Last month Vanishing Spaces presented a series of six short films from Palestine and Syria organized by the London-based Zenith Foundation with the aim of providing a platform for independent cultural production, with a focus on the Arab world and its Diaspora. It was one of seventy events of the Arab arts as part of the London Shubbak Festival throughout the month of July.
With a uniting axis of vanishing spaces, the films raise, interrogate and explore different and yet related notions both of space and of vanishing. Old and new — the films were produced over a period spanning four decades — the films contend with the effects of political and industrial change, the importance and fragility of memory, home and belonging.
Film-Essay on the Euphrates Dam (1970) charts a loss but without mourning. The film is a celebration of the benefits of industrialization. In this first documentary work of Omar Amiralay, a sort of godfather of Syrian documentary filmmaking who died earlier this year, the director presents the building of the Euphrates dam as of unequivocal benefit to the rural communities in the area. Later, as the dam led to the flooding of villages and dislocation of those communities, Amiralay radically revised his optimism, notably in Flood in Baath Country (2003).
In Film-Essay on the Euphrates Dam, the only words in the ten-minute film are from a man building a wall to stop cattle eating his crops. He says that he works all day with his hands and only God helps. We see machinery, sparks, welding, huge cranes — juxtaposed with the unceasing manual labor this farmer must do day in, day out. And indeed it is a film of juxtapositions and dichotomy: of modernity and tradition, of progress and servitude to nature. This is mirrored in the use of music and sound — the camera goes back and forth between workers and their children learning to the sound of soothing music and the farmers and their families, their skin cracked, to the barren cracked earth, to the sound of more folky music.
At times there is just silence. The use of sound and silence and the beautiful cinematography channel our attention to the choreography of industrialization. The movements of the machines seem flawless and precisely choreographed. From this view, Amiralay could not have imagined the terrible consequences for the supposed beneficiaries of the dam. It may seem odd to include a film that expounds a view Amiralay was to critically revise as a homage to him. However, not only is the film stunning but by putting it in a series of films with the theme of vanishing spaces, the audience is encouraged to watch the film against the grain, and more in line with Amiralay’s later thinking. This is a simple reminder of the power of curating.
In They Were Here (2000) by Ammar Al Beik the first words we hear, amongst the few uttered during the eight-minute film, is a man telling us, “I swear, I work like a mule from dawn ‘til dusk.” It echoes the words of the farmer in Film-Essay on the Euphrates Dam but this time the context is quite different. The man is a worker in an abandoned steam-engine plant.
The film’s concerns and its style of black and white shots — almost like moving photography — show the influence of Amiralay. The everyday concerns of the workers are powerfully conveyed. The camera lingers on a sign scrawled in chalk that reads, “we want eggs, milk, soap, detergent.” A site of former industrial optimism, the steam-plant is falling into disrepair. One man says he has worked there for forty years and will retire in August, his tone betraying intimations of his impending absence after four decades at the plant. We see shots of bricks, tools, workbenches unused, a man walking and then disappearing like a shadow, a tap running and the water disappearing.
A river lost to pollution
The water of the Barada river running through Damascus has not run dry but its water is polluted and dirty. Before Vanishing (2000) charts the course of the river, as it divides into seven branches. It also alludes to a vanishing, a deterioration of a river now a shadow of its former glory. Lingering shots of litter, plastic bags, discarded bottles of water, the waste of a leather factory pumping furiously into the river are testament to its sad decline.
People cross a bridge, some clearly disgusted by the smell, holding their noses tight, walking briskly to get it over with; meanwhile others casually chat on the phone as they stroll across the bridge. We see shots of wasteland, reminiscent of images of the moon’s potted surface. Charting the path of the river, the director provides glimpses and snapshots of the lives of inhabitants along the way. A fairground is teeming with people, a family — a father and his five grown sons — are eating by the bank of a river. One of the them speaks to the camera crew, asking “What are you filming, our retardation?”
They are funny and self-reflective on how the packaging of their image could be interpreted, saying they hope that Jacques Chirac does not see them on TV talking to the chickens, their view balanced between an acknowledgement that their life is “simple,” that only in developing countries do you see scenes like this, that they are proud of their country, and that France — Syria’s former colonial ruler — is better, and all the while joking and laughing at themselves.
An open wound
If the man’s direct address to the filmmaker in Before Vanishing compels the audience to reflect on how it views an image, A Plate of Sardines (1997) compels the audience to reflect further on film and both the necessity and inadequacy of images. In his final film, Amiralay visits the village of Quneitra with fellow Syrian filmmaker Mohammad Malas. Destroyed by Israel in 1967 and taken back by Syria in 1973, Quneitra was left as an open wound, a lesson of Israel’s brutality, the film tells us.
When it was destroyed the only civilian building left standing was the cinema and as the camera lingers on the cinema, the voiceover reflects on filmmaking. In between clips from Malas’ Quneytra (1974), Malas says to Amiralay, “I wish you’d seen the city, not just through cinema,” and he reminisces about the smell of Quneitra’s air, something his film could not have conveyed.
A Plate of Sardines explores loss and memory and film itself as an act of loss and memory. At the start Amiralay says that if he had known that speaking about wounds would lead to more despair he certainly would have avoided getting into this project.
Part of this project is a revisiting of the occasion when he first heard of Israel. When he was six and the State of Israel was two years old, he tells us, he was visiting his aunt in Beirut with his mother. When he asks her why there was always a plate of sardines on the table, she says it is because of Israel. Expelled from the coastal Palestinian town of Jaffa, his uncle made a living working at the port in Beirut, and that’s why they always ate sardines, she explains.
From then on, every time Israel is mentioned or he mentions it, he smells the strong smell of sardines. Decades later, he returns to his aunt to check that he had not invented this association between Israel and sardines. She confirms his story, and adds that sardines are tasty.
He is dumbfounded and disappointed by her reaction - that for her they are like any other fish. Here not only do we have a beautiful reflection on how the political insinuates itself into relationships with the most mundane of objects, but also how intensely personal —and lonely — is that relationship.
Food and the occupation
In Soup Over Bethlehem (2006), food is also used as a platform for exploration, as the family of director Larissa Sansour eat around a dining table on a rooftop at their Bethlehem home. The only colors in the ten minute film are the yellow of the lemon and the green of the moloukhiyeh soup. The meandering conversation slips easily between different tones and moods — funny, serious and thoughtful — and returning now and again to the food.
From a humorous story to how difficult it was to buy the moloukhiyeh in Ramallah — so difficult it was more like buying drugs, ending with a guy pulling the dried green leaves out of his pocket — one person comments on how much more difficult it would be to get when Israel’s wall in the West Bank was completed (the wall then was still in its early stages). One person suggests that they should grow it along the wall to beautify the wall and another replies that they are against beautifying the wall.
Before long they are talking about moloukhiyeh again. Their conversation ranges from the claim that moloukhiyeh was banned by a sultan in the fourteenth century because of its aphrodisiac effects to a musing on why, unlike hummus, the Israelis have not taken it up as a “national dish.”
The ambiguity as to whether we are eavesdropping on a real conversation or whether it is scripted is less a question that must be answered and more part of the film’s charm and wit. The conversation slips easily between English and Arabic. In addition to their ID cards, the family members hold different foreign passports. It is a family under occupation and an unquestionably cosmopolitan family.
Reflections on the Nakba
Na’im and Wade’a (1999), a twenty-minute film by Najwa Najjar, visits another cosmopolitan Palestinian family, also the family of the director. With archive footage interspersed with family photographs and sound-bites from political speeches and newsreels, the film takes us back to Jaffa and describes the start of the family’s exile in 1948.
We hear two women, talking and remembering. They are not quite sure, were they able to go to see films at the cinema for free because their father was a translator or because he was also a shareholder? We never see them talking, and with the conversational element as they bring their memories together — some gaps, some divergences — both the fragility and persistence of memory are accentuated. They talk over clips of Om Kalthoum singing, of some of the French films their father translated, testament to the cosmopolitan influences in their lives before the creation of Israel.
The interspersing of footage and speech clips is beautifully executed. As the camera lingers over a lace curtain and a gramophone, we hear the Balfour Declaration read out loud, presaging all that they would lose. A story about how their mother allowed their father — a dance aficionado who had written a book about teaching dance — to dance with Jewish women, is both funny and underlines how Jews and Arabs lived intertwined lives. The story then leads seamlessly into an account of the 1936 Arab strike.
The film is visually rich, and we learn that when they left — like many others believing that they would return before long — they took many photos, a few dresses and scissors. Their father lost all his books, all his writings, all his translations. “Some things can never be replaced,” one of the interlocutors says simply.
As they reminisce about their life in Jaffa, they remember details and information that they would never be able to use — again like so many exiled. They remember that it was the number three bus they would take to the sea. As they speak of how their punishment for misbehaving was when their mother would say there is no sea today, their voices are heavy with a longing for all that was lost. And their photos — which they are grateful to still have — are a reminder of all that they were not able to salvage.
The theme of “vanishing spaces” unites the films in both direct and indirect ways and brings the films together as a beautiful, mournful and also optimistic ode both to loss and survival. Perhaps the theme of “vanishing spaces” might also prompt us to ask other questions. The Shubbak Festival was sponsored by the Mayor of London, the Conservative Party’s Boris Johnson, and the bank HSBC. With renewed interest across the globe in the Arab world and its potential, might we want to forge different spaces for Arab art, that are not tied either to political offices or financial institutions?
Naira Antoun is a youth worker and occasional writer.