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The Wanderer's Home Movies: An Interview with Basma Alsharif

 | Interview |

  BY Gautam Valluri

Of all the things I recall about my very first experience of Courtisane film festival was that it was noisy. The lobby of the Sphinx Cinema in Ghent was crowded with cinephiles and filmmakers making the right kind of noise– the one of filmic discussion. I had managed to catch up with Basma Alsharif after her two programme-long retrospective. We weaved in and out of this crowd in search of a quiet spot to do our interview. It was evening already, the drinks were being served. There was nowhere to sit. Finally, I sought the help of the heroic festival staff and they brought in a table and two chairs and set them down promptly between the two exits of Screen 2. Basma’s films (We Began by Measuring Distance, Home Movies Gaza, Deep Sleep, O Persecuted, A Field Guide to the Ferns) were shown alongside the works of John Smith, Sky Hopinka, Mary Helena Clark and Mike Stoltz. Her films are varied but all manage to convey a feeling of longing. I had scribbled some illegible notes in the dark and had more questions than I could note down but one word featured more than any other: home.


Your work seems to pulsate with two feelings that seem to exist not in opposition, but in relation to each other: of being at home, and then, away from it, on the road, homesick. Considering the fact that you have had so far a nomadic existence, a life that has been lived in various countries, I’d like to start by asking what home means to you. 
It is a question I have thought about my whole life. I was born in Kuwait, a place none of my parents have any connection to and where I haven’t been to outside of my birth. From there, we moved to France, and eight years hence, to the States, where we kept moving as well. As a child, there wasn’t a single place I could call home. The area most familiar to me because my ancestors lived there is Palestine – more specifically, the Gaza strip – which ironically has deteriorated over the years and so, I am left with no place I truly belong to. I am homeless. In my experience, people build their identities around where they’ve come from or what they are connected, or disconnected to. It’s taken me a long time to admit it, but the fact is that it is something I will never have. It’s a personal narrative, but it is also connected to the situation in Palestine, to my parents’ past, to what was once their country. I think it’s central to any artist’s introspection of his work, these inquiries about their identity, their values, the system they belong to – but if you don’t have it, then the absence of a home can become a sustaining theme throughout your work. It’s funny because there are these films, they feel so Palestinian to me but it’s not.

I find it very interesting that when you did shoot in Gaza, you shot not inside homes, but on the road, moving.
That is true. It was a way for me to rediscover it as a place because I hadn’t been there in ten years. As a child, I loved that drive. In the interim, it had changed so much – there were all those things that were familiar, but not quite the same. It was a really weird experience. Therefore the first thought in my mind was merely to document it, to record as much as I can, come to terms with the environment and its ability to transform. It’s strange to say this, but completely honest: I find the area around the refugee camps really beautiful. There are overgrown trees, people with homes in inhospitable places. When you drive by this place quick, you get only a glimpse of it: it is video shot from a fast-moving car, so it is impossible to see the place up-close, and I really wanted the film to have the same feeling, of having witnessed a brief, second-long blur. 
 

Deep Sleep

With Deep Sleep, you said that you were interested in exploring the condition of Palestine through ‘the ruins of Greece and Malta’, through if I may quote you, ‘reexamining civilisation’.
There was a deep sense of pride in the people we met on our tour to Gaza; these people who were more than willing to guide and direct you to secret community projects, heritage monuments, the ancient heirlooms. A person said to me, ‘Let me take you to the oldest Christian church in Gaza.’ I went, ‘What!?’ They would take me to a spot, point towards it and say, ‘this is a village’, but it wasn’t a village anymore, there were ruins. I checked on the internet and the images I could see of the place were those of what existed before, but not now. People would point at a streets or places and say, ‘This used to be a hospital, an administrative block, an American school.’ I realized that the wars had first and foremost, leveled the territory; it had erased any sense of the place and its history. Only remains left: a ghetto, ramshackle houses or new buildings that weren’t historical. This was part of a conscious strategy on the part of Israel, the idea to bomb every few years to destroy the narrative of the place. The fact that struck me in the middle of all this is that people will continue to survive beyond these monuments and in a naively idealistic way, it is like saying, okay, civilisation is over, so how are you going to reinvent society, who are you going to depend on? What infrastructure of survival will you employ?

And the idea of looking at these places where the ruins occupy a giant part of the geography – like Malta, for instance – which has a massive, EU-sponsored project to restore fortifications, castles, sacred spaces, excavation projects, buildings, but it isn’t progressing, because Malta as a country isn’t abundant in money. It doesn’t have any prominent local industry or trade, the people are Catholic. It is a beautiful county, great to take a vacation in, but beyond that, how is the county really moving forward? Do the citizens feel empowered, or that they have agency within their country? And a similar situation prevails in Athens, where the youth is disgruntled, there is unemployment, a lot of drug use, graffiti everywhere and yet, this massive, dumb thing: the Acropolis, which takes up all the land, with all the youth sitting in its premises, aimless and frustrated and yet, unable to fully articulate themselves, to actually do something about it. And I figured that it’s because they haven’t faced a complete end to their civilisation like Gaza has and as a result, they do not know how to move forward and move on. One of the things about Gaza is how much the people persevere, regardless of how severe their situation is and that in my view is a result of a situation where you are confronted with a total end. For me, the idea was to be able to show how Gaza replicates in these places, how the structures meant to support us and help us live are no longer doing that.

You’ve spoken about hypnosis, bilocation and omnipresence – when did these ideas tie in with your preparation for Deep Sleep?
Well, Deep Sleep started, ironically enough, as a sound piece, so I had already started researching hypnosis and self-hypnosis as something that people use to achieve bilocation, and without really believing in it, I spent a year trying to learn this, practice it, and see where it takes me. I felt I am in this place from where I can no longer return to the Gaza strip, so I must locate a way in which to move beyond it, and still have it accessible to me. I think exploring this idea made me realise I wanted to embody it in some way. My work – every piece I have made takes various ideas together and then combines them, so for this project adopts a similar approach while I am contemplating the concept of civilisation. To me, these things or ideas aren’t exclusive of each other. I try to combine them – for instance, take hypnosis and apply it to an actual place. It is never clear when it entered my mind, since it is really a long process with different stages.

I do see it as a yield of your inability to go to Palestine and since so much of your work addresses this directly or indirectly. I see it therefore as an induced fever dream that allows you to visit the place. Is it accurate to suggest that?
Certainly. The thing is, the footage is from three different places, one of which is in Gaza. When you shoot on film, you don’t really know what you will achieve. My earlier films from Gaza assumed specifically a very political nature, and so when I went for Deep Sleep, my intention was to locate places which would seem more mythical, like secret gardens, places which you wouldn’t identify as Gaza. In discovering that I may never be able to return, I tried to imagine how the footage may look like without ever having actually seen it. The idea was to channelize the experience of being in Gaza into images from other countries, but then having them be more recognizable through monumental references. It was a serious, legitimate exercise in hypnosis. While bilocating, you are always advised to think of a place that is more urban, a place where you may run into a building. This became interesting to me, since there are places in the world which do not carry any meanings, which are just these open spaces where we can insert ourselves and create new meanings. It is very much the limitation becoming something else, an invitation to something else.

You insert yourself into the film as well – the part where you walk around the ruins with a microphone in hand. Would you like to talk more about that?

It is an abandoned building in Malta, these incredible ruins. It saddens me, these amazing monuments in Gaza, from hundreds and thousands of years back, from the first civilizations that ever lived, have been destroyed. I really wanted to move through the space, to the point where the space would really become strange through these separations of sound, the sight of a body moving through space and not being able to put your finger on it but knowing that something is off. 

I was wondering, have you ever seen Malcolm Le Grice’s Berlin Horse?
Yes, but after I finished Deep Sleep. A lot of people have asked me if I was referencing his film, but I couldn’t have been, since I had never seen it before I made my film. It is an incredible co-incidence. There was an offer to programme it alongside Deep Sleep at one of the festivals and I think that’s very interesting.

John Smith's 'Om'

Also, you chose to programme John Smith’s Dirty Pictures, which is part of his Hotel Diaries series. I found it very interesting, because in Smith’s series, he is inside a hotel room in every episode – I think of hotels as temporary homes, junctions where places rest and then leave, which seems to tie in with the larger idea of home and away. But also because it features him in Israel. 
Well, actually, interestingly enough, I knew I wanted to feature John Smith not particularly because of those reasons but because one of the earliest experimental films that I saw was his Om, which is a film that is perfect. It does not abandon its content for a clever structure, and this spoke to me about how one can approach really personal or political subject matter and have it behave differently. Growing up in a family of activists, we watched a lot of militant cinema, attended lectures and fundraisers, rallies, and really believing that it can cause a change, but unfortunately, in my experience, it hasn’t. In addressing this part of the world therefore, I did not want to employ similar documentary strategies. I was tired of watching those films, because they made me sad, they reminded me of the scale of injustice that there was. In Smith, he does not abandon content for structure – or vice-versa – so I really wanted to programme his films: not Hotel Diaries automatically, but definitely Blight, but they were like, ‘We have to show Hotel Diaries definitely’, and I was reluctant initially, but then I rewatched it again and I realized, ‘Ofcourse!’ In the film, he is unable to go past the politics, it falls apart for John Smith. It starts with this moment of happenstance magic, which strangely enough, he is making happen. There is this moment where it falls apart: he is left staring at his shoes, he moves to the left and he is just standing. And I believe that it is also intentional – he stops looking at the room, he is no longer inside it, he is thinking instead of his experience at the border, of this woman, of his security, and it shows us what happens when something is so overpowering and bereft of description, really. This is what is good about programming in general, is that it forces you to look and reconsider a work with enhanced seriousness.

While talking about O Persecuted, you said that when the work was commissioned, you imagined it as a film that could be buried and rediscovered – why is that important to you?
I have a great sadness about the period in history of Palestine which formed the Revolution. It was when PFLP was at its strongest, my uncles participated in it and so I feel very close to it. To me it is sad that my uncles aren’t very old and still active as lawyers, or with the UN, or as diplomats – my mother too, and for all those with relatives who were active during the Revolution, it is very sad. I believe it is also because of the films that came out during the period: you know what militant cinema is like, it is very nationalistic, it has a clear message and it makes you feel that things will change, but here we are in 2015, with those promises unfulfilled, really. And there is a part of me that wanted to take a step back from similar activism, because it reminds me of how much of the sentiment is really from the past and how little we have gained from it. I wanted my frustration with the cause to assume and acquire a physical form: when you are made to watch all these films, it is actually a violent act, because it hurts to see the naïve vision propagated in them. It is an antiquated vision of the situation, because it is not realistic. Therefore instead of merely moving straight to the footage of the Israeli girls, I wanted to bring that out in a very visceral way for the audience.

You have mentioned previously that for you, the past moves in slow motion, while the future is really just rushing by – I find it interesting that a section in the film, which is an artifact of the past really, you choose to speed it up. Is it because you find echoes of the future in it or am I reading too much into it?
No, I feel it has more to do with a current impatience with that material, the desire to deal with it swiftly so as to not being have to deal with it anymore. It’s to say, ‘Here we were, and that’s it, let’s move on.’ For me – and I am not sure if this is legible for everyone – [in O Persecuted] the advertising imagery, of the beaches, of the nightclubs, or the section in Israel, which is still superimposed by orientalist imagery of the belly-dancer, which initially seems seductive and sexual but then quickly becomes vulgar because it is reduced to a pair of tits in the middle of the screen. And these images in the film, they are all slowed down, if only to underline the exploitation of these women, if only to evoke the larger exploitation of women in the middle-east itself. It starts to unravel the present and makes us wonder how a country at war also have insane nightclubs, or, where are all the images of the women in the middle-east? For me, it is an attempt to try and slow down the future and to really allow us to contemplate our present as a feature distinct from what is past and what is about to come.

Do you sometimes feel however that because of who you are and where you come from, your work is easily categorized as being political?
It is true. I mean, I’ve been there and I’ve been making films for ten years now. I am no longer as involved in the exploration of the history of the Middle-East as I was. This also owes to my actual, physical relocation to the West, which is where I could regain access to film. I do feel that even if I were to shoot a field of flowers tomorrow, it would perhaps be perceived as being political because of my name and my nationality. But perhaps the perception may be correct, for I cannot deny that my perception of my environment is eventually informed by actual experience. It is not a very productive hypothesis. I only know how to make films as a female, as whoever I am. I do not have to be conscionably political anymore – this approach is inherent to whatever I shoot, even if it is a b-list horror movie set inside an isolated cabin.

I think that’s interesting, also because it is a transition concurrent with the one from your earlier work, which was more specific to spaces like the art gallery or the installation to your later, more recent films, which seem more familiar, more cinematic, so to say.
This is perhaps to do with the move to film. Or maybe because it is of a choice to invest directly in the human condition, in humans themselves, in how they can sometimes not understand each other at all, in our capacity to be compassionate, but also, horrified. In how apathy is entirely normal. This transition is a yield also of my collaboration with my partner, Ben Russell, who I take and give from in an active exchange. In a way, it was a desire to make my politics less explicit but also, the result of an unconscious effort which wasn’t meditated beforehand. This also explains my desire to show Sky Hopinka’s work, who is a filmmaker from the Native American background, which is a culture alien to so many of us – including Americans, because not many of us are either acquainted with or invested in its history. And yet, the ethos he depicts in his films are relatable without being explicit. This is a most interesting challenge for me as a filmmaker – to not particularize so much so as to alienate audiences, and yet, having them engage with a localized, geopolitical conflict without directly demanding such participation of them.