Memories for Forgetfulness Elsewhere

Moving Images from the Middle East/Arab World After Empires
Curated by Irmgard Emmelhainz

November 24—February 16, 2021

With films by Nora Adwan, Reem Ali, Basma Alsharif, Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, Selma Baccar, b.h. Yael, Fouad Elkoury, Harun Farocki, Shadi Habib Allah, Khadijeh Habashneh, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Helene Kazan, Hassan Khan, Dalia Al Kury, Wael Noureddine, The Otolith Group, Jocelyne Saab, Urok Shirhan, Mohanad Yaqubi, Akram Zaatari

Streaming on e-flux Video & Film in five thematic group screenings, each two weeks long; and accompanied by two live discussions (speakers and dates to be announced)

Who can construct for them a new memory with no content other than the broken shadow of a distant life in a shack made of sheer metal?
Is there enough forgetfulness for them to forget?

—Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness, 1982

From hour to hour the destruction of the Arab world becomes more and more likely. The cool breeze of early September awakes old memories. Of what? Of the sea rocks close to the Café Arjam in Beirut (long since destroyed), of the smell of the orange trees burnt fifty years later by napalm. Our memory is woven with war. 
—Etel Adnan, Of Cities & Women (Letters to Fawwaz), 1992

The current disaster is like a monstrous accumulation of all the deferrals of the past, to which are added those of each day and each moment, in a continuous time slide. But life is always decided now, and now, and now. 
—The Invisible Committee, Now, 2017

This constellation of post-1967 films gather a cultural memory of ongoing political conflicts rooted in the colonial past of a geographic area misnamed by relatively arbitrary boundary markers: the “Arab world,” “Orient,” or “Middle East.” 

One of the traits of modernity is the experience of conflict elsewhere through visual interfaces. This is the result of the belief in the moral imperative to document, give testimony to, and disseminate images in order to stop atrocities happening far away, all while genocide, dispossession, and mass displacement are justified as collateral damage in the imperial wars seeking to expand neoliberal capitalism. To disentangle the complicated matrix of violence operating in the Middle East, the image has functioned as a pharmakon. Indeed, the birth of photography coincided with the expansion of early European imperialism in the Arab world, and some of the medium’s earliest outputs are Orientalist images taken by Europeans in places like Cairo and Jerusalem. Images have long shaped the external imagination of the region. One of the challenges cultural producers in the area face is to counter the image as an intervention in the field of vision that perpetuates imperial narratives, including that of the myth of journalistic objectivity.

During the 1940s and '50s, the region’s nation-states, whose borders were negotiated under colonial occupation, gained independence. The legacy of (European and Ottoman) Empire was not uniform: statelessness for Palestinians, artificial borders, aggrieved and impoverished minorities, lack of social cohesion, dysfunctional colonial infrastructure and institutions, pan-Arabism, and the salvaging of identities suppressed by colonial rule. It also meant nation-states ruled by modernized elites who embraced the Western form of life rising in tandem with Islamic revival. During the Cold War period, and following the 1967 Naksa defeat against Israel, Arab world countries participated in struggles for a better future and for a less unequal international world system. They were opposed to and attacked by Western powers, eventually leading to the defeat of Palestinians in Jordan, civil war in Lebanon, the two Gulf Wars, and the US invasion of Iraq, among other ramifications. 1989 announced the advent of a multicultural Empire now dominated by the US, and the essentialist, culturalist narrative in which allegedly unique religious fanaticism (referring chiefly to Islam) led to the “clash of civilizations.” Along with this cultural narrative hindering political agency came neoliberal structural changes and economic reform. If during the colonial era the Middle East had been a hub for oil, trade routes, and markets, the region maintained its key position in the geopolitical strategy of American hegemony, with the well-being of the Israeli state at its center. To further its interests, Empire deemed it necessary to systemically destroy the possibility of dignified living conditions for Palestinians through ongoing dispossession and occupation, and to undermine surrounding countries’ stability and autonomy via client states, sectarian divisions, economic policies and sanctions, and diplomatic and military intervention targeting defiant governments and groups.

Neoliberal structural changes, moreover, exacerbated inequality, state monopolies on freedom of expression and political organization, theft of public resources, and massive urbanization leading to the destruction of food autonomy and the degradation of life in general. As Islamic organizations began to provide alternative subsistence networks against the neoliberal economy, so did this Empire strengthen its influence in the region in the form of empathic (counterinsurgent), modern humanitarianism and cultural funding aimed at promoting democratic and liberal values. When the Arab uprisings against dictatorships and corruption swept the region in the 2010s, it seemed inevitable that they would get hijacked by the clashing interests of Empire and longstanding regional regimes, leading to even more sectarian divisions, civil and proxy wars, mass displacement, and economic crises actively suppressing any possibility of organized resistance or alternative to globalized Empire.       

The films in this program constitute a landscape of devastation in the twentieth and twenty-first century imperial wars. How to give form to the experience of loss when it has resulted in the loss and distortion of form itself (Yassin al-Hajj Saleh)? What is an image of resistance? But also: How to go beyond the colonial, Orientalist image of “the Arab” and the many faces it has taken over the years? When personal memories are unreliable, a struggle for meaning and collective memory has been necessary to counter imperial constructions of the “terrorist enemy” and the “victim of human rights violations.” The role of the moving image in remembrance and against imperial visual culture and State-directed memorialization calls for decolonization in the field of vision toward political agency.

The selection plays with the deictics “here” and “elsewhere,” and “now” and “then,” as well as shifts between subjective and political points of view to constitute a visual memory of the region’s turbulent past fifty-four years. Many of the films share a concern with the ontological status of the image, with the legacy of internationalist reflexivity beyond liberal empathy, with nearness and distance regarding the subject of the image, with experimenting with images of remembrance and witnessing, and with dealing with an image that will not go away. This is the image of Palestinians, which is also the image of globally redundant populations struggling under settler colonialism to sustain the privileges of a few racialized inhabitants of the world. Other works in the program deal with interfaces through which conflict is experienced from an imperialist point of view, such as “operational images” (Harun Farocki), which are high-tech, abstract, disembodied, impersonal, and subject-less. Amongst these are also “cruel images” that “bypass the faculty of language altogether” (Oraib Toukan), as well as many that are the fruit of the female gaze. 

Finally, the juxtaposition of these films reveals the inextricability of war and images, and how with time, their production and consumption has grown more and more sophisticated. Against the grain of the West as “concept” and the East as “content” (Mostafa Heddaya and Rijin Sahakian), this collection of films resists before the lack of horizon for common global struggle and for the recomposition of autonomous political progressive organization in the face of sectarianism, polarization, and the demise of Empire.

I. Postcards from Afar
November 24–December 7, 2021

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Ismyrna, 2016, 50 minutes
Wael Noureddine, Ça sera beau (From Beyrouth with Love), 2005, 29 minutes
Jocelyne Saab, Imaginary Postcards, 2016, 6 minutes 
Hassan Khan, Blind Ambition, 2012, 46 minutes 
Basma Alsharif, Ouroboros, 2017, 77 minutes

II. Revolution and Civil War (Here)
December 8–21, 2021

Selma Baccar, Fatma 75, 1976, 60 minutes
Khadijeh Habashneh, Children Without Childhood, 1972, 21 minutes
Jocelyne Saab, Children of War, 1976, 10 minutes

III. Images of Resistance from Elsewhere 
January 5–18, 2022

Harun Farocki, War at a Distance, 2003, 58 minutes 
The Otolith Group, Nervus Rerum, 2009, 32 minutes
Jocelyne Saab, One Dollar a Day, 2016, 6 minutes
b.h. Yael, Even in the Desert, 2006, 33 minutes
Mohanad Yaqubi, Off Frame AKA Revolution Until Victory, 2016, 62 minutes

IV. The Persistence of Resistance in the Actualization of Memories From the Past
January 19–February 1, 2022

Urok Shirhan, Watani Al Akbar (My Greater Homeland), 2015, 11 minutes
Wael Noureddine, A Film Far Beyond a God, 2008, 39 minutes
Fouad Elkoury, Atlantis, 2012, 13 minutes
Akram Zaatari, This Day, 2003, 86 minutes
Helene Kazan, Frame of Accountability: In Her View, 2022, 15 minutes

V. Today 
February 2–15, 2022

Reem Ali, Zabad (Foam), 2008, 42 minutes
Dalia Al Kury, Syrialism, 2020, 21 minutes
Nora Adwan, Shifting Inheritance, 2020, 19 minutes
Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, Black Bach Artsakh, 2021, 150 minutes
Shadi Habib Allah, Dag’aa, 2015, 18 minutes

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

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Series

November 24–December 7, 2021
With films by Basma Alsharif, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Hassan Khan, Wael Noureddine, Jocelyne Saab

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