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Summer Sale at The Mosaic Rooms Bookshop

Come visit our Mosaic Rooms bookshop and get 30% off selected art books, literature and poetry by renowned artists and writers such as Fazi Yazigi, Naguib Mahfouz, Pankaj Mishra, Nawal El Saadawi, Pascale Petit and many more!

Discounts available in store only.

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“Beauty is when justice is retained somewhere, even if this somewhere is in the future”

Posted by Shohini Chaudhuri

SilveredWater_1

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait is a documentary mostly composed of YouTube posts by anonymous activists. In this interview, the director Ossama Mohammed and documentarist and researcher Zaher Omareen lend their personal insights into its structure and significance.

For Ossama Mohammed, making Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait was both timely and necessary. As a veteran filmmaker, he was confronted by two new developments.

The first was the Syrian revolution and its violent repression by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Mohammed left Syria for France in May 2011, and has never returned, believing his life was in danger after he protested against the detention of political prisoners. Living at a time when so many young Syrians had been killed, and watching the events from afar, he felt he had to respond – freeing himself from his exile by connecting with images coming from Syria.

Second, the Syrian revolution was “a revolution of images”. Footage from the demonstrations, shot on mobile phones and uploaded onto YouTube, came to be circulated around the world. Through these pixellated images, it seemed to Mohammed that Syria was suggesting a new kind of cinema, a phenomenon he contemplates in his voiceover.

At the revolution’s beginnings, activists had few weapons to confront the regime apart from their mobile phones and small cameras. The regime’s official media denied the existence of the revolution (and still does), resorting to reports of “armed gangs”, while international media lacked correspondents on the ground. As Zaher Omareen says, the only means of covering the story was through activist videos which, with their images of unarmed civilians being beaten or shot, showed a different version of events – knowledge of which led him and many other Syrians of his generation to become involved in the visual archive of the uprising. 

Activist videos are now sometimes incorporated into mainstream Western media. But, as Omareen explains, “the media put the videos in a news context, and the people who died under shelling and torture become numbers.” What Silvered Water does, in contrast, is “shed light on the human side of these events. In addition to that, Ossama Mohammed put his finger on the very artistic side of this footage.” The film invites us to think about the footage in a different way. Omareen calls it an “interactive kind of film, because it shows you many things” – some of them very graphic – “but also leaves many things for you to think about later.”

Mohammed co-directed Silvered Water with Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a Syrian-Kurdish activist filmmaker in Homs, whom he met online. Its larger collective authorship is acknowledged in the credits, where he describes the film as being “by Wiam Bedirxan, 1001 Syrians and me” – a reference to 1001 Nights that suggests a stories-within-stories structure. Mohammed also worked with a young Syrian, the actress Maisoun Assad, also in exile in Paris, who began as an assistant in the research stage of finding the online material, and then became the film’s editor.

One difficulty they faced was how to build character from the vast number of “defiant” and “tragic” online images from Syria. “Cinematically, I was looking for a way to compose a character of the anonymous image-maker, the ‘hero of this time,’” filming events and rescuing them from historical oblivion. For the most part, we don’t know who these activists are, since many remain inside Syria and it’s too risky for them to reveal their identities while the regime still exists.

The film builds its intensity through the editing of visuals, voiceover narration, intertitles and sound to layer story upon story, 1001 Nights-style. The image of a newborn baby with its umbilical cord being cut is followed by mobile phone footage of a teenager being tortured in prison. (He was one of several schoolboys arrested for writing anti-regime graffiti in Deraa; their brutal treatment by police formed one of the revolution’s catalysts.) A recurrent image, the newborn baby signifies birth, implying causal links between stories. In Mohammed’s words, “The story of the boy who got arrested gave birth to demonstrations [which] gave birth to a new cinema and to the anonymous filmmaker. The first demonstration caused the first massacre [which] causes a funeral; and a massacre gives birth to the rebellion of the first soldier, Spartacus”.

Through his voiceover, Mohammed, the film’s “other author”, observes the images and makes personal associations. Behind this, he says, “there is a hidden narrator”, a Scheherazade figure whom he associates with the composer Noma Omran, whose haunting singing reverberates on the soundtrack, and co-director Wiam Simav Bedirxan, who embodies the identity of the anonymous filmmaker, narrating the story of the siege of Homs and that of the small boy Omar, gathering roses for his father’s grave – a beautiful act that recomposes the film’s painful world.

Omareen says there are “three elements” that attest to the value and importance of the archives from which Silvered Water draws. The first is documentation. Because of regime propaganda and, later on, the war’s risky conditions, “there is no neutral narration about what happened in Syria. The only thing we have, as a generation who witnessed this social movement, are these videos”.

The second is artistic value. Like Mohammed, Omareen believes that the videos have strong artistic characteristics that differ from any previous manifestation of cinema, although seeds can be found in movements such as cinéma vérité and Dogme ’95: “I’m talking about low-resolution image, handheld camera and filmmaker body-language, about death and the image of death”.

Justice is the third element. “These videos could be used by human rights organisations around the world or by any court in the future”, as evidence for trials. “We need time to collect other videos as well, because I know many activists who have been involved in the revolution since the first day are still afraid of publishing anything online as they are still in Syria”. This means the archive is even more vast than what we currently have.

Archives are not merely about the past, but also about the future. Omareen agrees. “The videos are our future. Let’s face it, we can’t rebuild our country without dealing with our past somehow,” although the task of coming to terms with perpetrators will not be easy.

For Mohammed, the artistic and justice elements are inseparable, as all Syrian activists “were resisting violence with beauty”. Their uploaded footage represents their “attempts to knock on the door of the world, justice and history”. By “beauty”, Mohammed does not mean physical beauty, an idea easily misunderstood by Western audiences. Rather, “the criterion of beauty is to rescue the tale of the victim from oblivion. Beauty is when you retain justice somewhere, even if this somewhere is in the future.” The archive is a record of the past with potential for delivering justice in the future.

With many thanks to Katya Alkhateeb, who translated the Arabic parts of this interview.  



Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait 
will be screening at The Mosaic Rooms on 23 June, 2016, 6.30pm. This is the final event in The Mosaic Rooms’ series Crisis and Creativity: A Season of Contemporary Films from and about the Arab World curated by Shohini Chaudhuri. 

To book tickets click here.

 

Heritage and Theft in Syria and Iraq

Stolen antiquities recovered in Iraq in 2008.

Stolen antiquities recovered in Iraq in 2008.

How has the theft and destruction of heritage been exploited in Syria and Iraq? This week The Mosaic Rooms hosted a talk with leading experts to discuss this.

Toby Dodge Director of the Middle East Centre at the LSE chaired the evening, introducing Benjamin Isakhan from Deakin University, Melbourne who heads the university’s project Heritage Destruction in Iraq and Syria and Neil Brodie who has researched the illicit trade in antiquities for over 20 years.

Isakhan described how cultural destruction has been perpetrated in Iraq and Syria, reflecting on the size of the problem: ‘ISIS are just one of the many perpetrators across the entire Middle East that are responsible for industrial scale destruction [of heritage]’. Focussing on ISIS, he argued that these are not ‘arbitrary acts of cultural destruction, it has specific political messages’. He described the ‘cultural genocide’ of sites of significance to oppressed communities, including Yazidi, Christian and Armenian communities. He cited the targeting of the Armenian Genocide Martyrs’ Memorial in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, a place of central significance for contemporary worship and as a site of remembrance and burial for victims of past genocide, which suffered wholesale destruction by ISIS in 2014.

The way in which ISIS propaganda videos present acts of destruction revealed their targets, Isakhan said, with attacks on pre Islamic sites translated in English and those on Islamic (such as Shia) sites in Arabic. The targeting of pre Islamic heritage was, he suggested, a considered attack on the enlightenment values of western society represented by the institution of the museum.

Trade and Preservation

Neil Brodie urged us to remember earlier acts of destruction in Afghanistan and Iraq. He argued that our short-term views are damaging, as destruction continues attention moves on. Brodie also pointed to research indicating that ISIS are not the only group profiting from trading antiquities, citing evidence that the Syrian Government and other groups are also involved. The reports of ISIS’s profits from trafficking artefacts he argued are overblown and misleading, distracting from the importance of developing a wider strategy for protecting heritage.

Audience questions sparked a wide ranging discussion, from the role of archaeology as a practice with colonial origins, to tributes to the efforts of local people to protect heritage, to the question of who benefits from this destruction?

Western attitudes to heritage preservation were also questioned. Isakhan described the reaction of a man who lived near the ancient site of Babylon to the millions being spent on ‘propping up a column’, when residents who had lived through starvation under Saddam Hussein and then suffered under American military occupation continued to live in deprivation nearby. Parallels could be drawn he said with the outcry over Palmyra whilst the starvation and killing of people in Syria continues unchecked.

What are the Solutions?

Seeking solutions, the role of UNESCO was criticised by both speakers. Neil Brodie argued that action to protect heritage has come too late: ‘our inability to come to terms with this has brought about a kind of hysteria…I think UNESCO hasn’t helped’. He advocated for a change of focus from the countries themselves to shutting down markets for the trade of goods. Isakhan outlined a role for UNESCO in leading national museum cooperation to care for objects in a time of war. He also suggested that people in the countries affected are rarely asked themselves what heritage they most care about being conserved.

This was part of a series of events around our current exhibition In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain. Next month’s talk Conflict City – Jerusalem will look at the politics of heritage preservation in Israel/Palestine.

Where creativity, ethics and the heart all come together

Posted by Shohini Chaudhuri

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The documentary Open Bethlehem lends a fresh angle on storytelling about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – through tourism. Director Leila Sansour and Middle Eastern studies researcher Ryvka Barnard tell us what is compelling about this approach.   

In Open Bethlehem, director Leila Sansour returns to her hometown Bethlehem in 2004 after a long absence. The town is being encircled by the Israeli Separation Wall which imprisons the residents and isolates them from the rest of the world. Sansour plans to stay just one year to make a film about the Wall but, in a decision that changes the course of her life and the film she is making, she launches a campaign to open up the city. She ends up shooting the film over a period of eight years, interweaving her personal story with the story of the campaign.

At first, the international donors that she approaches want to avoid being “overtly political”. “So what were we supposed to say we were doing?” Sansour wonders. Cut to a shot of the campaign placard: “The Open Bethlehem Tourism Project”.

Yet tourism, initially adopted as a cover for the campaign, is soon revealed to be a key issue amongst Bethlehem’s residents, as many depend on it for their livelihoods. Since the building of the Wall, numbers of tourists have dwindled and most of them arrive on Israeli-organised tours to be whisked around the Nativity Church before leaving – often unaware that they are, in fact, visiting Palestine.

Sansour says a cocktail of different elements inspired her to make this film. With the repressions that followed the Second Intifada (2000-2005), “it became difficult to stay away from the situation altogether. There was a force that made me want to be more Palestinian than I was.”

Born in Moscow to a Palestinian father and Russian mother, she moved with her family to Bethlehem as a child when her father was invited to found Bethlehem University. Having left as a teenager, she felt she had lost a link with her country that she wanted to reinstate. “My father was a big inspiration in my life but Bethlehem was where we parted ways. When he died, I realised I had never invested properly in the things that he cared about so much”.

As a filmmaker, Sansour knew she could tackle the subject in an interesting way: “creativity, a sense of ethics and where your heart is all came together”. Open Bethlehem is, first and foremost, a personal story, movingly evoking her childhood and relationship with her father through home movie footage.

The film is also filled with humour which, like tourism, may not be an obvious choice of approach to crisis. Yet, in Palestine, humour is a vital strategy for dealing with the Israeli occupation’s bleak realities. “No matter what hard times we go through, humour is part of the make-up of commentary and reflection on the world around us,” Sansour explains. The absurdity of the occupation itself provides material for humour. “People are humorous as the situation is unfolding in front of them all the time, so they always have that strange, situational humour going on”.

As Ryvka Barnard, an expert on the politics of tourism in Palestine, remarks, “We think of tourism so often as a non-politicised space”. Open Bethlehem is playful with this idea, and subtly challenges it. “As the film unfolds, you start to see how every piece of tourism is a politicised sphere in Palestine. It’s a really beautiful way to introduce the concept and open up a range of topics: the violence of the occupation, questions about home and exile, questions about positionality”.

Growing up in an American-Jewish household, Barnard went on trips to Israel as a child without realising that she was travelling into Palestinian territory – that was how the tours were designed. “They didn’t present different territories. There was no conversation about what the land was before the State of Israel. We moved in and out of the West Bank seamlessly”. This gave the impression that the entire territory was Israeli space and, additionally, “for Zionist tourists, that it all belongs to you, even if you have no particular connection to the place”.

Later on, when she became politicised, Barnard returned to the same places as an anti-Zionist activist and tour guide for other activists, experiencing those places completely differently. “It was my first understanding of what it meant to move between different spaces”, a routine experience for Palestinians barred from travelling to places that Jewish Israelis and foreign tourists are free to go.

One reason why tourism lends an illuminating perspective is the significance of maps. “As a tourist, the first thing you do is look at the map to see where you’re going”, says Barnard. “That’s already a politicised issue, because it depends on what map you’re looking at”. To create the Israeli state, the Zionist project overlaid its map onto historic Palestine. It tried to forge links with biblical lands through acts of renaming that erased the past’s complex layers in favour of an exclusively Jewish one. “In tourism, we have very simple contemporary examples of how Israel continues to do that”. In particular, tourist maps help to normalise the Jewish settlement presence in the West Bank.

Open Bethlehem powerfully conveys this aspect in its scenes about Rachel’s Tomb. Built in Bethlehem on the site where the biblical matriarch Rachel is said to have died, Rachel’s Tomb has been cordoned off from the rest of the town and claimed as the Jewish state’s exclusive property – part of an ongoing attempt to take over more land and turn it into Israel.

Along with the construction of the Wall and settlements, Israel has appropriated large areas of the Bethlehem District, transforming them into nature reserves, closed military zones, Jewish-only highways and other areas off-limits to Palestinians. “We’re trying to raise awareness and sensitivity to what it means to destroy or lose a city like this”, Sansour says. “But also to make it speak for the rest of Palestine and the dangers and challenges that Palestinians face today.”

The Open Bethlehem campaign is part of a growing alternative tourism industry that uses tourism to highlight or counteract the effects of the occupation. “We wanted to promote intelligent visits to Bethlehem to allow people more insight, and genuinely more interaction with the reality, society and community in Bethlehem. And to promote visits from the political establishment in the West, to try and bring the issue high up on the agenda”.

In recent years, there has been an increased interest in exploring Palestinian identity and history through heritage as well as art and film. As a case in point, Barnard mentions this year’s opening of the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit. While there has been a long history of exploring these issues through Palestinian art, “questions of the future are looming very intensely”. The renewed interest in tourism and heritage is part of an attempt to grapple with that.


 

Open Bethlehem will be screening at The Mosaic Rooms on 8 June, 2016, 6.30pm. This is the second event in The Mosaic Rooms’ series Crisis and Creativity: A Season of Contemporary Films from and about the Arab World curated by Shohini Chaudhuri. 

To book tickets, click here.

 

 

“I want to go back and film”: Maysoon Pachachi on A Candle for the Shabandar Café

Posted by Shohini Chaudhuri

MAYSOON photo

“Creativity is a response to the ‘un-making’ of the world, when the pavement is crumbling under your feet and you no longer recognise the people around you”, says Maysoon Pachachi, a London-based Iraqi filmmaker with extensive experience of working on the frontline of war and occupation. She and her colleague Kasim Abid taught documentary filmmaking in Jerusalem, Gaza and Ramallah, before setting up the Independent Film and Television College in their native Baghdad and producing A Candle for the Shabandar Café, one of the shorts screened at Space and Memory in the War-Torn City, earlier last month. In a special interview for The Mosaic Rooms, Maysoon Pachachi tells of her experiences working in Baghdad and the background to the film.

What was the inspiration behind the film school in Baghdad?

There was one point when I was teaching in Ramallah, with tanks on the streets and curfews every night. We were inspired by how much difference it made to the students being able to actually put thoughts and feelings on the screen in a situation like that. So, in 2003, we were in Ramallah, sitting in a café having a coffee and we went, ‘OK, Iraq has been invaded and is under occupation, what can we do?’ We are not something useful, like doctors or engineers to rebuild the country. Our experience in Palestine gave us a lot of encouragement to try and do the same sort of a thing, to set up a free-of-charge school to teach basic cinema skills.

Of course, we had grand plans at the beginning but, because of the security situation, which got increasingly worse, and because of the funding, we really operated in a very minimal way and very stop-start. At one point, at the height of sectarian tension, people were getting kidnapped from the building. There was an explosion that went off nearby and the glass on the building shattered many times and the students couldn’t get in, or somebody in their families got kidnapped and killed. In fact, this is what happened to Kasim’s brother.

We’d been outside the country for a very long time, both of us, and we didn’t want to do what we saw a lot of people doing. People who lived outside went back and tried to tell the Iraqis what to do. I really didn’t want to do that. So when Kasim went back to visit his family, he started talking to people and asking if there was an interest. And people said, ‘Yes, yes, yes, come, we really need this’. Because of the sanctions, there’d been no access to digital equipment, there’d been no access to video equipment, there were no film labs. And the cameras they had were very antiquated. If something went wrong, there was no way of getting replacement parts during the sanctions, so filmmaking more or less stopped.

How did you get around the problem, which you saw elsewhere, of people from outside imposing their way of working? How did you try to enable the filmmakers to tell their own stories?

That was absolutely a pillar of the way we were working – to help them make the films they wanted to make. So they would come to us with ideas, then we would discuss with them: ‘What is the core of this film, why do you want to do it, what’s important about this, what sort of thing can actually tell a story?’ Then came the logistics, a big issue because they were shooting in dangerous circumstances. People would set up, do all the research and then suddenly that area becomes incredibly dangerous, closed off, full of checkpoints and militias, and they would have to stop and do something else. Or the central person of the film would suddenly get kidnapped or have to leave the country in 24 hours. So there was a lot of chopping and changing like that. In the end, especially in 2006, 2007, 2008, when the situation got really dangerous, they found themselves really having to work in a situation of familiarity instead of launching further out to the society, which is what they wanted to do. They would have to make something more personal, around their neighbourhood, around people that they knew and trusted, that was the truth of the situation.

Can you tell us about your involvement in A Candle for the Shabandar Cafe?

Well, it was one of the films on the 2007 documentary course. [The director] Emad Ali wanted to do a historical film about the culture of Iraq. Shabandar Café is in the old part of town, the area where the Ottomans had their headquarters and barracks. It opened in 1917, and was always the place where people came to discuss literature and politics. The whole place is redolent with the history of modern Iraq. So this is what Emad was initially making the film about. And it’s near Al-Mutanabbi Street, the street of bookshops, another institution at the heart of the culture of the city. That’s where, in 2007, a bomb went off, and the film covers that.

One night [in December 2006], a mortar fell on Emad’s house and killed his wife and his father. I mean, you can imagine he was in a terrible state. He just stopped doing everything on the film. When the bomb went off [in Al-Mutanabbi Street], which was in March, we weren’t in Iraq at the point and he rang us and said, ‘I want to go back and film’. Kasim said to him, ‘OK, be very careful’. He thought it was a good idea because it was pulling him out of his psychological collapse and depression. He told him to take a camera that would not attract anybody’s attention and to be very careful and aware of his surroundings, to shoot and get out of there. And Emad went and got some great footage for the café and what was going on. When he was leaving, he was attacked by two people with hidden faces in an unnumbered car.

We brought the students out of Iraq to Damascus to edit their films. [Due to his injuries from the attack] Emad was unable to walk and travel, so students on his course edited the film for him and it was submitted to several festivals, including the Gulf film festival in Dubai and it won a prize there. [As a result of winning a prize at Dubai] Emad was able to have his medical treatment and a month of rehabilitation there. Then he went back to Baghdad and made another film, about press freedom in Iraq. When somebody from a Dutch TV company came in 2010 and interviewed him, she said to him, ‘Why did you carry on?’ He said, ‘Because if I didn’t, they’d have won.’

The film school in Baghdad has closed, after running for ten years, but do you still have links to people from there?

Yes, I’ve got links with Emad and several other people that were there. In fact, when I was in Baghdad recently, doing some auditions for something that I am working on, the person who came and filmed the auditions was one of our students in 2010.


 

A Candle for the Shabandar Café  was screened at Space and Memory in the War-Torn City at The Mosaic Rooms on May 18. This was the first event in the series Crisis and Creativity: A Season of Contemporary Films from and about the Arab World curated by Shohini Chaudhuri. 

The next screening, Politicising Tourism in Palestine, will be held at The Mosaic Rooms on June 8, at 6.30pm.  To book tickets click here

 

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