Ouroboros (2017), the feature debut of visual artist Basma Alsharif, begins with an extended drone shot from the ocean through Gaza that plays in reverse motion. From the point of view of a drone, into a home and back again, we are set on a cyclical journey where the history of America, France, Italy and Palestine intertwine. Recently showcased in competition at the RIDM (Montreal International Documentary Film Festival), Ouroboros tears down the boundaries between fiction and reality. Fictionalised in the sense that there is a script with characters, the film operates as an essay on the nature of identity and history in a fractured civilization, creating, in a sense a new audiovisual language. The film’s title refers to the snake consuming its own tail, a perpetual cycle that seems to move forward but is really cannibalising itself, a reference to the forward momentum of change that only doubles back to make the same mistakes again and again. This is a film about Palestine but also about the bonds of trauma and violence that connect seemingly disparate histories.
Basma Alsharif has a background as a visual artist working with multimedia, and she often explores her Palestinian identity within her work. Her filmic style evokes a kind of hypnosis, as her images rarely seem bound by temporal continuity and are linked harmoniously through sound and subtitle in terms of mood rather than narrative meaning. Ouroboros is an elaboration on her stylistic impulses and political ideas so far, representing an engaging and challenging debut.
This interview took place in November 2017 at the Cinémathèque québécoise as part of the RIDM.
Justine Smith: Where did the idea of this film come from?
Basma Alsharif: Three or four years ago was the first time I really started thinking about it. I am Palestinian and my mother’s family is from Gaza, so I have a connection with that place. It is the place where I’ve gone the most in my life, even though I didn’t live there. In the last ten years there have been three wars and after the second one, which I happened to be in, I thought the thing I really wanted to do was to make a film that was an homage to Gaza and specifically about the fact that history is really easy to forget and that we’re in this constant cycle of regeneration. Around the time that I started to really think more serious about making a film, a third war happened and it was the most destructive of all three and so I thought, “okay, it’s time to really commit these ideas to a longer film.” I have worked a lot on Palestine, especially from a distance, trying to involve other communities and other histories, tying them into the region because it has been so isolated in the past ten years: The population can’t leave, and it is very hard to enter. It is being barraged with war and images – it has been highly televised, even before the wars, for the last 20-30 years. And nothing has changed, it has only gotten worse.
[My film] was a reaction and wanting to tie it to this conceptual idea of the eternal return and the fact of being able to survive is being able to forget but this is also the thing that allows us to destroy ourselves. The idea of Nietzsche’s’ eternal return is that it moves us forward but at the same time it destroys us. I wanted conceptually to make a film using this structure and starting with Gaza, and going through different histories that I’ve decided on through the process of making the film and sorta removing Gaza from its isolation by saying this thing that is happening here right now, in the present, that we are all witness to is also somehow tied to Native American history, it is tied to fascist history in Italy, it is tied to colonialism in France. It’s not really a retelling of history but questioning our ability to forget and whether or not that is a healthy a thing and paying homage to Gaza at the same time. In a lot of my work there is no singular kind of message, it is more about bringing together a lot of concepts and trying to ask the visual language to communicate something new through it so the audience decides what that is.
As we are inundated with images of Gaza, are you purposefully trying to create a new audiovisual language to communicate your ideas about the area?
Very much, the Gaza sections in the film are the only ones that are shot digitally, everything else is shot on 16mm. The Gaza section uses drone cameras and steady cams and I was very much trying to produce a different mood within those sections. I call it the perpetual present – that there is almost no history, no future in those scenes, they’re just in the moment that they’re in which is how we access Gaza. I think in media images we can’t enter the territory but we have so many images of it, and most of it is violent, so I wanted to produce a different kind of violence. The images that I used are a kind of surveillance, bird’s eye view representations of this space to make it really clear that you don’t have access to this space and you’re just learning it through the surface.
You are using drones, which in the area are a weapon and in a way reappropriating it.
I was in the war in 2012 and it was the least destructive war of the three; it had the least civilian life loss. I had never been in a war for as much as I had been in Palestine or in the areas that are pretty wartorn and one of the things that I realised that the most terrifying thing about it was this sense that you had been watched from above, that the Israeli defence force knew exactly where it was targeting and your life didn’t matter. You really just became a number-person in a neighbourhood and this was actually really terrifying even though I was fairly safe where I was. The sound of the drone just terrified me and this idea of looking at a territory in that way, which is so inhuman, and thinking of strategic places to drop bomb… I didn’t see any violence but I heard it constantly. The drones drop much lower during war-time so even when they are not bombing you can constantly hear it and it is like being in a horror film, you are constantly hearing this crazy sound. A lot of the film started conceptually also through sound, through the sound of the drone and whatever other sounds I could connect to. I connected to this musician who is playing the hurdy-gurdy and re-interpreting the music that also comes from the 13th century France but in the present day, so they are really disparate ideas but for me they were ways of removing the isolation of the drone and tying it to other places.
In the film, you erase the line between documentary and fiction. The people in the film are both subjects and characters. Did you intentionally blur the line between them?
Most of the people in the film are not actors, the lead character is not an actor. I hired three actors for the parts where they are sorta playing actors in the L.A. sections of the film and because they are Native American and Hispanic, they are often working or typecast because of the way they look. That was a really important aspect to me, that everybody in the film is kind of a surface for an idea, like a broader idea rather than who they are as individuals. Using the language of cinema and actors or characters in the story and vacating it, so the only information we can gather is from the surface of what they look like and their movement and to have the main character rather than being a person with an identity, being a vehicle for moving through the different sites which we can maybe attach a kind of potential love story or a way of understanding other characters but they are very much subjects more than people who represent themselves. But, at the same time, the way that I worked with everybody was kind of “documentary”. I would sort of prompt them to do certain things or to read certain things but at the end it wasn’t coaching someone to act in a film.
How much writing did you do before you actually started shooting?
I did a lot of writing but I wouldn’t call it scripting. It was a lot of writing to figure out what emotion each section of the film would produce. What is the difference between when I shoot in Italy versus when I shoot in France or L.A.? What kinds of emotions that I want to produce from these spaces so that they would be highly distinct but somehow tied together? It was a lot of tying in these conceptual ideas, the eternal return. I was reading the Heart of Darkness, re-reading it for this actually, in order to think about who tells a story and how that affects how we understand that story. The scripts that I wrote were really funny, they were just describing the places and describing a kind of mood and then every time that we would shoot I would sit down with Diego [Marcon], the main character, or the others that were involved and just talk about how to portray this emotion and having them collaborate. So, for example, the guy who sings Dixie in L.A. is a friend who is an artist and we had been talking a lot. This was right after the election of Trump in the States, so him and I were involved in a lot of conversations about America and America’s history and where we were today. I asked him to be in the film and it was really through a conversation with him that we decided on him singing Dixie but I think, it wasn’t the kind of film where I knew exactly what I wanted of the people specifically because I wanted them to contribute their parts, which is why I see it like a documentary even though it is not at all what a definition of a documentary is.
Most documentaries have elements of artifice.
The thing is that it’s not just about the fact that all documentaries are artifice but I think it is about asking your subjects to decide how they will perform in the film, which is something Jean Rouch does for example. I don’t even know how to describe it, I didn’t think of it as directing, I thought about it as collaborating on a scene, which maybe comes more from being an artist or having an art background.
One of the lines in the film, was “our memories are replaced by emotions.” Could you explain what you mean by that?
A lot of my work and this film has to do with representation and I think about the facts of memory’s fading and only sorta becoming stronger or coming back to us through other methods, through other images that we see. Like, if I lived through a war and then I see my memory starts to fade, but then I see an image of a war, like the war in Syria, then I remember. The thing is, I’m not remembering my experience, I am replacing it with this other image so I’m replacing: there’s my own subjective understanding of what I experience which is being dictated to me by some other medium. I think I’m playing a lot with that in the film. What is the difference? How do we ever know what we experience, everything is very subjective and our subjectivity is affected by other images which can replace our memories.
You have a visual arts background, and I imagine many of your short films played in galleries. In art galleries, video content is often in a loop and it is not constrained by the same limits as a cinematic space. Do you feel that experience contributed to the cyclical narrative in this film?
I still work in visual arts and involve things beyond moving image but I see them as really different practices. The kind of film or video that would be in a gallery is really different for me. If I think of a work for a space, it’s really different than a short film for the cinema. They have really different processes, like I’ve made short films that have definitely a beginning, a middle and an end that you need to see from beginning to end and sometimes those will show in galleries but I am less convinced of that actually. But the funny thing is, I think I’m learning how different these two practises were once I made this film because I just realised I’ve entered into a whole other field by making this film. People engage with feature-length films really differently and with narrative really differently: sustaining an idea for that length of time is really different than a gallery. You can sit in a gallery potentially for an hour but it would still be a very different engagement than being in a cinema and watching something.
Are the different locations in the film-shaped by your personal experience of the space or are you seeing it more through a socio-political lens?
I think socio-political because I always think that when you decide to film a place you see it completely different than what your experience of it is. If I’m just in a space I don’t think about what it looks like an image or what it communicates as an image but once I decide to film somewhere, I only can think about what story it will tell through the kind of image that I will make in it. The only place that I had never been was the site in Italy and that was somehow the most challenging one.
I don’t know what this place is and so I can only think of it as an image, so what I make of this place, for me, is quite an exploitative process because. Whereas in L.A., that was the house I was living in that we filmed and I realised, “oh I’m really comfortable, I know this house really well,” so I don’t think how I’m using it for my own purposes. I think it is actually really important to be aware that you are not aware directly representing a place but you are creating an idea of a place that you are in. With Gaza I think that was really the most challenging because you don’t think of it from your own personal connection but what it communicates. I think I had way more sort of beautiful or stunning images from Gaza but the idea was not just to aestheticise it but to really think of the mechanism that is making this image.
I feel that a lot of the film is about structural violence, the violence of stopping mobility. Your character is able to cross boundaries through editing in other ways. You also have the character who is kind of moving freely through time and space. I’m curious, are you trying to communicate something specific about political borders.
It is not too much about borders, I think it is about suturing the gap between our imagination that these sites are linked. Like for me, they aren’t necessarily actually linked but they are in terms of the way in which we as human beings process history and are able to forget traumas and then repeat our mistakes. I was trying to mend the gap between these sites, so for example I wanted to shoot in L.A. and to work with Native Americans because I feel like that history is so similar to Palestinian history, there is the wilful erasure of these cultures or people, and at the same time, there are huge differences between the two occupations. I think for me, it was really important to have not the sites but the histories linked in the present somehow. To say this past, is like this present, is like this future and to sort of propose that maybe, I mean it is farfetched, but I think it sorta gets across that when I’m filming in France in this kind of idyllic castle and this girl is just floating and leisurely: it’s calm. It is also to say 100 years from now, maybe this will be rubble but we cannot imagine that.
It is not so much talking about borders but talking about histories, disintegrating the borders between these histories and imagining that they are not connected to each other. I mean civilisation, European, happened because of colonization in the East – we need to think about that, or the colonisation of America also led to the erasure of populations, somehow for me that is very linked to Palestinian experiences.
When you are actually making the film, when you are saying suturing, it is like cutting together histories. For you, is the editing stage, the place where you are developing these ideas?
I understood that if I’m going to make a film, how do I force people to see these sites together? Also, I’ve never filmed over that length of time – it was 3 years of filming and there was a year and a half between certain sites, so I was like, how do I do this? I know that I am going to have to do it in editing, I will have to figure this out visually because I didn’t want it to be these vignettes. I wanted them to blend into each other, even though they are really distinct parts that are marked by times of day but I was aware in shooting that so much of my shooting had to be structural, that I had to repeat the same moves, have similar images. A lot of people don’t pick up on that they are exactly the same images in every scene, there is a repetition of a same kind of image or same kind of movements, or sound, working on the subconscious but even doing that, all the work happened to be in post!
I was like, “okay this is a mess of image that I somehow need to make seem as though they are part of same time-space.” That was actually incredibly challenging, I always talk about that I’ve never felt this, but in editing anything I usually feel very comfortable but I had feelings of fear while I was editing this film. It was so overwhelming having all this material and like trying to force to do something that it didn’t want to do, even though pretty it was pretty simple in its form, it was super overwhelmingly difficult. I would sit down and write these maps of what kinds of images I had and mini-narratives and how could I link them together because it is actually really hard to make something. I think it’s what cinema does, it makes a story seem natural, like good cinema or narratives just seem like it happens, but it is so calculated and when you are making a non-narrative, in order to create something that feels linear is like… it’s a huge challenge. I think that’s when I say that I feel like I stepped into another field, it’s something that I wasn’t prepared for in a way and that was a big challenge that I’m really glad that I sorta pushed myself to try to do.
You had mentioned the sound of the drones, and the film has a very strong soundscape. How does the soundtrack work in the film?
I’m driven by sound more than images. I’m deep into music, sound and creating sound environments, so a lot of the film is driven by sounds. The images are as important as the language, which is as important as the subtitle text, which is as important as the sound. So if I weigh all these things equally to each other, then they can help shift the way the images are cut. I knew certain sounds I wanted to include and they led the way that I edited, so sometimes I would think “oh there is a kind of natural sequence to these images or this section could actually come after this section but suddenly now that I’m working with the sound, the sound is telling me that it can’t be this way it has to be this way.”
Like for example, the L.A. section goes into the Italy section, and I didn’t want it like that initially but there was something so natural about the sounds of those two spaces and how they could be woven to each other. We have basically the sound of the character walking backward in L.A. and there is this kind of Mexican music that is playing in reverse and then when he walks backward in this field, which is in Italy, you hear the sound of the wind and grass and they just blend to create their own space. For me, that was like, even if I don’t want them one after another, it actually makes sense for them to be in this order so it is very much the sound leading how the image is formed.
How long was the editing process?
That was very weird because I shot and then waited a year and a half because of the funding to shoot the second half. I shot one half, and then shot a year and a half later. And that happened very close to when the film was due to premiere. It premiered initially at the Whitney Biennale film program. My time was incredibly short and I wanted to edit on my own, I didn’t want to work with an editor. So I think it’s an absurdly short amount of time but I basically edited the film in three months and all at once. So I waited, I sat on these images that I had transferred to film for a year and a half and I actually did not look at them. I looked them to see if the exposures were all correct of course, but otherwise they sat on a hard drive for a year and a half because I really wanted all the footage to be thought about together and not to be more familiar with one material than another.
Did you run into any surprises revisiting the older footage?
I did forget a lot of the stuff that I shot too which is really funny, and the main character is a very dear friend of mine and he kept asking me, “well come on, I want to see it!” And I’m like “no, you can’t!” Because I did not want to influence the way that he was going to act in either part of the film, so I felt like I was abusing my friends. But actually, I did show him the rushes at some point when we started shooting in L.A., “okay we can watch these really quickly but we are not going to dwell on them!”
Are you working on another film project?
I want to make another feature, probably something more narrative, and I will work with a collaborator this time, because I have never done that, and I realized in this process that I really craved someone else’s presence. With everybody I was working with I was trying to make them collaborators; I tried to make my DOP a collaborator, my sound recordist, my actors and at some point I realised that it’s not fair – it’s my film, I’m the only one who knows what it is and I can’t depend on them in that way.
There is a good friend of mine, who is a filmmaker and whose work I really admire, and we have similar approaches and we’ve spoken about making a film together but I’ve also decided to take a bit of a break in between so I’m doing something completely non-movie image, I’m writing a book and working on some drawings for now. Basically, the polar opposite of making a film, but I think that’s important actually, to have a chance to see my own film with some distance in order to know how to approach the next project. We are in talks, we are in communication about doing a film called “The End of Men” that is kinda based on a Jean Genet play and I think it’ll be good. He’s working on his first feature and I’ve just finished this, so I think in three years time we might be ready to get on it.