Womanhood, motherhood, martial arts and belly dance would seem to be unrelated topics. But in his latest film, Hizam (or “Belt”), the French-Algerian director Hamid Benamara tries to connect them. Born in 1964 in Algeria, where he started his career with a number of short films in 1981, at the age of 23 Benamara travelled to France to study philosophy and history. But, settling down with his wife Stephanie, he continued to focus on cinema. Together Stephanie and Hamid founded a production company, Nunfilm. Benamara was a member of the jury at the last Luxor African Film Festival (16-22 March), his latest film having been screened at the 2016 Cairo International Film Festival. In Hizam, Benamara draws poetic and philosophical connections between dance – a physical, sensual activity – and any number of human activities. To do so he focuses on the French-Algerian dancer-choreographer Assia Guemra, who was a karate champion before becoming a dancer. But what drove Benamara to make this film?
“Nothing will drive you to turn your lens on a face if that face does not draw you in,” Benamara says. “Attraction is more important than motivation because this is a spontaneous, not a pragmatic approach. I didn’t choose the subject because it was seductive but the belt – which has been a common object in my life since I started practising karate at the age of seven and until this day – imprinted itself on my consciousness. My relationship with the belly on the other hand is older than my knowledge of dance or dancers.” As for Assia Guemra, who had practised karate professionally, he adds, “Making her acquaintance led to the connection between dance and karate – between the batn: “belly” and the batin: “essence” or “interior” – self-evident. There was therefore no choice of topic or central character. The film is not about Assia or dancing. It’s about a male’s view of womanhood, and how the director-photographer manages to put his ego aside in order to enter into an eternal womanhood.”
The film opens with a scene of the director on his balcony. It is dark inside, the only light coming from the outside: a visual metaphor for looking out onto a new perspective; completing the cycle, this is the scene with which the film ends too. The narrative structure is very unconventional, with the camera often at a slight angle jumping from one unrelated shot to another accompanied by fragments of music and songs like the Egyptian singer Abdel-Halim Hafez’s Gabbar, moving from Guemra and her students talking to dance and poetic sequences. “There can be no conventional narrative, otherwise there is no room for creativity. Hitchcock used to say you can tell it as you will so long as you know your own language’s alphabet. Had I not been a director I would’ve been an architect, because I quickly grasped how the lines intersect and the degree of each angle. Assemblage or authorship is not a matter of accumulating or charging shots, it is a measured symphony with interlocking notes. The camera serves movement, bowing before each face according to that face’s power, and so it anticipates every look and adjusts to every step. The camera can not be left in a corner to wait for inspiration. Digging for the shot is like digging for gold.” It’s as if the film is following a subjective, poetic rhythm known only to the director.
The Arabic title of the film on the screen appears in an interesting way: first the word haram appears in red, before the dot on the raa turns it into hizam; this could be a reference to the connection between Oriental dance and the impermissible in Arab culture. For even though belly dance is popular at celebrations as well as nightclubs and in even the most conservative homes, for decades now conservative discourse has made it frowned on – at once emotionally desirable and socially prohibited. But Benamara doesn’t pay too much attention to this contradiction, focusing instead on the belly being not only a source of dance but also a source of life – through pregnancy. The film carries numerous philosophical and aesthetic concepts which, always present under the surface, become particularly pronounced when the director sheds light on them. One of the most important among these is the connection between beauty and sensuality, aesthetics and the body.
“Beauty is relative, and what is beautiful in Cairo may be less so in Sweden. What is more important than beauty, in the film, is that the face should be truthful. The truth of a body is more valuable than any aesthetic value because, while the correct movement has a fixed standard, aesthetic reading is variable. Hizam doesn’t present beauty queens but women whose womanhood is truthful, because their bellies are full of life and they are not interested in seducing the lens or the photographer. They are free, they have transcended the male-female dialectic. The male in the film is an absent presence. He doesn’t compete with them for space but becomes a witness to their fluency. The percussionist doesn’t play for himself but in the service of their movement.” And so Oriental dance takes on greater depth beyond sensuality or sex. “The dancer is not responsible for the response of the audience. She is not flirting but reciting a poem woven of sequential movements. She cannot dictate a specific reading to the viewer. Stick fighting is a form of Oriental belly dance; is it a sexual display or a presentation of martial arts? It might be exciting to a woman and admirable to a man. This film, though filmed by a male karate practitioner who knows movement, is full of womanhood which injects him with a suppleness and flexibility that allows him into the woman’s heart. Sex is the basis of love or else it is idle chatter.”
In many shots camera movement seems to interact with the music and the dance. Sometimes the director appears filming the dancer, whether Guemra or one of her students, imbuing the shot with a sensual, poetic feeling. “My camera is like a musical instrument, it operates very precisely. You place the face or the movement in the horizontal frame in such a way as to create an inner architecture which the viewer can feel without being able to disentangle. It is a kind of improvised tango.” The director dwells on the kind of poetic state the Syrian director Mohamed Malas creates in the commentary between the film’s sections. To him, he says, “He is the elder brother to whom I reverently listen knowing he is right because of his skill and vision and his infinite love of cinema. Malas first appears with the director in a mirror, and his voice is heard saying, ‘A mirror. Melancholy is in it, and so is failure.’ The mirror and the search for love connect Malas to the director. Motherhood, and grief over the mother’s death, connects him to the dancers. He speaks not as a teacher pronouncing on the nature of cinema but with an intimacy he has never granted anyone. His trust honours me.” Here as elsewhere shots and motifs recur, adding to the poetry of the film and stressing pivotal concepts: the dancers’ feet, a pregnant woman stepping into the sea in a belly dance costume or an ornate belt.
“The assemblage is not a juxtaposition of images but a secret harmony linking the shots. But the more important thing is when the teacher demonstrates steps in all four directions. The camera is at the foot’s edge and I am the lens on the ground. That is why I say that the narrative develops in every direction. As for the dancer who steps into the sea while pregnant, she takes us into the world of the foetus. She deepens the idea of dancing. But her dance is not Oriental, it is the Tamarii dance from Tahiti, which honours and celebrates the belly.” Here as elsewhere in films that focus on music and dance, the soundtrack is an essential component. “The sound of music and the narrator’s voice both feed the visual story. The use of the [Andalusian] muwashah is not by way of nostalgia but for its dense tune and poetic value, and how it elevates the sight of the dancer. The only music actually used during dancing was Gabbar, because of Assia’s connection with the singer. The rest is from my own personal musical culture. The film thus expresses the director’s inner musicality, which transforms the dancers into actresses without taking away the documentary value of the this being real. Assia says, ‘Every day we play the role of mother, father and mistress.’ I am not interested in photographing reality because CCTV can do this much better.”
The hizam encircles the human body but Hizam encircles numerous interconnected meanings through a single metaphor. “If you are not wearing a belt to protect your belly,” says Benamara, “you cannot face the deluge. The belt protects your ego from vanity and hides a sheath containing a blade whose sharpness the enemy cannot guess.”