The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2018

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APR 2018 Issue

Having Some Space: Dissociation and Generative Embodiment in Basma Alsharif's Ouroboros


There is simply too much injustice in the world. And too much remembering (of ancient grievances: Serbs, Irish) embitters. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited.

If the goal is having some space in which to live one's own life, then it is desirable that the account of specific injustices dissolve into a more general understanding that human beings everywhere do terrible things to one another.

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

In the context of exceedingly white Western normative approaches to art criticism, it’s often the way of the marginalized artist to balk at attempts to frame their output within stringent identity-based confines. It then at first comes as a surprise that Basma Alsharif, a Kuwaiti-born visual artist of Palestinian heritage, so fervently ties her work to her cultural lineage, seemingly unbothered. Alsharif has travelled considerably throughout her now decade-long professional practice, spending time in cultural centers like Cairo, Paris, Beirut, and most recently Los Angeles. But even with the metropolitan mobility of a career artist, Alsharif continues to speak across publicity materials and interviews of her Palestinian heritage as an anchor to and enduring concern in her work.

Perhaps it’s the protective, self-preservationist impulse extending from one racialized creative to another that prompts concerns of limitation with self-identification, but Alsharif’s modes of direction deftly precipitate the necessity of her insistence, and then collapse these concerns altogether as it becomes clear that her work speaks far beyond borders and barriers: from the vantage point of one particular socio-political locus, she excavates wider, apparently enduring truths of human relations and leaves us somewhere else altogether, making sense of the nebulous matter in between. It’s this cycling-through from mystification to elucidation and back which will characterize the experience of engaging with Alsharif’s newest work.

Indeed, it’s at the Toronto Palestine Film Festival where I first encounter Ouroboros, the artist’s feature film debut, which she has summarized with a deceptive neatness as “[a]n homage to the Gaza Strip based on the eternal return.” The work takes its name from the ancient gnostic symbol of the serpent eating its own tail in an invocation of the notions of eternity and cyclical time. Alsharif has behind her a healthy selection of short moving-image works as likely to be presented in the gallery as in the cinema, but the privilege of the theatrical screening experience is apparent within the first moments of the new work’s 77-minute runtime. The all-encompassing engagement cultivated within the singular, focused atmosphere of the one-off, single-channel screening seems crucial to the mission of the film: a headlong immersion into personal and collective notions of memory, trauma, and rebirth that privileges the viewer’s own physical and sensorial immediacy.

Ouroboros wastes no time establishing an ethos of mobility: Alsharif’s opening scene suspends the viewer a few hundred feet above and parallel to a receding shoreline, waves billowing in reverse below. We look over the Gaza Strip in Palestine, and it quickly becomes apparent that the footage is shot by drone, the film’s only digital footage in contrast to the more lived-in 16mm footage utilized elsewhere. The sonic space is filled with whirring and ebbing sirens that reach a harrowing crescendo before coming to an abrupt, dizzying stop. It’s an altogether alien and disorienting start.

With no time to process or recalibrate, we’re transported elsewhere in Gaza to greet a woman stationed outside of a house, seemingly awaiting our arrival. Thwarting spatial conventions again, she begins to travel in reverse—as in the previous shot—leading us backwards into and through the home as she dusts, tousles, and adjusts its wares to a sort of indecipherably desirable state. In the film’s press kit, the director explains that the home belongs to extended family and the woman is its longtime caretaker. Over the years, her duties have evolved to include making the house appear occupied after its residents departed in 2009 in the wake of the three-week Gaza War, deterring the Israeli military from bombing it based on the oft-cited premise that it was presumed to be housing weapons. Looming political violence is central to the scene’s genesis but remains unspoken, an early indicator of Alsharif’s general approach within the work.

The brassy drone of Tibetan singing bowls reverberates conically in the background to unnerving effect. At times, the woman's gaze meets the camera in what feels like an acknowledgment of both performance and surveillance. Here, as in her opening scene, Alsharif mobilizes a denaturalization of otherwise sublime images and signifiers of nature and domesticity, and the reverse procession of movement in these two opening shots forces sustained and active engagement from the viewer early on.

From the outset, Alsharif’s direction makes clear that the hostile political climate is a central, ever-present concern: following the drone footage and the property tour are poised shots of the vacant house’s idle possessions standing in for life lived, while fellow filmmaker Sky Hopinka recites an elegy of sorts for bygone civilian domestic conditions in the revived Indigenous language of chinuk wawa (in which he commonly works) accompanied by English subtitles. The monologue transposes the attendant drama onto the lifeless scene and betrays the preoccupation, while the inclusion of Hopinka itself stretches concerns of exile and occupation transnationally across marginalized populations: "We were cursed long before we knew to defend ourselves."

As with Alsharif’s broader practice, the film travels, staging its peculiar non-dramas in Palestine, downtown Los Angeles, the Mojave Desert, the Southern Italian city of Matera, and a Breton château before returning us to Palestine at the film’s end. Though it traverses continents, geographical distinctions are obscured and even undermined, connected by soundscapes and actions rolling from one scene to another. Idiosyncratically, the film is demarcated into several segments named chronologically—dawn, noon, dusk, and night, of which the film completes nearly two cycles—with each one announced at its outset by Hopinka in voiceover.

Alsharif enlists the efforts of an international mix of celebrated collaborators both in front of and behind the camera: artist Diego Marcon features as the film’s roaming protagonist, while writer Coleman Collins appears fleetingly in the film’s second act to perform a selection of monologues, and frequent collaborator Ben Russell handles cinematography. Despite her worldly topical concerns and ensemble to match, notions of the cosmopolitan and the urbane are conspicuously absent from the viewing experience. With its invocation of chronological and spatial fluidities, the work seems more preoccupied with the loftier considerations of embodiment and the enduring self.

As the film rolls on, Alsharif offers images of characters quite literally going through the motions of life but rarely, if ever, advancing their narratives in any traditional sense or even expressing subjectivity. Their movement is contained, slow, often futile to the viewer’s eye, in stark contrast to a tumultuous geopolitical context fraught with sudden, directional force and extinguishing violence. Notions of the uncanny surface within these throwaway gestures and familiar domestic scenes devoid of substantive life: a sit-down meal is interrupted by a beckoning visitor; characters often relocate themselves onscreen without discernible reason, or merely observe each other silently in moments where dialogue would normally occur; footage of Marcon’s protagonist preparing a meal plays backwards, a gesture that literally and symbolically distances him from the satisfaction of carnal human impulses. The actions of Alsharif’s human subjects are often truncated, interrupted, suddenly set in reverse as if in a time warp, all to unsettling effect. Within this dynamic, our bearing witness seems a most important element: in perceiving the gaps between our own normal human (inter)actions and the alien remove with which they’re playing out onscreen, the viewer defaults to a place of introspective, self-implicated spectatorship in contending with the unintelligible dramatic action.

The characters themselves remain nameless, and most appear only briefly but are conspicuously and variously racialized. Alsharif treats these characters as representatives of the groups whose racial markers they bear, drawing connections between colonized and oppressed peoples existing across spatiotemporal boundaries. By way of her cast and structure (particularly in one section of the film depicting a makeshift theatrical rehearsal), critical commentaries on Black American slavery, Native American and Hispanic histories, ethnic stereotypes, and the white gaze are embedded in the text. For Alsharif, it doesn’t satisfy to meet us where we are: she participates in a further resituating of her audience and a distancing of the viewer further from any sense of ethnocentric comfort with her use of Hopinka’s revived Indigenous chinuk wawa, a decision intended, by the artist’s own admission, to render the spoken dialogue unrecognizable to large swaths of the population. The decision seems to demonstrate a faith in this chasmic territory as a generative space, the fabricated sense of alienation holding transformative potential.

It’s with this same precise, distinctive artistic vision that Alsharif guides us on a rigorous intercontinental journey before returning us back to Palestine, all the while keeping vulnerable populations and modes of survival at the forefront. In one late passage of the film, Marcon and a companion sit leisurely in the opulent setting of the Breton castle while the reedy tones of a hurdy-gurdy sing on in the background with increasing volume. That the instrument is a descendant of the Arabic rebab by way of France is itself a curious invocation of colonial-imperialistic spectres, but Alsharif goes even further, casting the instrument’s player as a sort of overlord when she overlays footage of his performance with overhead images of the Gaza Strip. Alsharif swiftly turns us to abstracted images of children in Gaza at play, and then concludes with an aberrant montage that flicks through footage from scenes past in rhythmic tandem with a jolting electronic soundtrack—perhaps a commentary on the coexistence of the past and present.

Ouroboros mounts an incisive examination of the panoramic necropolitical forces at work that leave a population prone to threatening physical, economic, and social realities, but it resists aestheticizing this suffering and violence. Instead, it seems to highlight the more nebulous sentiments of frustration, futility, absurdism, and inescapability that also characterize the sociopolitical milieu by way of its futile human gestures and its meandering travel that we’re obliged to follow without agency or sense of direction, calling into question the very boundaries of sovereignty and free will. The often-impeded and distorted actions Alsharif presents onscreen prompt deeper consideration of the sentiments of despondency that might reasonably fester in a markedly devastative milieu, and convey a sense of dissociation—of behaviour from consciousness, of bodies and people from land and security. Alsharif’s film, then, seems a formally verbose commentary on sustained dissociation as a defense mechanism in a situation she characterizes as an interminable "cycle of destruction and renewal,” where forgetting and detaching are logical strategies for endurance. Perhaps the forgetting itself is a sort of necropolitical death, a necessary disavowal of the trauma and grievances that are surely formative and lodged within the body and mind, but ultimately disappeared and beyond reproach.

The challenging experience of watching Ouroboros is a continual deciphering of the largely unintelligible universes she drops us into and pulls us out of just as quickly, only to begin the deciphering again. And yet, whether by stunned fascination or sheer human will, we persist amid the disorientation, as do the subjects of the violence that Alsharif addresses. As Alsharif deals visually in the real, the quotidian, and the gestural, the layered and evocative alchemy of her practice conjures heavy affective blows. Her communication of dissociative mechanisms makes us more keenly aware of our presence in our own bodies, where enduring is the only constant we’ve ever truly known.

With its anonymizing of characters and sensorial alienation, Ouroboros works in modes that effectively privilege the personal for each viewer by centering our unease and non-identification with that which is ordinarily human and formally recognizable. Alsharif propels us into the present, granting emotional and corporeal immediacy to a protracted situation where, by the artist’s estimation, disavowal of memory and psychocorporeal disintegration have hitherto been primary means of coping. Perhaps—maybe especially, for a non-Palestinian viewer—it’s the film’s own ephemerality that bolsters its lingering force, leaving us with a feeling rather than a message. Alsharif crafts Ouroboros as a diffusive medium, rendering the affective particulars of the cultural-political conditions more widely accessible and inviting us to grapple with them too. It’s an inconceivably generous work in this way, and I feel clumsy and exasperated in its wake, woefully incapable of juggling its myriad insights. In recalling the film shortly after my first viewing, I’m left with little more than spectral bits of sound and image springing forth in my mind and departing again. But it’s there, just so: the forgetting is the impression.


Lydia Ogwang

Lydia Ogwang is a writer and editor based in Toronto, Ontario.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2018

All Issues