Nacer Khemir: The Desert Trilogy


An overwhelming cinematic experience where the aesthetic and the political blend into each other is rare. While the Third Cinema (not to be confused with third world cinema) took upon itself to reject the usual Hollywood ideological propaganda and instead create a realistic counter hegemonic cinema, it remained a difficult task to retain the aesthetic of the cinematic imagination while being overtly political. In this context, cinema of Tunisian director Nacer Khemir escapes the definition of Third Cinema because it is overtly aesthetic and realizes its political objective in the intensity of the aesthetic that it creates, unlike the typical Third Cinema where the political objective easily overshadows the aesthetic.

In his approach of description and narrative, Nacir resorts to the classical Arab literary device of fairy tale, which is inherently surreal. The story is always loose, and flows under its own momentum instead of a deliberately manufactured scheme of events that is typical of hegemonic cinema. Here the subject receiving the images is not a passive recipient but an active participant in reading and interpreting the text.

Over a span of two decades, Nacer has directed three movies, which are together known as ‘ The Desert Trilogy’. Nacer’s cinema brilliantly captures the Arab-Islamic ethos which springs from both the physical and metaphysical idea of desert.

‘The Wanderers of the Desert (1984) ‘, first from the trilogy, depicts an isolated pre-modern village in the midst of a desert, completely cut off from the ‘civilization’. Film starts with a school teacher’s journey to this far off village in a bus. Using condition of exile as a metaphor for modernity, Nacir tends to describe the journey of the school teacher to this pre-modern village as a homecoming full of anxiety, to a long forgotten homeland, and consequently as a process of undoing of a man conditioned by modernity. References to Andalusia are abundant in the story. Andalusia in Nacir’s films, as in the modern Arab exile poetry, is the quintessential homeland from which the Arabs particularly, and all the Muslims generally, have been exiled. Using various motifs and myths from the Arab fairy tale and history, the artist weaves a splendid poem of the village which is weird and irrational. There are children who break mirrors to protect their garden, old man who digs desert, looking for a lost treasure believed to have been bought to the village during the Muslim exodus from Andalusia. There are wanderers (the backdrop against which the film progresses), the youth of the village, who are cursed to wander aimlessly in the desert, which speaks of the prevalent political and social confusion in the Arab world. They sing their haunting melodies, the Arab lament and the wailing, for the glory lost and future reluctant. The film moves on to symbolically depict the tension between the modern-urban and the traditional village. When the school teacher  is lost in the village, the police officer from the ‘civilization’ arrives to investigate, spitting anger and disgust at their backwardness and naivete, leaving the village with the promise and threat of ‘civilizing’ them by force: soon they will have a taste of modern discipline. The film ends with a young boy leaving his village and spending the night near the grave of his grandmother. In the silence of the night, he speaks to the grave thus:

Grandmother, can you hear me?

The village is all topsy turvy

The officer has disappeared

He wants to put us all in chains Grandmother

You see this time I have nothing to do with it

You are not angry anymore, Grandmother?

I am going away. I have prepared everything

I am going to Cordoba. To Cordoba

Dont forget to wake me early Grandmother

Earlier than usual.

Anyone roughly aware of cultural and political crises in the Arab world will very well get the import of this scene from the film. It is towards the past that the gaze will turn in such a predicament. Towards Andalusia. Eyes will look for it desperately, and miss it. ‘Was Andalusia/ here or there? On earth, / or only in poems?‘ (Mahmoud Darwish). Andalusia which no longer is. A void actually which needs to be filled in future. Interestingly, Nacer’s second film opens with a beautiful quote of Jacques Berque:

For Andalusias time and again rebuilt whose heaps of rubble and inexhaustible hopes we carry within us.

The second film of the trilogy, ‘The Lost Necklace of Dove (1991)’ follows the similar trajectory of Andalusian nostalgia and borrows its title from the book on the psychology of love and lovers by an Andalusian polymath Ibn Hazm. Athough the theme of love pervades the entire film, it incorporates a variety of classical Islamic motifs of calligraphy, architecture, booksellers, travel, poetry and other similar stuff. The film traverses a stunning variety of landscapes and other spaces: the exquisite residential buildings adorned with arabic calligraphy, the great mosque (Uqba ibn Nafi mosque of Kairouan), the market place, the graveyards, etc which share a common character with each other as well as the people, contrary to the modern urban scapes which leave man dislocated and alienated.

There is a poem by Iqbal called Sehra Nawardi (Desert life), which is actually a response to the questions posed to the (meta)historic person Khizr about the essence and meaning of life. The poet is surprised at the nomadic existence of the Khizr. He cannot bring himself to reconcile with such a life which he has lost in ‘civilization’. Khizr replies:


Kyun taajub hai meri sehra nawardi pe tujhe

ye tagaa pu- e damaadam zindagi ki hai daleel


aye raheen e khana tu ne woh sama dekha nahi

goonjti hai jab fiza e dasht main baang e raheel


rayt ke teeley pe wo aahu ka be-parwah khraam

woh hazar be barg o saamaan wo safar be-sang e meel


woh namood e akhtar e seemaab paa hungaam e subh

ya numaayaan baam e gardoon se jabeen e jibraeel


wo sakoot e shaam e sehra main gharoob e aftab

jis se roshan tar hui chashm e jahan been e khalil


aur woh paani ke chashme par maqaam e kaarwaan

ahl e imaan jis tarah jannat main gird e salsabeel


taaza weeraane ki saudaa e muhabbat ko talaash

aur aabaadi main tu zanjeeri e kisht o nakheel


pukhta tar hai gardish e paiham se jaam e zindagi

hai yehi aye be-khabar raaz e dawaam e zindagi

There is a wonderful resemblance between the central theme of Nacer’s third film and this poem of Iqbal. For Iqbal too, desert as a physical and metaphysical scape, is essential for the spiritual development of man. In this third installment of the trilogy, ‘Bab Aziz: the prince who contemplated his soul (2005) ‘, Nacer tackles the themes of mysticism, death and travel. The central story (film has other mini stories interwoven with each other and with the main story), is about a prince who meditates near the desert coral beside a small pool of water, and becomes a wanderer in the desert. The significance of travel in the spiritual development of man forms the core of the narrative. The quest for the divine, the divine in the beauty and the beauty of the traditional art forms occupy Nacer’s canvas in all density.

Nacir’s cinema is a recollection of the spiritually rich Arab-Islamic past and an oblique critique on the forces and agents of it decadence, which sends us spiraling to the realization of the horror of the dystopias which we are living today. Such magnificent attempts at bringing out the beauty from the tradition send a shiver through our modern Babylons. It is the celebration of the fragile in man and divine in nature and vice versa. These films are the glimpses of what ‘civilization and modernity’ destroyed and took away from us. Their silence explodes with irrational.  No, Nacir cannot be accused of orientalism. No doubt, his films are full of myths and practices, which might easily fit into occult and have no basis in religion, and those which West has always made use of in its depictions of Orient. But Nacir’s films are no strict narratives, nor are they realistic in their depiction. As mentioned earlier, he makes use of fairy tale mannerisms  and surrealistic gestures in his story telling. His films are like exquisite poems transformed into visuals, and poems are seldom discursive.

Mehran Qureshi is a Kashmiri student of Architecture and often writes for various newspapers and magazines.

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