September 14, 2023

To Be Once Removed: A Conversation

Devika Girish, Pooja Rangan, Lakshmi Padmanabhan, Sharlene Bamboat, and Miryam Charles

Film still from Sharlene Bamboat, If From Every Tongue It Drips, 2021.

This conversation is published in connection with Once Removed, an e-flux Screening Room program featuring the accented documentary work of Miryam Charles, Parastoo Anoushahpour, and Sharlene Bamboat, whose films explore how geographic, historic, and familial chasms are bridged by acts of translation. The program, curated by Devika Girish, Lakshmi Padmanabhan, and Pooja Rangan, was screened at e-flux in Brooklyn on June 3, 2023.


To be “once removed” is to be both intimate and distant. As a phrase connoting a generational and often diasporic difference, it is haunted by an elision—an excavation—across which relations persist. Miryam Charles’s Song for the New World crafts an intimate archive of colonial exile, weaving narratives of loss and longing for Haiti—a home the Canadian filmmaker never quite had—through the rich sonic inheritance of Haitian Kreyòl. The film is part of an ongoing practice developed by Charles that melds myths, memories, children’s songs, and family stories into poignant reflections on the colonial origins of contemporary Black diasporic life. In The Time That Separates Us, Parastoo Anoushahpour creatively reinterprets the Sodom and Gomorrah myth of Lot to give form to the fraught negotiations of state borders and national belonging in the heavily militarized Jordan River Valley. Produced through a collective practice, the film reflects the director’s ethical commitments to translation across multiple legal and linguistic registers. Made under the conditions of social isolation imposed by the Covid-19 lockdown, Sharlene Bamboat’s If From Every Tongue It Drips is an experiment in collaboration across distance. The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of Ponni, a queer historian, translator, and activist in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka. Footage filmed by Ponni’s lover, Sarala, was assembled by Bamboat in Montreal and scored by Scottish composer Richy Carey on the Isle of Skye, resulting in a film that finds unending creative possibilities in plurality and unintelligibility. Bamboat collides sound, text, and image to conjure a world where the boundaries between times, spaces, nations, and languages are porous and constantly shifting.

All three films raise fraught questions about the necessity of speaking across difference, particularly in a world where violence requires no translation. The following conversation among the curators, Bamboat, and Charles unpacks the language that these films evolve for thinking through these questions: a language that foregrounds translation, desire, and accented modes of relation.

Devika Girish: Yesterday, Pooja described curating as the act of giving form to a feeling, which I loved. Perhaps we could start there, and think about how each of these three films—by Sharlene, Miryam, and Parastoo—come together around the practice of describing ineffable or untranslatable experiences.

Pooja Rangan: I first saw Sharlene’s If From Every Tongue It Drips while I was working on a book called Thinking With an Accent. A collaboration among myself and three other South Asian women, the book was the outcome of our efforts to find a language for the experience of being accented. Accent, we discovered, is as much about perception as it is about expression; accents are formed in the ear as much as in the tongue. An accent does not immediately reveal stable information so much as it raises a question to be answered. We propose in our book that an accent is, in the words of artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, a “biography of migration”: it registers movement, whether driven by desire or coercion. An accent can remain as a stubborn trace of one’s itinerary—a haunting that resists the effort to smudge it out.

Sharlene’s film is engaged with and interested in all of these registers of accentedness. And each of the films in this program foregrounds not only the “output” of the act of translation, but also the process of translating, in all of its dialogic, intimate, and embodied aspects. The act of translation gives us access, but it also withholds access. I wanted to have a space to explore all that, in conversation not only with Sharlene, but also with other accented scholars, like Lakshmi. There’s something about curating that has to do with desiring friendship and connection. Putting this program together became a process of giving voice to something that we had recognized and felt, and wanted to talk to each other about.

Lakshmi Padmanabhan: When I first watched Sharlene’s film, I was in the midst of editing a volume about Miryam’s work. I was struck by a shared concern across their films, which can be captured in a sentence: “I have only one language and it is not mine.”1 But that doesn’t mean it’s foreign to me. That’s different. This kind of intimate distance arising from the sense of non-belonging would be my way of linking to what Pooja raises through the problem of the accent. It is a trace of one’s movement away from a particular location, as much as a movement toward what you are desiring—the tracing of a gap.

I want to point also to the way the images work orthogonally to the stories that unfold in these works. The distance between image and narrative reflects on the legacy of migration and exile—the distance between what home has meant, and how the meanings of home have changed with the passage of time. This is the first Tamil film that I’ve ever programmed and it feels so lovely to hear my language spoken in this context. Even though I didn’t know Sharlene when she made this work, I was shocked by the deep familiarity I felt while watching it. Some of the streets in this film are ones that I might have called home, and some of the stories that Ponni narrates are ones I might have heard before. So for me, it became a question of thinking about how one can mediate a feeling of being somewhere where you haven’t been through images. I experienced a similar sense in watching Parastoo’s film but for different political reasons. The familiarity with the violence of the state gave me an uncanny sense of déjà vu, but in a way that’s chilling and full of jagged edges. The sense of familiarity is not always about nostalgia for a beautiful past; it can also evoke the serrated edges of history, and the ongoing political violence that remains out of the frame.

DG: I saw If From Every Tongue It Drips during the pandemic, and I was taken with the sense of misdirection in the film. I have a relationship with all the languages used in the film, so all the dialogue was intelligible to me, but that made it harder for me to place the film. It took me a while to figure out if it was taking place in India or Sri Lanka, why there was a reference to Loch Snizort, and where the film was coming from. I found that confusion very productive. This was during the pandemic, when India was rocked by protests against policies that tried to redefine citizenship and the nature of nationalism; some of those developments are referenced in the film, like the Shaheen Bagh protest, which was against the Citizenship Amendment Act that aimed, in brief, to persecute Muslims and people of certain communities and exclude them from citizenship.

I’m an immigrant, as we all are, so the question of belonging is always front and center. At the time, I felt really distant from any sense of political allegiance to a nation-state. But there are feelings of belonging that are much more primal, and often have to do with sensory memories that you can’t let go of. There’s this quote by the Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang: “What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?” How do you place those feelings? I found that Sharlene’s film created a space outside of the bounds of nation, an imagined space contrived through language and sound, that I could inhabit without nailing myself down in a way that felt uncomfortable. I felt in community with Sarala, in community with Sharlene, even though they were all in different places, coming from different histories.

Miryam’s work is similar in the way it uses misdirection—which is a very cinematic thing, right? Making films is the art of fakery, of creating places that don’t exist. Miryam, you have your own relationships with French and English and Haitian Kreyòl, and with America and Canada and Haiti. I get that similar feeling of instability while watching your film; it opens up an in-between space of community that feels liberated from the boundaries and borders that otherwise so poorly fit and describe the way we actually think of ourselves in the world.

Sharlene Bamboat: I want to go back to your original question about friendship. I tend to mostly work with friends. I have worked with Ponni before on a few different projects, and we have been friends for over a decade, back from when we both lived in Toronto. I now live in Montreal, and she lives in Batticaloa in Sri Lanka. I had been working on these ideas of Rekhti poetry for a few years, and mixing it with quantum entanglement theory, trying to figure out how to blend the two. Then the pandemic happened, and I was trapped at home. I started messing around with an edit in April 2020, and then, in August of that year, I asked Ponni to participate in this film with me.

The way that we worked together was that I told Ponni and Sarala, who was the camera operator, to film and record sound on a phone that I had mailed to them. I gave them very loose instructions for how I wanted certain shots to be. They would then film and upload the videos. At first I asked them to redo and reframe certain shots, because I had an illusion of control as an artist. This dissipated quickly because neither of them are filmmakers, and I was also acutely aware that I had never been to Batticaloa, so they were both my guides in a sense, letting me into their lives and their surroundings; I literally only saw what they saw. It worked out in an interesting way, because you have to let go of control, but then also share trust with the person that you’re working with. And in this case that trust was built over a decade of friendship.

I have also worked with Richy Carey, who is the sound designer of the film and lives in Scotland, on four of my projects and two of his, and we’ve also been friends for a while. At the beginning of the pandemic, I told him about this idea, and he jumped on board, because he’s really into quantum theory and has read a lot of Karen Barad, as well as conducted a lot of collective listening exercises, which we did throughout the process of making this film. We started writing each other letters about work, but also about our lives; he had a kid during that time, I was dealing with an ill parent, and we were both dealing with the effects of lockdown in our respective locations. We did this for about six to eight months, so by the time we actually started editing the film, he was in my head, and I was in his. The soundtrack was created in three different places—Batticaloa, Montreal, and the Isle of Skye—and the color coding and the captions allowed for the locations to come through within the film, while also giving it more sociohistorical context.

The film was thus created through friendships and various types of relationships, thinking about quantum entanglement and the “herethere,” and the disbursement of the self and the other that connects to the poetic concept of Dugana.

Miryam Charles: Songs for the New World emerged alongside another project about family and loss. I was filming in St. Lucia and Dominica with a heavy heart. I was initially planning to be in Haiti, but because of the pandemic and the political situation, I couldn’t go. So I was in St. Lucia and I started to wander and just film scenes I came across, while grieving for my lost trip home. My grandfather disappeared in Montreal a long time ago, and I was working on this film about a mother losing a daughter, which was conceived from the perspective of the child losing their parent. In my family, when we don’t have a word for something, we sing. We can tell how we feel through the music. I sing all the time and I also hum all the time. Sometimes, I’ll start humming something and my mom will say oh, okay, today you’re sad—even if there’s no indication in the lyrics. So we communicate feeling through song, and I tried to incorporate that into this film. You can hear church songs blended with revolutionary music from the 1980s, as well as music I wrote in collaboration with the sound mixer and producer. I’ve known them for years. I like to do films about my family, but also I like to create a family of collaborators. I have to know somebody for years and like their work before I work with them. After a decade of knowing them, I might ask a friend if they want to collaborate on something.

DG: That’s a very involved audition process! [laughs] Another theme that we’ve discussed a lot is “accented documentary.” The term was coined by the scholar Hamid Naficy to describe films made by artists in exile that encode the experience of displacement in the film, its form, and its spectatorship. How does that term apply to the films in this program?

PR: I want to go to Parastoo’s The Time That Separates Us. We’ve been talking about matters of language and translation, and while these are not the explicit themes of her film, they are implicit, and violently so, in the film’s location at the heavily policed border of Jordan and Israel. This was the historical site of the “shibboleth test” that led to the slaughter of tens of thousands of Ephraimites who were betrayed by their inability to pronounce the chosen “test word” (shibboleth) in the accepted Gileadite manner.

The implication of language in matters of censorship and exile, and the ways that language is employed to police borders that can never contain its complexities, is a significant theme in this program. The linguistic formations and activities generated by border policing was a major preoccupation for Hamid Naficy in his book An Accented Cinema. He opens the book with an anecdote about watching a film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf that was banned in Iran and therefore shot in Turkey. Naficy is watching the movie in Paris at a production studio, and because it has very fast-paced Turkish dialogue subtitled in French, he is relying on a French-speaking friend who is reading the subtitles quickly and whispering the Persian translation into Naficy’s ear as he takes notes in English and Persian.

It’s a spectatorial experience of simultaneously listening, acting, watching, reading, translating, and writing that leads Naficy to coin this term “accented cinema,” which captures something that is central to the three very distinct films in our program. The question for me is also what accented cinema means today, nearly a quarter-century after Naficy had this spectatorial experience. We’re operating in a very different cultural and cinematic ecology, so what about this term is still valuable?

LP: I’ve been thinking about the word “documentary” a lot because I’m writing a book on independent documentary. I’m often at an impasse with that word because it fails to capture something fundamental about the films we’re discussing right now. Throughout its history, documentary has largely focused on producing a clearly demarcated subject, whether individuals or groups, who are documented in order to convey some information to a viewer. And that is definitely not the type of film that Miryam makes. Nor does it apply to a whole range of contemporary nonfiction film, including Parastoo and Sharlene’s work. So the term “documentary” seems to fail to capture the language that these films are speaking; the films use the language of documentary, but to do something very different from what we associate with that tradition. I think this approach is mirrored within If From Every Tongue It Drips in the way that Ponni discusses the polyvocality of Rekhti poetry itself, a practice that draws on a range of languages and turns language against itself, in order to speak about desire. The failure of documentary as a word is measured by the capacity of these films to document and communicate desire rather than a clearly demarcated subject.

DG: For me, the context Hamid Naficy was writing within was of national cinemas, which are premised upon a more stable idea of the nation. So accented filmmakers—whether exiled or displaced—carry the sense of being separated from somewhere. Their films also speak from that place of separation. What feels different about the films we’re discussing today is that there isn’t a clear departure from a stable sense of belonging that they’re trying to capture. It’s really more a sense of in-betweenness. That speaks to certain practical realities too, about the ways in which films are produced these days. Both Sharlene and Miryam work in Canada, where the state funds art. That involves some level of allegiance to national production, but it also reflects the ways in which multiculturalism is a part of nationalism now; nation-states want to support diverse, multicultural, border-crossing work as a means of absorbing all those identities into the logic of the nation. There’s also the trend of coproduction these days, where filmmakers are working across borders in very literal ways. So when we talk about the “accent” here, we’re not talking about a marker of difference from something, but the representation of difference in and of itself, instability in and of itself.

I’m also curious, Sharlene and Miryam: How do you make decisions about subtitling, or about which country of origin or production to “check” when submitting to festivals? I’m sure some of those decisions are simply practical and don’t fully represent your perception of your own work. But I’m curious how you navigate the question of address. Trinh T. Minh-ha writes how translation and subtitling can be forms of flattening; they can sand down the subject or the image for the dominant gaze or dominant ear, because you’re always translating from and to something. Your work scrambles that a little bit, but I’m curious: When you’re making a film, who are you thinking of as its audience? And when you try to find ways to actually show the film, does that idea get challenged or reduced?

MC: I don’t mean this in a condescending way, but I never really think about the audience, because it makes it too hard to work. Everyone’s response is subjective, so if you try to make work for a specific person or even a whole community, you will lose yourself. I translate mainly for myself. I speak with a very thick French accent. My parents really wanted us to be integrated in Canadian society, so they refused to speak Kreyòl to me when I was a child and insisted that I speak very proper French. Now I think they regret it a bit, but I incorporate all these histories into my work to reflect on the way my language bears the traces of migration. When I translate between French and Kreyòl for the subtitles, I usually record the scene in the original language. Months later, I return to this recording and provide an interpretation rather than a literal translation. It is more of a poetic version that I write for myself, but I hope others can connect to it too.

PR: Sharlene, you incorporate the act of describing what we are shown in your films in a way that offers cultural context (we can think of this as a practice of creating access), and also gently guides our attention to what needs to be known or said, sometimes making what is implicit explicit. The filmmaker Jordan Lord describes this capacity of audio description as a “cut” that produces a frame within the frame. This is also applicable to the way that the captions you cocreated with Collective Text work. There were many moments during your film when I experienced unexpected delight and intimacy due to the captions—moments that made me aware of so much more than I might otherwise have perceived.

SB: Yes, for the captions in the film, I worked with a group in Glasgow called Collective Text. I had seen their work on another artist’s film, and I was amazed by the potential of captions, and how one could animate and color-code them. In my “money job,” I work at a film festival, and one of my tasks is to organize accessibility. So I’m always thinking about captions and audio description. In my other films, I employ basic captioning. But with If From Every Tongue It Drips, because I had time and funding, I wanted to work with Collective Text. My point person for the group was Emilia Beatriz, with whom I worked for eight months.

I often use Pakistani and Indian pop culture from the ’80s and ’90s, which is when I grew up in Pakistan. I’m often asking myself how to translate that to an audience that may not know the significance of those pop-culture references, but also how to not overdo it. I find myself doing this dance. With this film, in particular, Emilia and I decided to not caption the words to the songs, because what I was trying to convey were the feelings more so than the lyrics. That was done with the help of two people—Aaditya Agarwal, and Nick Dourado. Aditya is a film programmer and writer from Delhi, and he understands the sociopolitical context of the work, while Nick is a jazz musician and understands music and rhythm. I sent both of them all the songs in the film and asked them some questions about it, and Emilia and I combined their answers into what became the captions.

I was also conscious of not overly aestheticizing the captions, and remembering that they serve the purpose of accessibility. That was also why I wanted to work with Collective Text, because they are extremely thoughtful, and have D/deaf consultants who advise them and the artist on what works and what doesn’t. I was trying to create a balance between aesthetics and function.

Throughout the film there is a lot of translation: literal, poetic, and cultural translations, and accessible modes of translation. It was important for me to use all these modes, because I don’t speak all of the languages presented in the film. I don’t speak or read Tamil; I can read and write Urdu but I don’t understand nineteenth-century poetic Urdu; and at this point in my life, English is my dominant language, but it is not my mother tongue. I know many half-languages—French, Spanish, Hindi, Gujarati—and I navigate the world through half languages and understandings. This really shows up in the film. For example, Ponni can’t read Urdu, but she can read and speak Hindi, so I transliterated the Urdu poetry into English, which she then was able to read out loud. Tamil is her mother tongue, so she was the Tamil translator for the film. Muhammad, the editor for the film, doesn’t speak Urdu or Tamil, but his dominant language is Arabic, so he can read the Urdu script and recognize certain words, which helped while editing the film.

Throughout the process of making If From Every Tongue It Drips, there were all these “in-between” situations occurring, which resembles my existence and those of the people around me. After some time, you just get comfortable with not entirely understanding.


Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin, trans. Patrick Mensah (Stanford University Press, 1998), 25.

Film Notes, Experimental Film

Devika Girish is a film critic, editor, and programmer based in New York City. She is the Co-Deputy of Film Comment magazine and a Talks programmer for the New York Film Festival. She contributes regularly to the New York Times, and her writing has also appeared in The Nation, the New York Review of Books, the Criterion Collection, The Village Voice, and other publications. She has served on the selection committees of the Mumbai Film Festival and the Berlin Critics’ Week.

Pooja Rangan is a scholar of documentary media based at Amherst College, where she is Associate Professor of English and Chair of Film and Media Studies. Rangan is the author of the award-winning book Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary (Duke University Press, 2017), and coeditor of the anthology Thinking with an Accent: Toward a New Object, Method, and Practice (University of California Press, 2023, now available in print and as a free open access ebook), as well as numerous journal articles and essays (available on Her new book-in-progress, The Documentary Audit, explores how listening has come to be equated, in documentary discourse, with accountability.

Lakshmi Padmanabhan is Assistant Professor of Radio, TV, Film at Northwestern University. Her academic writing is published and forthcoming in journals including Cultural Critique, Camera Obscura, JCMS, Women & Performance, Art History, and New Review of Film and Television. Her essays, criticism, and reviews have been published in Seen, Public Books, Jewish Currents, and Post45. She is the editor of the forthcoming volume Forms of Errantry, on the experimental films of Miryam Charles. Her current book project examines the aesthetics of counter-cinema and the failed dreams of decolonization in India from 1980 to the present.

Sharlene Bamboat is a moving-image and installation artist based in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal. Her practice engages with translation, history, and sound to uncover sensory and fractured ways of understanding the relationship between the self and the social in transnational contexts. Her works examine the role of colonialism, globalization, culture, and desire through poetics, abstraction, and collaboration by working with artists, musicians, and writers to animate historical, political, legal, and pop-culture materials. Her most frequent collaborator, since 2009, is Alexis Mitchell. In addition to her art practice, Sharlene works in the arts sector, including artist-run organizations and collectives in Canada, and with artists both locally and internationally.

Miryam Charles is a Haitian-Canadian director, producer, and cinematographer living in Montreal. She has produced several short and feature films. Her films have been presented in various festivals internationally. Her first feature film, Cette Maison (This House), was presented at the Berlinale, and was also included in the TIFF Top 10 of the year. She also launched the short film At Dusk at the Locarno Film Festival. As a producer, she is currently working on the post-production of the series Still I Rise.


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