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Majnoun Layla (1989), a film by Taïeb Louhichi, Tunisia

Majnoun Layla, a film directed by the Tunisian Taïeb Louhichi, is a film that grows out of the collective memory inscribed in a form of romantic poetry, called ghazal. We will see here how, even while the film's director is nourished by this literary and artistic culture that goes back to the seventh century, he nontheless is quite critical with regard to the tribal imaginary.

1. Cinema of the Maghreb and literature :
Taïeb Louhichi is a member of the first generation of Tunisian filmmakers of the independence period. Born in 1948 and coming from the south of Tunisia, he grew up in a cultural environment that gave birth to a number of writers, poets, and artists whose work has crossed national boundaries. Among his films some, by virtue of their political, social, or cultural content, have attracted the attention of specialists. At the 1972 Carthage Film Festival (JCC-Journées cinématographiques de Carthage) – this festival was the first to be founded in Africa, in 1966 -- he received the top prize (le Tanit d'or) for his short film, My village, one village among others(Mon village, un village parmi d'autres). This film is set in the context of the agricultural policy that Tunisia embarked upon during the 1960s and it deals with farmers who, working on unproductive land, without the resources to carry on international trade and without the state's support, began to leave the land and emigrate to the cities.
In 1982 he directed The Shadow of the Earth(L'ombre de la terre), in which he explores the legend around the Arab and foreign invaders, as they appear cultural memory. This film, projected in a number of different festivals, won several prizes. Majnoun Layla(Layla, ma raison) extends this problematic of memory. It was selected for the official competition in la Mostra of Venice(the Venice Film Festival) in 1989, won the audience's First Prize (le Grand Prix du Public) in Milan in 1990, and won the prize for best image and sound at the FESPACO festival in Ouagadougou in 1991. With the film Majnoun Layla Louhichi explores a new genre, that of the emotions of love and the impact of culture on individuals, leading the way for other feature films that will follow. This film enables him to revisit a story of love and ghazal poetry – a genre that may take a philosophic and mystical form, or a satiric one.
This film adapts two literary works: The songs of A. Al-Asfahani (897-967), which continues to be sung today by poets and in the oral tradition; and the work by André Miquel, Layla, ma raison. And the film -- the story of Qays Ibn al-Moulawwah and his cousin Layla al-Amiriyya, one of the oldest love stories in human history – is an important moment in Tunisian film history, which produced more than one hundred feature films between 1966 and 2010. The film provides an opportunity for the director to explore emotions of love among young adults, the obstacles they encounter, and the failure of families to go beyond certain social and cultural norms. And it succeeds in having an impact on audiences from many different cultures because the treatment, both artistic and philosophical, relates both to youth's aspirations for freedom and to the family's desire for the happiness of its children.
Taïeb Louhichi's works have had significant success with audiences: there have been special events devoted to his work in several countries, his works have opened national and international festivals, and some Tunisian film clubs are named after him. This success can be explained in part by the director's attraction for literature, sociology, painting, and music, the traces of which we find in most of his 17 films (7 short films, 3 documentaries, 5 feature films(one a collective film), and 2 video films). Finally, and not the least important, his ethics place him on the side of cinemas from the South.
Film adaptation of literary works varies across the Arab world. The Egyptian film industry was the first in the region to adapt works from the global literature. Filmmakers from the Maghreb -- Morocco, Algerial, and Tunisia – were mostly interested in the novels written by Maghreb authors. Starting in the 1950s Algerian novels were adapted for the screen and, in Morocco, filmmakers adapted a number of works by contemporary novelists written in either Arabic or French. The works of women writers were also adapted: in Tunisia, Najia Thameur is one of the first women whose work was adapted for the radio; and Assia Djebbar directed two films on Algerian women and we can see the roots and extensions of these films in her literary work published in France. Among women of Maghrebi origin based in Europe, some have adapted their own novels to the screen. During film festivals that have taken place in the Maghreb, the organization of seminars and workshops devoted to the adaptation of literary works to the screen has helped make this issue better known and has contributed to developing ties between literary figures and filmmakers.
With Louhichi's Layla, ma raison, the spectator sees a film that takes its origin in two literary works and several forms of expression -- poetry, novels, iconography, music, and film – to convey events and the individual's emotions. The work has been seen differently according to whether the spectators have or haven't read Al-Asfahani's work, whether they've seen the other films dealing with the story of Qays and Layla, whether they've listened to songs based on this poem. We will discuss below how Louhichi chose a free adaptation to express his views, emphasize certain aspects, and give the film relevance to contemporary Tunisia.

2. Cinema and Society.
The film Majnoun Layla is based on the love poems of Qays for Layla, whom he has loved since childhood. Qays names Layla in the poems and describes her body, both of these elements being against convention.
Making these elements "public" before the marriage (violating the code of ishhar which requires that a man not speak of his wife in public, even more so when the woman is not yet his wife) puts at risk the relationship between the two families. Layla's father, who otherwise would have been favorable to this marriage, is obliged to oppose it because of customary practice, and he rejects the marriage request coming from Qays. This rejection doesn't calm the lover's emotions and he continues to prowl near the encampment of Layla's family. Layla's father obtains permission from the prince to kill Qays if he continues to pursue Layla in the neighborhood of the camp.
The obstacles Qays faces in his efforts to meet Layla are numerous and Qays loses his mind. Afflicted by what his happening to his son, Qays's father attempts to change the views of Layla's father, but without success. Layla's father decides to marry his daughter to Mounazil, which definitively separates the two young people from one another. When Qays learns of this, he begins to wander in the desert and the palm groves, refuses to eat, burns his hands without feeling pain, and finds himself in the company of a number of animals. As for Layla, she allows herself to die and Qays, when he learns of this, dies too and rejoins her in the heavens.
The film Majnoun Layla has a literary and artistic dimension that includes a relationship to the painters of miniature, who illustrated the poems recounting the story of Qays and Layla. Although he has presented a variety of tableaux from this story, Louhichi brings forward two modern aspects: first, the desire of parents to aid their children and, second, criticism of those who cannot go beyond their customary codes of behavior.
In what follows we will discuss how this film expresses a political reflection on the debates that permeated Tunisian society since the second half of the 19th century, symbolized in the film by the cries of the mute women who, without a hijab, moves in public space – a role played by the well-known Tunisian actress, Fatma Ben Saidane. Her hair, blowing in the wind, and her cries, express the horror of society's failure, its incapacity to re-examine its code of honor.

A – Esthetics and visual forms.
This film expresses the filmmaker's taste for reading, writing, music, and painting, which gives to Majnoun Layla a particular visual form related to the beauty of the desert mixed with a poetry that has been recited for 13 centuries.
The film prolongs a legend that inspired Indian and Iranian filmmakers starting in the 1930s, filmmakers from the Soviet Union and Azerbaidjan during the 1960s, and Turkish, Pakistani, Italian, and Lebanese filmmakers in recent decades. The songs by A. Al-Asfahani continues to nourish the imaginary of these societies and to inspire poets, writers, and artists. Maghrebi musicians and singers continue to employ their skills in expressing the love poetry of Qays for Layla.
The region has witnessed other stories similar to this one, and the story of Qays and Layla also resonates with the love stories of Tristan and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet in the West, and was evoked by the French writer Louis Aragon in his Fou d'Elsa.
The visual form of the film suggests figurative works that have been exhibited at a number of museums throughout the world, inspired by the Khamsa (The quintet) of the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi and that artists working in miniatures have interpreted. These works have been discussed by many historians of Islamic art. Julie Scott Meisami analyzed a corpus of 40 illustrations from various painters showing different scenes: the family's activities around the birth of Qays; Qays and Layla at their madrasa-s; Qays seeing Layla; the request on behalf of Qays for the hand of Layla in marriage; Qays in Mecca; the conflicts between the clans; the woman who nursed Qays finds him and brings him back to the camp; Qays at Layla's camp; Qays al-Majnoun at his father's tomb, in the wilderness, among the animals, with his mother, in the palm grove, and weeping over Layla's tomb.
A pair of little-known miniatures that were exhibited in the British Museum in 2009 have the particularity of one being in black and white, the other in color, with both showing travelers on a hilltop observing Majnoun with a dog. Oleg Grabar and Mika Natif analyze two other miniatures which were exhibited in New York in 1933, and four others shown in 1938, that were presented together in a new exhibit. The authors describe the first as showing clan life in the desert and the meeting between the fathers of Qays and Layla, with Layla's father refusing the marriage request and alliance between the two families. The second shows palace life, the street, the garden. We see Layla at a window towards the top of the miniature talking with an older person, perhaps a messenger. The authors emphasize that these two illustrations should be understood as allegories related to the society's ethics and its taste. The Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore exhibits a miniature dating from the 17th century that represents "Majnun in the wilderness," from the Khamsa of Nizami, with Qays shown among animals. The explanatory note points out how, in these stories, love is "highly spiritual and represents the yearning of the soul for a spiritual connexion with God."
Louhichi's choice of visual and artistic forms is related to the miniaturists but is also different from them. Art historians point out that the miniaturists reproduce the legend, distinguishing themselves from one another by their choice of subject, choosing particular themes related to their times. Many of the scenes in the film seem inspired by these miniatures. Setting the film in the desert allows Louhichi both to portray the beauty of the landscape and to criticize the tribal imaginary. Louhichi narrates the story of Qays and Layla with colors like beige and brown, recalling the desert sand, and complex blues as in the sky before a sand storm, with strong colors appearing only in the headscarf embroidered with a verse of Qays's love poem for Layla, or Layla's marriage dress, or the litter used to carry Layla to her new home and that signifies the tragedy arriving with the separation of Qays from Layla. The only landscape with color is of the palm grove where Qays, separated from Layla, lives in communion with the animals.
We will see in the following section how Louhichi inscribes in this film the social changes occurring in Tunisia since the 1950s and he lends his voice to the prince's messenger in saying that it is possible for the individual to choose, to retain what is valuable in traditions and to reject what is harmful, and to defend the youthful desire for happiness.

B – New tastes, new ethics.
Louhichi's film opposes the kind of love called Fanaa – meaning annihilation and madness in love. In this, the filmmaker follows in the line of Tunisian reformists who, since the second half of the 19th century, struggled to change the situation of women. The promulgation of the Personal Status Code in 1956, which gives women a number of rights – such as the freedom to choose one's husband, outlawing polygamy, requiring divorce to be by judicial procedure, enshrining the right to be educated and to work and to participate in public and political affairs – makes a new kind of life possible.
Yet social change, even done gradually, does not occur without pain. In centering his film on the families of two clans, Louhichi shares with Hichem Djaiet a call for transforming the basic family unit, and both relations within the couple and between parents and children; and shares with Fadéla M'Rabet in Algeria and Carmel Camilleri in Tunisia an awareness of the need to listen to youth in their quest for freedom and love, and of the importance of abandoning an old notion of honor. The film shares a perspective with those authors who have published works based on letters addressed by youth to radio programs in Algeria and Tunisia, explaining the problems they face and their search for solutions.
To conclude, I would say that this film denounces, via the scream of the mute woman, the unjust deaths of Layla and Qays and calls for giving value to happiness on earth. With Majnoun Layla Louhichi brings into the present one of humanity's oldest love stories, putting its mystical dimension and Sufi symbolism at the center of a socio-political context where where women become the future of humanity. With his next feature film, Noces de lune, produced in 1998, Louhichi pursues his struggle for earthly happiness by showing how the acts of youth lead to the meeting of two elderly people, Pierrot and Madonna, then leading to their marriage and to their happiness.

MEI/Arts House, Singapore | 23 October 2012Lilia Labidi