The City Vanishes

Emmanuelle Demoris's durational cinema

Text by Sukhdev Sandhu

Sukhdev Sandhu journeys through the lost urban world of Alexandria’s shadow-twin, as recreated by an epic five-part documentary. Sandhu, who has written on film for Sight and Sound, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, is the author of Night Haunts: A Journey Through the London Night and currently runs the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture at New York University.

“This cemetery here: is it worth something?”

The man who asks this question lives in a cemetery. The cemetery is in Mafrouza, a ramshackle neighbourhood within Alexandria, the second largest city in Egypt. This necropolis, where middle-class men and women were entombed thousands of years ago, has become home to a sprawling population of scavengers, toilers and day-labourers. Alexandria is sometimes described as “the pearl of the Mediterranean”, a tourist-friendly place of casinos, boat cruises and shopping malls; Mafrouza is its shadow, out of bounds to the uninitiated, of little interest to those given the task of identifying and selling the city’s heritage.

There are some people, however, who see something of value in Mafrouza. Mostly they’re archaeologists. Emmanuelle Demoris’s film, named after the neighbourhood, begins with one of them, a Frenchman, talking to a resident about the small house in which he and his young family live. Together they look at maps and plans, take measurements of the distance between roof and floor. The archaeologist’s Arabic isn’t as good as it might be and the two of them struggle to make themselves understood. Part of the problem is that they are interested in different things: the archaeologist is passionate about the past, relics, old stones; the homeowner’s needs are more urgent. Hence his question: “This cemetery here: is it worth something or is it worth nothing?” Then he takes hold of Demoris’s camera, points it at a wall and demands: “This: important or not important?”

These questions hang in the air for the next 12 hours of Demoris’s remarkable portrait of this city within a city. Shot intermittently between 1999 and 2004, and edited down from a hundred hours of footage, Mafrouza offers a rare insight into the lives, loves and sheer will-to-prosper cussedness of a place that no longer exists. At the end of each of the five sections into which the film has been sliced there appears this sobering announcement: “The Mafrouza quarter was destroyed in 2007, when the industrial port of Alexandria was then extended. Its inhabitants have been rehoused in a public housing project, about ten miles outside the city centre. The part of the project where they have been rehoused is now called ‘Mafrouza’.”

So Mafrouza, local politicians will insist, has not been disappeared, merely moved a little – and to a more salubrious part of town. What is there to lament? Haven’t the inhabitants, for so long without sewerage or easy access to water and forced to yomp around in filth, moved up a social notch? Changes – not discussed in the film itself – have taken place: the original site is now occupied by port warehouses with closed entrances and shut off from the life of the town; because few factories exist in the area to which the old-timers have been moved, the men have to travel three hours to get to work; increased privacy means an erosion of convivial public culture. How does this mass displacement affect our understanding of the film we’ve just seen? Is it a monument to an extirpated way of being? Is the old Mafrouza a relic waiting to be discovered by future archaeologists?

Demoris’s original intention was to make a documentary about the relationship between the living and the dead. Whatever the film eventually morphed into, it is not about anything – not about Alexandria, or about Egypt, or about contemporary Islam, or about the encounter between east and west. It’s more an exploration of how one might fashion a group portrait of individuals – young and old, single and married – many of whom migrated from the countryside during the 1970s to find employment at the port.

There is Adel, a ruefully inviting smile never far from his lips, his mind inclined to drift back to women he has admired or yearned for, and there is Ghada, his sharp, pugnacious wife, brilliant at pricking his reveries. There’s Hassan, a smooth-talking wedding singer and self-proclaimed “thug poet” on the run from the army. Other figures include Mohamed Khattab, who runs a grocery store and delivers sermons at a local mosque that is slowly being taken over by a new cadre of stern clerics; Abu Hosny, a leather-faced Beckettian figure, always trying to drain his flooded house; Om Bassiouni, perennially exhausted, who struggles to make a new stove out of stones so she can bake bread for her family.

Demoris had a translator beside her, but she filmed everything herself. Because the end result is so long it’s tempting to describe her work in terms of social embeddedness and visual ethnography, reverse anthropomorphism (she’s a fly-on-the-wall), or even post-human technology (she enacts sustained video surveillance). If she’s a journalist, she doesn’t appear to ask many questions and her research would have to be judged very skimpy, for she spends time only with the Mafrouza residents and forgoes the opportunity to quiz planners, local officials or any other outsiders about possible contexts for understanding their lives.

Right up to the last couple of minutes of the fifth film – when we see her, via a reflection in a window, smoking a cigarette – Demoris is physically invisible. Yet though this is not “auteur anthropology”, a presenter-led meander through terrains of otherness, her presence is felt in many scenes. The people she records on camera call her “Iman”, a contraction of her first name that’s also the Arabic word for “faith”. They are aware of the power of the camera too – its deep history of framing and fixing supposedly neutral western knowledge about the Middle East.

To this day, many photographers appear to believe that people outside the Atlantic world are guileless when it comes to questions of identity and self-fashioning, that they are uncomplicated data to be captured and curated. The residents of Mafrouza, though, watch Demoris as much as she watches them. They may not be actors, but they frequently convey a sense that they are collaborating or drolly colluding with the director. The film begins with a wedding party at which she gets drawn into the mass dancing. Later, a bearded older man laughs at her for pointing her camera at him every five minutes: “She has a crush on me!” They evaluate her too. “This Iman is vicious,” one announces knowingly – or is it as a wind-up? People ask her: “What are you filming?” They’re curious about her curiosity: “How many pictures has she taken?” Some residents suggest she’s a scandal-monger interested only in depicting the community at its worst; often the men saying so are those who behave the worst, throwing piles of garbage down into the pit-like courtyard where older women are trying to prepare food. “We want to be filmed,” comes a cry from below. “If I knew she was doing wrong, I would have broken her leg,” announces a severe dowager. “She wouldn’t be here.”

Perhaps the Mafrouzans need Demoris too. An outsider can become a confidante – or be used to confessional ends. Some of the most startling scenes involve men letting down their guard: one evening after work, Adel invites the director to his home and brings out a folder full of drawings and wistful, revealing poems; on another day, Hassan, usually so matter-of-fact and macho, begins to talk about his late fiancée. As he produces a handmade paper hat she had once given him, his words dry up.

It’s tempting to place Mafrouza in the pantheon of modern ghostscape cinema – films about cities or city neighbourhoods that are dying. In an age of turbo capitalism, warp-speed globalisation and unpredictable climate systems, urban fabrics are being frayed and ripped ever more quickly. Film-makers are producing an ever growing archive of metropolitan memorial, from Travis Wilkerson’s An Injury To One (2002), about early 20th-century Butte, Montana; to Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke (2006), about New Orleans; and Zhao Dayong’s Ghost Town (2008), about Zhiziluo in south-west China. There are also essay films and city threnodies set in England: Paul Kelly’s 2005 What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?, Winstan’s Whitter’s 2010 Legacy In The Dust, Emma-Louise Williams’s 2011 Under The Cranes.

Still, in the world of the contemporary moving image, Mafrouza is most likely to be labelled a slum film. Examples have proliferated over the last decade: Fernando Meirelles’s City of God (2002), set in Rio, and The Constant Gardener (2005), set in Nairobi; Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008); The Five Obstructions (2003), in one of whose segments the Danish director Lars Von Trier forces his early mentor Jorgen Leth to eat an elaborate meal in the middle of Mumbai’s red-light district; District 9 (2009), Neill Blomkamp’s science-fiction allegory of South African society. All of them, in their different ways, are drawn to shanty towns, ghettoes, barrios, the architecture of abjection. At its worst, this fascination amounts to no more than favela chic: a hunger on the part of ad men, creatives and film-makers to pimp the poverty of the Global South.

Demoris, who lived in Mafrouza for a couple of years and knows its environs intimately, doesn’t try to disguise its squalor: the alleys are clotted with rotten wood and refuse, rain turns much of the place into swampland, a sewage system barely exists. It’s easy to imagine other depictions of this rubblescape. Michael Glawogger would construct garish tableaux of residents peering at the camera, surrounded by dross. Sebastião Salgado or Edward Burtynsky would flatten or erase the human dimension of these embattled landscapes. But Demoris doesn’t use sweeping aerial or establishing shots that immediately define the neighbourhood as just a slum, and her focus on individuals means there’s no room for visual clichés that fetishise fertility or teeming chaos; nor does she make Mafrouza a byword for social death.

In any case, Mafrouza doesn’t operate in a realm wholly separate from the rules and regulations of the traditional metropolis. Far from being feral lumpenproletarians, many of its inhabitants, although they’re not shown doing or heard talking about it, work at local factories. Some were even drawn to the neighbourhood because they knew it was a transitional space, one that would eventually make way for big business and so require local authorities to rehouse them in the process. Demoris also refuses to present Mafrouza in essentialist terms or as a becalmed, primitive antithesis to first world cities – indeed, Khattab alludes to the way the popularity of cable television is affecting mosque attendance.

The most vivid slumscape in the film is actually the body of the singer, Hassan. It’s covered in marks: a facial scar he got from intervening when a kid was going to be hit; the place where he used acid to erase the name of a girlfriend he’d had inked; a livid concatenation of wounds and rawness on his back from being set upon and nearly killed by a gang. Yet he’s handsome, charismatic, throwing down rhymes like the most adroit rapper, ambling through the mazy alleyways and back streets of the quarter looking as if he’s just stepped out of a Hype Williams video. His songs are just a few of those heard throughout the film. Keening melodies, satirical lyrics, fierce rhythms, transmissions of folk knowledge: music – and dance too – is how the Mafrouzans express their imaginative freedom and their refusal to be cowed by daily pressures. It is the heartbeat of the community, proof that they are not merely zombies stumbling around in picturesque poverty.

The length of an average film is 90 minutes – about that of a sleep cycle; at well over 12 hours, Mafrouza might be seen as a joke, an affront as much as a challenge even to the most adventurous cinephile. Art-house theatres as well as multiplexes have to keep an eye on the bottom line and few will be able to give over a day, far less an extended run, to such a specialist film. As for public broadcasting, there’s little hope, even in comparatively liberal television ecologies such as Germany or Sweden, of this being relayed into people’s living rooms.

And yet the history of postwar cinema and moving-image work is studded with well-known – even notorious – examples of what might be called durational cinema. Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963) consisted of footage of his friend John Giorno sleeping for five hours and 20 minutes; Empire (1964) lasted longer – more than eight hours – and was a silent, black-and-white, slow-motion long shot of the Empire State Building. Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993) slowed down Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller from 24 to two frames a second so that it lasted a whole day. Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) is another 24-hour work – a montage of film scenes that depict the time. Paul Pfeiffer’s video Empire (2004) shows in real time the three-month life cycle of a wasps’ nest.

In their various fashions, all these films are steeped in the theories and languages of conceptual art and avant-gardism. That they seem particularly resonant today may have something to do with shifts in visual culture: this is the era of screensavers, big data, surveillance, night-cam footage of sleeping reality-show contestants. They function more as ideas, as speculative notions – perhaps even as jokes – than artefacts to be watched in their entireties. Demoris is not at all theoretically unversed, but Mafrouza is a very different kind of cinema. It’s about subjectivity, about individuals and not just what they say, but how and when and to whom. This is not film as wallpaper, or as left-field ambience, or as mere backdrop to the coming together of urban hipsters: you need the sound on, and if you don’t speak Arabic you need to read the subtitles, and if you nod off it’s likely you’ll have missed a significant development in the lives of the characters.

Of course, many filmgoers can’t or won’t make this effort. So the film, even when split into five parts (at around two and a half hours each, these are still longer than most full-length features), bespeaks its own independence: it won’t compress and condense, it won’t spoon-feed easily assimilable messages. Mafrouza is a product of the digital age – it would have been far too costly to shoot on film – and its political aesthetics come through in Demoris’ protracted stay in the neighbourhood and her near-stalkerish logging of the goings-on there, rather than in a desire to produce grabby images that might translate well across different media. Thus it quietly wriggles away from being an “eyewitness” film in any breathless or retro sense: there aren’t really examples of what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment”; there isn’t even much in the way of a Barthesian punctum.

Would it be possible to sell Mafrouza as social prophecy that anticipates the Arab Spring and the later toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood’s government? The Mafrouzans are certainly alive to the idea that the Brotherhood, for all its acts of social philanthropy, is mostly committed to its own self-perpetuation, and Mohamed Khattab’s assessment (“The Muslim Brothers try to lure the people. If you love someone, you don’t try to lure him – you talk to him straight out”) is delicately withering.

The length of Mafrouza, like that of Wang Bing’s nine-hour West of the Tracks (2003), an extraordinary portrait of the slow disappearance of a factory town in Tiexi district in Shenyang, China, affects, among other things, the way we might think of the relationship between film and viewer. Even when it’s well-intentioned, most western coverage of the Middle East, just like most western coverage of China, Africa and anywhere that’s not the West, tends to be in thrall to the demands of television schedules, the documentary film-festival circuit, the made-for-university-classrooms DVD. Its tempo is its own kind of message. Durational cinema – sometimes full of longueurs and dead ends, but hewing closer to the grain and texture of the lives it documents – can treat Alexandria as more than terrain for visual or political resource extraction. By making a film so long it drives away cinematic tourists, Demoris creates for the rest of us a cinema of commitment, immersion, rare intimacy.  § 

  • The City Vanishes