When asked by an interviewer about what ‘home’ means to him, Orson Welles replied, ‘It interests me, in terms of not having one.’ Basma Alsharif is ‘a filmmaker of Palestinian origin’, but her practice extracts this casual, throwaway phrase from festival brochures across the world and identifies it as a label of much consequence; in that, she conducts a thorough inquiry into its actual meaning and the resulting influence upon her work. Alsharif’s films transmit the experience of an eternal outsider – lost in a strange land where the street signs have long been removed – they convey a sense of the uncanny, ‘that which seems familiar, but is not.’
The following is an excerpt from an interview was conducted on the sidelines of the Courtisane Film Festival, where Deep Sleep, her most recent film was screened alongside such other titles as Home Movies Gaza and O, Persecuted. The complete interview appears in the upcoming issue of the magazine.
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 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, I 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.
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.
Coming Up: An interview with Pedro Costa.