Spaces of Exception

Matt Peterson, Malek Rasamny

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Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny, Spaces of Exception (still), 2018.

Online Premiere Spaces of Exception
Matt Peterson, Malek Rasamny

90 Minutes

September 27–October 11, 2021

Spaces of Exception investigates and juxtaposes the struggles, communities, and spaces of the American Indian reservation and the Palestinian refugee camp. The film was shot from 2014 to 2017 in Arizona, New Mexico, New York, and South Dakota, as well as in Lebanon and the West Bank. Directed by Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny, it is an attempt to understand the significance of the land—its memory and divisions—and the conditions for life, community, and sovereignty.

Spaces of Exception comes out of the long-term multimedia project The Native and the Refugee, which has been presented in Canada, Denmark, Ecuador, England, France, Guatemala, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Portugal, Syria, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, within the refugee camps and reservations were the film was shot, and at venues including cinemas, museums, and universities.

The screening on e-flux Video & Film marks Spaces of Exception’s online premiere, presented alongside a written Q&A with the filmamkers conducted by writer and critic Kareem Estefan.

Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny in conversation with Kareem Estefan

Kareem Estefan (KE):
Let’s start with the title of the film, Spaces of Exception. This concept is typically used to describe places where the legal norms of democracies do not hold, such as the Guantánamo Bay prison and the black sites operated by the CIA as part of the “war on terror.” How do you understand the meaning of this phrase, in the context of your film and the political spaces it depicts?

Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny (MP and MR):
Growing up in New York and Beirut after 9/11, the concept of a state of emergency, or state of exception, became normal for us; but it was usually understood temporally, marking a period of time where the rule of law was suspended. As visual artists we became interested in how this concept manifested spatially, as places within a particular democracy where citizenship was challenged or deferred. In the United States and Lebanon, this was in American Indian reservations and Palestinian refugee camps. These are spaces where the outsides and excesses of the nation-state are clearest, where Indigenous and refugee communities force us to confront the meaning of democratic governance and the distinct reality of the metropolitan spaces where we grew up and lived. In both cases, these spaces were the results of settler colonialism.

Giorgio Agamben’s work on both the state of exception and refugeehood was a beginning for us, but our project was to expand his concepts towards indigeneity, and using a multimedia documentary practice. Agamben speaks of areas of life that exist in the gray zone at the end of law, which for him is the beginning of politics. It is at this edge, just outside the visible norms, that we can observe where the political becomes enshrined in law, and this is what we were looking for in Spaces of Exception. It’s only at the limits of Lebanon—the literal and metaphorical borderlands of Lebanese sovereignty and identity—where the camps can exist, and where we can observe the divisions and contradictions that create and sustain the nation. And it’s the same with the Indian reservations in the United States.

Spaces of Exception is comprised of interviews with residents of three Palestinian camps and three Native reservations. How did you approach these communities about being part of your film? What conversations earned you their trust, so that they spoke with you frankly about their lives, histories, and politics, or allowed you to film intimate moments such as the funeral for the young Palestinian?

MP and MR:
Our process of collaboration hoped to blur the lines between author, subject, and audience. When we visited each space, we were explicit that the film was not about reservations or refugee camps, but about the juxtaposition between the two. As travelers to and from these spaces, our role was to convey sentiments, messages, and solidarity from one place to another. We shot short films in the camps to show in the reservations and vice versa, so there was this sense that there was a give and take, that the movies were not just objects intended for a passive metropolitan spectator, but were part of constructing platforms of communication and exchange.

The funeral you mention was for Jehad al-Jafari, who was tragically shot and killed by an Israeli soldier while standing on the roof of a building. This happened the day we arrived in Palestine. We went straight from the border crossing with Jordan to the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, and it was a brutal introduction to the realities of life in the camps under occupation. The funeral was held the next day, and it was basically an expectation on the part of the residents that we would film it—it wasn’t even really a discussion. The theater group in Dheisheh that Jehad was part of, the Ghorbet Lagee Organization, helped organize the shoot and used our footage to create their own short films honoring Jehad’s life. Those are the very first films we published on our website—collaborations between us and the youth of Dheisheh.

The first reservation we visited was Pine Ridge in South Dakota, and through activist contacts we were able to reach Olowan Martinez, whose mother had visited Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in 1979 as part of a delegation with the American Indian Movement. Once she heard about our project she was excited to meet and talk with us, and from that first trip we made the short video We Love Being Lakota with Ojibway artist Adam Khalil. The video became something of a calling card to introduce and explain our project and approach. As we continued traveling, meeting people, making and showing short films, it became easier and easier.

Your film is narrated entirely by residents of the camps and reservations, without voiceover or the commentary of non-residents. It is minimally framed by opening intertitles announcing the film’s subjects and by maps locating the reservations and camps, ahead of each site-specific section. Before the first intertitles, however, there are some formal choices that stand out as more active interventions: a montage of images and sounds juxtaposing Palestinian and Indigenous resistance, and the use of images from the lyrical documentary The Dream (dir. Mohamad Malas, 1987). How did you arrive at these decisions? What do you see as the significance of your interventions or non-interventions as filmmakers engaged in documentary?

MP and MR:
To the extent that people know about reservations and camps, it is often by reading or hearing from people who do not live in those spaces, so this was the obvious beginning for us methodologically. We didn’t want to try to learn about these spaces at a library or university or governmental office, but to see and document and learn from people who inhabit them. Our aesthetic objective was to directly place the audience into the thick of these spaces, to immerse them in their sights, sounds, architecture, movement, and characters, with minimal outside references. Normative narrative and conceptual tropes of documentary cinema are aimed at helping audiences digest the images, but often end up making sense of these images on behalf of the audiences. Our idea was that, in the absence of those conventions, our audience would have a more visceral and raw, but also more engaged and ultimately thoughtful relationship with what they were seeing and hearing.

We generally tried to avoid the use of archival footage in our project, to make sure the emphasis was on the contemporary experiences and struggles of the reservations and camps. There’s so much mythology and nostalgia in both contexts that can cloud our view of what movements are like today for Palestinians and Native Americans. But in that opening sequence of Spaces of Exception we wanted to show a montage of this long history that got us to the present, and to intercut both spaces, which we otherwise didn’t do. In the film we maintain the specificity of each individual space by treating the film episodically, so you always know where you are. With the opening, we tried to look at what these places mean symbolically and historically, and what space they occupy in the popular historical and political imagination. Understanding that the opening montage was about exploring this blurred, imaginative space around the camp and the reservation, Malas’s film The Dream worked perfectly. Unlike so many films today, it was refreshing that he never takes the time to explain Palestine, Lebanon, or the struggle with Israel, and instead immediately immerses us in the interior lives of the camp dwellers. In some ways our film tried to echo that approach, the feel for the texture of daily life in the camps, and the genuineness and expressive character of the testimonies.

Settler colonialism has recently become an important comparative framework in academic, activist, and art circles, opening up avenues for exploring the histories and ongoing struggles of Indigenous peoples across distinct geographies and stages of colonization and resistance. How do you see these links being made on the ground, in reservations and camps? What surprised you about how the communities you depict perceived each other?

MP and MR:
Any sustained interaction with these struggling refugee and Indigenous communities points directly and explicitly to the failures of the nation-state and its model of citizenship, and to the industrialized modernization and liberal form of property relations that necessitate it. In this sense, it’s through these communities that we confront alternate possibilities of belonging and kinship that can open up liberatory horizons. These insights are significant to everyone, including those who have the benefit and privilege of citizenship in certain countries, or access to multiple passports.

The last decade has seen a renewal of international solidarity between struggles among youth and student activists—a more militant line of which existed in the 1970s, and which we attempted to reflect in the film’s opening. In Palestine and Lebanon for instance, there’s a growing interest in the concept of indigeneity, especially as a way of problematizing the framework of national liberation. The Standing Rock encampments and protest movement in 2016 did much to raise awareness around Indigenous movements, and particularly struggles against destructive infrastructure projects, in the United States and globally. And the current movement against Line 3 in Minnesota is a continuation of that.

Yet, most of the Native American communities we visited were far more aware of the Palestinian movement and much more willing to embrace the juxtaposition than the other way around. Palestine remains a global news story, and Palestinian armed resistance is much closer to people’s memory. Conversely, there was more of a mixed reaction initially on the part of the Palestinian communities, who were often less aware of the contemporary Indigenous struggles for sovereignty and self-determination. However, the contrast between the stereotypes of Native peoples they were familiar with and what was presented in our films would often lead to dynamic and self-reflexive discussions around the ways in which peoples and struggles are represented or misrepresented. It was these types of conversations—both in camps and reservations, but also in universities, cinemas, community spaces—that were the heart of our project.

Your film is labeled part of a larger project, titled The Native and the Refugee. What forms does this larger project take, and what plans, if any, do you have to develop it further?

MP and MR:
Thinking of indigeneity and refugeehood as dual entry points to interrogate the nation-state can lead in so many directions. While we were shooting in the Middle East, we also visited Kurdish regions in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria—spaces ranging from Yazidi refugee camps in Syria to screenings at the Rojava Film Commune, where we had one of the best discussions about our project. We’ve also been trying to find a way to include the struggles around the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria.

We recently released a short film on Bedouin gatherings in the West Bank, made with Ecuadorian artist Vanessa Teran, and shot while we were touring with Spaces of Exception in Palestine in 2019. Those communities in many ways combine the struggles of Indigenous communities in the United States and those of Palestinian refugees. We accompanied this film with two photo-essays for both Arabic and English-speaking audiences.

We’re now also working with collaborators Kahentinetha Rotihskareh:wakeh from Kahnawake and Philippe Blouin from Montreal on editing an anthology of writings on the Mohawk Warrior Society, which will come out this spring from PM Press. We’ve also been working on a manuscript based on our research since 2014, an attempt to encapsulate The Native and the Refugee in book form. Ultimately we’d like to concretize the existence of The Native and the Refugee as a platform of sorts that can exist outside of us, a shared space where specific communities of people can come together to share experiences and exchange analyses.

Matt Peterson is an organizer at Woodbine, an experimental space in New York City. He directed the documentary film Scenes from a Revolt Sustained (2014), and co-edited the books In the Name of the People (2018) and The Mohawk Warrior Society (forthcoming spring 2022).

Malek Rasamny is a researcher and filmmaker based between Paris and Beirut. He was a founding member of the LERFE space in Harlem and the Red Channels film collective, and is co-editor of the book The Mohawk Warrior Society (forthcoming spring 2022). He is currently working on a doctoral research project on reincarnation in post-war Lebanon at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris.

Kareem Estefan is a writer, editor, art critic, and PhD candidate in Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, researching the poetics of witnessing and worldbuilding in Palestinian visual culture. His essays and reviews have been published in art magazines and cultural journals including 4 Columns, Artforum, Third Text, Art in America, Frieze, Ibraaz, World Records Journal, and the New Inquiry among others. Estefan is co-editor, with Carin Kuoni and Laura Raicovich, of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books, 2017), and he is currently a Dissertation Fellow at Darat al-Funun, for which he has curated the program “Worldbuilding in the Wake.”

For more information contact program@e-flux.com.

Indigenous Issues & Indigeneity, Film
Palestine, Documentary, Refugees, Citizenship

Matt Peterson is an organizer at Woodbine, an experimental space in New York City. He co-edited the books In the Name of the People (2018), The Mohawk Warrior Society (2022), and The Reservoir (2022). Since 2014 he has collaborated with Malek Rasamny on “The Native and the Refugee,” a multimedia documentary project on American Indian reservations and Palestinian refugee camps.


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