Dream Harvest Season
Kyoko: The Dream Harvest Season


Since making his first films in the 1980s, the Algerian-French producer, screenwriter, and filmmaker Hamid Benamra has developed a unique style totally distinct from both Arab-European and Arab cinema. He is a true auteur. Most of his work is self-financed, and he doesn’t recognise documentary as a separate genre, unless it consists of archival footage. From real lives, rather, he believes he can create different stories that illustrate his thoughts about human beings. His filmography contains dozens of short films that range in length from a few minutes to almost an hour. His features include Reveries of the Solitary Actor (2016), Hizam (Belt, 2016), Timelife (2019) and, most recently, Kyoko: The Dream Harvest Season which premiered at the Moscow International Film Festival (20-27 April). “The film was well received,” Benamra says. “It was a full house, especially in the second screening where a discussion with the audience took place. Most of the feedback was comments and impressions. An interesting comment came from two people who felt that my narrative style seemed to be very close to Russian cinema.”

The film opens with part of a song by Marcel Khalifa, Yatir Al-Hamam (The pigeons fly away), made from one of the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s poems. While it is playing, the camera portrays the profile of Kyoko, a 70-year-old Japanese artist, tailor and stylist, inside a bus. As of the first few minutes, the audience is inundated with meticulously conceived shots, carefully woven in terms of their colour and composition. The film also follows Sanae, a 28-year-old modern dancer whose maternal grandmother is Japanese. Poems read out in French by Stephanie Benamra, the filmmaker’s wife (an actress, producer and poet) accompany some shots while others are Benamra’s own poems narrated in Arabic by himself.

This isn’t the first time Benamra uses a voice over of poetry. His trademark way of structuring a narrative using his own cinematic vocabulary is unmistakable, and in Kyoko, Hizam and in Timelife poems are part of it. “A poem is something that you carry in your heart, or in your imagination,” Benamra says. “It is my culture, my education and my knowledge. My style is my way of dressing, my identity. It is all the books I read, all the screens I looked at, and all the streets I walked. However, all films are made in different ratios of sensitivity. It is easy for the audience to recognise Hitchcock or Godard films from a minimum number of shots. In football, too, from the image of a foot touching the ball, you can tell it is Maradona or Pelé without seeing the body or the face. Each has his own way of receiving the ball. Style somehow makes its own rules or generates a new alphabet. When you give the audience a new alphabet, reading becomes easier, later. There is an important Russian film called Man with a Movie Camera, directed by Dziga Vertov in 1929. The Europeans say it is an experimental film but I believe that this is real poetic cinema or real cinema from my point of view, cinema that is not based on literature.”

Two recurrent motifs in Benamra’s work are the train and the sea. “The train is present in nearly all of my films. It is not even my invention to put trains in films. The Lumière brothers’ first film of 1895 has a famous train scene. But for me train refers to a road without diversion. It is not only “an iron snake”, as mentioned in the film [Kyoko]. it is perhaps also a symbol of the road to a constant goal, and most of the time my direction is towards the big screen. The train also symbolises time. It reminds me of the pendulum of the old wooden clocks in the salons of middle-class houses in the 1940s and 1950s. Perhaps that even affects the style of camera movement in some of my films.” As for the sea, “I was a Parisian before, but for some years I have changed my residence to a quiet place near the sea, and as a result my visual sense architecture was transformed. Water is a symbol of hidden power in Japanese culture, especially in karate [Benamra is a 5-dan belt, practising since the 1970s], when you hit water with a sword you do not cut, water cannot be injured by cutting, and this is mentioned in Kyoko. It may seem to be loose or weak, but whole cities can be eradicated by water if hit by Tsunami waves. I am interested in the horizon. In Reveries of the Solitary Actor, there is a line of narration that reads: ‘In my childhood I wanted to be a runner but I failed. My shadow was always ahead of me, and the finish line was moved further away the closer I got.’ That finish line is the horizon.”

Benamra described the different stages of the long process by which Kyoko arrived at its present form: “In Cannes 1983 I was astonished by Shôhei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama which won the Palme d’Or. Since then I’ve been charmed by old Japanese faces. In 2009 I was filming in Tokyo, shots I would use in Kyoko. Everybody was smiling at the camera. No one asked me what I was doing or why. But first I wanted to make a film about an artist who is returning to her homeland after 30 years. I put the footage aside, and when I returned I tried to create a new structure with different faces. I met with the Japanese lady Kyoko and as mentioned in the rest of the title [The Dream Harvest Season], I wanted to portray her character with her dreams of becoming an artist and a stylist in Paris, the fashion capital, and also the dream of return. She was a bit nostalgic talking about her life when she was young. I felt that there should be a young character to provide an equivalent to her youth or as a sort of flashback. Fortunately, when I met Sanae I discovered that her grandmother was a Japanese immigrant, which was a great link. However, in the film I gave both Kyoko and Sanae something of my own character. I tried to say something very personal about how I identify with Japanese culture, art, cinema and poetry, haiku. That type of poetry is as concise and sharp as a Samurai’s katana.” But there is another character in the film, by the name of Rodrigue, who is a musician playing guitar. “He and his strings portray the strings inside the human being. The words he sings don’t belong to any language which means that they have no meaning at all. The only meaning is the sound. I wanted to focus on this experiment of creating a new alphabet. So the three characters share similarities and they share solitude. In fact most of the characters portrayed in my films are part of me and what they say is part of my ideas and my feelings. I only use real life, shaping and rephrasing it.”

The film communicates a hidden feeling about migration and missed opportunities in life. This can be felt primarily with Kyoko, the main character, but also with the other two: Rodrigue looks like a foreigner because he sings in this non-language even though he is French, and Sanae is also from Paris. In the same way the audience knows that the filmmaker who put all this together is himself of Algerian origins. “In most of my films there is a question about place, distance and closeness, not directly about a birthplace. I wanted to discuss happiness wherever it is, whether it is in the place of your birth or the place of what you will become. In some of my films I also wanted to discuss something connected with the body. There is a present body and there is an absent body. In Hizam there is an obvious presence of the human body which is intentionally absented in the Arab society, while in Timelife the reference is not only to the pregnant body explicitly bearing an embryo but also implicitly bearing dreams and hopes. In the film you find the famous Syrian filmmaker Mohamed Malas who is bearing desires and ambitions to make a film. For 10 years he couldn’t be behind a camera.

“I am the filmmaker, screenwriter, producer, cameraman and editor. I can say that I control everything, therefore I make a film very quickly. That is why I write some time before or even after shooting, but while editing I may generate something totally different from what was planned. Since my first film, For a Better Life, which was 55 minutes and shot in 16mm in 1981, I was interested in portraying love. In fact my main goal is to like those whom I shoot before even putting them in front of the camera. While regarding structure, Kyoko is built like haiku, without a traditional beginning, middle or end. Poetry is sometimes missing in cinema. Most filmmakers think that poems are only rhyme and metre, but for me, it is a way of thinking and a way of life.”

Perhaps the first time you see a Benamra film you feel that his works were influenced by the French New Wave Movement founded by directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and François Truffaut in the late 1950s. However, a deeper understanding of his works will broaden the reference pool. It is clear that the structure of Benamra’s work sits on top of a deep and refined culture gleaned from many sources: Arabic poetry, French and Russian cinema, even Japanese culture. What is important is that he is persistent and eager to make his own cinema against all odds.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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