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We Are Somatic Creatures: Hila Peleg in Conversation with Rosalind Nashashibi, Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, and Ben Russell

Surrealism, [Walter Benjamin] said, takes advantage of the fact that life seemed worth living nowhere but on the threshold between sleeping and waking, across which, back and forth, flood multitudinous images. In this threshold situation, language opens up such that “sound and image, image and sound, interpenetrated with automatic precision and such felicity that no chink was left for the penny-in-the-slot called ‘meaning.’” 
—Michael Taussig, I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own (2011)

Ben Russell, Good Luck (2017), four-channel digital video installation transferred from 16 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, approx. 90 min.

Ben Russell, Good Luck (2017), four-channel digital video installation transferred from 16 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, approx. 90 min.

Few filmmakers in recent years have managed to combine formal innovation with a programmatic stance toward filmmaking quite like Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. In the process of reinventing the relationship between their two fields of inquiry, anthropology and cinema, they have established an experimental laboratory and school at Harvard University, the Sensory Ethnography Lab. The films coming out of the lab take a decentered, nonanthropocentric approach to the visual practice of the moving image. Their camera does not focus primarily on humans as privileged actors in the world but rather on the fabric of affective relations among the natural elements, animals, technology, and our physical lifeworlds. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor, born in 1971 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and in 1966, in Liverpool, respectively, presented two new film installations at documenta 14. In somniloquies (2017), their camera moves over sleeping, unguarded naked bodies while a soundtrack relays the sleep talk, nocturnal speculations, and orated dreams of Dion McGregor, a gay American songwriter whose salacious and sadistic dreams were recorded by his New York roommate over a seven-year period in the 1960s. Their video and film installation Commensal (2017) focuses on the controversial figure of Issei Sagawa, who gained notoriety in 1981 when, as a graduate student in Paris, he murdered a fellow student and engaged in acts of cannibalism.

Ben Russell challenges conventions of documentary representation from within to produce intense, hypnotic experiences. His filmmaking unfolds between experimental cinema and a form of speculative ethnography; he calls it “psychedelic ethnography.” Born in 1976 in Massachusetts, Russell now lives in Los Angeles. He became known through his series Trypps (2005–10), in which he first worked with the physical experience of noise music. Several feature-length films, installations, live performances, and short films have followed. For documenta 14, Russell presents a new film installation, Good Luck (2017), which examines the social and global scale of the politics of mineral extraction. It is a comparative film study about the communities of workers in an illegal, small-scale gold mine in Suriname and in a state-owned copper mine in Serbia. In addition, Russell organized a three-day film and performance festival in Athens titled HALLUCINATIONS that gathered independent filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, and film researchers to collectively unravel cinema’s hallucinatory potential.

The London-based filmmaker and artist Rosalind Nashashibi, born in Croydon in 1973, makes short 16 mm films. Her piece Electrical Gaza (2015) provides glimpses into the extreme reality of contemporary segregated Gaza, with attention to the autonomous and activist life of its inhabitants. Without a distinct narrative, the film is a montage of everyday scenes with an occasional musical score, showing the livelihood of children, families, and friends in public and at home, including Nashashibi’s Gaza film crew. The film thus provides images different from the familiar ones of Gaza at war, such as those  shown extensively by international media during Israel’s seven-week assault on the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014, a military operation that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians. Nashashibi’s film for documenta 14, Vivian’s Garden (2017), features the mother and daughter Elisabeth Wild and Vivian Suter, two Swiss artists living in self-imposed exile in Panajachel, Guatemala.

Despite the apparent differences in their practices, manifest not least in different relations to ethnography, all these artists share certain concerns. Each works with the immediacy and corporeality of the cinematographic experience, as well as its affective and hallucinatory qualities, to open up a reflective, intense space situated between understanding and the impossibility of understanding, both abstractly speaking and in relation to very specific realities where “understanding” in the normal sense often seems to fail.

—Hila Peleg

Hila Peleg: All of your work in film bears a connection, direct or indirect, to anthropology and ethnography. How do those disciplines inform what you do? Véréna and Lucien, you are both trained anthropologists.

Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor: We’re both recovering anthropologists. After we received our doctorates, we became progressively more dispirited with the discipline, above all its aspiration to represent the vagaries of cultural meaning and the magnitude of lived experience around the world through words alone, and especially propositional prose. We are somatic creatures before we are linguifying ones. Independently—we didn’t know each other then—we both felt a desire to retreat from language, and limit ourselves to images and sounds.

But recovering anthropologists can also be recidivists. Our approach to our work is often still broadly speaking ethnographic, with us spending years with our subjects before the work is complete. And we still read contemporary anthropology, if less assiduously than before. But when starting a new work, we often try to know as little as possible, to read or see nothing related to it, for fear of our own apperception being polluted by the literature or ways the subject has been addressed before. And we remain suspicious of anthropology’s disciplinary blinkers. As a philosopher friend of a friend once said, anthropologists have had the genius to invent a putatively singular methodology, “participant observation,” that is simply the human condition. 

Ben Russell: I studied anthropology as part of my undergraduate degree and was exposed to ethnographic filmmaking well before I ever started making films. Hindsight proposes that my investment in a cinema that is equal parts time/space portraiture, participatory nonfiction, embodiment, and critical analysis came from these studies—offset, as they were, by courses in film theory and postcolonial studies. My selective understanding of anthropology declares it to be a field fundamentally invested in the present state of being, and says that ethnography is in pursuit of an image of us-now so as to better interrogate the nature of us-now. These two inquiries are at the foundation of my own practice, although my definition of us includes not just subject but author and viewer: a mirror with three sides.

HP By contrast, Rosalind, you didn’t study anthropology. 

Rosalind Nashashibi: No, I come from an art background and did not study either anthropology or filmmaking. I learned the way I wanted to make films by watching Pasolini, Akerman, Varda, Fassbinder, and Cassavetes—who I probably did see as anthropologists of a sort. At the heart of their films are keen observation and a deep desire to discover how we interact with our cities. It is important to say that I don’t get embedded in any other community; I don’t stay for years and come to know them as intimately as an anthropologist or ethnographer might. I don’t get any more than a newcomer’s welcome. I agree with Véréna and Lucien’s philosopher friend, that participant observation is simply a description of the human condition. I started filmmaking as a way of looking closely, in my own time, and usually before words, seeing the moment of understanding or recognition as it happens through film.

Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, somniloquies (2017), digital video, color, sound, 70 min.

Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, somniloquies (2017), digital video, color, sound, 70 min.

HP In your recent projects, each of you embarked on journeys to faraway places and also times. How did you prepare for these projects? What kind of realities and social contexts did you encounter? 

BR Now that I’ve reached the tail end of Good Luck (2017), I realize that I’ve spent a large part of the last decade deploying cinema as a means for engagement with communities that I wouldn’t otherwise engage with. In the case of Good Luck, this meant spending months filming in a state-owned copper mine in Serbia and an illegal gold mine in Suriname.

I’ve been traveling to Suriname since I first lived there as a development worker from 1998 to 2000, although I didn’t visit the Kiiki Negi mine until 2006. Then, as now, I was struck by the generosity and kindness of the Saramaccan men working there—it was a real surprise to find humanity so abundant in a place that otherwise felt terribly inhumane. The seed for this film was planted there a decade ago, driven by a simple desire to spend time among the Surinamese miners. The result was my creation of a filmic architecture in which the Kiiki Negi mine would be doubled, inverted, relocated through an entirely different cultural/political/economic/geographic framework, which at some point materialized as the mine in Bor, Serbia.

Ben Russell, Good Luck (2017), four-channel digital video installation transferred from 16 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, approx. 90 min.

I shot first in Bor, traveling there in March 2016. I anticipated a much more superficial engagement than what I would find in Kiiki Negi: I had no prior history with the Serbian mining community, I didn’t speak the language, and my access to the site came directly from the mine’s administration. I wasn’t beholden to the community—the miners had never met me or my family, they didn’t know my film work. They were variably guarded, curious, and disinterested. I relied on my sound recordist and fixers for translation, which meant that most of my interactions were once removed. The power that gave me access to the mine also limited the openness of the workers—I was shadowed by a site manager whenever I went underground, which meant, among other things, that the miners could not freely critique the administration, discuss the political situation, or approach the history of Yugoslavia except through gesture and oblique metaphor. I had anticipated all of this going in, however, and was able to arrive with very few expectations as to how the filming might proceed. While I was necessarily uncertain about where the film would lead me, this uncertainty allowed me to take a mutable form in my approach to the subject(s) at hand: men, labor, darkness, fear, dreams. 

When I began filming in Kiiki Negi a few months later, in July 2016, the terms of access were radically different. I assumed that my eighteen-year relationship with Suriname had left me well prepared. But in spite of my fluency in Saramaccan, my familiarity with the cultural norms, my five previous experiences filming in the country, and my efforts to set up a reliable payment process to gain access to a system that operated on payoffs, by the time I arrived in the jungle with my camera gear and a three-person crew, the social framework had shifted. Or maybe it shifted upon my arrival? Even though I’d brokered a deal well in advance in order to somehow address the essential problems of access, power, and exploitation that filming would bring, the sharp reality of outsiders with money immediately caused alliances to change and agreements to dissolve. Total access became limited access, violence appeared as a pale horizon, and the goodwill that I’d anticipated was veiled by slow action and passive engagement. This was less a problem of culture and more an issue of capitalism—money ruins everything!—and my Saramaccan advisors were just as perplexed and frustrated as I was. In hindsight, I really shouldn’t have expected it to work out any other way: regardless of my cultural cachet, I was still a white American male making a film in an illegal gold mine operated by the Maroon descendants of runaway slaves. 

Ben Russell, Good Luck (2017), four-channel digital video installation transferred from 16 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, approx. 90 min.

RN The saga of making Electrical Gaza (2015) stretches over five years. It started back in 2010 when I was asked by the Imperial War Museum in London to make a work on Gaza. I was pregnant at the time, and had no intention of going to Gaza when the baby was very young. I was set to go in November 2012 for a site visit and to do some filming, during the window of time in which crossing between Egypt and Gaza became relatively easy, when Mohamed Morsi’s government kept an open border. The Egyptian Ministry of Interior signed papers that I could cross at Rafah, and I had a letter of invitation from an NGO for an event in Gaza. But then Israel began Operation Pillar of Defense, bombing Gaza beginning on November 14, 2012. The War Museum intervened, and the trip was canceled. 

The following spring, a London friend from Gaza, Ahmed, told me he was traveling back with his infant son. He was happy to have a companion and a helping hand on the difficult journey, and his family would host me in Jabalia Camp. To me this was ideal; I jumped at the chance. I applied for permission from Egypt. But by the time it arrived Ahmed had already gone, and that summer Morsi was removed by military coup. The new administration closed the Rafah crossing indefinitely.

At this point I started to wonder, as I had before, if it were possible to make a work about this impenetrable border, this prison-island, without actually visiting it—indeed, when access, calories, and power are all restricted to a catastrophic level for the 1.8 million people trapped inside, what right did I have to cross that border twice? But ultimately I felt that I couldn’t make anything without setting foot there, that I had no right to even invoke the name of Gaza if I didn’t make this gesture of solidarity with its inhabitants. 

Rosalind Nashashibi, Electrical Gaza (2015), digital video transferred from 16 mm film, color, sound, 18 min.

In January 2014, I was introduced to a Dutch photojournalist who had been to Gaza several times. Over a drink in Amsterdam, he painted a vivid picture for me of how to get into Gaza, film there, and get out with my rolls of film intact. I got some very good journalistic credentials, and we applied to the Israeli government for three IDF-checked Israeli press cards. The photojournalist arranged for his fixer, Sarhan, to take care of Hamas permits, and our time in Gaza, for my production manager, Kate Parker, my cinematographer, Emma Dalesman, and me. Sarhan agreed that, if we weren’t traveling with any men, we could stay in the room below his family’s apartment in Gaza City. Finally, after spending a few days shooting in Israel and the West Bank in order to appear more like proper journalists, we entered the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014.

As fate would have it, we arrived on June 12, 2014, the day three teenagers were kidnapped from an Israeli settlement on the West Bank. Israel began dropping bombs on the former military training grounds on our second night and continued every night thereafter. The combination of terrible sonic blasts and extremely long calls to prayer broke our sleep nightly in the hours before dawn. In my half-awake state, it seemed as if the prayers were responding to the blasts, to calm the residents’ terror. In less than a week, we came under pressure to leave from the British Foreign Office. We informed our hosts (now our friends) that we were leaving early. This felt ugly and quite shameful. Those around us knew something was coming; our departure was confirmation of it. Soon after that, the bombardment and ground invasion began, eventually killing 2,300 Gazans and 73 Israelis.

In the end, I felt that the only thing I could show in good faith was the fact of being there in Gaza, close to Sarhan and his friends, but from my own body, through my eyes and ears and the responses of my nervous system. That’s what I worked at, particularly in the weeks after the shoot—how could I show the multilayered reality beyond the surface that I had been able to film in a tiny amount of time? The footage only showed a single layer of all the intensities that we experienced. I suppose there is subjectivity and circumstance in that viewpoint. Maybe my reluctance to translate the songs and discussions in that film into English explain this? I wanted to stay faithful to the experience of the moment on film, and I had to use many additional layers to do that, where that experience is interrogated, obviously looked at, turned over in the hand, transformed into cuts, animation, music, silence, my own breath over the images, and so on. 

Rosalind Nashashibi, Electrical Gaza (2015), digital video transferred from 16 mm film, color, sound, 18 min.

VP/LCT Beginning in 2013, we were working in Japan on a commission on the Fukushima disaster, which would become Ah humanity! (2015). Initially, as foreigners who had never before been to Japan, we doubted our right to represent the Fukushima tragedy at all. But Japanese artists and intellectuals we met said they were tired of their own representations, which were mostly rather pious journalistic or personal documentaries, and encouraged us to continue, saying they would be particularly interested in our alien perspective as ignorant foreigners. 

While doing fieldwork, we spent a lot of time traveling around the country and watching Japanese films. We became intrigued by the genre of sexploitation films called pinku eiga on which almost all great Japanese filmmakers have cut their teeth but which is now on the cusp of extinction in the face of the internet and adult video. A director who particularly interested us was Hisayasu Satō, one of the so-called four devils of pink, an enfant terrible and perhaps the most extreme of all pinku filmmakers. He is one of the few remaining friends of Issei Sagawa, who killed his Dutch classmate at the Sorbonne, had sex with her cadaver, and proceeded to eat his way through her body before finally getting caught while disposing of her inedible remains in the Bois de Boulogne. Through conversations with Satō-san and others, we started reflecting on cannibalism and its evolution from a ritualized practice that had once been prevalent in Polynesia and across the Americas, Australasia, Asia, and Europe, to an ur-metaphor of colonialism and a favored trope of postcolonial theory, and an act whose abjection and iniquity in modernity is considered without equal. Sagawa-san was never formally tried for his crime but instead was extradited to Japan and eventually set free. He had earned his keep since as a sushi restaurant critic, a writer, a media personality, and an actor in pinku eiga, sometimes even playing the part of a cannibal. He was still alive, in hiding, living in a drab suburb of Tokyo.

Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Commensal (2017), video and film installation: digital video and 16 mm film transferred from 8 mm film; video: color, sound, 27 min., film: color and black-and-white, sound, 42 min.

In 2014, Satō-san offered to introduce us, and soon thereafter we decided to make a film together. Not only was the subject new to us—we had reflected superficially on cannibalism’s symbolic significance, and its affinities with spiritual and sexual desire, but never thought deeply about the phenomenology of cannibalistic acts themselves—but so was working in a country culturally quite foreign to us whose language we didn’t speak. As anthropologists we usually undertake long-term participant observation in contexts that end up becoming quite intimate and familiar. By contrast, in Japan much of what interested us was predicated on our alterity, insights or sensations that would only ever come to an outsider. It is also our first work featuring talking heads, except that Sagawa-san almost never talks, and when he did we couldn’t understand what he was saying (Nao Nakazawa, our collaborator and sound recordist, would translate for us later).

With somniloquies (2017), our approach was also quite alien to us and to our anthropological inclinations. For the first time, we were dealing with the materiality of an archive, a series of sound recordings from the 1960s in New York of a man apparently dreaming out loud. Scabrous and surreal, they often simply beggared belief. For this work, we decided to invite people to offer us their sleep, to be filmed sleeping nude. Each night a filming session felt like a journey to a foreign shore. We didn’t know what to expect, but our relationship to the sleepers was at once intimate and voyeuristic. It had a kind of violence to it, as well as a kind of vulnerability, that were quite different from what we had encountered in our previous work, and unlike the interpersonal negotiations associated with more conventional ethnography.

HP I’m intrigued by this idea about violence in relation to filming the sleepers, and the negotiations related to conventional ethnography. Why did it feel violent? How does this relate to larger questions of a kind of violence that might be bound up in representation? How do you respond to the idea that representation has to have an extractive or violent aspect?

VP/LCT Many people prefer not to be observed when they are asleep; unable to compose themselves, they feel defenseless, exposed. Those who agreed to sleep for us trusted us, in a sense. It felt humbling, and was a challenge to depict them in a fashion that was worthy of their trust. It was also profoundly unsettling to be filming sleeping nudes, many of them unknown to us, from a distance of just a few centimeters. Beads of sweat occasionally dripped off our bodies onto theirs. The magnitude of the humanity, the being, and the alterity, of our sleepers quite often overwhelmed us.

As for the violence that is inherent to representation, we find this less bothersome. Violence is part and parcel of the fabric of the human condition, and it enters into any intersubjective relationship. But so do many other conditions and emotions, including desire and love. The notion that representation, unlike pure presentation, is inherently violent, or extractive, in a fashion that is sui generis and morally indefensible, seems to us silly. Often anthropologists of ethics and moral philosophers commenting on artistic and documentary ethics—or advocates of trigger warnings and safe academic spaces—have a kind of smug moralism that seems parochial and unmoored from the real stakes of life beyond the ivory tower, and reflects a kind of unacknowledged embarrassment in the face of contours of human difference. 

BR While filmmaking is necessarily exploitative and power is always at play in the processes of representation, there are enough forms available that violence doesn’t have to be the outcome. I try to approach representation more along the lines of S&M—a power relationship in which subject positions shift and players both act and are acted upon. 

HP To shift the use of the term representation slightly, how do you deal with the challenges of representation and form when it comes to more intangible aspects of reality? You all work with documentary methods and forms; within them, how do you approach the reality of the subjective, of the emotional and mental, the “truth” of individual and collective imagination, dreams, desires, beliefs, memories?

VP/LCT As anthropologists, it’s probably peculiar, but we don’t think about these subjects much any more. We can’t remember the last time, if ever, we explicitly considered the problem of representation, or talked about the visible versus the invisible, or the material and the immaterial. One is simply often the vessel, or the membrane, of the other, no? Affective and psychic states, and sociocultural conditions, are made manifest in any number of visual and sonic forms. Is anything more expressive of interiority and subjectivity than a human face? Much of our work has perhaps been at an angle to the humanism and anthropocentrism of documentary and anthropology. But our recent work privileges the spoken word as much as the gestural or corporeal. In Commensal (2017), our piece with Sagawa-san, we attend as much to what he seems unable to say as to what he does; it is very much at the outer limits of language. But the interplay between the articulable and nonarticulable, both linguistically and ethically, remains at its core. The dreams we hear in somniloquies are spoken out loud, which makes them an oddity: Who of us really dreams out loud? So they raise issues of performativity and authenticity. But even while reflecting on these questions as one is listening to them, they remain intensely evocative of the psychic, the sociocultural, and the political. They are as illuminating of 1960s New York, and indeed the unconscious ruminations of us all, as they are of the oneiric preoccupations of one eccentric individual, a brilliant unconscious artist.

BR As a starting point, it helps to not fully believe in a reality of the objective—at least as far as representation is concerned. The film image is ultimately too mediated—to frame is to not-frame, to record is to not-record—to be trusted, and allowing for misrepresentation as a fact of representation means opening oneself up to the misrepresentation of all sorts of subjective realities. My work thus far has mostly dealt with subjects/spaces who are not me, and, to that end, I rarely feel willing or qualified to make claims about meaning or interiority. Instead, I think about projection in the process of filmmaking. How can I produce audience as subject, how can I create a time-space in which the audience is activated, immersed, reflected back on itself? The dream state, the drug/trance trip, the utopian drive—these exist as interiorities, singular experiences that can neither be depicted nor represented with any kind of accuracy. They are subjective truths and, as such, have the most weight when they are shared. In all of my work, I try to produce a cinema that the audience can occupy in parallel with the (apparent) on-screen subject—a physical space where meaning is open and contingent, where time becomes a resonant chamber, where bodies are called out to be present.

HP How do you make and relate to images? Can you speak about your relationship to the camera and your own presence in the shooting and its context? And do you consider camerawork as a specific epistemology, producing a particular kind of knowledge?

BR I don’t always think about the making-of and the relating-to in the same breath—those processes feel so distinct from one another that I have to build in a period of not-looking if I’m ever to see the recorded image for what it has become. The longer I spend in a place filming, the more the place will declare itself, and the longer I’ll have to let my images rest before I can work with them. New images need time to breathe, to live, to escape the weight of whatever I thought they were going to be.

Working on 16 mm film means that there’s already some kind of delay built in—I rarely get to see the processed image until at least a week after it has been exposed. After an initial viewing, I usually extend this delay even further. Working with a film camera also means that I am necessarily more conspicuous, more visible—my kind of image making takes more time. In this case, visibility equals presence, and I hope that my physical presence as a filmmaker gives my subjects an opportunity to determine the level of their own participation and forces me to negotiate/explain/discuss the work that I’m doing with them. Negotiation is as much a part of filmmaking as recording is—and recording without permission can only result in a contaminated image.

As for the camera itself, my vision is neither terribly romantic nor conceptual—I see it simply as a technical form that finds its reason in content, a tool whose function often varies from frame to frame. A handheld camera connotes one perspective, a Steadicam produces another, a camera on a tripod proposes yet another way of seeing. I’m not after a cinema that mirrors the world but rather one that creates a world in parallel—a world that reflects its maker, its receiver, and its material as much as its newly minted two-dimensional subject. 

Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Commensal (2017), video and film installation: digital video and 16 mm film transferred from 8 mm film; video: color, sound, 27 min., film: color and black-and-white, sound, 42 min.

RN The first time I went to Panajachel, where Vivian’s Garden (2017) is set, I went to spend time with Elisabeth Wild and Vivian Suter, who are artists (also included in documenta 14) as well as mother and daughter. I wanted to give all my attention to them and to the place, so I spent that week without a camera and made no recordings. I stayed in a little bedroom with an attached bathroom built deep into their jungle-garden, a few minutes’ climb from the house, so I had plenty of time deep in the foliage and with the creatures. On the second visit I did some filming, using my memories of the first trip to shape the footage. I introduced a sound recordist to them, but I did the shooting myself. It made a difference to them that I was someone they knew who had come back, and to me that I felt in familiar surroundings with happy memories there. On my third visit, I brought both the recordist and a cinematographer; this step-by-step progression wasn’t only a way of acclimatizing them to the intrusion, but also a way to make sure my own way was clear before I had to direct a crew, as my ability to make decisions based on what is happening around me is easily thrown off balance if I have to work with others too soon. In the end, I did develop a very close relationship of trust and understanding with Elisabeth and Vivian in part because I came to them alone.

The difficulty I find with trying to get across an experience from the real into film is that it probably won’t work if it looks the way I remember it. I have to make an equivalent, and for that I have to search the footage I have for something that doesn’t immediately show itself. I’m layering my experiences, cinematic and real, over one another in the final cut—being lost and awkward or assured and knowing by turns. The unexpected parts of the footage that at first are embarrassing—the out-of-focus moments, the just before and after setting up shots, or even the camera slowly subsiding as it looks for a lost subject, these help break through those agreements that keep the viewer in constant, affirmative communication with the filmmaker. A close-up on eyes giving way to a pan of the horizon, or camera lingering on a room once the characters have vacated the frame—those conventions of cinema can be quite obvious and seem clichéd.

VP/LCT We have to confess that we are not very thoughtful, either about what we do or why, or about cinema or art in general. The prodigious confidence of theorists, and their desire for hermeneutic authority, is quite alien to us, and we also don’t trust ourselves to think honestly or accurately about these things. As Keats wrote in a letter to his brothers in 1817, we kid ourselves if we pretend we do not all subsist in a state of constant befuddlement, wallowing in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts” of all kinds. Pitting Shakespeare against Coleridge, he lauded the former for foregoing any “irritable reaching after fact and reason” and derided the latter for venerating German idealism and aspiring to something more (or less) than just “half-knowledge.” 

For our part, we both feel we live inescapably in the penetralium of mystery: a state of epistemic, and often also aesthetic, murk. We certainly don’t think of our, or anybody else’s cameras—we tend to work with just one, but Commensal we shot with two, and Leviathan perhaps a dozen—as producing a singular kind of knowledge, and we tend to distrust artistic claims to knowledge in any form. Our own relationships to our cameras, and the images they produce, seem protean and plastic. They largely exceed our control, and even our consciousness.

In filming Commensal, where each of us was filming at the same time with our own camera in a tiny interior space, we perhaps had more control than we’ve had in any of our previous works. But even there, it was impossible for either of us to distinguish at all times and with any clarity between what was happening before and around the camera and what each of us was observing in our viewfinders. We communicated in our usual way, both nonverbally and in our own peculiar idiolect, in an effort to create a dialogue and at times a dance between the two cameras, but not always successfully. Somniloquies we shot with just one camera at a time, with one of us holding it, the other a light. Our communication was more tacit— we tried to talk as little as possible for fear of waking our subject; rarely we would whisper in the other’s ear. We often passed the equipment between ourselves within a shot, as we circumnavigated the sleeping body. If we had to guess, one of us was looking through the viewfinder perhaps half of the time. But this is not always a deliberate abdication of artistic or authorial authority (although at times, as in our sharing the cinematography with the fishermen in Leviathan, it may be). On the contrary, it reflects an engagement with our subject that is irreducible to the visual. It reflects an encounter, and enacts a relationship, that we sense with our whole being rather than simply seeing.

All of this is to say that, as far as we can tell, not only is our relationship to image making largely undisciplined—at times with a willful abandonment of control—but also omnifarious. While there are evidently underlying affinities between our works, we also have a fear of repeating ourselves, of imposing an auteurist stamp on our subject. Moreover, not only do we seek with each new work to invent a style that is significantly secreted by the subject itself, and our prehensile imbrication in it, but each of our works contains manifold perspectives and forms—between ourselves, between us and our human and nonhuman subjects, between the subjects themselves, and between the larger ecological and cosmological matrix they inhabit—that never wholly coalesce into a singular style or signature.

If our way of approaching images, and the world, might seem eccentric, we imagine this is also the case for Rosalind and Ben—indeed for all filmmaking. 

HP Much of what has been said about the nonlinguistic, or about dream states, recalls tropes of the Surrealists, who were always closely allied with ethnography, ultimately questioning normative conceptions of rationality, reality, and quotidian perception. Do you consider yourself as working in the tradition of ethnographic surrealism, for instance, or perhaps the cine-trance of a Jean Rouch? How do you conceive of the limits of “understanding” in your work?

Rosalind Nashashibi, Vivian’s Garden (2017), digital video transferred from 16 mm film, color, sound, 30 min.

RN I don’t think of filmmaking in terms of surrealism or cine-trance. I cannot say that a film is surreal; it is already incorporated. 

Vivian told me that if she feels unwell and wants to lie down during the day, fresh leaves from banana trees are taken onto the roof and placed over the skylights to darken the room. I learned about this because I wanted darkness in my room to load my film spools. One of their “guardians,” Don Tomás, climbed up and covered my skylight with huge fresh banana leaves. This episode became central to portraying the quality of the life there; I included in the film a scene where Vivian lays in her bed, in bright sunlight, while Don Tomás carefully lays leaves over the triangle of glass until her bedroom is bathed in soft green light. In both my shooting sessions, I went over and over this sequence, to show the kind of care and attention that takes place with Vivian, Don Tomás, Juan (the younger “guardian”), and Elisabeth, the mothering without gender or age specificity that gives importance to bodily comfort as much as to the artworks they were making. It takes a certain aptitude for living in the present to allow it to happen; if you can accept that care, temporarily abandoning the idea of self-sufficiency can be liberating, like being loved without being singled out as an individual.

Vivian and Elisabeth’s self-imposed exile offers refuge and healing but also terror, in parts. I wanted the images in my film to offer an experience of time become corporal and affective similar to what I felt with the banana leaves. An experience of time and closeness in film that can spark a suspension of autonomy that can also be reached by letting ourselves be taken care of by any adopted mother.

BR I’ve always shared the Surrealists’ enthusiasm for both photography and cinema as a medium that could function as a medium, as a vehicle for dreams. Magic Lanterns, spirit photography, the possibility of making the unseen visible—this is still cinema’s fundamental ambition and one of my earliest interests. My first films naively tried to emulate some of these strategies; I even described the first 8 mm film I made in Suriname, Daumë (2000), as a kind of “jungle surrealist” text. Then as now, I was searching for a way to avoid the trap of representation, to hold onto the pleasures of transformation, to melt the glories of radical subjectivity into the occasional necessity of an objective regard—an approach that found a lot of resonance in certain structuralist films of the North American avant-garde, in Maya Deren and Jean Rouch and Robert Gardner’s work around trance and ethnography, in Catherine Russell’s definition of surrealist ethnography, and in all those sweaty noise music performances that I’ve attended for the last two decades. All of this led me to the definition of psychedelic ethnography as a kind of working methodology (and maybe my own minor art historical tradition?), one that draws evenly from the disparate poles of psychedelia and amateur ethnography, resulting in a discourse that privileges understanding (through kino-time, proximity, empathy) over a totalizing regime of knowledge. 

VP/LCT Dream and “actuality” (though is there anything less phenomenologically unactual than the dreamy?); the sacred and the profane; the subjective and the objective; the hallucinatory, illusionary, or phantasmatic and the real, factual, or true—they intermingle ineluctably in the work and bodies of us all. The limits of understanding are surely simultaneously greater and fewer than we often suppose. Etymologically, understanding means at once “to step under” and to “venture” or “take upon oneself.” To step onto a sill, to venture into a threshold, to broach or breach the limen of the penetralium of mystery. To represent, or to film, is to take on ethical and political responsibilities, to be sure, with consequences one cannot shirk. But seeking to be a gatekeeper of the penetralium of mystery is an exercise in futility.

HP Is the body a medium for you? 

RN My body is the first threshold for the experiences that get translated onto film, some of which are literally corporal, which I described above. The camera can seem to be the threshold for other experiences that come via that technology more directly, those odd things that happen on film that are found later when it comes back from the lab. What we all get in the end is a mass of images and sound recordings with their own stubborn characteristics; they are no longer connected to their origins, and the demand is that we make a new body out of them that describes what must be our desire, on some level. I guess the chilling thing is that, having moved from the actual people and locations and things that I have shot to this mass of images and sounds, I can feel that the former are left behind much in the way that desire abandons one object to fixate on another.

VP/LCT Art and cinema, like any human endeavor, are inescapably anthropomorphic. And if there is one thing that defines anthropos it is our embodiment. Even a “disembodied” camera is still embodied, no less than écriture automatique or the unconscious dreamscape of a man like Dion McGregor in somniloquies—in the agencies that designed and manufactured it, the agencies that set it in place and in time, and the agencies that come into play when its images are apprehended. Our bodies are our most consummate media, at once mindful and mindless, consuming ourselves and others willy-nilly, and our technologies are their prosthetic extensions. We are mimetic beings from womb to tomb. And power and desire, as well as power’s desire and desire’s power, are part and parcel of our mimetic faculty. Derrida was wrong to imagine that there is no hors-texte—this is precisely the domain of “negative capability” that art puts into play—but there is no hors-corps

BR The body is a medium just as cinema is a medium; the trick lies in creating a feedback loop that puts those two spirits into direct communication. The production of the trance film relies on the filmed subject to transmit itself through the medium of cinema—the self comes first, cinema follows. The reception of the trance film relies on cinema to transmit itself through the audience—cinema comes first, the audience-self follows. And so cinema follows self follows cinema: the loop is created.

Rosalind Nashashibi, Vivian’s Garden (2017), digital video transferred from 16 mm film, color, sound, 30 min.

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