"Visual Representation" and "Cultural Geography": Constructing Linkages -- a Reading of Fatima Quazzani's At My Mother's House

Ahmed Radi, Faculty of Letters, Kaddi Ayyad University, Marrakech, Morocco

Spaces, landscapes and places are not merely empty, mute and natural lands, but geographies permeated by symbolic representations, relations of power, contradictory social and cultural practices, and various layers of histories. They are geographies, or rather cultural geographies, where a multiplicity of categories act, interact and overlap: ethnicity, race, sexuality, social and professional status, nation(ality), religion, and so on. Also one of these categories is gender, which shapes both the material organisation of space and its symbolic deployment. The argument made by this paper is that one way of reading, understanding and interpreting cultural geographies is from the perspective of gender relations, which are relations of power; that is relations that indicate larger and underlying hierarchical structures in society and culture.

In this context, it is possible to argue that all geographies are gendered, though this gendering is neither monolithic nor uniform, since it varies in the light of the specific location and history of these specific geographies, and the particularity of their relations and networks. In general, and as it is argued by Daphne Spain, there are strong links among "spatial arrangements, knowledge, and women's status. The mechanism perpetuating gender stratification is the transfer of knowledge"(1992, 243). For the sake of specification I have selected the smallest social unit, the family, as a place where gender arrangements are made, quite often at the detriment of women's sense of autonomy. However, these arrangements are being re-arranged , geographically, socially and politically; that is, they are being modified, contested and called into question. In an effort to create linkages between disciplines and areas of representations, I have tried to read the cultural geography of the home / family in Morocco in the light of its articulation in the cinema, by focusing on the analysis of one case, one film, which is used as a starting point for asking much more larger theoretical and cultural questions. Making images is, in fact, a practice that is often male-oriented, if not male-dominated. If the cinema is a visual art par excellence, fundamental questions are raised about "the male gaze" or the "gendered gaze". In Ann Kaplan's view, "men do not simply look; their gaze carries with it the power of action and possession that is lacking in the female gaze" (1983, 311). Likewise, Laura Mulvey in "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" analyses the way "film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle" (1991, 432). Furthermore, the production of films is geographically grounded, and as a result, suggests a multiplicity of issues related to gendered spaces, but also to capitalism, economic power, ideology and national cultures. In Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse, one of the male characters, Charles Tansley, tries to discourage one of the female characters, Lily, who is a painter, by repeating "women can't write, women can't paint". This stereotypical and fixed statement becomes an obsessive leitmotif in the novel and an anxiety-inspiring patriarchal echo for Lily. With cultural changes, women have managed not only to write and paint, but to make films as well. Yet the relationship between gender and film making is context specific, that is restricted to a very limited number of western and urban, if not cosmopolitan, areas. In Morocco, with the exception of Farida Belyazid, and one or two other names (Bourkia, for example), most women are excluded from the act of making images for the cinema. The cinema, then, as a source of visual imagery, is related not only to pleasure, but also to "cartographies of inclusivity and exclusivity" (Nicholson, 1999, 45). Recently, however, a new name has been added to the embarrassingly short list of Moroccan female film makers: Fatima Jabli Ouazzani. In this presentation, I would like to address her film In My Mother's House, produced in 1998.

In the title itself gender and geography are foregrounded through the incorporation of "mother" and "house" or rather "home". A certain feminine / feminist point of view and perspective are established by focusing exclusively on the mother, or to be more precise the image of the mother as it is pursued and recreated by the daughter, who happens to be the film maker. The search for the mother becomes the motivating force and the thematic centre of the film. In fact, one of the moving scenes is located at the cemetery, where the grandmother mourns and cries over the tomb of her daughter, who is the mother of Fatima Ouazzani, who is also present to both mourn and testify through the medium of the camera. Furthermore, as it is made clear at the very end of the film, this work is dedicated to and in memory of the dead mother.

A certain "sensibilité' feminine" explores the empty space left by the mother. In a very subtle way, the film suggests that she was killed by the father, who married her against her will while she was still fourteen, took her to Holland, divorced her and took her back to Morocco, and married again another young woman, aged seventeen.

The story of the mother can be measured only by the cultural gap between the narrow-mindedness of her husband and the highly liberal space of Holland. This rigid mental view of the world is summed up in the film by the narrative voice of the daughter / film-maker when she echoes her father's statement that "women leave the house twice: to the bridegroom's home and to the cemetery". This statement relies on extremely fixed and dualistic geographical concepts referring to the inside / outside, private / public dichotomy. In much broader terms, the film asks questions about migration and the problematic issue of moving in and through different spaces and different cultures. This cultural shift was harsh for the mother, but it is perhaps much more productive for the daughter, for it is in Holland that she makes this object of desire, this film. The story of the daughter is echoed by a young couple, who move without any complex from one geographical and cultural space to another, namely in Morocco and Holland. Mike Craig defines geography, in fact, as "a series of different contact zones" (1999, 24). It is quite clear that they represent a new generation whose hybridity is the striking aspect of its identity. This hybridity, which is placed in "geographies in a state of flux" (Nicholson, 1999, 47), stands in total contrast with the claustrophobic and loveless space and fatalist outlook in the grandparents' home. The film, in fact, is a mosaic of various languages: Dutch, Berber, Moroccan Arabic, Classical Arabic. The film itself is subtitled in French.. This diversity and heterogeneity cannot be reduced or domesticated by any monolithic cultural claim. Philip Craig suggests that a number of spatial figures are being produced for the analysis of these cultural geographies: cultural "mosaic", "flows", "network" and "counterparts" (1999, 55). It must be pointed out, however, that the viewer, in particular the one located in Morocco, may be struck by the dichotomy created by the film between the presentation of the couple in Holland and in Morocco; the two geographies are constructed in terms of radical difference: modernity versus traditions, if not a certain archaism. Thus the concept of hybridity is undermined by the very montage an selectivity of the images of the film in their ordering and juxtaposition. In other words, the contrast between the two geographies is too sharp, and by implication is trapped by old stereotypes, and unwillingly produces new ones.

By presenting the case of the mother as a victim of marriage , the film attempts to deconstruct the institutional and patriarchal nature of the much idealised notion of the family, a complicated space where gender interacts with geography. Mike Craig, in fact, warns that "it is very easy to think of homes as înatural'. They are something with which the inhabitants become so familiar they become taken for granted" (1999, 28 ). If the family can be a source of joy and solidarity, it can also be the source of oppression and unhappiness, in particular for women. It is through a scrutiny of the idea of "virginity" that Ouazzani tries to see the culturally and ideologically constructed nature of the term. In an intertextual, or rather inter-textual/pictorial, move, it is interesting to comment on Ouazzani's film Dans la maison de ma mère (1998) in conjunction with comments made on Soumaya Naamane-Guessous' sociological book Au delà de toute pudeur (1990,sixth edition). Both women are devoted to the analysis of and fight against acts violence committed in Morocco on women's bodies and psychies.

The obsession of the film with virginity reflects the obsession of Moroccan, and by extension Arabic and Islamic countries, with purity: purity of the body, moral purity. Soumya Naaman-Guessous argues , in fact, that "il n'était pas possible de contourner le problème obsédant de l'existence d'une jeune fille marocaine, celui de la virginité sans laquelle il n'est pas d'honneur, point de noces heureuses, point d'homme respectueux" (1990, 163). The myth which is created is the construction of a cause-effect relationship between the two terms of the equation; in fact, the "purity" of the body does not necessarily mean the moral rectitude and cleanness of the subject (usually identified / defined as a woman ) who owns that body. The term, as it is articulated and problematized in the film, means different things for different people: very young girls, students at the university, a sociologist, a scientific lecturer in Holland, her grandmother, and the film maker herself. In a Derridian gesture, the term floats, slips and slides through the proliferation of its meanings, which will be stopped only by the brutal arbitrariness of conventions. One can deconstruct further the ideas of purity and morality by referring to the specific contexts where they are deployed; that is, they are prey to the changeable nature of histories and geographies, and this plurality renders any search for their essence and centre extremely contradictory, if not futile. In a powerfully pictorial scene, The slaughter of the cow and the spilling of blood may be suggestive of the violent act associated with virginity, and the way women are sacrificed, in the name of the absence / presence of blood / virginity. Looked at from a different culture, this question may seem to be trivial. In Morocco, however, it is still a strong indication of the contest between tradition and modernity, rationality and religious appropriation. This conflict is dramatised in the real world by the two demonstrations on the occasion of the Women's International Day, and the contradictory readings they make of women and culture. It is also significant that the two demonstrations took place in Rabat and Casablanca, the centres of decision making in Morocco. Both cities, in fact, are maps of a certain cultural geography of power and dominance.

If Ouazzani is successful in her address of taboo subjects like virginity and in her attempts to criticise the fundamentally patriarchal nature of marriage and family, she is also creative in her handling of the camera. Through a subtle use of the documentary genre, she manages to reveal the dark side of Moroccan society and its repressed questions. This documentary technique exploits the interview, different perspectives produced by different participants, the film maker's position through commentary and questions / questioning, and the discourse of silent images. This documentary technique is extended and enriched by the use of fiction, particularly in the exploration of nightmares, the poetic longing for the absent father and the young girl's painful perception of reality and construction of identity.

Perhaps, one way of having insight into Ouazzani's "hybrid style" (Nichols, 28) is to relate it to Bill Nichols' theoretical work in his article "The Voice of the Documentary" (1983). He refers to the various strategies and styles of the documentary, which are summed up in:

By taking into account all these strategies, it is essential to argue that the documentary genre is not merely a neutral and distant picturing of the world over there, but it is itself positioned in the concreteness and materiality of that world through the various choices it makes; technical choices, but also cultural, social and ideological choices, which have wide implications for cultural production and consumption. From this perspective, Ouazzani has used a "mosaic structure" (Nichols, 28) which has allowed her not to be trapped by a monological perspective. Both thematically and technically, the film strives to foreground the "plural", the "hybrid" and the "mosaic".

In a shift to the much larger geography of the cinema and culture, it is a pity to say that the film was shown only once, on the ARTE channel, a channel that is interestingly enough located between two cultures and geographies, French and German, Franco-German, and then quickly forgotten by audiences and critics alike. It must be mentioned here that it was made visible by a channel committed to the public service and famous for its cultural diversity and for its creativity. In the face of the Hollywoodian machinery, it seems that the chances of this film for survival are very slim. In fact, in Marc Weiss' view, the documentary as a genre fights for its life as it threatened by the industry of dreams in the form of fiction: "Documentary film makers are survivorsŐ despite funding cutbacks and growing competition for money" (1988, 1). It is only through commitment to alternative, independent and small budget films of Ouazzani's kind that the space of both films and culture will be diversified and enriched in the face of the spectacular and the hegemony of uniformity. It is ironic that this standardization doe not take place in one national culture or one region, but it has become global, trying to encompass various cultures, if not most cultural areas in the whole world. It is because of this cinematic hegemony that most local and national film makers do not find enough exposure in their own geographical areas.

So I have tried to cover a great deal of territory -- and spatial metaphors like "territory" have a military or geopolitical history and background. For Michel Foucault, "Territory is no doubt a geographical notion, but it is first of all a juridico-political one: the area controlled by a certain kind of power" (1980, 68). From the case of one woman I have moved to the global circulation of films. In the meantime I have pointed out questions of gender, space, the cinema, technology and power; that is I have moved from the personal to the political, or rather the personal which is political, in the sense that it is always already enmeshed in relations of power, since, as Foucault argues, "the individual is not a pre-given entity which is seized upon by the exercise of power. The individual, with its identity and characteristics, is the product of a relation of power exercised over bodies, multiplicities, movements, desires, forces" (74).

The personal, moreover, always exists in a specific geography, which is itself situated in a network of cultural geographies. In Pyrs Gruffudd's view,

The interaction between culture and space has lain at the heart of cultural geography for many years, but work has evolved from a simple mapping of culture areas to a more nuanced reading of the inter-relationships. [1999, 52]

This movement is neither neutral nor objective, for it is positioned and located in culture, in more than one culture, at the intersection / crossroads of many cultures, and I am defining culture here in terms similar to Said's: it is neither "monolithic nor deterministic" (1993, xxvii). One last word? By concentrating solely on geography and space, I have undoubtedly marginalized the question of history, or rather of histories in contest, the history of people, but also of geographies, the history of geography itself as a discipline, for the complex issue for research is, in fact, the various interactions between forms of spatiality and sequences or ruptures of temporality.

Works Cited

Caplan, Ann (1983) "Is the Gaze Male?" Powers of Desire, Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson, eds. New York: Monthly Review Press. 309-27.

Crang, Philip (1999) "The World on your Plate" British Studies Now: Anthology Issues 6-10 London: The British Council. 53-6.

Crang Mike (1998) Cultural Geography. London: Routledge.

Daniels, Stephen (1999) "Fields of Vision" British Studies Now. 48-9.

Foucault, Miche (1980) "Questions of Geography" Power / Knowledge: Selected Interviews. Colin Gordon, ed. New York: Pantheon.63-67.

Gruffudd, Pyrs (1999) "Rural Geography -- the Sleepy Hamlet?" British Studies Now. 52-3.

Mulvey, Laura (1991) "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" Feminisms. Robyn Warhol, ed. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Naamane-Guessous, Soumaya (1990) Au delà de toute pudeur. Casablanca: Eddif.

Nichols, Bill (1983) "The Voice of Documentary" Film Quarterly. Spring. 17-30.

Nicholson, Heather Norris (1999) "Some Timely Secrets" British Studies Now. 44-8.

Said, Edward (1993) "Introduction" Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage.xi-xxxii.

Spain, Daphne (1992) "Space and Status", "Degendering Spaces" Gendered Spaces. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 3-28, 233-43.

Weiss, Marc (1988) "Documentary Status Report" The Off-Hollywood Report. Vol. 3, N 6. 1-27.


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Last modified: 31 May 2001.