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7. Cinema - Reality and Film

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم

Title: Cinema - Reality and Film

Author: Imruh Bakari

Publication date: 19th October 2013

Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Civilisation & Society Programme of the Muslim Faculty of Advanced Studies. This is the seventh of 12 sessions which make up the Society Through Literature module. The lecture will last approximately 40 minutes during which time you should make a written note of any questions that may occur to you for clarification after the lecture. 

This discussion will present some views on the power of the moving image, and the centrality of cinema to contemporary culture. The approach being taken is particularly influenced by an interest in establishing the idea of a ‘Muslim cinema’. This cinema is not conceived as a prescriptive manifesto of any kind. It does not intend to lay out how films should be made by Muslims or by anyone else. The concern here is focused on developing a body of critical ideas that may be used to discuss and evaluate films from an Islamic perspective. What is of fundamental importance is an engagement that seeks to bring new knowledge about the cinema experience, and the value of film. 

It is acknowledged that in this discussion, the views being expressed are provisional. It is also acknowledged that the breadth and depth of knowledge required for the task may be well beyond my own capacity. Even with this in mind, I feel it is appropriate to enter that debate, which I know has already begun; but which is long overdue, at least in Britain.

The consideration of ‘reality’ and ‘film’ takes us back to the origins of the moving image itself, and the emergence of cinema as a cultural process, which, within the first decade of its existence, had touched every continent. This presence has had a profound impact on knowledge production and knowledge dissemination worldwide. So much so, that during the early twentieth century, the leaders of the Russian Revolution made cinema a priority in the development of their new society, recognising it as, ‘the most important of all the arts’. This statement should not be dismissed as just another indication of totalitarian excess. Instead, attention should be give to the central organising role of cinema and moving image media in society from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards. 

As I have noted elsewhere, a critical factor about ‘film’ and the media as a whole, concerns the fact that the media provides material that greatly impacts upon the perceptions which we form of ourselves and of ‘others’; even within the same society, and in relation to other individuals, groups, institutions and events. It provides a substantial amount of what individuals claim to know, as opposed to knowledge gained from direct experience.1


Writing during the 1940s and 50s, a seminal figure in film theory, Andre Bazin, posed the question at the core of the study of the relationship between ‘reality’ and the film image. Hence, the title of his two volumes of essays, What is Cinema?.  Bazin was concerned with ‘realism’, and the power of the camera and its technology to deliver as he perceived it, a particularly profound manifestation. In his view, this was a more essential reality than the human eye was capable of. This in his terms was the work of cinema and its technology, which he saw as being exemplified in the work of the Italian Neo-Realist filmmakers. 

Bazin’s was a radical position because in the theories of cinema, other than just being ‘entertainment’, or alternatively a manipulative spectacle, cinema at the time was seen to be moving on from a concern with merely reproducing or representing some known world. Bazin was arguing for something that could be regarded as being imbued with the possibility of a greater humanistic potential. Particularly in the area of the fiction film, Bazin’s ideas were as influential as they were contentious. By the 1970s however, other controversies had emerged around the nature of another area of film; the documentary, and its ‘truth’ claims. In a sense therefore, both Bazin’s issues and the status of documentary, bring us back to the origins of cinema and the narrative representation of the known (or unknown) world, its societies, its  peoples and their lived experiences, since 1895 – the official birth of cinema. 

Here we find the first moving images – the recordings of actuality, moving on to performances staged for the camera; fantasy, spectacle, narrative drama and an entertainment industry. Parallel to this, ‘documentary’ was assumed to be a more serious filmmaking practice aimed at informing, educating, even propagating, but definitely foregrounding the ‘real’ world and bringing it to the screen for audiences. By the 1960s this practice reached a crisis, as the reality of what was being presented on screen came under scrutiny.


One critical point of departure was arrived at in 1979, when George Stoney’s How the Myth was Made, was produced. This was a documentary about the film Man of Aran (1934) made by the ‘Father of Documentary’, Robert Flaherty. This film claimed to truly represent the life of the Aran islanders off the west coast of Ireland at the time. Stoney, a Canadian whose grand-parents came from the Aran Islands, explored the impact of the making of the film, and highlighted that Flaherty’s film was mostly a reconstruction of a life that had once been, and not as it was at the time.

A significant aspect of this revelation was that Flaherty had been making films since 1922, and his work was probably the most important influence in the formation of the British documentary movement of the 1930s, which played a major role in shaping British cinema and later television. In the context of representing the “real” and factual reporting, and in relation to the associated notion of balance, the consequences were profound. The seminal British figure in all these developments was John Grierson. Having idealised Flaherty, and used the term ‘documentary’ to define his practice, Grierson also defined documentary as the ‘creative treatment of actuality’. If this was so in documentary filmmaking, how much more so is it in fiction? 

Yet Muslims (in far off and exotic lands), Africans, Native Americans and others considered worthy of subjugation to the tyrannies of conquest and Empire, had long received demeaning representations of themselves presented to them, and to Europeans, by way of cinema images that were considered to be their reality. These representations of the ‘lower races’; were part of the stock of early cinema, which proliferated in travelogues and other exotic early film depictions. For example, Sambo and Two Girls (1911) included in the archive compilation Big City Stories (2011), is typical of how physiological and ethnic difference was presented as spectacle and as an object of derision. This film is preceded by, for example, an account of The Boxer Rebellion (1900) in China which was brought to British audiences by way of a film reconstruction titled Attack on a China Mission (Williamson Kinematograph Company Ltd, 1900). Along with footage of the Boer War (1899) these latter two films are among the earliest attempts at war reporting. 

In those early years nowhere did reality and film come together more dramatically than in The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith 1915), which tells a story of the American Civil War and the Reconstruction era. This film marked a pivotal moment in the history of cinema, as the specific potential of the medium was recognised for its power to engage audiences, to focus attention and to propagate a certain ‘truth’. Undoubtedly, this ‘truth’ was a distinctly racist and condescending discourse. As indicative of a set of beliefs, these representations were put forward to further substantiate a prevalent and preferred ideological position. As a landmark, the film also established a moment in the art of cinema that set down parameter for a break with what had existed before 1915. This film and the work of D.W. Griffith established the cinema as an enduring attraction. I would also argue that in Griffith’s work, cinema marked a tendency towards ‘high art’, while also establishing that the medium could be used to persuade, educate, or to provide testimony and evidence.

In order to understand the characteristics of the cinema as an enduring attraction, I now turn to two reference points, one point being in storytelling. This may be folklore, fable, Anancy stories, Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Márquez, or any of the poetic or literary traditions. The other is in the practice of ‘looking’.


To elaborate on the first point, I refer to the young woman known as Scheherazade and her stories handed down to the ‘western’ world as the Arabian Nights or the stories of One Thousand and One Nights. As far as critical accounts go, it is now accepted that the actual, complete collection of stories, are in general far from the sanitised tales claimed by ‘western’ cultures. As the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk wrote in a commentary on the stories, “The Book of One Thousand and One Nights is a treasure chest of secret logic, in-jokes, richness, strangeness, impudence and vulgarity. More profoundly than any other book, it shows us what life is made of…”2 

According to the legend, here was a young woman trapped in a very compromising position with a misogynistic, powerful man. In order to save herself from an inevitable, brutal death, she starts talking and never stops. At the end of a thousand plus one nights, the man had been transformed, and she not only lived, but no doubt saved other women from a horrible fate. In today’s world, one may speculate about the same outcome using a stack of DVDs from Hollywood, Bollywood, Nollywood, or anything from the bland menu of television programmes on offer. What is however instructive, is the power of storytelling and the use of the devices of narrative construction and narration that can focus and engage attention, and may even have the ability to transform.

The notion of ‘looking’ on the other hand, is rooted in the technology of the camera and its implicit promise to show and to reveal a fact. This is the claim of ‘documentary’ practices in both photography and in cinema. Looking, however, is a strange activity encompassing both the permissible and the prohibited. As Laura Mulvey suggests in her very influential essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema looking can be a perverse activity.3 This idea is not new in various societies, but it is of importance in understanding some aspects of cinema.


The importance here is that in the classical institution of film, viewing is predicated on the idea of a secret viewer observing a performance or event, unseen to those being watched, even as those being watched on the screen are fictional and constructed images. What is often taken for granted in this instance, is a complementing ‘common sense’ notion which assumes that cinema is providing a ‘window’ on a world. This understanding can in turn be used to confirm when convenient, the idea that the film is a depiction of ‘reality’, as opposed to when it may be termed as ‘just entertainment’. Other film theories have regarded cinema as being more akin to a ‘mirror’, implying that the meanings and pleasures to be derived are more subjective and social, than being inherent on the screen. In my view, both approaches, the ‘window’ and the ‘mirror’, are useful if not taken as absolutes; and equally, if not framed within the discourse of Freudian psychology.


With these two conceptual points of engagement, I propose that we may find some starting points for demystifying the relation between reality and film, and opening up a new space for the ideas of a ‘Muslim cinema’, as I would like to frame it. In this regard, I make some brief comments on firstly, the film Ceddo (Ousmane Sembene, 1976), and secondly, on the representation of Muslims in what is termed ‘mainstream’ cinema, particularly after 9/11. 


Ceddo is significant not only because of the prevailing perceptions about Muslim societies as a whole, but equally because of its politics and the contentious issues that arose around the time of its release. In a 1979 interview Sembene explained the meaning of the word “Ceddo”. He said:


“...Those who are called to this day the Ceddo are not an ethnic group. It’s a Pulaar word that designates in one way or another those who resist slavery. That means those who conserve the tradition.’ The Ceddo are ‘the people of refusal.’ One finds the spirit of the Ceddo just as much among Muslims as Catholics....”4 

The reference to ‘Muslims and Catholics’ is of specific relevance to Senegal where Léopold Sédar Senghor, a Catholic, ruled for the first twenty years of that country’s independence (1960-1980), a country where 94% of the population are Muslims.

Sembene described himself as a Marxist and it is from this perspective that he has pursued the recurring themes in his films: colonial injustice and a critique of tradition, religion and post-colonial elites. This perspective can also be seen as a major factor in the definitely “neo-realist” style of his work.  Among his films however, Ceddo is an exception. This is so, not in its thematic focus, but in its narrative style. As a result Ceddo stands apart from all the other Sembene films because of its theatrical, non-realist style. Ironically, of all his films, this one is regarded as being the most controversial. From the point of view of many, it is supported for its perceived anti-Islamic and anti-Arab imperialism message. My contention is that the film is neither.

As with all of his films set in a Senegalese context, it has to be said that the films of Ousmane Sembene are about a Muslim society, even though this is not how his work or much of the film from similar societies in Africa, are categorised. If the realignment is made however, to include a Muslim perspective, interesting and new questions become apparent. For example, what is the “real” Africa? Noting the underlying racial stereotypes and political contestations, who is or is not “African”? Can the issues of Africa’s diversity be seriously confronted in ways other than those defined by the politics of conquests and victimhood? These are some of my concerns.


In this sense therefore, I do not agree with the widely held view that Ceddo is simply an “attack on Islam”. Sembene himself has refuted this view and in the interview with Josie Fanon (cited above) he said:


“That would suggest that the film has not been understood or that I have poorly expressed myself. It’s not about Islam in essence but the use that has been made of it in the face of an ignorant mass. If I had wanted to do a critique of Islam, I would have focused on the verses of the Koran. I don’t ever do that. We need the courage to look things in the face. At the moment we see the leaders of African states playing with religion. We must have the courage, in a secularist state, to assign limits to the spiritual leaders. My deepest fear is that we should fall into the hands of a right wing power that would use religion.”5

Ceddo is structured around events of the 18th and 19th century dramatised in a narrative that spans approximately a day and a half. The film however, is not a historical drama, neither does it seek to recreate history. Sembene himself acknowledges his artistic choices, which include his depiction of the Ceddo, and their function in the narrative.


The most obvious historical period that is the possible setting of the film is in the 19th century.  In the history of Senegal, this is a formative moment when French colonialism, an African resurgence inspired by Islam and a feudal monarchy contested power. Out of this moment emerged a distinctly Islamic ethos; as well as an iconic figure in the person of the anti-colonial hero and spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba (1853-1927), founder of the Mourid “movement”. Mouridism is a social reality that is at the heart of contemporary Senegalese culture and society.


The film makes no reference to Ahmadu Bamba, and I would suggest that there is no need to do so, as it is not concerned with ‘reality’. Instead, I would argue that the principal concern is with the politics of contemporary Senegal in the post-colonial era, where we find governance being played out between political power and religious authority. This is dramatised as a struggle between the ‘Imam’ and a ‘Princess’ representing traditional authority. In my view the film fails where it should, as ‘history’; but succeeds as a mythological narrative which provides a powerful critique of religious dogma, political power, tradition and capitalism.


Ceddo and its controversies, in my view, ask serious questions about the role of cinema and its ability to interrogate, to portray and to play-out our human predicaments. It also foregrounds the essential and unique way in which cinema communicates human values as part of a cultural experience. As the main character in Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up (1989) says:


“I think of the verse in the Koran which says: to remember God is the best consolation for a troubled heart - I feel the need when I'm depressed or overcome by worries…to express the anguish in my soul, all my sorrows… that no one wants to hear about. And then, when I come across a good man…who portrays all my sufferings in his films - it makes me want to see them over and over again…”6 

In concluding, the relevance of cinema and the need to intervene globally, is nowhere more clearly indicated than by the wave of anti-Muslim media expressions and the ‘Islamophobia’ that have become commonplace, particularly since the Satanic Verses affair in 1989. In the era of the 90s to the present, we find a new politics of representation. This is an era of ‘diaspora’ and transnational media, globalisation and global politics. It operates locally to produce and vigorously promote films like My Son The Fanatic (Udayan Prasad 1997), Executive Decision (Stuart Baird 1996), The Siege (Edward Zwick 1998), The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow 2008) and Citizen Khan (BBC 2012). These films (and television programmes) among others, are responding to – and if not explicitly, they are indeed part of – a wider debate in society concerned with the presence and treatment of communities designated as problematic, un-British, un-American, alien, and worthy of either elimination or containment.


In other words – beyond entertainment – the cinema, in terms of the critical concept of the ‘window’, allows us to see that the ‘reality’ of cinema is no more real than that of ‘reality television’. In relation to the critical concept of the ‘mirror’, there is scope for a deconstruction of what is on the screen, as well as an opportunity to refocus around the status of viewer as an active participant in making sense and meaning out of what is on the screen, as part of the wider social experience.

Cinema is therefore confirmed as being an integral part of our cultural processes. Hence, the need for Muslims to seriously engage with that fact and it’s potential. This includes the need to go beyond, towards the realisation of institutional interventions. This refers not only to making films, but to developing a discourse within which value and significance can be negotiated and propagated.   

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture. The subject of our next lecture is The Worker which will be presented in two weeks time by Abdalbarr Brown. Thank you for your attention. Assalamu alaykum.


Bakari, I. Islam and the Cinema in Britain. Royal Commonwealth Society Conference Paper, Mutualities: Britain and Islam (April 1999). Visiting Arts, 2000

Race, Racism and Resistance on Film. Runnymede Trust Lecture and Debate Series: London South Bank University (December 2012)

Bazin, A. What Is Cinema? Volume I, University of California Press, 1967

    What Is Cinema? Volume II, University of California Press,1971

Fanon, J. In the Name of Tolerance: A Meeting with Ousmane Sembène. (trans. Annett Busch, Demain l’Afrique, no. 32, 1979)  

Mulvey, L. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, vol. 16, no. 2, 

Autumn 1975

Mohammed, J. Muslim Cinema: an introduction. Culture Wars, Thursday 11 

March 2010,

Pamuk, O. Love, death and storytelling. New Statesman, 18 December 2006, 

(trans. Maureen Freely)

Rahman, K. An “Islamic” reading of Kiarostami's Close-up 

Winston, B. Documentary: How The Myth Was Reconstructed 

Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries. BFI Publishing, 2000

Filmography - Fifteen films for introducing further discussion:

1. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

2. Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets (Nabil Ayouch, 2000)

3. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1967)

4. Ceddo (Ousmane Sembène, 1977)

5. Children of Heaven (Majid Majidi, 1999)

6. Close-up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)

7. Darratt/Dry Season (Mahamat Saleh Haroun, 2007)

8. Free Men/Les hommes libres (Ismaël Ferroukhi, 2011) 

9. The Imam and I (Khalid Shamis, 2011)

10. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

11. Le Grand Voyage (Ismaël Ferroukhi, 2004)

12. Materials (Craig Freimond, 2012)

13. The Message (Moustapha Akkad, 1977)

14. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mira Nair, 2012)

15. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)

1 Race, Racism and Resistance on Film. Runnymede Trust Lecture and Debate Series: London South Bank University, Keyworth Centre, Monday 3 December 2012

2 Love, Death and Storytelling. New Statesman, 18 December 2006

3 Screen, vol. 16, no. 2, Autumn 1975

4 In the Name of Tolerance: A Meeting with Ousmane Sembène Josie Fanon, Demain l’Afrique, no. 32, 1979

5 ibid.

6 An 'Islamic' reading of Kiarostami's Close-up Kaz Rahman