La Furia Umana
  • I’m not like evereybody else
    The Kinks
  • E che, sono forse al mondo per realizzare delle idee?
    Max Stirner
  • (No ideas but in things)
    W.C. Williams
RAQUEL SCHEFER / The impossibility of describing a place. Interview with Basma Alsharif

RAQUEL SCHEFER / The impossibility of describing a place. Interview with Basma Alsharif

Deep Sleep (2014) by Basma Alsharif (Courtesy of the artist and of Imane Farès Gallery)

Residing at a crossroads between political and experimental film, Basma Alsharif’s work allows to examine the historico-ideological separation of those categories. Through a multiplicity of approaches, which include storytelling, self-fiction and visual archeology, Alsharif explores the history of Palestine, stories of exile and uncanniness, and their direct and indirect forms of transmission. Modelled by the “dialectics of memory and invention”(Michel Beaujour), it addresses the transition from memory to “postmemory”(Marianne Hirsch), in dialogue with the history of cinema through a permanent exploration of formal procedures. Working the discordances between perception, reality and representation, as well as issues related to hypnosis, induced states and performativity, Alsharif’s work problematises the relationship between cultural memory, its images, lived experience and referential topographical space. Through a figurative writing, along places and images, it invents a textual space which discloses a different approach to history – and to the position of the subject on it.

In the following interview, occurred between Paris and Marseille from June to July 2015, Alsharif discusses the main issues of her work.

Raquel Schefer: The press release of Döppelganger, your 2014 solo exhibition at Imane Farès Gallery (Paris), states that you “annonce what can be designated as a post-Palestinian generation”. To what extent does your work might embody this conception either in terms of general history and in terms of the history of cinema? In relation to the latter point, I am thinking particularly in the important role played by cinema in the Palestinian struggle and also in the way we can consider that your work dialogues with what might be called a “post-militant”or “post-engagé”cinema. As Godard and Miéville in Ici et ailleurs (1976), your aim does not seem to document, but to interrogate representation and image’s construction.

Basma Alsharif: I don’t ever clearly remember deciding to address Palestine in my work. It was more a desire to address the perspective of placeless-ness or perhaps « everywhere-ness » which I associated with being from the diaspora which evolved into a method for exploring the human condition. Not feeling fully connected to any of the places I had grown up or lived in, my interest is in constructing an image of how we understand ourselves to exist in the world, in relation to history, each other, political landscapes, the environment, etc., through a kind of Palestinian perspective. I didn’t feel I could get anywhere, nor was I interested in addressing the highly polarizing conflict, whose media representation is over-determined, highly traumatic, or nostalgic and doesn’t move beyond history.

I wanted Palestine to become everywhere, ever place. To shed it’s identity as a kind of singular conflict and to explore it as a phenomenon of the human condition – the darker sides of humanity coupled with an impossible perseverance and steadfastness to hope beyond hope. I felt that this kind of representation would address the present and in that way became somewhat removed from Palestine as an icon of struggle to one of being a kind of microcosm for humanity through which anyone could reflect on the present, and the future of anywhere and everywhere.

Militant Palestinian cinema and activist film (though I respect and ultimately see the importance it has) were and continue to be painful for me to watch – a reminder of what we have lost, how much we have suffered. I feel I don’t have anything to add to what is already out there. As a Palestinian in the privileged position of not living under-siege or in a refugee camp, I figured I should use this advantage to interrogate what Palestine represents as a site and as a conflict whose history and whose present is significant far beyond me, the population, or the territory. Again, what it says about humanity, how we reconcile political identity and subjective experience, and where we go from here.

Ici et ailleurs was undoubtedly incredibly influential for me; it showed me that communicating political conflict begins with the self and must, in order to be significant, address its audience – to have one’s viewer feel equally involved in deconstructing images, building information, and deciphering language. It taught me how to make work that would allow the viewer to be as active as the maker. I think distance from the occupation, violence, and struggle is apparent in my work – even in pieces made on site in the middle of conflict [such as in We Began By Measuring Distance (2009) or Home Movies Gaza (2013)]. It is because I am not after making work that is a call to action but rather my interest is in disrupting the way we understand information and experience it. I think the term Post-Palestinian could be speaking to different aspects of my work and ways of working, I see it is a means to connect the viewer to larger ideas that extend beyond the occupation.

RS: Films such as Farther Than the Eye Can See (2012) or Home Movies Gaza can be regarded as cartographies of moving affects. The act of mapping a cultural identity dispersed in the aftermath of the Palestinian diaspora has there a deep affective dimension, linking personal history to a politics of memory. How do you work this double dimension?

BA:My interest in the moving image is in cinema in its most classical sense: the possibility for cinema to invite us into a whole other time, another space, and to be moved by it physically, emotionally, and intellectually. I never had an interest in simply representing an event or a story. I wanted information to create a visceral experience. The act of recording my grandmother’s narrative of exodus from Jerusalem for Farther Than The Eye Can See, while important and deeply personal, doesn’t necessarily translate into something interesting for others. There are countless such stories, and not only from Palestine. I find it futile to try to relate something so highly personal and painful through cinema. I often think of Sophie Calle’s work Exquisite Pain, in which she suffers a broken heart from a careless lover which leaves her destroyed. She then exploits other’s pain in order to have hers diminish. I think this speaks to trauma and pain much more than a direct story. It was definitely an influence, as I didn’t want to prove that my grandmother’s exodus story was worse that others – in fact, it was kind of sweet. She talked about the sandwiches they ate, the jokes they made on the ride to Cairo alongside terrifying stories of violence and injustice. I wanted to move that story into another landscape, into a present moment. To overlay the exodus onto the cityscape of a very much under-construction United Arab Emirates. A new Middle East in which so much is still being figured out, so much left unresolved.

It was a place I spent some time in, developing this work and again and again, I kept questioning who had the right to « build a city » to own it, it’s something that wasn’t resolved in Palestine and will surely not be resolved with the UAE. In a way, I was trying to close the gap between then and now and to draw the viewer into that dizzying moment through the use of a stroboscopic effect that would hold the audience captive in this very brief present moment. I’m not sure that any of these details are legible in that work. But my hope is that the very sweetly delivered narrative of what was to be the beginning of the erasure of Palestine, could allow us to question legitimacy of urban development, statehood, and what mechanisms are at work to allow these advancements to be made – whether or not we are complicit in its process.

Home Movies Gaza was perhaps more subtle in the way I manipulated images, it was equally about the impossibility of describing a place so inextricably connected to its political circumstance. I decided to record as much of Gaza as possible and to make a kind of home movie from the dystopia I found myself in after a 10 year absence, just in time to welcome Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli offensive of 2012. And I decided to reference Lord of the Flies to create an environment from the footage I collected that would offer us a glimpse into a territory that could ostensibly be anywhere, be everyone’s « home movie », and to have that sentiment be haunting enough to outlast the length of the film.

RS: The Döppelganger is a recurrent motif in your work. In Deep Sleep (2014), the Döppelganger is not only a body-double, but also a gaze-double, a dispositif of vision. The film’s synopsis states that it was shot in a state of “self-hypnosis”. How do you deal with these questions related to perception, induced states, representation and performativity?

BA: In the non-clinical sense of the term: I definitely have multiple personalities.

Not having a country, being raised and living in so many different cities, I don’t feel like I am from anywhere, though I can also feel like I am from everywhere. I have multiple perspectives, identities, and ways of existing that never fully belong to any particular culture or history, and my work tries to embody that position in a way that allows viewers to embody it for themselves. The interest in auto-hypnosis was a way to make that experience concrete and to align it as a function of cinema. There is a growing element of hallucinogenic representation of space in my work which started with perhaps more lucid construction of false narratives through the use of language and text. Döppelganging is simply an extension of that: the layering of information, the intersection of different sites with each other, the use of multiple perspectives and working with sound and installation to destabilize how we understand a place, a feeling, an ephemeral moment. 

RS: Deep Sleep proposes an odyssey through the ruins of the Mediterranean Sea. As Jean-Daniel Pollet’s Méditerranée (1963) or Godard’s Contempt (1963) and Film Socialisme (2010), the film reconstructs a historical, geographic and cultural matrix: the Mediterranean civilisation, connecting Greece, Malta and the Gaza Strip. But, in your film, there is also an interrogation of cinema’s deixis. I am thinking about the gesture of your hand, the finger pointing places, linking the historical processes to a precise position in space and time, and thus creating a self-referential presence-effect. How did you work this contextual gesture in relation to the film’s historico-spatial frameworks?

BA: To show my finger pointing from behind the handheld super 8 camera towards various landscapes was a playful decision in Deep Sleep. That film was all about my perspective, my body, and of moving through various sites in various states. The viewer was meant to occupy my position in watching the film, and to be reminded that it was not there own but that they could easily be a part of it. This was important as it was a very direct attempt at addressing the end of civilization in Gaza: a place that is being wiped clean of it’s historical monuments. While in other sites (Malta, Greece) the historical monuments are a testament to great civilizations past, perhaps deterring us from addressing the crisis facing those cities today.

There was also a desire to make that body no longer mine, but something to be occupied by the viewer. The scale of the body in these landscapes, of the finger in the frame, given the perspective, was so much larger than any particular landscape (simply in terms of scale). It was a way to link the body to a landscape and to be under the influence of the history of each site as a kind of hallucination.

RS: Your work can be situated at the crossroads of political and experimental cinemas’genealogy, categories which are often separated. This is particularly salient in its subjective and performative dimensions, but also in the way you intervene materially the archive footage and in the permanent collision of narrative elements (image, sound, voice, typography…). How do you treat these intersections?

BA:I have a very obvious response to this: by relying on form = function. Information is never objective, documentary is not a representation of a « real »event, and experimental cinema offers various aesthetic structures through which to find alternative ways of delivering information.

Raquel Schefer