ASMAHAN


2005, 21 min, 20 sec, B&W
©Muqarnas Film

Asmahan (2005) from Hisham Bizri on Vimeo.

Cast: Asmahan, Yusof Wahbi, Anwar Wagdi, Mahmoud Al-Miligi
Songs: Emta Hata'raf Imta? composed by Mohammed Al Qassabji, sung by Asmahan; Dakhalti Marra f Gineina, composed by Medhat Assem, sung by Asmahan
Sets: Wali Al-Din Samih, Hisham Bizri
Cinematography: Sami Breal, Hisham Bizri
Editing: Salah Abu Seif, Hisham Bizri
Direction: Yusof Wahbi, Hisham Bizri
Conception & Compilation of Found Footage: Hisham Bizri

About

Asmahan is a film poem about the famous Syrian singer of the same name. The film is a rearrangement of Asmahan's B-film Passion and Revenge (1944), that changes the original film's plot to create a narrative reflecting its star's own life in colonial Egypt. As in the films of American artist Joseph Cornell, I re-arranged selected shots and changed their function from a mechanical to an expressive one. I also added "dream" shots (also in 35mm): candles, moon, cup, trees, amoeba, and animals, which are not present in the original film. These arrangements of found footage explore the material qualities of the film stock itself, shifting attention from the photographic content of the footage to the formal effects of its rearrangement.

The film is made up of four parts: love, death, love, and death. Each part follows one of the two songs Asmahan sings in the film which are used as a structural motif throughout. Like her musical notations, every shot is connected to every other shot. For example, shot 1 in part 1 is connected to shot 1 in part 2, 3, and 4 on the graphical, temporal, or symbolic level, creating a rhythmical pattern analogous the Asmahan's own music.

Nearly every shot contains Asmahan (she is the only actor in the film who appears to be talking), which is meant to create an obsessive relationship with the image reminding us of the interplay of voyeurism and exhibitionism that makes the actor that we see on the screen dream like, especially when she also sees us. This dream logic suggests that there is a hidden life, which exists through pictures, lurking in even the most superficial and trite of B-films.

It is this fragment-like wholeness that is in a sense the structure of the film. The shots that are adjacent to each other are not in the narrative sequence of the 1944 film; rather they follow the gestures and movements of Asmahan, the actress and singer herself. By breaking the narrative structure of the original film I do not do away with narrative altogether. Rather my film creates a cinematic narrative that connects images rather than plot.

In doing so the film follows the logic of a dream in that it both over-emphasizes an action and also makes it illusory. As in a dream, Asmahan's actions are accentuated through a number of strategies: slowing down of the cinematic image, creating a montage of gestures, making familiar objects look estranged, repeating shots which look the same but are in fact different in their temporal and spatial sense, and the use of filters to transform her look into a romantic and haunting one (Garbo-like), but also an assertive one. These strategies are designed to make the images sink into the audiences' consciousness.

Finally, Asmahan is the first in a series of films I am currently working on. My objective to turn a number of Arab B-films into filmic poems. This allows me to use cinema-as-the-material-world from which I represent reality.

Who was Asmahan?

Asmahan was a Syrian Princess who was the quintessential figure of sin and freedom to women in the Arab world. She left her home and husband in Syria in the 1930's to pursue fame in Egypt. The British secret service are believed to have murdered her in 1944 after discovering that she was a double agent working for the Egyptian government as well as the British colonial rule.

Asmahan's life was shrouded in myth and intrigue and several stories about her modern attitude towards life, her smoking and drinking, and her many romantic liaisons continue to generate the aura around her even after her death.

My film shows her aura through a cinematic language inspired by her music (she sings the two songs we hear on the soundtrack) and life. The different personas of her that I juxtapose: as a princesses, a singer, a nomad, a housewife, a professional, and a lover, all within the same sequence at times, are meant to reflect all the different personas and masks she adopted in real life. Therefore, my film could be seen as poetic documentary about the life of this tragic and most beloved figure in the Arab world.

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Both the singing the images are haunting, and the effect of the film is hypnotic. I felt myself transfixed like a cobra in thrall to a snake charmers flute.

Alex Deleon, film critic, filmfestivals.com, 2006
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Asmahan is a beautiful visual and cinematic meditation with an avant-garde motif. Based on Asmahan's (the Syrian/Egyptian singer 1912-1944) last film Gharam Wa Intiqam (Passion and Revenge, 1944), the film's cinematic form merges her songs with plot & actions to reveal an insight into the relationship between the star's tragic life, colonial Egypt, and the nature of cinema.

Blurb from the 2005 Arab Film Festival in Minneapolis
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Unlike most cinephiles, I've never been interested in the cult of the actress - or actor - until Hisham Bizri rendered actress-fascination palpable, even for me, in his "Asmahan". Reediting a 1944 Egyptian film starring this liberated-for-her-era Syrian actress-singer to center his 21-minute film poem around her, Bizri replaces the original narrative with sequences that show her gestures, or suggest the actress's life. Sometimes she seems passively acted upon, but more often she appears to stage-manage the action, the universe seeming to revolve around her. Bizri's work is an obsessive fever-dream not of a movie narrative but of an actress's presence; as in his great predecessor, Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart, his actress is presented as a world in herself, with a cosmos of both varied emotions and varying degrees of inscrutability contained in her face. Brief cutaways to animals and night in part pay homage to the surrealist heritage that influenced Cornell, but are also a testimony to Asmahan's magic as a generator of dreams.

Fred Camper, film critic, Chicago, June 13, 2006, www.fredcamper.com