“My sense of exile has been lifelong. It’s a question of articulating it.” So says the late literary critic, political activist, and Columbia professor Edward Said in Selves and Others. Throughout this hour-long documentary, shot during the final months before his death, Said does just that. Poring over childhood photos, he talks of his formative years in Egypt, Palestine, and later the United States, locating the roots of his work’s profound skepticism toward national identity. Valorizing the fluid over the fixed, Said rejects tribalism in all forms in favor of a humanistic (and academically unfashionable) sense of what he repeatedly calls “universal values.”
A nearly constant stream of talk, Selves and Others nevertheless succeeds as filmmaking. Picking up on an early Said comment extolling New York as a place of constant change and transition, director Emmanuel Hamon periodically inserts brief interludes of the city’s sights and sounds. These simple shots of people and cars in motion celebrate New York as the embodiment of Said’s ideals of flux and mutability.
Showing with Selves and Others is Driving an Arab Street, a 39-minute doc devoted to chitchat from Cairo taxi drivers on subjects from Egyptian class divisions to their favorite American presidents. The resulting film seems predetermined by director Arthur Hurley’s attempt to encompass the whole spectrum of Arab public opinion, but a view of a street lined with American fast-food joints, following a driver’s complaint that “America will always keep us hungry,” hints at the complexities of cultural imperialism discussed in much of Said’s work.