Essays — May 28, 2015 11:46 — 0 Comments

Hassan Hajjaj’s World Premiere and the Assumptions of Modernity – Ahsan Butt

Hassan Hajjaj styles, photographs, installs, interior-designs, dee-jays—essentially, he arts. His works have featured in Brooklyn, Paris, and London museums. And now, he’s a documentarian. The world premiere of his first film, A Day in the Life of Karima: A Henna Girl, was hosted two Wednesdays ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) Bing Theater. The (free) event included a Q&A with Hajjaj and Karima herself.

The film has been dubbed a companion piece to his most famous exhibit­—‘Kesh Angels—which centered around a series of photographs of Karima and her henna crew posed on motorbikes while dressed in beautifully patterned, sometimes branded, niqabs and jellabas. Fanta cans and other ephemera of Marrakesh life lined the portraits’ wooden frames. In the press release for the exhibit at New York’s Taymour Grahne Gallery, the women are described as “traditionally clad but defiantly modern,” a description made possible by the assumption that women in jellabas and niqabs require defiance (of what or whom?) to embody modernity, which says more about the vision of modernity seeding the assumption than the artwork itself.

A Day in the Life of Karima feels like an animation of the ‘Kesh Angels photographs, but this difference in medium produces an opposite effect—film being to an image, what context is to a quote.

I took the staggered steps up to the floor of the LACMA complex and realized simultaneously that 1) there was a pre-party, and 2) I was out-dressed by everyone at the pre-party. Women in deep colored kameezs mingled under heat lamps and fashionably grungy art-school types chomped on expensive chips. I pulled on the straps of my backpack, a move that keeps me from slouching, and waded into the space to find a spot in which I could cultivate nonchalance. A white woman passed by, wrapped in her best pashmina and adorned with her best bindi. The most beautiful man in the world stood in a perfectly fitted t-shirt and a perfectly tailored sports-jacket conversing with someone no doubt drawn to his and his partner’s magnificence. An evil-eye amulet drooped from his neck protecting him from my evil-eye.

Beyond the triad, with a camera hanging from his neck, stood Hassan Hajjaj. It was no solace to see that he was in shorts. In fact, I felt mocked. His shorts upheld the pretense that the event was casual, which belied the fact that I wouldn’t have been able to get away with shorts. I watched him, expecting an artist’s aloofness, but he seemed excited and welcoming. I imagined walking up to him and asking for a picture, and I could only see him reacting graciously. I liked him instantly, which ruined my insight about the shorts.

On the other side of the grounds, there was a DJ table flanked by head-sized speakers stuck atop skinny tripods. A long line of more impeccably dressed patrons chatted, waiting for wine. I asked the super nice staff questions I already knew the answers to. When I looked back, Hajjaj had changed into a sweater and slacks. I didn’t know how to feel about that.

My assigned seat was in the middle of the theater, towards the center of the row. The wood-paneling on the seat backs and theater walls lent an academic air. The scent of alcohol wafted into my row and settled next to me. She smiled. A few minutes later, Hajjaj, camera in hand, sidled by, in the row in front of us. He smiled warmly to those he passed, posed for a picture with a stunned admirer, and then had an extended conversation at his seat with other strangers.

I exchanged a look with the woman next to me. “Modest,” she said, really contemplating it. “I like that.”

I kept expecting all the seats to fill, but when the film began, the theater was about sixty percent full. The rows in front of Hajjaj were almost completely occupied, but the back-half of the theater was thin. Still, when Hajjaj’s name appeared onscreen, the cheers were loud and warm.

The film sticks tightly to the day-in-the-life conceit though it was shot over two days. It starts with Karima donning her jellaba in her room. The tiles on the walls and floor beautifully match her clothes and slippers. Once dressed, she meets her crew outside and they mount motorbikes, pinning cell phones between palms and handles. They depart on a long—maybe 10 minute long—ride out of her neighborhood onto Marrakesh’s streets. The camera swerves, recording from a motorbike ahead, or fixes its gaze upward at the rider from the bike itself. The shots flit between the multicolored gang and the surroundings—tight alleys and white and blue arches, stilted traffic and the red-stoned minaret of Al-Koutubiyah mosque, the crevices of the old medina, and then finally into the infamous Jema’a El Fena, where most of the film takes place.

The ride into the market and the ride out at the end comprise maybe a fourth of the 71 minute film. In the Q&A afterwards, when asked—politely­­—why those two sequences were so lengthy, Hajjaj said he was inspired by the 1969 film Easy Rider and wanted to do something as cool, but like a music video. He had a budget that afforded borrowed cameras and two days to record footage. I think those two sequences were the only ones he could plan.

The film is essentially free of conflict and adversity. Once in the market, “the heart of Marrakesh”, the crew eat a few meals and draw elaborate designs on customer’s hands, arms, and feet using henna syringes. The falseness that underlies every day-in-the-life construction—how does one have a normal day when a camera is introduced—is acknowledged during breakfast by the charismatic henna-boy Anouar: “If the camera men wanted to have breakfast they would, but they want to film us having breakfast like normal.” His honesty, like his hustle of nasally “a-yos” that ensnare the attention of passing tourists, builds rapport somehow, and the existence of the camera falls out of awareness. One of the customers, a fellow Moroccan, asks about Karima’s family, how she became a henna girl, and what it was like growing up in the market. Karima answers and talks about Morocco lovingly. Although she has opportunities to live elsewhere, in Europe, she says she has no desire to leave. The only other dialogue is the sparse banter between the henna crew.

Twenty minutes in, the woman next to me leaned over to her friends: “I don’t even know what the story is.” There was a “fuck” somewhere in the sentence and her words lingered past their endings in a mild slur. She and her friends were gone a few minutes later. They weren’t the only ones to leave.

The film doesn’t contrive much except the motorbike rides and maybe the customer who asks a lot of questions. The film is the opposite of most day-in-the-life films in that, instead of trying to find the beautiful in the ordinary, it places the beautiful in context, rendering it ordinary. Hajjaj said the fantastic jelabbas worn by Karima and her crews are theirs; he only helped them choose which ones he liked best. Remarkably, half-way through the film, the jelabbas stop being stunning because the look makes sense against Marrakesh’s vibrant palate. Perhaps they also disappear because Karima explains that they wear them and the niqabs as protection against the sun, a statement of depoliticizing magic that causes invisibility from the Western gaze desperately seeking the “modernity vs. Islam” dichotomy. Instead, we see Karima freestyle her henna designs, the lightness of her touch, and the fluidity of her lines. We see Anouar hustle reluctant customers into his chair, and him smoke ashy swirls in a moment of rest against a wall of oranges. We see workers arrive and the stalls of the night market erected. Gradually night enters the frame and still, the incredible phenomenon of Jema’a El Fena that has marveled since the eleventh century, is presented intimately, without put-on romance. These scenes, if frozen and presented in isolation—as stills—would be extraordinary, would feel staged. But because the images are moving and we’ve inhabited the context of the compositions, we see them in the course of life. As if Hajjaj is trying to say, this is how ordinary can look.

I didn’t stay at the after-party long enough to see if Hajjaj hung out. I walked down the steps and out of the warm glow of the party. Wilshire Blvd was wide and vacant. I thought of something Hajjaj said during the Q&A: he didn’t want to make a mass market film; he hoped to make a cult one. In doing so, he made a film that normalizes his “defiantly modern” photographs. I thought about what that said about his assumptions of the mass market and what he assumed about their assumptions.


Ahsan Butt is a Canadian of Pakistani heritage. He's a regular contributor to The Monarch Review and an improv actor with impeccable timing.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney