Is it possible for narrative to reveal more about our lived reality than documentary?
EUROPE—bus stop, habitat, border; as the present, future, temporality astray; as fiction—cinematic, forced state fiction, defiant sketch of her life; as character, imagined frame, fugitive life, riddle; as conventions refused, profoundly shaken grounds, thrown out of story, structural racialised violence perceptible.
Zohra Hamadi, EUROPE's protagonist (played by Rhim Ibrir), is visible first through an image, namely X-rays of her spine. The difficult medical treatments she had endured is declared successful. Now she can start her “normal” life, conventionally perceived as an existence embedded in one’s surroundings, through work, family, friends, neighbours, going about daily routines—a life visible, audible, perceptible. As a film spectator this is how I initially meet Zohra, a character whose actions and relations I can follow and connect to—per cinematic habits—if only ever partially. EUROPE however unfolds Zohra’s story through four consecutive sonic and visual registers, increasingly troubling my mediated relation to her character. I find myself bereft of a stable foundation from which I can determine where in the narrative she is and who is driving it—this is, if I ever thought of myself to be in possession of this knowledge. The cinematic contract I believed I entered is stretched to breaking point as counter shots disappear, sound is sucked away, and temporalities drift. All while Zohra—wilful, playful and confident—takes her image, time, and story into her own hands and imagination, leaving me a spectator in a potent cinematic gap with urgent political possibilities.
In Philip Scheffner’s HAVARIE (2016) we hear Rhim Ibrire, her voice a sonic intimacy conjoined with varied soundscapes and together with the words of others in an audible web, while we incessantly look at blue of the Mediterranean Sea from the perspective of a cruise ship, with a small rubber boat in the distance carrying people. Merle Kröger’s multi perspective crime novel “Havarie” introduces Zohra Hamadi, determined to stay in France, waiting for her future husband, who is supposed to arrive from Algeria that night.
HAVARIE and “Havarie” developed out of a shared research process that followed in detail and with detours multiple stories and histories connected to the Mediterranean Sea. Both film and novel work with and upon time, in different media, through different formal choices. Short, fast paced sentences, a literature that is restless; a short video stretched to 90 minutes viewing time with sparing change of focus. Both forms of articulation produce gaps and spaces—gaps of knowledge, gaps in biographies, gaps between image and sound, spaces to think, spaces to experience discomfort. Both film and book expand what is perceived as documentary practice for political ends. They question event and victim-bound news reportage by defying conventions and structural politics that ossify Us and Them dichotomies, thereby interrogating the fiction that is Europe, the fiction that causes countless deaths.
In EUROPE Rhim Ibrir plays Zohra Hamadi and says: “... she is enacting all this, but it’s not an act for her. For her, what she is playing is real. The film does not end. Even when she leaves the film, she‘s still living what she played.“
One of the crucial contributions of Merle Kröger and Philip Scheffner to documentary practice and discourse has been their rigour in at once interrogating the strategies of state political structures as well as how forces are mediated in different contexts, including their own image, sound, and storytelling strategies. Documentary or fictional modes are never requirements to be fulfilled, but always something to be critically scanned. Formal decisions are always political, aesthetic, and technical interventions, reflective of one’s own tools and their impact. Disciplined and careful study of the expectations raised by genres as well as the strategies they employ has lead to a number of notable past collaborations, whether the anti-colonial ghost story THE HALFMOON FILES (2007), the political nature film THE DAY OF THE SPARROW (2010), or the court room film turned cinematic tribunal with REVISION (2012). Taking the parameters of genres seriously while employing them waywardly opens up possibilities for novel relations to protagonists while enabling spectators to unlearn conventions. This might lead to expanding who and what constitutes a testimony, unlearning to not see war embedded in a landscape or relistening to colonial audio recordings. Revising how stories are conventionally told, locating multiple beginnings and refusing narrative closure, confronting time as medium and method of violence, and seeking new forms of cinematic address that leverage the position of a comfortable spectator remain key aspects of Kröger and Scheffner’s filmmaking and writing practices. Importantly, instead of resolution or repair, by foregrounding how bound we are by conventions, mediated and political, each of their works offer a structure of responsibility.
EUROPE’s fictional mode developed thus not only through a documentary process –begun through research for “Havarie”/HAVARIE—and collaborative rehearsals for different lives at fiction film sets in Chatellerault. EUROPE takes utterly seriously the conceptual and political demand of the state’s enforced fiction upon the protagonist Zohra Hamadi, making her disappear, making it impossible for her to lead that ‘normal’ life. A powerful tool of this violent fiction is once again, time. State bureaucracy can only spare two minutes of their time, a lawyer maybe five to seven minutes. How can this violent fiction be critically mediated using its own force, undermining it at the same time and henceforth abandoning it? Zohra Hamadi seizing the liberty to determine her own time and format her own story defies precisely the violence of the often deathly fiction of the state. The form of address that EUROPE hereby offers, the destabilisation a spectator might experience during the duration of the film, might be a rare opportunity to be leveraged out of conventions, in that gap of not-knowing perceive otherwise, not assuming but labouring over possible relations.
EUROPE takes “fiction as method” to the necessary limit. Closely interrogating the mechanisms of forced fictions, and studying habituated conventions of fiction as genre, the film bypassing all of it for fiction that refuses and resists, while never forgetting the violence fictions are capable of enacting. This is no less than a matter of survival. EUROPE makes this powerfully and cinematically perceptible. It’s not an act, the film does not end.
Nicole Wolf lives in Berlin and London. She is a lecturer in Visual Cultures (Goldsmiths, University of London) and editor of “Grenzfälle. Dokumentarische Praxis zwischen Film und Literatur bei Merle Kröger und Philip Scheffner”, Berlin, Vorwerk 8, 2021.