BEIRUT: Since the 1990s this country has nurtured a succession of visual artists whose work has veered from electronic art to cinema and vice versa. Several have produced work that’s won prizes at international art platforms, film festivals or both.
Among these artists is Marwa Arsanios, whose midlength film “Who is Afraid of Ideology?” took the Georges de Beauregard International Prize at the 2019 FIDMarseille film festival in July.
This 51-minute piece offers one example of the type of work that can emerge from the hybrid art practices that seem particularly strong in this part of the Arab world. (A diverse range of Palestinian visual artists also swerve into cinema.)
Broad swaths of Arsanios’ work resemble documentary film. The “Ideology” project, which has taken various forms in the past couple of years, issues from long-term fieldwork the artist conducted among women’s communes in northeastern Syria (“the Jazeera”) - from which the autonomous Kurdish-administered region emerged during that country’s civil war, and the opportunistic violence of Daesh (ISIS).
When an earlier version of this project was exhibited, the artist was described as having “participated in community reading groups and workshops in order to [make] the film.”
“Ideology” comprises conversations with residents in Jinwar, a women-only village in the Jazeera, and in a farming cooperative near the Syrian border in the Bekaa Valley. It seems both have provided sanctuary for women displaced during the conflict, whether widowed mothers or women exiting abusive relationships with fathers and husbands.
The interviews are interspersed among landscape photography from both locations. Audience members familiar with the two regions might surmise whether footage was shot in the Jazeera or the Bekaa, but (in one of the filmmaker’s departures from documentary convention) intertitles, or other cues that might distinguish the locations, are absent.
Arsanios’ informants have been interviewed on-camera and off. On-camera interviews are with women - lively group discussions with residents about the advantages of living independently of men, individual women’s accounts of how they came to the women’s village, descriptions of how farm produce is used or of the medicinal value of specific herbs and plants.
Off-camera informants provide voice-overs to accompany landscape footage or, more pointedly, frames of interior locations - an empty desk with a coffee cup, or a photo studio backdrop of a bright orange sunset.
These anonymous informants tend to be of a more expert variety, including a former female guerrilla whose experiences living off the land in the mountains of Deir Yassin (which fighters tended to depict in terms of conflict) provoked her to embrace notions of stewardship of the environment in cultivation and husbandry. Her account plays out while the camera gazes upon snow-draped hillsides.
Other feminine voice-overs - whether accompanying panning shots of rural locations or the fixed frame of an anonymous desk - reflect upon the justice of land redistribution that took place after regime troops were pushed out of the region, and the grass-roots committees that developed in lieu of the state.
Interested as the artist is in the testimonies of her subjects - and, evidently, the experiments in social organization that the Syrian revolution afforded them - Arsanios devotes much energy to setting out her position in making this film.
The opening sequence finds the filmmaker walking down a country road as the camera retreats before her. She’s speaking as she walks, but the sound design discards her monologue in favor of ambient sound - birdsong, wind and such.
When Arsanios’ voice-over is later superimposed over the sound design, she begins by observing, “We are not outside observers of the world,” before going on to reference the ideas of journalist and sustainable energy advocate Nils Borg and post-humanist theorist Vicki Kirby.
Not only is the filmmaker inseparable from her subjects, then, our species as a whole is an integral part of the natural world.
Later, while sitting in the back of a car, the filmmaker reads from a transcript that anticipates the remarks from the guerrilla veteran of Deir Yassin. The gesture implies a rejection of expertise: Whatever the filmmaker knows about this subject proceeds from her informants.
As if to provide a counterpoint to the film’s feminine voices, other voice-overs emerge from interviews with men - apparently spokesmen of the Kurdish regional administration.
They describe the dysfunctional land regime over which Damascus had presided before 2012, predicated on cash crop production rather that cultivating farmers’ relationship with the land, and the virtues of the land redistribution that had taken place.
One pragmatically minded fellow, his voice-over framed by the photo-studio sunset, addresses Arsanios’ question of whether the Kurdish administration was willing to collaborate with the Damascus regime in local land administration. Yes, he replies, they must be willing to cooperate with the Syrian state when recording and regulating land exchanges since 2012, whether that be the current regime or its successor.
The exchange balances the idealism elsewhere in the work, reminding the audience that “Who is Afraid of Ideology?” reflects a perhaps transient optimism, one that might easily be undone by later contingencies and decisions.