“I looked for a counter to the dominant narratives of our hysterical moment.” In creating her new cinematic playlist for the Bentson Mediatheque, artist Gudrun Lock considered a question: How do these margins of life define what is central? A participant in the Bentson Local Scholar program, in which local artists are invited to critically engage with the Ruben/Benston Moving Image Collection and share their findings, interpretations, and concerns, Lock’s playlist, Looking to the Margins, will be screened at 7 pm on May 4 in the Bentson Mediatheque. It will continue to be available throughout the months of May and June on the self-select Mediatheque. Here, she discusses her thinking as she made her selections.
While exploring the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, I looked for a counter to the dominant narratives of our hysterical moment. Paul Chan’s Baghdad in No Particular Order (2003), Peggy Awesh’s Beirut Outtakes (2007), and Jem Cohen’s Blood Orange Sky (1999) stood out to me because they foreground the small narratives and the quotidian. Through them we glimpse things often deemed unimportant, but things that are, in fact, at the core of our collective lived experience. I sat in the dark and contemplated frayed and wobbly images of other times and other places and asked myself: how do these margins of life define what is central?
There is a fuzzy boundary between order and chaos in these films; a monkey is caged, women bear arms, celluloid is overwhelmed by debris and mold, all the while Mt. Etna fumes and oozes in the background waiting patiently, oblivious to human needs and desires. I see images of nature, war, marriage, rot. Ecstasy, boredom, machismo, longing. Light and shadow. Darkness and time. Silver twists of eel flesh, at once exotic and ordinary, glimmer in the shadows. People walk, talk, sing, dance, pray, smoke, eat, and share themselves with the camera. I take a breath. An oil tanker truck drives by. These films contain a truth that is located on the margins of dominant Western culture, and also on the margins of materiality.
Iraqis dance in run-down rooms and recite poetry on dusty street corners in Paul Chan’s pre-“Operation Iraqi Freedom” film, Baghdad in No Particular Order. He records these moments as proof of humanity’s continuity and as a last minute plea against U.S. invasion. Mundane life patiently flickers forward, often out of focus, but full of dignity. The fragmented style and rough edits ground us as viewers: we are not taken in by pretty pictures of a fictional world, but instead we are bumping along with him and his film crew as they insert themselves in the daily life of the people around them. The camera stares at the floor while the operator navigates a hallway and we sit on the living room couch as guests and talk; we also stand on a street corner in a jiggly encounter with a wedding party and rock back and forth at the repetitious beat in a mosque. The voiceover in Chinese, Arabic, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and English adds a layer of philosophical statements, humdrum facts and simple anecdotes about the city, its population, and its culture.
In contrast, old American Westerns and Arabic language home appliance ads stretch and collide in Peggy Ahwesh’s Beirut Outtakes. The dramatic, virile fictions and feminine desires on view in the scraps of found footage barely hold up to the aggression of being dragged through a projector; scratches, squeaks and whines consume the multilingual narratives co-existing on screen. The abandoned fragments of film Ahwesh spliced together are moldy remnants of a middle-class lifestyle in one of the oldest cities in the world. “BEWARE! LET GOLD NOT BE YOUR GOD!” we are told, as a mummy, enacting a curse, lurches forward in some long forgotten American B movie. In Beirut Outtakes the marginal exists not so much in the content of the images but from time taking its course—it eats away at the material that was ditched when a Beirut cinema shuttered its windows. We are made aware of the fiction and temporality of filmmaking itself while we view the degraded images.
Another breath, and now I encounter Catania, in Jem Cohen’s Blood Orange Sky, where a tune, “The Vendor’s Lament,” effects a tenderness for a Sicily I have never known. I sit, watching and waiting for life to unfold as it does, on its own terms, in its own time. A major character in the film is the bustling market, where for perhaps thousands of years people have gathered to work, steal, barter, and talk. I find myself vulnerable to nostalgia, the washed out images full of loss. Teenage girls pose and giggle on a pre-EU cobblestone corner. We drive through the rain and grey streets of the ancient port town, while vignettes of marginal housing developments, smoking men, and the day’s end cut in alongside jarring scenes of a volcano huffing and puffing and glowing in the background, just as it has done since the dawn of time.
In all of these films there is a reminder that public life is dominated by men. But I put that aside, and try to glean some sense that we are not reducible to the ravages of war and nature. Through these films the margins reveal what is commonplace. But the edges and boundaries that line the screen prove fragile and as I walk out of the dark theatre, exposed again to the present moment, on the fuzzy border between order and chaos, I take a deep breath and I ask myself, is the child bookseller in Baghdad still calling out? Are there still fish in the sea? Do women continue to swing their hips in the glory of a cool breeze in Beirut? I wonder this to myself as we collectively careen into a precarious and hysterical future.