Unique portrayal of Palestinian suffering at London’s film screening

The frequent changes of location in Basma Alsharif’s films reflect her nomadic lifestyle.
February 18, 2018
Nostalgic look. Gaza as seen from above in Alsharif’s first  feature-length film “Ouroboros.”                       (Provided by Karen Dabrowska)
Nostalgic look. Gaza as seen from above in Alsharif’s first feature-length film “Ouroboros.” (Provided by Karen Dabrowska)

LONDON - Palestinian film-maker Basma Alsharif’s three movies — “We Began by Measuring Distance,” “High Noon” and “Ouroboros” — featured in “The Gap Between Us” exhibition provide a unique portrayal of Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation.

Interweaving locations are used in all three films that were screened at London’s Mosaic Rooms. Alsharif often does not make it clear where we are — in which country or when. She is interested in how places are interconnected and suggests it is possible to experience different times and places at once.

Based in Los Angeles, Alsharif has lived and worked in Chicago, Cairo, Beirut, Sharjah, Amman, the Gaza Strip and Paris. The frequent changes of location in her films reflect the film-maker’s nomadic lifestyle. She describes her work as “a non-geographically based subjective viewpoint.”

“We Began by Measuring Distance” dates from 2009 and won a Jury Prize at the ninth Sharjah Biennial.

Throughout the film, a narrator tells a story through comments on the images. He begins by saying that “all our memories would be significant only in retrospect” and the camera moves to a scene of Palestinians looking at historic pictures of their homeland focusing on the countryside, towns and villages.

“Our homeland is truly a history that is no longer within reach,” the narrator continues. “We invented a game of measurements.”

Two figures, their faces blurred, emerge into a meadow holding a large piece of cloth resembling a placard. They are not individuals but symbolise the Palestinian people. Their measurements are displayed in the centre of the cloth and morph into significant dates in the history of Israel/Palestine.

The distance between Gaza and Jerusalem is first measured as 48km but the number is revised: it becomes 17, 48 then 67. Through the narrator, the figures say their measurements left them melancholy and they elected to go to a place only seen in books where they could rest their eyes and ease their minds.

Brilliant photography of a virgin forest and an underwater scene follows. Fish swim as dance music plays. Suddenly, the scene shifts to a burning city and fireballs in the sky. A distressed female figure emerges crying, her head in her hands, and sinks to the ground. “We began to have the distinct feeling that we had been lied to and we, unfortunately, had not rested at all and that our measurement left us empty-handed,” the narrator concludes.

The film is deliberately edited to disrupt and there are jarring sections during which it jumps from one environment to another and where time goes backward and forward and slows down. The measurements reveal an ultimate disenchantment with facts, and the film communicates the tragic history of Palestine through unique scenes carefully selected by the film-maker.

The conventional representation of violence is challenged and Alsharif seeks to stir the viewers’ emotions about themes relevant to the human condition in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere: loss, injustice, the consequences of violence and escape from heartbreak through an idealistic, nostalgic look at history — a history that has been erased.

Alsharif has often said that she was not interested in making political works engaged only in conflict, nor in being identified as an activist Palestinian artist. She is known as a film-maker who deals with the human condition in relation to both place and non-place.

The exhibition’s central work is “Ouroboros” (2017), Alsharif’s first feature-length film, screened in a gallery context for the first time. She compared the theme of return to heartbreak. The main character moves backward through different landscapes as though being drawn back into his own past. This is symbolic of the Palestinian longing for return, which is unfulfilled.

The shortest film — “High Noon,” made in 2014 — is accompanied by eight photographic stills. It embodies the dissonance of experiencing multiple times and places at once. Colour-saturated images of a Southern Californian landscape and the south-eastern landscape of Onomichi, Japan, are merged together. Again, the idea of being in more than one place at once (described by Alsharif as bilocation) and of not belonging to one location connects with being in exile.

Alsharif works between cinema and installation, with an interest in the human condition in relation to shifting geopolitical landscapes and natural environments. Her major exhibitions include the Whitney Biennial, “Here and Elsewhere” at the New Museum, Riwaq Biennial in the Palestinian territories, the Berlin Documentary Forum and the Sharjah Biennial. She was shortlisted for the Abraaj Group Art Prize 2018.