Faculty Spotlight: Mona Damluji (Film and Media Studies)

Professor Mona Damluji, in the Film and Media Studies Department, focuses on media in the Middle East and the history of the oil industry’s relationship to cinema in the region.

She is the first to say that her path to UCSB has been anything but conventional. She first studied architecture at Tufts University with a minor in film, and after graduating moved to New York to become a filmmaker.

“I got a hard lesson in what it’s like to do freelance work. It was precarious but also rewarding work. It challenged me to admit how much I still had to learn and so I returned to graduate school,” she said of her time in New York.

So she moved on to UC Berkeley, getting her PhD in Architectural studies. It was at Berkeley where she found the fusion between urban studies, critical energy studies and film, and where she refined her research towards the Middle East.

“Working at the intersection of multiple disciplines was exciting. However, it was unclear how my approach would fit into conventional academic departments.” she said.

Damluji became involved with the Center for Middle East Studies at Berkeley, calling it the “other half of her education” while she pursued her PhD. She taught courses within the major and worked on programming and events for the center, in particular the Middle Eastern film series.

What she learned through the center at UC Berkeley has informed her work at UCSB — in particular her involvement with the Center for Middle East Studies at UCSB.

“I learned through my experiences there interacting with scholars and community members across the campus that the study of the Middle East is necessarily interdisciplinary and humanistic,” Damluji said. “This fundamentally shapes my thinking about the possibilities for how we can continue to grow our Middle East Studies program here.”

A defining aspect of Damluji’s study in the Middle East stems from when she moved from California to Lebanon at the age of 16. She said that living in the Middle East completely changed her misconceptions about the region.

“It was a personal journey for me that has shaped everything about my approach and why I do what I do,” she said. “It woke me up to the injustice of how Arabs and Muslims are portrayed in the United States, and how I had internalized racist, orientalist and Islamophobic stereotypes, even as an Arab American child.”

Damluji moved to Lebanon in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, which she said created a “mismatch” between the scary and desolate images of the region depicted on the news and in Hollywood movies versus the diverse, beautiful and modern cosmopolitan places she discovered while living there.

“I think a lot of people who travel to the Middle East may have had a similar encounter, one that wakes them up to orientalism in action, namely the false narratives that political leaders and media producers fabricate about the Middle East for their own benefit. As a teenager, moving to Beirut and being confronted with this, it completely changed the way that I thought about how stories are told, the way that knowledge is produced about our region, and how not only individuals but also our entire society is shaped by those stories.”

Much of Damluji’s creative and curatorial work centers around the way Americans negatively perceive the Middle East, and her projects use film, photography, and other media, to represent this divide.

A recent project she worked on alongside her brother, Nadim Damluji, is Arab Comics: 90 Years of Popular Visual Culture. The exhibit presents comic books from across the Middle East, showing the variety between areas, and questioning if the idea of a singular type of “Arab comic” even exists.

Images, left to right: Hussein Bicar, Sindibâd, 1952, Artist Unidentified, “Return to Palestine” Mîkî, 1964, Fouad Mezher and the Fdz, “The Fifth Column: A Homecoming,” 2013. From: http://www.illustratorsillustrated.com/arab-comics-90-years-of-visual-culture/ [accessed 6/12/2020].

Damluji called the exhibit “one of the approaches I’m playing with to provoke conversation about the disjunction between what we expect and what we experience when it comes to the Middle East.”

She said the exhibit uses comics to draw audiences to fascinating visual material, and aims to get people to Western generalizations of the Middle East, as the reality is so much more complex than a single style or narrative of comics.

Currently, Damluji is working on her book Pipeline Cinema, and received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to continue this work. The book delves into media around the oil industry — including films and photographs produced by the oil companies themselves. Through Pipeline Cinema, Damluji is researching the ways that oil production in the Middle East is tied to the history of cinema.

“Oil companies were among the first corporations globally to make long form documentary films about the places from which they were extracting oil and also marketing oil. [This was done] to create “cultural capital” by getting local citizens involved in their projects.” Damluji said.

“I argue that to understand the implications of our changing climate, we must look beyond the economics and the geological dimensions of fossil fuel extraction. The social and the cultural history of oil is also really important to understand the way that people’s lives are shaped and places are made.”

Damluji’s work overall analyzes media surrounding the Middle East and oil production, but the form it takes is a combination of academic writing and creative projects. She said that UCSB’s Film and Media Studies Department has helped continue the conversation around her work and the work of others studying the intersection of oil and culture.

“UCSB is a really supportive, wonderful place. Our campus is open to so many ideas around how to facilitate interdisciplinary work. Everything from curating a film series at the Pollock to collaborating with other faculty via the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Energy Justice. There’s been really amazing opportunities to find interdisciplinary spaces for public scholarship and engagement,” she said.

“The more creative projects I do are about really creating experiences for people, to encounter a perspective that they’ve never seen, never imagined before. That can be done through photography, through film, even in the comic books — There’s endless ways that you can do this.”

Damluji’s work may intersect across a variety of subjects and presentation mediums, but she said that the guiding force for her is the “urgency” in justice-oriented research that amplifies underrepresented voices and perspectives around the Middle East, stemming from her youth in Lebanon and what she learned about the way the Middle East as a whole is presented in media.

“At the end of the day, Middle East studies is an important home for my research and teaching, as it puts me in conversation with people working across disciplines here on campus.” she said.

“There’s an urgency for us to call out the false narratives we have been fed and create new stories from unheard points of view”

To learn more about Mona Damluji’s research: http://monadamluji.weebly.com/research.html

By Katherine Swartz (CMES Media and News Intern)

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