The sky looks stunning when I set out to meet Nacer Khemir at the Shangri-La Hotel Abu Dhabi, which bodes well for my second encounter with this iconoclast of the Arab film industry. The Paris-based Tunisian is being honoured in a special tribute for his lifetime's achievement to coincide with his 60th birthday at the Middle East Film Festival (MEIFF) this year, with a screening of his best known film, the 1990 Touaq al Hammama al Mafqoud (better known across the world as Le Collier Perdu de la Colombe, which won the Locarno Film Festival Special Jury Award) yesterday at the Emirates Palace.
I first encountered Khemir during a programme of screenings of his films at the American University in Cairo in April, 2005 - a rare occasion for Egyptian film buffs to interact with the filmmaker, who, despite making only three full-length features since 1984, has managed to make a name by winning four major awards: the Namur International Festival of French-Speaking Film's Golden Bayard for Le Collier in 1991, the Nantes Three Continents Festival's Golden Montgolfiere for Les Baliseurs du Desert, or Desert Wanderers, in 1984, and Valencia Festival of Mediterranean Cinema's Golden Palm for the same film in 1985, while also being nominated for many others and exercising great influence among younger Arab filmmakers throughout the world.
His films, which he describes as "beyond any local Arab sphere", are celebrated for their interest in Arab cultural heritage and their unique imagery. Khemir is an interesting choice of honoree in a festival seeking to bolster Arab cinema since, though he is hardly representative of Tunisian - much less Arab film - he is probably the most pan-Arab artist working in the medium today. Unlike Youssef Chahine or the Egyptian school of filmmakers, he has never paid attention to society or politics, but sought, rather, an allegorical and spiritual connection with the civilisation to which he belongs. Khemir started out as a painter, he has performed in his own theatre shows as a storyteller (at, among many prestigious French-speaking venues, the Theatre National de Chaillot), worked in TV and published four books (notably Le Chant des Genies, or The Genies' Song, in 2001 with Acte Sud).
Khemir, continued on 3 My memory of Khemir is of a cosmopolitan, secular artist with a sharp sense of irony, but as the sunset azan sounds on the way to the Shangri-La, I cannot help recalling that this Francophone Tunisian, contrary to all appearances, is also a devout Muslim, a seeker on a Sufi path of his own. The glittering edge of a Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque minaret against the Photoshop-perfect backdrop looks like something out of one of his films. So, especially, does the desert in the distance, which could have worked well as the setting for Les Baliseurs, which is about an anonymous oasis town in the Sahara where the entire male population is routinely possessed by a collective trance forcing them to move aimlessly in ever wider circles in the wilderness for months on end: a metaphor for the centuries-long state of slumber into which Arab civilisation, once a beacon of knowledge for the entire world, had steadily descended by the time Khemir was born in 1948, the year Palestine was irrevocably lost and, properly speaking, the start of a more or less disastrous experiment in postcolonial nationalism and pan-Arab unity.
Hailed by a fetching woman in an abaya who has mysteriously emerged from another taxi heading in the opposite direction, my own taxi driver abandons me at the foot of the ramp leading up to the hotel. But the oud music swirling through the gilded dome of the lobby is reward enough for the brisk climb, in the end, which also gives me time to switch into Tunisian Arabic mode - after French, Khemir's preferred language of communication (though he often switches to classical Arabic, too, seeking out the appropriate translation for the proverbial mot juste). When the receptionist finally locates his room, Khemir answers the phone just as I have expected: "Oui!"
Ten minutes later, in the company of his Syrian-French producer, this kindred spirit of the Maghreb (not only filmmaker, but also visual artist, storyteller and writer) can be seen sauntering down the hallway, his long grey hair - a little whiter than I remember it from Cairo, back in 2005 - fanning sharp, avian features, his blazer and glasses tempering the subdued burst of colour that is his shirt. While he disappears with the photographer - I imagine he will be sympathetic to her search for the best available light- I quiz out the producer on what Khemir has been doing in the last three years, how his filmography developed after 2005's Bab' Aziz (Father Aziz), the epic of a Sufi master who travels from the Atlantic coast to Iran), which he had waited 10 years before he could find the funding to make and of which he now conceived as a response to the denigration of Arab-Muslim civilisation the world over following September 11. As I discover while scanning the lobby for a quiet spot, Bab' Aziz remains his last full-length feature.
"This is my first time in Abu Dhabi," Khemir, 60, declares when we have settled down to talk, willing to evaluate neither MEIFF nor any ideas associated with its location. "I have just arrived," he insists. "If you want to talk about Arabs and Gulf Arabs, let's start with Abdel Nasser." He refers to the leader of the 1952 revolution in Egypt, with whom pan-Arab nationalism is largely identified. "Write down my opinion of Abdel Nasser, and then I can tell you what I think of the Gulf." Out of his blazer pockets, Khemir produces a tiny notebook and what looks like a recording device (a precaution to make sure he would not be misquoted?) The pen he uses, I notice, is a streamlined implement with a tip approximating an artist's brush.
"Right now I have eight screenplays. I wrote them all, yes," Khemir says. "People think the problem of Arab cinema is a problem of image making. In my opinion, it is a problem of ideas, the kind of idea, the kind of screenplay. There are screen- writers for example in Egypt, in Syria and in Lebanon - those who write musalsalat and others - but the kind of screenplay that they write is a kind that does not open out onto anything new, and can never drag the image out of its old alter." He feels that, with the philosophy, anthropology and experience of art that goes into his make-up, the kind of screenwriter with whom he could work is simply "not there".
Born into "an aristocratic but poor family" in the village of Korba, near Tunis, Khemir was educated in France, where, exasperated with bureaucratic attitudes in the Tunisian capital and bereaved of his father following his return on graduation, he eventually settled down. His best known film, and the one selected for screening at MEIFF, is the Le Collier Perdu de la Colombe, or The Lost Dove's Necklace, the story of a calligrapher's apprentice who having found a single, partially burnt page of the Andalusian writer Ibn Hazm's famous tract on love, The Dove's Necklace, sets out looking for the book. But the journey thus depicted, set against the backdrop of impending civil war and cultural decline, is more inward than outward.
Ironically for a film so bound up with Arab heritage, the only extant 35mm copy - and consequently the one being screened, with subtitles newly produced in Lebanon from the original script - is dubbed into French. "This is among the aspects of damnation," Khemir remarks with a laugh, beginning a humorous, woeful history of the feature. "The Lost Dove's Necklace, yes, which is wronged at every turn. What does it mean to be wronged? The critics for example express their opinions of it as a film about Ibn Hazm's Dove's Necklace.
"One of two things: either they did not read Ibn Hazm, or they did not see The Lost Dove's Necklace. Because whoever read the book and saw the film realises that there is no connection. There is only one sentence" - perhaps the most famous in the book - "which is 'Love, may God strengthen you, begins lightly and ends gravely.' This, I took from Ibn Hazm - that's it. Yet they still insist that the film is about Ibn Hazm.
"The second issue: when I presented the film for funding in Tunis, there were those who said since it is about Andalusia, it should seek funding there. Tunis has nothing to do with it. "The third thing: the film was produced with money from Canal Plus, and Canal Plus forces you to make a copy in France. Now this film has a very important linguistic experiment, which is that I collected all the different Arab accents and put them in the film. What does that mean? It means that when you listen to the classical Arabic in which the film is made, you feel that it is variegated with the colours of the dialects. There is for example Zein, who speaks in Baghdadi classical Arabic, the calligrapher in Moroccan classical Arabic, Hassan - the calligrapher's apprentice - in Palestinian classical Arabic. You feel, you listen to these colours of the language, and you sense that classical Arabic can be a living vernacular. There is an important experiment, a legacy...
"And now the film is lost. Why? Because, when you make a film, in order to preserve it, you make an internegative, which is a copy of the original negative to make sure it's there. For financial reasons, we did not make an internegative of that film." Khemir describes his failed attempts, in both Tunis and France, at finding the $50,000 (Dh183,000) necessary for the process - hardly a huge amount in the film industry - expressing his dismay with the people in charge. "So that now the only copy fit for screening is the French copy, and the Arabic copy has withered. A film in classical Arabic, addressed to all Arabs, and the only copy of it is in French."
Still, the auteur presses on. His last film, My Mother's Dictionary, one of three shorts making up a Korean-funded triptych on waiting, was screened at the Locarno Film Festival in August to much acclaim, "as always", he says, chuckling. The problem is not the response, he implies, but the context in which he works, where he feels he is alone on an ever steeper upwards slope. Television "brokers of the image" fail to understand his calling, Arab ministries let him down, and in France he remains a foreigner. This state of being orphaned, as he puts it, inspires not only his personal melancholy but his work, which seeks to create as well as contribute to an Arab context.
With 23 countries like the branches of a tree each working on itself, mistaking itself for the root, the flora of Arab civilisation cannot regenerate, which is why, he says, "my greater concern in cinema is to give classical values, the values of Arab civilisation which has all the necessary qualifications, but whose common root, whose spirit, is not being regenerated... The question is present, but you do not find a party answering it: how to fortify the references of classical Arab civilisation, develop them and inserting them into the image, because the image is the future face of civilisation", a commodity you can import only at the expense of creating a bottomless glitch between your grandfathers and your grandchildren, and losing your sense of self in the process.
"This," Khemir adds, the business of bringing the references back into the image, "is my work... And it is possible that the Gulf can do this work, because they do not have the problems of other Arab countries, economic problems and architectural problems and demographic problems. It is possible that their vision will be directed towards the fundamental reference." Khemir's award at MEIFF, as it turns out, is the first Arab honour he has received, even though he has won numerous awards outside the Arab world, but not one prize in Tunis.
"It is cheering," he says of the present honour, delicately painting his e-mail onto a page of my notebook, "when someone who does not know you, whom you don't know, comes up and says to you, 'I feel you.' There is still goodness in the world, as you say in Tunisian." When I walk back out of the Shangri-La, it is dark; yet despite the absence of light, despite the scene of melancholy Khemir has communicated, the effect of talking to him is one of joy. The rhythms and cadences of Tunisian Arabic ringing in my ears, I recall the image of Hassan, his eyes glinting in a darkened roomc, poring over the burnt manuscript page with such intent concentration that he looks like a man fighting death.