Basma Alsharif has garnered attention worldwide for her installations and shorts over the last few years. Her work invites the viewer to re-think the depiction of language, time and space, and to re-experience the understanding of creating images and telling stories.
I interviewed the filmmaker about her feature debut Ouroboros, which will have its world premiere as part of the Signs of Life competition at the 70th Locarno Film Festival.
NOTEBOOK: Could you comment on the process of creating this film as a mirror to your own experience and also as a bridge to your filmmaking ideas?
BASMA ALSHARIF: As a Palestinian in the Diaspora, I have watched and experienced the perpetual destruction of the Gaza Strip throughout the course of my life—as it has throughout my parents' lives and my grandparents' lives. With the privilege of distance coupled with the privilege of having access to visiting throughout my childhood into adulthood, I had the distinct feeling that it was regarded as a territory disconnected from the rest of the world. A place we get to watch on the news but most are not allowed into. After a 10 year absence from visiting, I returned in 2012, and was shocked by how degraded it had become and even more by how much people had adapted to such inhumane living conditions. Life had clearly become only about survival, people were moving on and had given up on humanity to rescue them. I felt distinctly, that civilization had failed in Gaza.
My visit in 2012 also coincided with a war—the least damaging of the three wars in the last 10 years—and I saw first hand how quickly people adapted to war, and then post-war. I saw how necessary it was to forget, in order to survive. I felt quite devastated by this experience and with the realization that it might be time to say goodbye to a kind of hope I had held on to for my entire life, that the place and it's people would ever be free. I was also angry that the destruction of Gaza was seen as disconnected from the rest of the world. To imagine that civilization in Europe or America were somehow not tied to the erasure of the Palestinians.
My previous work—mostly short films and installations—had dealt a lot with the media representation of Palestine, the representation of violence as defining a population, and how this is ingested by those inside and outside the territory. I have always been curious about the subjective experience of political landscapes does to our understanding of ourselves as individuals, as collectives, and our understanding of history. With Ouroboros, I was interested in weaving together disparate landscapes and peoples and histories, and to ask us to see them as part of an endless cycle of destruction and renewal, doomed to repeat itself as the process of forgetting seemed to be the only way forward.
NOTEBOOK: What was the writing process like? And how did film’s structure came about?
ALSHARIF: Early on, I decided that the premise and structure for the film would be the Ouroboros: the symbol of the snake eating its tail, a perpetual cycle of destruction and renewal, in order to ask the open ended question of whether forgetting was the way forward or the way that we destroy ourselves. I had a lot of ideas for where the other sights would be that I would mirror Gaza through. I thought about Athens, and Rome. I thought about cities in South America that had suffered conquests and colonization. And I knew that I wanted some kind of symbolic story to take us through the various sites, a person we could travel through, and the semblance of a narrative that would string these various sites together. I wrote a very loose script based on this, knowing that the people and sites I would eventually land on would help to shape the films narrative. And the narrative for me was something I had experimented with a bit in earlier work, the idea of love as mirroring the idea of hope. The fact that the only way to move on from heartbreak and fall in love again, is to forget the previous love. To erase it and face the possibility of having one's heart broken again. So I wrote a script based loosely on the idea that its main character traveled through various sights in an attempt to erase the pain of heartbreak, only to end up back at the possibility for love again. The final film has little of this narrative in it, but I think it works as some kind of hidden force within the film that allows us to follow, without question, the forward momentum of the character's trajectory and engagement through the various landscapes.
This is my first feature film and it felt like I had stepped into a whole other field when developing the idea and planning for the shoots. The most important aspect of deciding to make a longer film had to do with my wanting time to play a role in creating a story in which each new site would erase the one that came before it, and so the longer form (the feature length) was the way to do this. It had less to do with narrative and more with challenging myself to produce a work that sustained engagement with the ideas and images I wanted to make and for a visceral experience of forgetting through images.
NOTEBOOK: The locations you shot are clearly crucial to the project. What is your selection process like and what role do your specific locations play? Do they impact your writing?
ALSHARIF: **I am copying an answer I wrote to a similar question from an interview with Andréa Picard for Mousse!**
"The landscapes are: the Gaza Strip in Occupied Palestine, Los Angeles and the Mojave Desert in California, Matera and Martina Franca in Italy, and Trohanet Château in Brittany, France.
Gaza was the starting point. The place where I wanted to suggest that civilization was ending and beginning again, but the other sites came through research, people I met, the people who participated in the film all influenced the locations. I know very well why each is important and was chosen in the end, but I also know that it could have been Gaza plus three other sites: Athens, Bogotá, and... Brasilia? My initial interest in Matera came because it was the site where Pasolini shot Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) after location scouting in Palestine left him unconvinced—it was both too modern and too ruined by occupation—so he decided to return to his native Italy. I wasn’t so much looking to make a statement by shooting in Matera myself. I wanted to acknowledge that when we choose a site to film in, we are inherently exploiting the landscape and the population there. We are creating an image of a place for our own use, to make a point or suggest an idea, or even as a stand-in for something else. Often (especially with fiction filmmaking), we show up with just a few days to get what we want. It strikes me now that as filmmaking is still a male-dominated field, location scouting really mirrors the colonial explorer’s search. This must be a really obvious link I’m making.
Anyways, the filmmaker arrives at a place and is looking at it for the kind of “image” it will make, and what I wanted to do is what Pasolini did with Palestine: to look at Matera as an image, what it symbolizes in regards to its history and what it represents today: the serene pastoral landscapes, the preserved ancient city. And then I put a restless, lonely character in the middle of it, whose energy is subdued, whose movements are controlled—with nearly half the sequences in Matera moving in reverse. The irony is that Pasolini became less important to me as I began research on Matera. I stumbled across Carlo Levi’s Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli). A memoir written by Levi in the year he spent in Matera after being internally exiled from Turin by Mussolini for his anti-fascist writing against the war in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). I was completely floored by Levi’s descriptions of the villagers in the southern Italian town: it was as though he were describing Gaza today.
So, without revealing the very particular reasons for having arrived at each site— which ends up getting lost in the film anyways—I am interested in what the sites reveal to us and what connections an audience will bring with their own set of references. I think image-making is about producing codes to be read by bringing ideas together, which means that we don’t always know what extra meanings will be produced from what we make.
What I can say is that I was looking at sites that were being destroyed, had been erased, or forgotten, or places where we are still clinging onto the relics of an ancient civilization to prove our own value. To weave these sites together was to say that nothing exists in a void, the demise of Gaza has not happened in a vacuum."
NOTEBOOK: From the early rehearsals to the actual shooting of the scenes, how do you guide your actors from text to shoot? What is the process of creating dialogues like for you?
ALSHARIF: This was my first time ever working with actors, or people as characters. The scripts I wrote were very loose. On the first two shoots: in Matera and Brittany, I didn't have any dialogue scripts. I wanted to focus on the characters in the spaces they were inhabiting, moving around in. At times, I asked them to have improvised conversations so that they would forget the camera was there and I would be able to get footage that would read as a natural scenes we were peaking into. The other half of the film: in L.A. and the Mojave, I had scripts with dialogue that were meant to seem more like a performance for a camera that the characters were somewhat aware of—a kind of choreographed performance. For these scenes, I often rewrote the scripts the night before a shoot, and then adjusted them during rehearsals.
I think I saw the first half as a kind of past and the second half as a future and needed the sections to have some stylistic differences. Notably, I remotely directed the scenes in Gaza. I worked with a Palestinian producer who arranged the shoots and we used a media company who had drone cameras and Steadicams, and I detailed what kinds of images I wanted, where they should shoot, with instructions for how the woman in the Gaza sequence should move through the house.
Making the film was really process driven for me—each shoot informed how the next one would go. I'm not sure I would ever work this way again, as I think I learned a lot about the weight of directing actors and a cinematographer, how to create a narrative and continuity. It was a bit chaotic and something that resulted in a very difficult editing process, that required destroying the material by changing and manipulating it heavily to disconnect it from how it functioned in order to regain control of the material and have it do what I wanted.
NOTEBOOK: Could you elaborate on the process of defining the camera concept for your feature debut and also comment on your collaboration with your cinematographer, the filmmaker Ben Russell?
ALSHARIF: The decision was a bit tricky to work with Ben, as we are in a relationship, but I fully trusted him as an image maker with rigorous attention to form and technical ability. I think the films he makes are beautiful and in a way, I knew he would understand what I was after without me having to communicate exactly what I wanted. I knew he trusted me. A lot of the process was like asking him to collect certain kinds of images, rather than following a script with dialogue and covering everything for continuity. So, for example, in L.A. I asked for a lot of faces and expressions, a lot of details from around the house, the sky. Directing the shoots often felt more like asking someone to document a still life and his expertise was useful in clueing me into what I might be missing, or how technically to the list of footage I was collecting in each site to be more connected formally and aesthetically.
Ultimately, I knew I wanted the film (with the exception of Gaza) to be shot on 16mm because I wanted lush, seductive images to contrast the cold, disconnected ones from Gaza. And I knew I would get beautiful images if I asked Ben to be the cinematographer. There was often a gap between what images I wanted and what he would shoot, but this is often how I work: I have ideas and then even when I shoot myself I am surprised by how the images look. So the added distance was useful once I had the material and began editing.
NOTEBOOK: What was the editing process like for you? How long did it take? How much footage was shot in total? Did you shoot any additional material to better compose the narrative?
ALSHARIF: The editing process was the most intense I have ever experienced. I honestly felt something like "fear" about the material. Like it was some uncontrollable beast I didn't know how to tame. It took me a long while before the material felt familiar, or that I could remember what all of it was, and I'm told that my shooting ratio was very low. We had about five hours of film material and another two of digital material shot over the course of three years. I spent about three month editing every day, nearly 10 hours a day, and took myself into complete isolation in order to do. I was generously offered a studio to work from in Arles France, by the LUMA Foundation in Arles. I was basically shut inside this studio from morning till night, editing completely alone. So much of my previous work has been in the post production, but because I usually shoot myself, I have a better handle on the material. With Ouroboros, I felt like the materials wasn't mine for a long time and it felt like it controlled me, more than the inverse. I also haven't ever had so many people involved in the editing process—having to show rough cuts to producers and programmers in very vulnerable stages of editing was honestly devastating. I didn't realize how fragile the whole process would make me or how much doubt I would have in my ability to make the film I wanted to make and I'm really grateful to have had the opportunity to experience it and know myself as a filmmaker and an editor better.
NOTEBOOK: How were production decisions made about budget, shooting schedule, technical structure, choice of crew and cast or number of takes? To what extent did these impact the creative process and shape the final film?
ALSHARIF: This was the first time that I worked with producers and followed a more traditional film production model. It was a gigantic learning experience. I think there isn't much room in the film world for "artist films" and little financing in the art world for filmmakers. I found the process to be frustrating and illogical most of the time, because I have never worked with as large of budgets as I did, but also felt ultimately like everyone was underpaid or even exploited.
My sense was that producers, regardless of how low budget or non-traditional the film they have taken on is, need for the film to have some commercially viability. I see that it is a struggle to finance films that are more experimental by nature and belong more in an art world context, but that the art world also has yet to come to terms with how to fit and finance films within their own models. As an artist, I felt like I had to adopt an entire other way of working—to explicitly lay out my ideas, to find ways to fit these ideas into the national models that are expected of film financing (how much of the film is based in the country financing the project, how many human resources are from the country of financing et cetera) and to have to plan months if not years in advance so as to prove to potential funders that the project I was proposing was viable and worth financing. I had to write scripts and treatments and budgets and adopt a whole other process that involved having to open up the creative aspects of my project to people who were looking at it functionally, and I spent way more time than I ever have in "administrative and logistical" duties, which ultimately hurt the creative process.
It was easy to confuse having to sell an idea to a funder/producer with knowing what I myself wanted from that idea, or to allow for my process to evolve naturally and not aligned to a foundations interests. In the art world, it has always felt like proposals are based on ideas, and the merit of one's previous work. In the film world, it has felt like the viability of the project and having it fit into the financiers' interests is the most significant aspect. That said, I am totally grateful to the foundations and private funders who supported this project. I know they took a bit of a risk, and their support was generous and allowed for this film to be made—something I wasn't always confident would happen. I think I got lucky, honestly, because I also wonder what the reward is for a funder to pour money into something that makes no money. It was eye-opening to realize that how much money a project of mine would make is not something I think about when making the project.
The film has a very distinct aesthetic concept as to how it uses texture, color and rhythms. As a filmmaker, where would you position yourself in terms of artistic references?
ALSHARIF: This changes every time, with every new project. It may sound cliche, but I watched a lot of Pasolini while developing the film—both as a creative visionary and as someone with a political agenda. A lot of my work has focused on making pieces that don't sacrifice aesthetics and form in order to have a political stance. I'm invested in finding ways to have my work slip into various scenes because of formal elements that are actually just vehicles for a political message—less propagandistic than this sounds and more about forcing audiences to engage with ideas without realizing that they are. I just watched the The Decameron (1971) for the first time and what strikes me is how easy it is to be seduced by this film, to laugh, and be entertained, and to walk away questioning the continued influence of religion on civilization, one's sense of self, and one's sense of one's own body.