Sidsel Nelund: In the beginning of Have you ever killed a bear – or Becoming Jamila the narrator declares that it “was love at first sight” when seeing a picture of the protagonist Jamila Bouhired. Jamila was a female fighter and active member of the Algerian National Liberation Front during the Algerian Revolution, especially in the early and mid 1950s. Is the attraction to Jamila something you share with the narrator?
Marwa Arsanios: It is a mix of seduction, fascination and compassion with the way Jamila’s image was used by the Egyptian state propaganda from the 1950s to the 1960s. I first encountered her image on the cover of the Al-Hilal magazine, a cultural magazine founded in Egypt in 1892 and nationalized under the socialist and anti-imperialist president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1960. The cover in which Jamila was depicted stood out, as she was posing with a gun, while the rest of the covers were depicting models or actresses. The use of the picture of Jamila was part of an ideological state propaganda to promote her as the symbol of the anti-colonial struggle. In my critical mindset I was thinking about how this image of Jamila was abusive, in the sense that a patriarchal state project was using a woman and a certain feminism to serve their project. But simultaneously, I had to admit that even today, out of its historical context, this image is still very seductive and empowering. Perhaps that is the strength of propaganda? There is a fine line here, where I want to position myself, that precisely admits the ambivalence of feelings when facing such an image.
SN: Yes, the ambivalence is tangible in the video and I see it coming about through formal choices like the use of masks, the mix between first and third person narration and the interchange of roles. When seeing Jamila’s picture and feeling the ambivalence, were you called to pay tribute to her?
MA: I somehow did feel that I wanted to honor Jamila in a naive way, as deep down I really ‘loved’ her. But this is problematic. Jamila is stuck in old politics and she is still a strong supporter of the dictatorships that came out of the nationalization projects in the Arab countries. For instance, she supports Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. So honoring these old politics was a problem for me and it was more about all those images of her: on the Al-Hilal front covers; in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, another cultural reference of the video; in material from the old anti imperialist struggles etc. It was about giving space to what she had represented.To go back to the ambiguity and ambivalence in choices, whether formal or political: I was also looking for a political model. I wanted to think about a leftist project and ask in which space can it be found today?
SN: A key moment in the video is when a story is told and seen from the point of view of Jamila. It is night and she is in a training camp with her combatants. Suddenly, there is a noise and Jamila sets out to fight the thread, which later turns out to be a bear. Afterward, she expresses doubt. Had she rather wanted to kill one of her repressing male combatants? In this scene, I find an ambiguity expressed in the question ‘who are you fighting?’ An animal, a macho combatant or the colonizer? Does this question refer to gender tensions produced within the resistance forces? Or does it refer, on a larger scale, to ideological questions of resistance when one cannot know if what one is fighting is what one aims to fight?
MA: I was directly referring to the gender tensions that appeared when women first joined the armed struggle. It was a major change not only to see women in the public sphere, but also see them carrying arms and fighting alongside men. These spaces, though, were dominated by a patriarchal structure, so women found themselves in a double fight. As to the ideological questions of resistance, I see it as the confusion of what you are fighting against. Perhaps this is my own confusion of what I can fight for or against. It is slippery and unclear. In the video, the feminist fight is the only valid one, as even fighting the colonial enemy was set in a patriarchal structure that marginalized women after the war and sent them back into none-emancipatory places.