Would You Like to See a Magic Trick?: Basma Alsharif’s Ouroboros and its Contexts

By Phil Coldiron

À quiconque a perdu ce qui ne se retrouve
Jamais, jamais!” —Charles Baudelaire

On a clear day in the spring of this year, having fallen under the geometric spell of an exhibition of new work by the photographer Sara Cwynar, a young woman found herself on the wrong uptown train and was left to troop some number of blocks on foot in less time than she might have preferred. She arrived at the theatre in quite a state and, lulled, one imagines, by its robust air conditioning, slept through what she had come for: a lecture entitled Doppelgänger, presented by the artist and filmmaker Basma Alsharif as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Art of the Real festival. This young woman, a stranger slouched half a dozen seats to my left, started from her slumber, curiously, at the exact moment in the proceedings that the artist slipped quietly from the scene, leaving only material from her film Deep Sleep (2014) in her wake. Fatigued, if not exhausted, by the physical and conceptual density of Alsharif’s performance, I stumbled into the bright afternoon, haunted by a hunch that we had crossed ways on some path with that young woman as the filmmaker led us collectively into a state adjacent to sleep, guided by her narration of what would reveal itself to be the aforementioned footage, spoken softly against a soundtrack of synthesized tones and a screen of colours. Both image and word pulsed along curves of increasing frequency and intensity, building to the point at which Deep Sleep was reached, the destination of an illustrated tour snaking through a field of comments on and around Palestine, considered variously as a homeland, a heritage, an occupied territory, a frame, and an impossibility. Had the young woman seen this film before, she might have thought that the program was simply concluding with a short screening, as such things often do. She might too have had a vague sense, as I did, that the footage was arranged other than it once was—or, if you prefer, other than it was, and remains, elsewhere. If she hadn’t, she might have wondered if she was dreaming a dream in which she wanders a ruined—the word is Alsharif’s—world gone fuzzy and as saturated as Super 8mm, anchoring herself amidst washes of digitized grain by pointing to objects, among them the Acropolis and the sea, as she circulates through sites throughout the Mediterranean, intermittently finding her vision to have been reversed. In any event, I waited outside the theatre for several minutes, hoping to satisfy my curiosity regarding her experience, but she was, in the end, nowhere to be found.

The first of the seven segments comprising Ouroboros, Alsharif’s debut feature, which premiered at this year’s Whitney Biennial, begins with a view, in motion slowed and reversed, of waves breaking off the shoreline of the Gaza Strip, resolving back into the Mediterranean. Shot from the extreme overhead perspective of an unmanned aerial vehicle (i.e., a drone) and accompanied by the sound of a hurdy-gurdy (i.e., a drone), the sense of the eternal, or at least of a space cleared for contemplation, that such an arrangement of elements might imply is checked by the disjunction and anxiety embedded in its graphic metaphor. Seen as such, the water seems rather to evaporate off the bar of sand spanning the bottom of the frame into a void of perylene green-blue above, striking a note of ecological crisis and its attendant exacerbation of the world’s already dire migrant situations, which hangs over all that follows. This drawing together of the sea’s hypnotic beauty and the state’s distant, disinterested gaze on a disintegrating world, an angle from which cataclysm is incidental in a sea of data, is typical of Alsharif’s art. As Baudelaire, in the lines above, clarifies an isomorphism between all of the time and none at all in his quick repetition of jamais, so Alsharif, across work for both the gallery and the cinema, tests the capacity of images to enact and imply concepts which convention tempts us to regard as contradictions. She is productively unconcerned with any notion of inherent or inevitable truth in photographs, the received wisdom which links parties as otherwise disparate as the Virginia Woolf of Three Guineas and Kellyanne Conway justifying America’s latest round of reckless warmongering on the weekend talk shows: “The world recoiled in horror at babies writhing and struggling to live. And who could avert their gaze—and that includes our very tough, very resolute, very decisive president.”

Given that Alsharif makes herself responsible at every turn for the relationship between her own images and the entire history of global-image culture, it will be necessary to return to the question of pictures of violence and suffering, even as they remain largely absent from her work. First though, I should like to sketch the shape of Ouroboros, which shares with her short films a narrative structure at once schematic and associative. The film moves through seven discrete segments, all but the last titled with a time of day: a prologue (dawn) and epilogue (dawn) set in Palestine; four chapters following a nameless man from Los Angeles (noon) through Matera in Southern Italy (dusk); the California desert (twice named: night, briefly, then dusk again); a sprawling Breton chateau (noon); and finally a musical coda à la Beau travail (1999), which both condenses and explodes everything that came before it. The chapters following this nameless man, played by the Italian artist and filmmaker Diego Marcon, seem to have been an ongoing concern for Alsharif, dating back to at least 2011, when the narrator of her short film The Story of Milk and Honey spoke of an unrealized project: “I wanted to play with sound and language through the collective telling of a fictional love story set in a Middle East devoid of political context. It was meant to be an experiment with details alluding to sites, histories, and factual characteristics describing various regions of the Levant, vaguely weaving in religious narratives.” This is Ouroboros, the film Alsharif has now made, one of the proliferating doubles across her oeuvre. As evidenced by the title, form, and content of Doppelgänger, the notion of doubling is crucial to her thinking, though it would be misleading to consider this as a preoccupation with binary terms: it is not a question of here and elsewhere, because here is always woven within elsewhere. Thus Palestine is both here, onscreen, as occupied land and in these other spaces, each of which draws out some array of concerns regarding the idea of Palestine.    

These disparate sites are linked chiefly by the impish presence of Marcon, who enlivens his character’s narrative drift with a sort of repressed springiness, a mirth and vivaciousness, a glint in the eye that sets him apart from the various mute automatons wandering through many of today’s art films. And though it would be overselling the matter to compare him to a Chaplin or a Kelly, it might not be unreasonable to borrow the theorist and filmmaker Hito Steyerl’s phrase and consider him as a “poor image” of such classic stardom, “an illicit fifth-generation bastard of an original image.” This reading, egged on by a tattoo of what appears to be a barcode across the back of his neck—we now live in times in which star quality itself is available to the mechanics of quantification (such a tattoo, of course, carries considerably more insidious overtones in these times of resurgent nationalisms)—opens onto a view of a fundamental aspect of the film’s form: its slippery movement through a variety of styles ready to be plucked from cinema history, including the reflexive formal distance of contemporary ethnographic film, the quiet comfort of calm portraiture, and the fractured hijinks of classical surrealism. A certain groundlessness, echoing Alsharif’s biography (she was born to Palestinian parents in Kuwait, raised between the US and France, and has undertaken, it would seem, a more or less itinerant artistic career), allows a scene derived from the principles of Margaret Tait’s gentle, precise observation to sit comfortably next to one which deals directly with the disorienting psychological surfaces first realized by Maya Deren.

“Paradoxically, while you are falling, you will probably feel as if you are floating—or not even moving at all.” This is Steyerl again, describing, in her essay on verticality, “In Free Fall,” a position similar to that of both the viewer and the protagonist of Ouroboros. If her proclivity for groundlessness opens up a broader range of visual styles and forms, so too does it involve the dissolution of a number of narrative conventions, cause and effect perhaps prime among them. In nearly all films, even those that explicitly challenge various normative modes, there is the supposition of a coherent viewing subject ready and willing to be pushed around by material; this is one, in most cases relatively benign, type of “vertical perspective” (less benign instances would be, say, the NSA’s widespread surveillance, or, more dramatically, a drone murdering hundreds of Afghani civilians).

Alsharif’s films, in contrast, remain doggedly horizontal: effects, when they can be felt, often appear before causes, leaving the viewer to reorient themselves as they will at every moment. A link emerges here between Alsharif’s finger pointing towards anchoring objects in Deep Sleep and the historical fact that, as noted by Steyerl, “Early navigation consisted of gestures and bodily poses relating to the horizon.” To offer a more elaborate example from Ouroboros, there is an extended sequence in the Palestine-set prologue which runs nearly nine minutes across two long takes and follows an Arab woman as she leads the camera on a tour of the grounds and first floor of a large, gated estate, its rooms full and worn in ways that imply decades of residence. If we can say that this sequence is “about” anything, it would seem to me primarily to be about the simple fact that this home has not been destroyed by Israeli ordnance, and secondarily about the fact that there do exist in Gaza rather large bourgeois houses. The former point is of primarily sentimental interest, while the latter offers nothing more or less than an expanded understanding of the facts of the matter against the usual Western stereotypes and clichés.

What makes this sequence extraordinary is that, as does much of the film, including large portions of the Los Angeles and Matera segments, it plays out in reverse motion. If, as Hollis Frampton has suggested, time is understood as “directional stress obtaining among a set of palpable things or qualities” (that is, as opposed to “time as a tank of fluid in which everything floats”), then the reversal of conventional time afforded by the reversal of photographic footage affords an almost unspeakably rich palette of formal possibilities to the willing filmmaker. The conventional—the human body’s steady march towards death; issues of fact and sentiment—obtains, but it finds itself deeply implicated in the unconventional, in an excess of looking absent any motivation, in a situation at once ascetic and voluptuous. Images that might have demanded a precise affective response from morally or ethically responsible viewers find themselves rich with the heady scent of possibility.

Several years ago, the film scholar Zach Campbell wrote on what he termed “reversible” films: “blockbuster cinema that seeks to accommodate politicized readings by accommodating even contradictory ideologies.” The distance between such cynical products, or even the less reactionary “diffuse” cinema he found in, for example, the work of Arnaud Desplechin, and a film like Ouroboros lies in the fact that Alsharif is not interested in constructing a narrative system capable of ginning up satisfactory stories on a made-to-order basis, one for any bias. Rather, the sensibility which finds its clearest expression in the reverse-motion sequences but permeates every level of the film’s construction, seems to me closer to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “reparative” practices: “The desire of a reparative impulse…is additive and accretive. Its fear, a realistic one, is that the culture surrounding it is inadequate or inimical to its nurture; it wants to assemble and confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources to offer to an inchoate self.”

While the reversed house tour provides an example of quite literal plenitude—that is, there is simply more to see, so far as disorientation leads to an increase in awareness (Frampton recounts the story of Craig Breedlove, who needed more than 90 minutes to narrate to an interviewer the 8.7 seconds his car tumbled out of control during a failed attempt to set the world land speed record)—we might also consider two further facets of the film that clarify its mechanics and the work that they accomplish. Though its use of language is sparse, it is bookended by lengthy sections of voiceover narration delivered in Chinuk Wawa by the filmmaker Sky Hopinka. The latter, more straightforward, recounts a car ride into the occupied territories, while the former, closer to the poetic, lays out something of a thematic outline, one lens through which to read what follows: “We denied an irreparable loss that left us permanently sick and fragile…” Spoken in a language that within the recent past was near extinction, such lines again willingly risk sentimentality; the monologue’s conclusion is even more direct: “…we will eventually have forgotten it all and will finally be saved.”

Though the mix of desperation and bitter irony here is both moving and sophisticated, I am even more interested by the way in which Alsharif confronts the self-imposed problem of rendering her film’s voiceover in a language that, one might safely assume, only a tiny percentage of its audience will speak. (Readers are heartily recommended to consult Jesse Cumming’s essay on Hopinka in Cinema Scope 70 for an extensive consideration of the filmmaker’s exceedingly rich engagement with the language.) Here Alsharif pushes her investigation into the practice of subtitling—which she has explored in a variety of ways across her career, most notably in We Began By Measuring the Distance (2009) and The Land of Milk and Honey—to its furthest point yet, drawing this reflexive use of onscreen text so deeply into the film’s conception that it spills out beyond Hopinka’s voiceover, refusing to normalize English as a global standard. Language as a realm of power is acknowledged and problematized: we return to basic epistemological concerns regarding images and their ability to independently produce meaning, concerns complicated further by the insertion of words as an element at once graphic and linguistic. Consider a sequence in which Marcon, in Italian, interrupts a young woman reading him a passage from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in English, with a failed magic trick; the text throughout floats in front of them, bracketing their exchange behind its narration. TRY AGAIN, reads that scene’s final title, attached to an offscreen voice, which prompts him to do just that, this time with the woman his feelings appear to be the truest for (Jessica Bellinger). They meet in the moonlight, he takes her hand and she whispers in his ear: WHAT NOW, the titles tell us and the film departs for Brittany, leaving his love behind for good. (It’s worth reiterating here that it is just as likely that he is going to a time before he found her, or simply another timeline entirely, as there is, to my mind at least, no significant concern here for what we might call the causal or directional time of conventional narrative).

So we return to the problem of images of violence, or, more specifically, images of abuses of power. Two such images appear in Ouroboros, a pair of drone shots showing the destruction left by Israel’s 2014 offensive, which according to the United Nations killed nearly 1,500 Palestinians and wounded more than five times that number. Though the carnage is grotesque, it only confirms Susan Sontag’s assessment in Regarding the Pain of Others: “The image as shock and the image as cliché are two aspects of the same presence.” As such, I remain more drawn to the ways in which such violence is figured as an essential, invisible trait of what Alsharif refers to as her post-Palestinian position as an artist. Her “luxury of distance” must face the fact, recently reported by Sara Roy in the London Review of Books, that “nearly three-quarters of Gaza’s inhabitants are under 30 and remain confined to Gaza, prohibited from leaving the territory.” Here she has reified this distance in the form of commissions and the use of archival footage: she did not enter Palestine herself, instead providing detailed instructions and directing the scenes from afar. Against the monstrous clichés of suffering, she offers a fresh form for thinking through the structural violence that denies and dams up the flows of people, goods, and ideas.

And yet even here she refuses to forego her rigour; there is not simply the health of circulation and the sickness of control. As a couple flips through records in their smartly decorated bungalow somewhere on the Eastside of Los Angeles, the woman laughs and requests of the man, “How about something romantic for once?” The text instantly flashes onscreen, broken up into four lines filling the frame. The design of this image is such that if a logo for a lifestyle brand, such as Airbnb, were placed in the bottom corner, no one would be surprised to see it as an advertisement. Indeed, it called to mind a commercial for the company that I had seen once: in striking white letters against a red background, its shade similar to the one used in the film’s opening credits, it read, “We imagine a world where you can belong anywhere.”