Marwa Arsanios is a Berlin-based artist, filmmaker, and researcher whose work exposes the political dynamics latent in questions of ecology and land administration. Since 2017, Arsanios has been working on a series of short films entitled Who is afraid of ideology?, which incorporates the perspectives of ecofeminist and Indigenous land rights from various regions. I was fortunate to catch parts one and two of Who is afraid of ideology? at the New York Film Festival in 2019; I was struck by the rigor and complexity of Arsanios’s political project, as well as her particular knack for visual storytelling. While parts one and two of the project are centered in the Middle East, featuring female Kurdish separatists living in Syria’s Jinwar village and a feminist group in Iraqi Kurdistan, Who is afraid of ideology? Part 3 Micro Resistances departs geographically and formally from its predecessors. Arsanios travels to Colombia, where she spends time with the agronomy collective Grupo Semillas and considers the aftermath of the late-twentieth century massacre of the leftist political party Unión Patriótica. Part 3 is organized around the operative metaphor of the seed: a self-contained yet porous body joined in a reciprocal, chemical relationship with the soil. In more ways than one, Arsanios indicates, the seed is not dissimilar to the corpses deposited in that same soil by paramilitary groups in the mid-1980s.
I spoke with Marwa Arsanios over the phone during the International Film Festival Rotterdam, shortly after the premiere of Who is afraid of ideology? Part 3 Micro Resistances. We discussed the relationship between academic research and artistic practice, collaborative documentary methodologies, and the importance of serendipitous encounters.
You’ve been working on Who is afraid of ideology? for the last five years or so. Why did you decide to tackle this subject matter in segments, as a series of short films?
One important point is that I have always worked in video rather than film, and most of the work I did before was scripted. I had never used this approach where I just took the camera and arrived on site, using more conversational and interview methodologies. So this was really like the first time I did that. I also wanted to depart from a scripted and performative way of thinking about video. The first time I went to visit the economist women’s movement in Kandi I knew who I wanted to meet, how much time I wanted to spend, what I wanted to do there and that I wanted to base the whole thing around conversations and reading groups. Then I wasn’t sure that I would actually be able to go to the women’s village [Jinwar] in northern Syria, because it’s not a given, security-wise. Ultimately they allowed me to stay in the mountains for two weeks instead of the whole time. I didn’t know anything in advance, actually, because there are all of these different restrictions regarding travel and how much time I can stay in each place.
The project really had to grow in a way that could follow the conditions of the production. In that sense, it’s not like a usual documentary where you might be able to pre-plan things– you really have to adapt to the circumstances that you are given. This entails things like the security conditions, the political moment, etcetera. I had to think about it in a way such that one place would lead me to the other, if there was a possibility. For example, in Part Two, I really wanted to go back to Jinwar. But, I couldn’t, because of the Turkish invasion. It was impossible to travel last year, as well. So these segments allow me to adapt to every situation and condition. For me, there is a very clear spread– why I’m going to a place, with whom I want to talk and what I want to learn. But, at the same time, I’m also very open to whatever happens when I arrive. Before going to Iraqi Kurdistan, I had invited women from the movement to come to Beirut and do a reading centered around texts that they translated from a guerrilla fighter who writes about ecological and feminist questions.
Which writer is that?
Her name is Pelshin–it’s her nom de guerre, her guerilla name. She’s one of the ideologues of the movement; she’s a writer and a guerrilla fighter at the same time. She wrote a text that is based on her life in the mountains as a guerrilla fighter that deals with this question of the intersection between ecological and feminist paradigms, and how they are inseparable. In this text she argues against a completely liberal, de-politicized way of dealing with the question of ecology. Then when I was invited to go to Kandi, I had this text as a thread. As my main starting point, it was the most important reference for me. When I met her and spent time talking to her, it totally changed my perception of these questions. I learned so much from her and I shifted so much in my thinking because of her. I think that’s a crucial point: the project is shaped by who you meet, how you change and where that takes you. The journey to these places is really a learning process. Approaching the project this way, in chapters, allows the learning to be the most important part.
The first two chapters of this project are set in Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan; how did your work there end up leading you to Colombia?
In June of 2019, I was invited to the Warsaw Biennial and I proposed organizing a convention of women farmers and ecological feminists. I invited about seventeen women from different organizations, movements, communes and cooperatives to take part. These women came from different backgrounds; some women were farmers or lawyers, and then there were theoreticians, ecological feminist writers, etcetera. It was the only way to think about these topics and really see them from all different sides in a very rounded way. Most of the women were fighting for the communalization of land, the de-privatization of private property, basically. They also came from movements that were re-appropriating territory from the state, working the land or building communes on it. I invited women from South America, amongst whom were members of the Grupo Semillas from Colombia. They’re an organization in Bogotá and they work with different Indigenous communities around Colombia, mainly in southern Tolima and northern Cauca, but in other places as well. They came to the workshop with a social leader and farmer who’s called Mercy Vera, and that’s where I met them. I also did another smaller workshop a few months after that, where they came again and invited María Claudina Loaiza, another leader from the Pijao community in the south of Tolima. Then they also invited me to go to Colombia, to spend time there. So these films are very linked to that convention of women farmers and ecological feminists. Before I visit these places I always invite the people to some kind of reading, workshop, or convention so we can discuss their thoughts in depth. There are two phases of the learning process. There is a phase where I’m meeting and reading and getting to know them on more of a discursive level. Then there is another phase where it’s more of a visit and an experience.
As I was watching, I wondered how you approached the project of building trust in the communities. Clearly, there’s a whole process that goes on even before coming in with the cameras.
Exactly. There is a long, ongoing conversation. We planned to meet again at another convention last year, but of course, that didn’t happen because of the pandemic.
The narration in this film reminded me of writers who work on ecofeminism and the global commons. For example, the theorist Silvia Federici. What, if anything, did you read in preparation for this part of the trilogy?
I read a lot of new materialists actually. I love Federici’s work as well, she’s a main reference for me. Since filming began in 2017, I’ve mostly been reading new materialist theory and texts that deal with human/non-human relationships with regard to the question of the performativity of nature. Karen Barad is a really major reference for me. Part Three begins with a quotation of Barad’s work and I was very influenced by her texts in the last part of the film as well. Pelshin’s text, of course, was a key inspiration. As well as other Marxist feminist, historical materialist approaches to question of land dispossession. I thought about land dispossession through, for example, Ray Barnhardt who writes about Canadian First Nations. Of course, that’s more directly related to the North American context, but it has very much fed into my work as well. In my film, I tried to bring new materialist thinking, historical materialist thinking, and Marxist feminist thinking together. Of course, these events all take place in a post-colonial or neo-colonial context, so there’s an implicit decolonial aspect as well. This may be because I come from a post-colonial place, but it is not something that I am intentionally bringing in. It’s the geographies themselves that are speaking in a way that proposes that.
You’re currently pursuing a PhD at the Akademie der bildenden Kunst in Vienna, is that correct?
How do you approach the intersection of artistic practice and academic research?
Well, this is an ongoing question, to be honest. It’s not something that can ever really reach a resolution point. Though I’m not a formalist, I am coming more from a practice background. Practice is what I’m most interested in and that’s the driving force of my PhD as well. Everything I bring in from philosophy, theory, or other humanities readings help ground me in the practice. However, I don’t want to fall into a sort of fetishization of artistic research as the only place where you can bring all the humanities in and just mix them together. I’m against this approach. But in the humanities, I think it’s very hard for a rounded conception of knowledge to exist in the same way that it exists in art. That’s what I’m interested in. That’s exactly how the convention worked. People came from completely different backgrounds in terms of the knowledge that they were carrying. But at the end of the day, I’m interested in artistic practice, and I’m interested in politics.
The film opens and closes with footage of a striking installation piece. Could you tell me more about that?
I actually proposed building this set as part of my project at the Sharjah Architecture Triennial. I’m always trying to navigate all of these invitations, because at the end of the day, I’m interested in one particular research. When these biennials and triennials invite you they expect you to do something new, but at the end of the day, I’m invested in very particular research questions and very particular politics. So I try to navigate all of these invitations in such a way that I can keep myself on track. Anyway, when I was invited to the architectural triennial, I proposed the second workshop with Grupo Semillas, among other groups. I also proposed to build this set, because I knew that in the third chapter, I really wanted to go into a more abstract, formal language, which would be juxtaposed with storytelling and interview language. I invited Vinita Gatne, who is a brilliant set designer and artist, to design this set for me. I gave her some interviews, some texts, and many things from the convention. From that, she designed this set that appears at the beginning of the film.
Finally, I wanted to ask, what’s next for you?
At the moment, I’m working on the fourth part of this series. It’s located in Lebanon, but it has to do more with the issue of land inheritance. The project goes into the question of what it means to inherit land and it goes into questions of legality and property in relation to questions of nature. It also looks at displacement and maintenance of the land– and, you know, the people who are taking care of the land are also involved. It will be a continuation of this series.