MUM student Amine Kouider won an Award of Excellence for his short documentary on artist and fellow Algerian Malek Salah.
The fact that Algeria opened the only museum of modern art in the Arab world last year would never have hit my radar in rural Iowa if I hadn’t met Amine Kouider, an enthusiastic Algerian filmmaker with a smile that could melt plastic. Amine is a graduating senior at Maharishi University of Management (MUM) in Fairfield. His short documentary “Malek Salah; majnûn laylâ,” about Algerian contemporary artist Malek Salah, took the top 2008 Award of Excellence in the student category from the Iowa Motion Picture Association. Last year, MUM student Geoff Boothby won the same IMPA award for his film “We Are Theo”—a smooth start for both students in the university’s new Communications and Media programs.
Kouider’s documentary (filmed in Algeria and edited in Iowa) was used as the artist’s statement for the inaugural exhibition at the new Museum of Modern Art in Algiers, the capital city of Algeria. His film brings the audience inside the artist’s creative process, by exploring not only his work, but also his relationship to his work and the world around him. David Lynch recently saw the film and said, “I love that guy’s work, I love that guy, I love what he says, and I love the way you showed it.” High praise coming from the icon of indie films to a student filmmaker.
In 2007, Algeria’s president pumped 70 million euros into bringing young contemporary talent and the rich Arab-Andalusian, Berber, and Arab-Islamic traditions together in a way that has never been done before in an Arab country.
As a part of this national cultural makeover, Malek Salah, a contemporary artist and friend of the Kouider family, was asked to mount a retrospective of his work for the first exhibit. Malek wanted a film to use as his artist’s statement, and approached Amine, who was home from his studies at MUM for the summer. Although originally a business major, Amine had added a major in communication and media to his studies after taking a class with Stuart Tanner, a visiting BBC documentary filmmaker.
“I never made films in my life—never ever thought that I was going to make a film,” Amine said. “I’m a musician. Everything is just intuitive with me, until I took the narrative course with Stuart Tanner and was inspired.” Amine’s musical sense stands out in the soundtrack featuring Mongolian throat singer Huun-Huur-Tu and the enigmatic “Dore Hindi” track from Saam Schlamminger.
But Amine also has a brilliant artistic eye. Even at age 11 he was drawn to a piece of art Malek Salah had given his parents and claimed it as his own. Amine insisted it be placed in his bedroom, where it still hangs today. In the week leading up to the film’s screening in Fairfield, I kept noticing the film’s poster, with its strong visual impact. I finally asked someone who designed it and was surprised to find out it was Amine.
Amine Kouider and Malek Salah both use the Transcendental Meditation technique. Malek credits it with giving him an experience of his own creative depth and its expression, an authenticity that launched his professional career during the ’70s. As the documentary follows him at work in his painting and then his sculpture studio overlooking the city of Algiers, the artist describes his experience of capturing the childlike freedom of “doing without calculating in the flow between me and the work.” He expands his personal insights to explain the role he sees the artist playing in society as a stronger one . . . to transform it, to make it evolve. “Art transforms society and I live this every day now in my country, in Algiers. It’s not simply artistic work, it’s much more than that.”
Amine is content to let his video portrait of Malek speak its own truth. His film is beautiful, not just because it showcases Salah’s amazing talent, expressed in his oversized sculptures and colossal canvases, which Amine describes as “overpowering,” but also because of the visual landscape Amine created with his footage and work in the editing studio.
He floods the film with footage and stills of Malek’s work, creating a rhythm that mirrors the intensity of the artist who created them. Kouider captures the artist as he carves into his work, and then overlays the enigmatic soundtrack with the soft or scratchy sounds of the artist’s brush and graphite on canvas, speeding up the frames at times to punctuate the working style of the artist and producing a mash-up of documentary meets music video meets fine art.
“At first, the artist wanted the camera just on himself talking about his work,” said Amine. “I had to convince him it would be far more interesting to showcase the work itself.” I loved the shots showing the artist’s hand and paintbrush working quickly with very wet paint onto canvas while a strongly defined and animated shadow of his head and torso are cast in strong relief onto the painting as well. One of these striking shots ended up as the movie poster.
Amine admits he didn’t script the film, he just asked himself, “How does the artist feel to me?” Then he filmed and edited on his gut instinct and the film “wrote itself.” And this is where I find the parallels in the life of the student artist and the fine artist he features. They’re both plugged into a creative force that informs their work in a sustainable way. Kouider recognized and responded to the spontaneity and freedom in Salah’s work and matched it in his own.
Amine’s film stands alone as a work of art and the IMPA confirmed this with its 2008 award. Kent Newman, who served as Judging Chair for the IMPA awards, described the film as “an incredible opportunity for a student to interview and profile Malek Salah; it was a great concept, and demonstrated exceptional creativity in Amine’s approach. The fact that it was filmed in French with English subtitles demonstrates a very mature approach to production for a college student.”
The award came as a “complete surprise” to Amine, who wasn’t feeling like a mature filmmaker during the one day he had in Algiers with the artist, racing back and forth between the artist’s painting and sculpture studios—45 minutes apart in city traffic. Then finishing at Malek’s apartment where he filmed the artist practicing meditation at home. The Final Cut Pro edit was done in Fairfield and took two months, during which he added “some of the best footage,” according to Amine, supplied by the artist’s friend and model, Sofia Hihat. It took an additional month to do the sound edit and massage the subtitles, with help from Ken Chawkin and Nina Benjamin.
While Amine gives Stuart Tanner the credit for teaching him about filmmaking, MUM professors Gurdy Leete and Brian Smith and media relations officer Ken Chawkin pushed Amine to submit this film to the IMPA.
Algeria hopes the cultural exchange that began in 2007 will expand and reach beyond its borders, setting it up to surface as the cultural attraction of the Arab world. Meanwhile, here in southeast Iowa, MUM is emerging as an incubator of talented filmmakers like Amine Kouider. Judge for yourself: click on this link to watch it: “Malek Salah; majnûn laylâ.”
Mo Ellis is a freelance writer and home staging expert.
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