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Measuring distance

by Nicolas Helm-Grovas
Reviews / Film and moving image • 03.04.2024

In The Hour of Liberation has Arrived FIG.1 by the Lebanese film-maker Heiny Srour (b.1945) – a riveting documentary of the Dhofar War in Oman (1963–76) – a group of uniformed children discuss with an adult how their revolutionary camp of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf should be run. Their discourse conjures an entire world of revolutionary Leftist politics: committees, ‘organisation’ (versus the bad object of ‘spontaneity’) and self-criticism. Earlier in the film, a group of children are seen reciting from a blackboard in call and response with their teacher, before, one-by-one, counting in English from one to ten. This process of formation and unification is, in a typical gesture of militant cinema, one that the audience is assumed to be part of: they too are asked to learn at the revolutionary schoolhouse.

When Srour’s newly restored film was screened at this year’s Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival (BFMAF; 7th–10th March 2024), the introduction proposed it as a reminder of the ongoing necessity of anti-colonial struggle. Watching The Hour of Liberation has Arrived fifty years after its making, on a rainy day in the miserable context of 2024 Britain, the present reviewer wondered whether the film could be more than a mere reminder, and what else it might mean here and now. There is a remarkable moment when the film itself gestures towards these questions. In it, the image of a woman interviewed earlier in the film reappears on a poster advertising a demonstration. This subject from a particular historical event becomes a globally circulated image, passing from the specific to the general – a signifier connoting ‘struggle’ or ‘Oman’. Which discourses and spectators could allow Srour’s film to generate something other than the vague praise or suppressed condescension that often meets such militant cinema, at least in the United Kingdom? Might there be a way to account for its distance without it becoming entirely mysterious, as though written in a forgotten language, and instead make it possible to, as Walter Benjamin put it, appropriate such a historical image as it ‘flashes up’ in our present?1

Indeed, a number of films screened at BFMAF interrogated precisely this problem. In Razan AlSalah’s A Stone’s Throw FIG.2, for example, one particular historical image is examined: a 1930s photograph of Palestinian workers on the Haifa shore alongside the Kirkuk–Haifa oil pipeline, which was sabotaged by the Palestinian resistance in 1936 FIG.3. The camera zooms in and out on a digitised version of the photograph; the film tries to see history, but as the lens moves closer and closer, all that appears is abstraction – the black, white and grey squares of pixels. At the end of the film, the image reappears, like a layer of historical underpainting, superimposed with two more recent ones: 16mm footage of Amine, a Palestinian exile in Lebanon, and Google Maps-style imagery. The film’s title evokes both an act of resistance using the scant resources at hand and a short distance that is also a huge gulf. A sign reads ‘Jerusalem, 173km’, while AlSalah traverses the vast wall built by Israel along the Lebanese border. This sense of historical and geographical proximity and distance also permeates Phantom Beirut FIG.4 by Ghassan Salhab (b.1958). Recalling the films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf (b.1957) and Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016) from the early 1990s, as well as the deadpan comedy of Elia Suleiman (b.1960), Phantom Beirut opens a productive analytical space by intercutting its fictional plotline set in the late 1980s with interviews with the actors about their experiences of the Lebanese Civil War (1975–90).

Similar concerns appear too in the early works of Basma al-Sharif (b.1983), one of the festival’s ‘Filmmakers in Focus’. In We Began by Measuring Distance FIG.5, hands leaf through a book of images of Palestine FIG.6. The relation enacted is that of exile: at once intimate (the book is cradled delicately, the pages turned carefully) and removed (place becomes image and object, to be contemplated and imagined but not lived in). In another astonishing sequence, two figures hold up a white sheet in the wind in a wintry landscape. Superimposed onto the sheet are distances – Geneva to Madrid, Madrid to Oslo, Gaza to Jerusalem – and the numbers 17, 48 and 67, suggesting the years of the Balfour Declaration, the Nakba and the Six Day War. From Gaza to Jerusalem is just 78km – so near, so far. The words ‘more + more + more + more…’ appear, evoking the famous ‘and’ of Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Here and Elsewhere (1976), a film that also measures distances in time and space. al-Sharif’s The Story of Milk and Honey FIG.7, shown in the same screening, subtly explores the archive, documentation and erasure: ‘I erased the faces from old family photographs’, ‘I discovered a letter without an envelope or address’, the narrator recounts in Arabic. The film provides too little information and too much – multiple, overlaid texts and images, faded, sometimes upside down. It works by constellation. The gaps or absences are, as much the other materials, positive elements, to be experienced in their own right. Here, film-making is a way of trying to put things at the correct distance from one another.

al-Sharif’s Deep Sleep (2014) was presented on a loop in the Town Hall Council Chamber, one of the festival’s exhibition spaces. This separation from the artist’s other films, which were screened in cinemas, highlighted its status as a transitional work. Having gone up one flight of stairs too many in the town hall, the present reviewer found himself in Berwick-upon-Tweed’s eighteenth-century jail and courthouse, before being redirected by a man repairing a rope for bell-ringing. After at last finding the film – in a room for council meetings crowded with chair desks, a peculiar local governmental dispositif – the first sound to be heard was ringing bells, producing an uncanny resonance between film and building. One of the repeated motifs in Deep Sleep is a finger pointing at something in the frame. This signal for attention sets the viewer an interpretative task. Significantly, the finger is often aimed at ruins, material remnants of history, but what we should be discerning is not straightforwardly apparent. It is this insistence on the presence of a meaning that is difficult for the viewer to parse that points forwards to al-Sharif’s more recent films.

In the ‘Filmmaker in Focus’ Q&A session, al-Sharif described the shift in her films from discursive and obviously political to less archival and more enigmatic as being motivated by a desire to push back against her work being too easily legible. She also attributed it to a refusal of certain expectations of what work by a Palestinian film-maker – al-Sharif’s family are from Gaza, and she is currently based in Berlin – is supposed to be like. Films such as Ouroboros (2017) and Capital FIG.8 are more sealed off and demand greater interpretative leaps from the viewer. They are like locked boxes or amulets: meaning is there waiting to be released. In Capital, a female protagonist in a fantasy mise en scène receives erotic phone calls stating the absurd names of real-life urban development complexes FIG.9. While this can certainly be connected to Palestine – witness Jared Kushner’s recent promotion of Israel ‘redeveloping’ Gaza’s potentially ‘very valuable’ waterfront – the film’s libidinal and political economy is open to other readings.2

The large number of films at the festival addressing Palestine or made by Palestinian directors created a forcefield that charged all the films and discussions. But rather than closing the films down with reference to a single political axis, the effect was to expand their potentials. The Human Surge 3 FIG.10, by the second featured film-maker, the Argentine director Eduardo Williams (b.1987), is a case in point. Shot with a 360-degree camera, the film pushes the unfurling of three-dimensional space onto the two-dimensional cinema screen to an experimental limit. Far from allowing the audience a position of panoptical mastery, the outcome is severe disorientation and a feeling of near helplessness. In the context of the festival, such a project – the locations of which span Asia and Latin America – could be read as an immanent critique of cartographic projection, like spreading a globe flat to view its distortions. The Human Surge 3 found a particular affinity with AlSalah’s otherwise very different A Stone’s Throw, which twists the usual orientation of a digital map of the Middle East, defamiliarising the power relations ossified in standard cartographies.

‘Surge’ (Spanish ‘auge’, also meaning rise, boom, peak) suggests a sudden increase in electrical current, which might induce the ‘flashing up’ of the image that Benjamin desired. In Diego Marcon’s Monelle FIG.11, which was screened alongside al-Sharif’s Capital and Renée’s Room (2016), the flash is literalised. Shot in Giuseppe Terragni’s Casa del Fascio, originally the headquarters of Italy’s National Fascist Party in the 1930s, Monelle is a structural horror film. The film is mostly set in darkness, punctuated by loud cracking sounds and flashes of light that reveal disturbing tableaux, such as a crawling, smartly dressed woman FIG.12 or a body falling from a balcony. The images fade precisely on the verge of recognition. The horror arises from the way the viewer can never guard against the shock despite knowing it is coming, and the scene slipping away before cognition can capture it. This is the nightmare of history, when we fail to fulfil the task that Benjamin describes. The festival as a whole, however, provided ample opportunity to practise what he suggested. Constellated together, images of the world – the distances and affinities between them perceptible and measurable – flash up on the cinema screen at a moment of danger, demanding to be seized, if we are willing and able.


Exhibition details

19th Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival

Various locations, Berwick-upon-Tweed

7th–10th March 2024

About the author

Nicolas Helm-Grovas

is a writer based in London. He is Lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London.


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