Migrations in New Cinema, ed. Ektoras Arkomanis (Art Monthly 450, October 2021)

Migrations in New Cinema, an intriguing combination of book and film programme, presents artists’ writing and moving image work around the central theme of its title. Organised in two sections, ‘Returns’ gives way to ‘Endotic Investigations,’ which sounds alarmingly medical but here signals a shift from looking without to within.

The first ‘return’ is, as editor Ektoras Arkomanis admits in his introduction, an exception. In Jerusalem Pink, Maeve Brennan heads to the Occupied Territories guided by her great-grandfather Ernest Richmond’s work as architect in Palestine, examining and codifying the fabric of the Dome of the Rock. As with Brennan’s later work The Drift, it is visually beguiling but ultimately rather too ingenuous in its approach, with a sense throughout both film and essay that, though they start to excavate a potent seam around the position of material in conferring legitimacy – here the local stone of the title in building new settlements that blend in – they fizzle out politely before they approach any properly political engagement.

Sirah Foighel Brutmann and Eitan Efrat’s film Orientation and accompanying photo-essay also bases itself in Israel, and like Jerusalem Pink concerns itself, outwardly, with the built environment, yet is a different proposition entirely. Via correspondence with sculptor Dana Karavan, the artists uncover parallel histories: of Karavan’s public artwork White Square, 1989, constructed in Tel Aviv to commemorate the city’s founders; and of the Palestinian village of Salame, near to the sculpture and quoted by it though apparently without acknowledgement. Where White Square still exists, little is left of the village except its domed shrine, the form of which Karavan’s sculpture borrows. Overexposed, high-key images of the sculpture reduce it to 2D forms within the frame rather than space, suggesting incursion, while Salame’s dome, tellingly, is inverted to become a negative image, a caesura.

Pushing west, Arkomanis’ own film Passage Variations and its accompanying essay, A Season in the Olive Grove, circle Eleonas, a poor district of Athens, home to light industry and a refugee camp. Much of the film is dedicated to a portrait of the camp, while the essay prefers a wider history of the area as a whole, providing a departure for ruminations around globalisation, labour and capital. While thoughtful, it all reads as a little too poetic given its subject matter: refugees’ stories are reproduced as silent subtitles, and a source is given in the credits as ‘Unnamed Syrian Refugee’. If this arose from a need to protect identities, it might have explained itself as such. As it is, both the distanced stance of Passage Variations and the psychogeography of its counterpart betray a sense of place and people as objects in a narrative, not subjects of it. 

Pursuing a similar theme of displacement, anthropologist Lana Askari’s film Bridge to Kobane follows Syrian Kurdish journalist-turned-aid worker Mihemed as he navigates life with his family as refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan and imagines a move to Australia. Where Passage Variations focuses on a refugee camp, with its inhabitants its component parts, Askari looks past the structure, the institution, to instead rely upon one inhabitant to summon a wider picture, which she does astutely. It is not merely that Mihemed is involved in the film; Askari is dependent on him, and, from her interview with writer Sander Hölsgens which unpacks something of her process, willing to let the work take the direction it needs to based on her subject’s story. 

A notion of migration as transformation, and on the simultaneous making and consumption of myth, governs Katrin Wahdat’s fascinating Bachagona Posh: Girls Growing Up as Boys in Afghanistan and Sasha Litvintseva’s From Exile to Entropy. Where Wahdat’s account of bachagona posh is one of masquerade in which a practice of outward transgression is sanctioned, even ordained by society in the interests of the equilibrium of power, Litvintseva’s personal history of migration from the former USSR expands upon her film Exile Exotic to examine historical currents not so different to Orientation: the erasure of history via its very recuperation. A tale of doubles and replicas, it is a muscular, energetic and more academic piece of writing than its peers – and together with Wahdat’s essay, Orientation and Bridge to Kobane feels as though it represents the intellectual kernel of the collection.

The brief in the second section being more open-ended, perhaps, the projects represented are broader in scope. Maha Maamoun’s Domestic Tourism takes the form, via moving image and a film catalogue, of a tongue-in-cheek survey of Egyptian cinema via those feature films that have used the pyramids as backdrop for reasons variously nationalistic or essentialist. In Mapping Urban Space and Time, Talking to Horses and Pigs, meanwhile, Edwina Attlee draws on a variety of work to look at the notation of space, again considering migration as change, and the recording of change, in many cases, as record of erasure. Oral tradition here is as a tactical alternative to the literal: poetry as a weapon, not a decoration.

Highlighting the book’s strategy of breadth, Nicholas Brooks’ film Transit of the Megaliths and the amenable essay which unpicks it are playful yet rigorous. An art-historical conversation with the paintings of Paul Nash, here are migrating forms, not bodies, in an outwardly purely formal endeavour which is far removed from migration as a political or human force – yet these are things, presumably, it never set out to address. Here, though, are the essential components of the theme: motion, modulation, mutation; the relativity of subject against ground; migration, even, within an image. What Migrations in New Cinema demonstrates is that this is territory where the political tends to collide with the aesthetic. Across many of the contributions, this tension is held in check, but at points it conspires to undo its subject, the aesthetic colluding to neutralise the political. The project’s dual format, though welcome, proscribes its ability to offer consistently novel approaches to the theme, as in most cases the authors are responding to a single extant work of their own. A format which allowed more space between film programme and texts might have produced a more persuasive result – but nevertheless, Migrations in New Cinema is a worthwhile exercise in both form and content, and perhaps the blueprint for future publications which push its format further.

Migrations in New Cinema, ed. Ektoras Arkomanis, Cours de Poétique, 2020