share


Interview with Basma Alsharif

Basma Alsharif has never called a geographical space home. Her short video works, feature length films and lecture performances – made in Chicago, Cairo, Beirut, Amman, Paris, Gaza, Sharjah and Los Angeles – offer deliberately contorted experiences of time and place. For the past ten years her work has encouraged viewers to engage critically with the thorny question of hope in relation to Palestine.

 

Her short film O, PERSECUTED (2014) overlays a restored version of Kassem Hawal’s 1974 Palestinian militant film OUR SMALL HOUSES with photographs of hedonistic Israeli beach parties – colliding contemporary Israel with a nostalgic historical record of Palestine, neither of which give ‘complete’ documentations. In her 2014 lecture performance DOPPELGÄNGING she attempted to hypnotise the audience into imagining a different form of physical existence – that of being two people at the same time, or occupying two different spaces simultaneously.

 

Her latest exhibition, THE GAP BETWEEN US at The Mosaic Rooms in London in early 2018, included the premier of OUROBOROS (2017), a feature length film about the Gaza Strip. Her work – whether directly or indirectly about Palestine – attempts to break from the confines of one particular perspective or retelling of history in order to reflect on the nature of representation itself. Her efforts to understand a future beyond what is remembered as history or defined by geography, and her reflections on the broader human condition, are grounded in a realism which questions the cycle of renewal and destruction intrinsic to the ouroboros – a symbol of a snake eating its own tail.

 

We initially conducted our interview via email between Istanbul and Los Angeles before meeting by chance in Cairo several months later, where we sat down for a longer conversation. The following interview is a compilation of both exchanges. The nature of the two geographically and temporally fragmented interactions seemed appropriate to discuss topics of splintered identities and distorted time frames.

 

Q

The White Review

—  How would you describe your relationship with Palestine?

 

A

Basma Alsharif

—  My parents are Palestinians who met in Egypt, gave birth to me in Kuwait, moved to France, and after eight years were denied citizenship and eventually immigrated to the US. So I grew up without a national identity, even though I was lucky enough to keep visiting Gaza – where my mother’s family was living until 2009 – throughout my childhood into adulthood. I would say this lack of a national identity is part of the ‘Palestinian Identity’ but it’s also just my personal biography – the path my parents took, the complications and privileges they had. Gaza, more than Palestine, continues to be a part of my life because it was somehow the only place I kept returning to, the only place that felt like home. Although, in reality, I am as much a foreigner there as I was in France or perhaps even the US. And, as long as I have been alive, the situation there has only grown worse. It’s hard to ignore a place that you have a connection to that you see suffer in such public, violent and wilfully destructive ways.

 

Q

The White Review

— How did you make OUROBOROS? Could you talk through the process behind it?

 

A

Basma Alsharif

—  I developed the film around the concept of the ‘eternal return’, the idea that life is a cycle of recurrences, as seen in the symbol of the snake eating its own tail – an ouroboros. I used this to explore whether we are necessarily doomed to repeat our mistakes or if the only way to survive is to forget. This is something I saw happening in Gaza – that the only way to move forward and survive the atrocities that are happening there is to forget the past. But equally I wanted to explore whether this means we are driving toward our own self-destruction. I tried to link what is happening to Gaza to other sites, other histories and other landscapes that have had various levels of upheavals or oppressions, or have been able to preserve their heritage – to make it un-unique in a way.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Can you tell me about the different locations that feature in the film?

 

A

Basma Alsharif

—   Three landscapes appear in the film – the Mahabi Desert in Southern California, a thirteenth century castle in Brittany, and Matera in Italy. Matera is where Pasolini shot IL VANGELO SECONDO MATTEO (1964) and SOPRALLUOGHI IN PALESTINE (1965). It then became significant as a site of fascism. An anti-fascist writer called Carlo Levi wrote a memoir about it, this forgotten village on the margins where he’d been exiled from Turin to live for a year. It was released in 1945 under the title CRISTO SI É FERMATO A EBOLI (Christ Stopped at Eboli), and when I read his description of this place I thought, ‘you could be talking about present-day Gaza’.

 

We’ve reached a point in Gaza which is very hopeless. There have been three wars. People won’t remember which war happened when, or how long it lasted. It’s become so everyday that it’s part of life, even though it is affecting everyone in very devastating ways and is constantly opening fresh wounds. This film opens up a lot of questions. It’s a way of saying goodbye – for me in a very personal way, to the Gaza Strip – or to any hope or justice in that territory, and to force it into conversation with other sites and people.

 

I was really trying to make a film which resists being easily read, as a protest against the accumulation of information on the occupation in Palestine. It’s not helping us prevent future crimes. The film is not one single idea, but a collapsing of histories; a way of asking what it means for us, as a civilisation – as witnesses to what is obviously a wilful extermination of a population in the present day.

 

Q

The White Review

—  When producing the film were you aware of imposing your own narrative on other people’s situations?

 

A

Basma Alsharif

— This is the point. My work deals with the fact that our reading of anything is subjective, particularly in terms of political history. It is totally impossible to separate my experience and my vantage point.

 

One of the reasons why the sites in the film were chosen was because of the people involved. Either they were connected to friends, or they became a friend. It became a way for me to encourage them to shape the film with their own experiences of the sites. I wanted to allow the people in the film to determine what the film was.

 

In the case of the castle in France, I had met a woman randomly in Paris. She’d been studying in Estonia and had also happened to travel to Palestine, and had also lived here (in Cairo). Her family inherited a castle in Brittany, this giant palace that was built in the thirteenth century. She said this line when I met her: ‘When I sit in the house, I don’t have a sense of anything that’s going on in the world. I could just forget that I exist myself’. That’s a really unsettling feeling. She was this weird Peter Pan character.

 

Visually speaking it was interesting not only to show the bourgeoisie, but also to show the vestiges of history and lineages and aristocracy. Why does a thirteenth century castle get to stay standing when in Gaza they’re bombing rubble? Ruins that have been ruined and keep getting ruined. I was thinking of Europe’s history and the question of why things are not getting destroyed there. You take advantage of other countries, you colonise, you rob people’s wealth. Of course your castle is maintained and stays for century after century after century. These things are not unconnected. I felt like visually it was interesting to put those two things next to each other.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Can you talk through the problems you had making the film? I heard that you were blocked from accessing Gaza.

 

A

Basma Alsharif

—  This wasn’t actually the case. At the time of making it, I definitely could have entered Gaza. But I knew that if I was there the film would be entirely different. I needed a kind of pristine, sanitised, cold, emotionless gaze on the territory, but also someone to shoot it who would understand the tragic beauty of that place. We arranged with my Palestinian producer to work with a young cameraman, Yaser Murtaja, who had co-founded his own production company, Ain Media, and who had his own drone cameras. I would remotely direct – tell him what I wanted shot, and how long for. The guy was really great to work with and produced some incredible images. He was just recently killed by Israeli soldiers, while wearing a press jacket, when covering the Gaza border protests. (Yaser Murtaja, aged 30, was shot dead by Israeli security forces on 6 April 2018 while covering the Gaza border protests as a photojournalist. Since late March, 119 Palestinians have been killed, according to Reuters, by Israeli forces while protesting on the border.)

 

Q

The White Review

—  His death adds another layer of reflection and tragedy to the work.

 

A

Basma Alsharif

—  This is the ironic thing. Yaser is someone who had never left Gaza. The week before he died he’d just turned thirty. I think when people, myself included, deal with art they deal with it as a cognitive conceptual thing. The reality is that we’re still dying – in very brutal and very unjust ways. Making Israel accountable for such things is paramount.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Through Yaser, you had the clinical and detached eye of the drone while you were also able to add your own directions and emotional input.

 

A

Basma Alsharif

—  There’s a scene of a shot over my family’s house of a women who’s been guarding the house, making it look inhabited, ever since 2009 when my family left. This helps prevent Israel from targeting homes. When they claim there is weapon-storage happening in empty homes they use it as legitimate reason to attack them. She’s basically saved our lives. This is a very personal part of the film, and I really wanted to film her making a circle inside the house. Because it looks abandoned but lived in at the same time, and because it’s clear that it’s not her home. It’s illuminating a lot of power issues and so on. I knew that if I was there for something like that it would be impossible to film emotionally, so Yaser shot it with steady-cam.

 

Q

The White Review

—  I can see a parallel between the Gazan woman taking care of the house and the French woman taking care of the castle. But the Gazan woman is also in an interesting position of trying to create a home with no guarantee of it ever ‘being a home’ again. She’s going through the motions, partaking in a collective performance of domesticity played out for the Israeli eye.

 

A

Basma Alsharif

—  Absolutely. And it has been a psychological battle. The idea that we should just not go back. But it’s not like voluntarily moving, or moving a job from one city to another. There are so many political implications in deciding not to go back because it’s exactly what Israel wants. They’ll make it so hard for you, not impossible, but so hard to go back that you’ll be disgusted. And it works. Anyone who has any way to get out gets out. So it’s a kind of resistance. Psychologically it’s strange to establish your life somewhere else but always feel like you’ve left something behind.

 

Q

The White Review

—  In an interview with BOMB Magazine in 2015, you said of the people of Gaza that you found their continuation to live in dire circumstances, ‘less to do with hope and more about being really clever in finding ways to move past a failed civilisation’. Could you elaborate more on your idea of hope and whether it has evolved over the course of your work as an artist?

 

A

Basma Alsharif

—  I think hope is there regardless and always, even when we are hopeless. We continue to imagine and strive for something better, for things to change, even when we know it won’t happen, when we are completely doomed. And the weight of that, that imagination, is far heavier than the denial of living with a false hope. It’s not to say we shouldn’t face the facts, but that a certain amount of naivety can and will help to change things and keeps the world moving forward. My own sense of hope has indeed changed. I was far more naive, and it wasn’t until three wars happened in Gaza in the last ten years that it dawned on me that the state of Israel really does want to erase the Palestinian population. And so my hope shifted away from Palestine, because I have this luxury in the diaspora, and towards connecting it to other histories I saw Palestine reflected in.

 

Q

The White Review

—  You have been described as a ‘Post-Palestine’ artist by Israeli filmmaker and scholar Eyal Sivan. What does this term mean to you? Is it a term you agree with?

 

A

Basma Alsharif

— I think the term came from a connection with a certain kind of Palestinian who is diasporic, and not a refugee or displaced internally but part of a bourgeoisie and who therefore has a removed perspective from the cause. Sivan wasn’t necessarily saying this negatively, he was just saying there was a difference in the way that I was making work in comparison to other Palestinians who are maybe living inside Palestine.

 

I took the term and started exploring it for myself, wondering what it means. A lot of people look at it as ‘beyond caring about Palestine’, or not caring about the occupation. It’s absolutely not that, and I don’t think that’s the way he meant it. It’s about the way that the occupation has fractured us so badly that there are really different experiences of what it means to be Palestinian. More and more I come across ‘48 Palestinians (those who were living in Israel when the state was founded in 1948, and who remained after the Nakba) who have a more similar perspective to me than, let’s say, people from Gaza and the West Bank

 

Q

The White Review

—  Can you speak about the position of the ’48 Palestinians?

 

A

Basma Alsharif

—  We definitely can’t speak of them as a whole. There are some who have maybe given up on the cause, and there are some living in Israel who are almost more radical than those living in the West Bank since they’re really living with the internal politics of the oppressor – learning the language, being educated in their schools – and are not afforded full rights. Maybe it’s more about a realistic versus a romantic position, or a realistic versus a more radical revolutionary position.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Can your own position also be described as radical? The way you’re trying to reframe concepts of geographical space and time, for instance, and your subversion or contestation of ‘given’ concepts like ‘hope’, ‘resistance’ and ‘progress’.

 

A

Basma Alsharif

—  The mass media image of the Palestinian is often of the victim, the iconic face of the struggle. And for myself, for my family, for people I know, and maybe among the ‘48 Palestinians, that representation isn’t as predominant as it is in the media. There has been this idea of Palestine being ghettoised, somewhere full of militant fighters. There is a danger in maintaining that as the forefront image of the occupation because it means that we’re trapped in this disenfranchised state, purely victims of the situation. I don’t think that’s true. We have writers and corrupt politicians and poets and thieves and all manner of human characters and complexities… Those nuances sometimes get lost in the political activist model of work made about Palestine.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Your work DOPPELGÄNGING is a cinematic hypnotic lecture which imagines a different form of physical existence. Can you talk about the process behind it?

 

A

Basma Alsharif

—  It started off as a brief art lecture which came out of a work for which I was learning to hypnotise myself. I was in Gaza and was trying to make something where I would transcend the borders of the territory. I decided that rather than talk about the work I would try to hypnotise the audience during my lecture. I got really positive responses and somebody suggested I turn it into a longer lecture.

 

The lecture maps out the geopolitical landscape in Palestine through my family’s history. It moves into cinematic images showing how the double is implemented within narrative cinema as a trope to indicate the battle between good and evil. It argues against this binary and asks, ‘what if there are multiple selves and multiple goods and evils within a singular character?’ That then turns into talking about the territory and how it is multiple places, how it’s ‘beyond Palestine’, and to propose this idea of doppelgänging, of being ourselves in multiple places – and to propose a form of utopian possibility within cinema.

 

The lecture ends with my film DEEP SLEEP (2014), which is shot between Gaza, Athens and Malta. Part of the lecture was this intense attempt to hypnotise the audience before they watch the film so that they would experience it in a hypnotic state that really alters your memory and sense of time.

 

Q

The White Review

— Did the hypnosis work?

 

A

Basma Alsharif

—  You can never really tell, and it wasn’t a proper hypnosis session. But I’ve had people say that it does alter the way they see the film. I think it just lulls you into a space for watching the film, into a kind of trance.

 

Q

The White Review

—  By reflecting on the nature of representation you also try and complicate how we understand collective memory. How can a collective memory be reconciled with the problems of power dynamics inherent in representation?

 

 

 

A

Basma Alsharif

—  I like to think that if collective memory can be passed down, then it can be voluntarily created. I think images, or more generally art, can help us to change our minds about how we have understood something. In the case of Palestine, there have been so many images confirming the struggle but no change for the better, so I try to create work that moves us beyond Palestine, that tries to consider Palestine as part of a larger human problem, a microcosm, a way of looking at other pasts, of considering different futures. Rather than relying on a past, on a collective memory that often serves to reaffirm our position as victims, I am attempting to create a voluntary collective memory that is empowering and that gives us the agency to move forward.

 

With any population or people who have suffered losses or who have been oppressed, they take on that history, it becomes an actual memory. I wasn’t in the exodus but it’s somehow part of my memory, and that’s strange because it’s very hard to remove even though it wasn’t my personal experience. I was thinking about how so much of our understanding of the future is based on things that we don’t actually experience, but which we have a memory of and which we share as an identity. Through art I think we can create a collective experience, and that can become something like a collective memory, but it’s voluntary in a way. I’m trying to reconstruct history not as knowledge that is passed down, but as an experience which is viscerally happening.

 

 

 

share


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a researcher and writer based in Istanbul.

READ NEXT

Art

August 2017

Becoming Alice Neel

Rosanna Mclaughlin

Art

August 2017

From the first time I saw Alice Neel’s portraits, I wanted to see the world as she did. Neel...

Interview

January 2015

Interview with Rodrigo Rey Rosa

Scott Esposito

Interview

January 2015

Instructions: Take the high modernist and early postmodernist experimentalism of Argentines Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. Move...

Art

March 2011

Trafalgar Square Street Protests

Cosmo Hildyard

Joseph de Lacey

Art

March 2011

The following photographs were taken during the third day of student protests in London on 1 December 2010, a...