A Conversation between Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri
6 January 2018
Rene Gabri: You have the task of trying to introduce two films at once, one the original planned in 2007, and the second the one we will be screening in Berlin in 2018. Let’s start with the 2007 film. Can you describe what you had in mind at that time and what you intended for the film?
Ayreen Anastas: The first motivation was to undertake a trip in as many Arab countries as I possibly could, to expand the geography that I grew up in, which was Palestine occupied and historical. It was the first time that such a trip was possible bureaucratically, since if you only have your Palestinian ID and travel document such a trip would not have been easy. To expand that geography I needed some help, and for that I chose Nietzsche’s Zarathustra since I had first encountered the book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” in Bethlehem very early on, in a small bookstore there. It was the Arabic translation by Felix Fares that I found there. So it was interesting for me to revisit that encounter of the Arabic speakers and Nietzsche. I felt then that there was some kind of difficulty for Fares the translator, which came through his introduction. For example the simple sentence God is dead, he altered in his translation. He also had to explain that this sentence is not valid for us the Arabic speakers and that basically it is not blasphemy. I found that amusing, and so I wanted to confront, stage, and think about the book while on this trip. This is one way to think about it. Another way is that it is a follow up for PASOLINI PA* PALESTINE: in the same way that Pasolini was looking for locations for his THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW in Palestine, one could search for locations for a film based on “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” in the Arab geographies.
RG: For those who are not familiar with your film PASOLINI PA* PALESTINE from 2005, in it you retrace, redraw, and reconsider Pier Paolo Pasolini’s journey and film made 40 years earlier SEEKING LOCATIONS IN PALESTINE for the film THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW. It is a film about a film, about and with another filmmaker, who even if considered no longer living, you confront as a contemporary and someone you wish to be in dialogue with. It is also a film which uses time – the 40 years between the making of the two films as well as the two thousand years separating Pasolini and yourself from the biblical story that he was seeking to stage or retell – as a critical element to help the viewer take distance from and at the same time encounter Palestine as they may never have seen it. And what struck me in that film upon my multiple viewings with different audiences was that it really spoke to viewers in different ways; in other words, it had this unique capacity to speak differently to different viewers concurrently. I make these notes, because I think they may open up interesting questions. Firstly, if the choice of Pasolini as a contemporary interlocutor, in hindsight, seems a perfectly logical one: an avowed communist, a critical filmmaker and public intellectual, a voice of conscience, a European coming from a leftist tradition but carrying with him the blindspots of that same tradition regarding development, modernity, colonialism, and racism. Then, the choice of Friedrich Nietzsche, especially without having seen what you intended, seems a more untimely one to place. I will not ask you to perform the work of the film, but wondered if there is something more you could say regarding your attraction to Nietzsche or this particular work, and its relevance or force in 2007 and even 2018.
AA: Initially the interest lay precisely in this gap of the translation that grew further in me personally while reading, thinking, and writing in languages other than Arabic. And Nietzsche’s Zarathustra offered an exemplary case of the dizziness that results in such movement between Arabic and other languages. Because language is not just a means of communication, it carries with it a whole way of thinking, understanding, perceiving, and naming the things of and beyond this world. And so this question of translation and the lapses, ellipses, and misunderstandings that take place is part of what I have been exploring. I am still not certain how to navigate that difficult path. From another perspective, Nietzsche’s book is a map full of forces pulling in many different directions. These forces can be very helpful depending on the situations where we find ourselves in life. For example, the death of God was not the big news for Nietzsche, nor for his protagonist Zarathustra. The task for Zarathustra was to determine, after the death of God, what to do. If the God-form is not working then the current human-form is not either. Why? Because that human-form and the values were determined by that God that the human once upon a time invented. We are still confronted with that problem. How to invent a new form that is beyond the God-form and the human-form. Zarathustra calls it the overhuman, but it is not answered by naming it, it only starts. And the challenge of translating Nietzsche’s questioning and search, however untimely it may seem, not just into the Arabic language and the Arabic speaking world, but the world at large, seems at once impossible and absolutely necessary.
RG: I want to ask you something related to that operation of translation. In PASOLINI PA* PALESTINE, it seems that part of the operation is also in the gap between what is spoken, what is written, and what each viewer associates with the texts and images they are confronted with. On your trip in 2007, as part of the material you collected, you also kept a daily video journal, which acted as a parallel account, a personal diary and supplement to the collection of situations and encounters you filmed in public spaces. In fact, the only finished work from that period and that journey is a film entitled THUS I SPOKE, which juxtaposes a selection of those filmed journal entries in Arabic with subtitles in English which -– though the non-Arabic speaker may read as a translation of what is spoken – are in fact texts from or relating to Nietzsche’s work. In other words, in Arabic, you speak of daily incidents and experiences and the English subtitles work on another plane altogether, tracing some critical passages relating to Nietzsche’s book. I find it curious that the only trace remaining from that initial moment and intuition is a film which stages that question of translation, first and foremost, as a near impossibility. I was curious, since that film exists, what you may want to say in relation to it and in relation to the larger project of the film you are still imagining.
AA: It is interesting the way you connect to it, since it was a first attempt at organizing the materials and reviewing the journey with Zarathustra a year later. My first dive was into Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche, and that encounter inspired and influenced THUS I SPOKE on the level of the writing. The writing that disguised itself as subtitles in that film. I say disguise, since as you mention, the subtitles were not at all a translation of what one heard in the video diaries. In a way it was hard to do justice to both the English and the Arabic speakers. Ideally one spoke both languages to experience this split reality of thought (encapsulated in the subtitles) and experience (coming through my narrative in the diaries).
RG: My own impression of that film is as if the two streams are running parallel to one another, distinct, even incommensurable but not entirely irreconcilable. They occasionally trespass upon one another with the help of the images and enter into a dialogue. But this dialogue is also largely between your different selves, affected by German, by English, by Arabic, and your interlocutors, the situations you film and the thinkers you engage. For the Untimely version of the film, you have now the addition of the time since the original material was conceived and collected and myself and Jean-Luc [Nancy]. What do you think these additions contribute to the new film?
AA: I am not going to answer this question directly. But what I can say is this. I think what marks the Untimely version first and foremost is the form of filmmaking. Both A FILM FOR EVERYONE AND NO ONE and THUS I SPOKE are the last films I worked on alone. They are also the last films I made or attempted to make in a manner that still privileges a certain procedure of constructing films involving the director’s will, control, the process of gathering footage with a specific idea, the creation of a script, and the construction of a deliberated and intended outcome. In 2008, there was, let’s say, another path the two of us took from this way of filmmaking.
RG: Yes, it is true, I hadn’t thought of the timing. But part of what kept this film unfinished for you was maybe that our way of thinking and relating to making films took a strong turn in that period. The forces moving us in this direction would require a much longer conversation. But certainly, from 2008 we began to experiment with a kind of filmmaking that we are still searching for to describe or name: life cinema, living cinema, event cinema, aktion cinema, a cinema of gestures, a cinema of pure means…
AA: Yes, we have always been looking for ways of doing that are closer to our thought, life, and relations with others. And 2008 was the first experience of producing and editing a film for a public in the same instant as it was being viewed. So what we are calling this Untimely version of the film is first of all an attempt to make this film breaking with that dominant paradigm of deliberation and control. And to continue to develop a form that could in a way hold our complex and ambivalent relation to not only filmmaking, but also making as such in this time.
RG: I think it might be interesting to remain with the year 2008, since it is a critical year for us in another manner. We have often referred to it as the kind of crash of capitalist realism, parallel to what took place in the socialist universe in 1989 and 1991. If 1989 signaled the bankruptcy of an entire socio-economic system, certainly 2008 signaled a crisis of capitalist reality, which rather than being confronted was covered over. States stepped in to resuscitate a bankrupt economic paradigm, pushing austerity measures and more extreme forms of enclosure to subsidize that robbery or bailout globally. The tumult we are living in is the result of a crisis which has gone unanswered. And I don’t know, maybe I would like to speculate that this form we arrived at has been a way to allow at least what we do, and how we do it, to be put into doubt.
AA: Indeed and today the social and political context seems to deteriorate by the day. But to return to your earlier question, on the level of the film, the challenge we pose for ourselves is to try and confront this deteriorated situation using a means that emerged, as we are suggesting here, partially in response to it. Not treating those roughly ten years as missing time but to relate to that collected material and that original scenario envisioned in 2007 through the deterioration of common life we are currently exposed to. Again, on the level of the mode of doing, moving from the solitary filmmaking in which the director controls and knows her material and approximately where she is going toward a more open ended process in which the script that is born in the logic of accounting gives way to the indeterminacy of a scenario which is passional, lived, put into play. So to try and play out this scenario together with you and Jean-Luc is also a way to enter into another relation or possibility for that material from a different perspectives and times. Regarding this question of the time, maybe you can develop further what you were just saying and relate it to the film…
RG: I could try. I think given what we have said, then this time that transpired between the original intention of the film and now is not at all superfluous and is exactly this period of living in the lie, a lie which seems to grow each passing day, needing ever more absurdities and reactionaries on the political, economic, and medial stage to explain and confound the matter at hand. Anything, absolutely anything but to confront a dead and zombie ‘system’ that is not only destroying the planet’s multiplicity of forms of life, but also deteriorating our psychic and emotional capacity to confront that destruction. I do not think we can as individuals have isolated answers for “what is to be done.” But I do think that what we have attempted is to find a form of filmmaking that opens up the question of how things are done and opens up the space and possibility of undoing those ways. And there is a relation between this capacity to undo and what I feel the challenges are in all the spheres of doing which seem to consciously or unconsciously just reproduce and feed the monster. But as Jean-Luc has said in one of the seminars in which we first met, the sense of any form is not in the form as such, or as a result, but in its becoming, in its forming. And for both of us that is synonymous with the space of struggle or the invention of our means of struggle.