Documentary is now enjoying increased attention and respect as an innovative cinematic form in its own right. Freed from an expectation to mimic the pretence to objectivity of journalistic reporting with its formula of opposed talking heads, directors have been experimenting more with the possibilities of documentary as a tool of advocacy, activism and community mobilisation.
In a panel titled «Documentary Expanded» at the inaugural Sharjah Film Platform in the United Arab Emirates this month, a new launchpad for Arab cinema from the region and a meeting point for critical engagement, documentarian Malek Rasamny set out a vision of himself and his colleagues as «transmitters». His concern is not just where stories are being sourced from but also where they are subsequently taken to through the end product’s screening; what lines of communication and access between disparate groups are enabled. Rasamny, who is based between New York and Beirut, co-directed Spaces of Exception (2018) with Matt Peterson, a documentary that had its world premiere in Sharjah, and which was created by the pair in the hope that it will function as a conduit of transnational solidarity for the territorially oppressed.
Land and the exercise of power
«In Navajo there is no word for relocation; to relocate means to disappear and never be seen again,» a Native American says in Spaces of Exception. The importance of a sense of place to a people’s collective identity and spiritual cohesion, and the systematic fracturing of such links by occupying forces who seize control of the means of definition and law-making of the land to exercise power, is explored in the documentary. Shot over the last four years, it draws a correlation between the experiences of indigenous people in North America, confined to parcels of land by white colonisers targeting their ancestral grounds, and Palestinians in the West Bank and Lebanon pushed into cramped, prison-like conditions by Israeli settlers. It cuts between numerous reservations and refugee camps as residents discuss their struggles for autonomy.
«In Navajo there is no word for relocation; to relocate means to disappear and never be seen again» – from Spaces of Exception
While the conflation of these disparate experiences is reductive in its broad sweep (the specific, complicated context of Israel’s establishment and the role played by European antisemitism in the region’s ethnic divisions is cursorily glossed over), the valid point is powerfully made that dehumanisation by oppression is a global phenomenon, the operational modes of which are all too typical. Moving with seeming effortlessness from spot to spot, the filmmakers use their privileged mobility to set themselves up as message carriers of the good fight. They intend to bring Spaces of Exception back to its documented locations for screenings so that its stories can have reach beyond the film festival circuit to places where they will resonate the most – the kind of exchange of ideas between similarly afflicted defiant forces that isolation, designed by ruling powers, attempts to prevent.
Visible existence as resistance
The term «spaces of exception» (coined by German pro-dictatorship thinker Carl Schmitt) springs from a conception of power that enables extreme deviations from the law to be normalised in spaces where the status of inhabitants, as humans and citizens, has been diminished or rejected by the state. The very existence and continued visibility of a people marked as undesirable is regarded as provocation by their oppressors, and so it is with the reservations and camps in the film – they are cordoned off in order to contain them.
Reservations ostensibly enable self-governance but have been cynically used to limit tribal land dominion.
Reservations ostensibly enable self-governance but have been cynically used to limit tribal land dominion. In the Sioux, Mohawk and Navajo reservations visited in the film, colonisers’ deadly methods of erasing Native American cultural identity are devastatingly apparent. A shuttered casino on a Mohawk reservation in New York state – a focal point of internal tribal tension between traditionalists and assimilationists who endorse attracting tourists for gambling, illegal outside the reservation, as a business «for survival» – stands full of disused slot machines. It’s a stark image of the strangulated options for a people shut off from the life source of their shrunken and fragmented ancestral lands; the circumscribing of tribal agency through the imposition of colonial corporate models, little suited to traditional life, that vampirically feed cycles of vulnerability and addiction. Those not wiped out militarily have been spiritually and psychologically assaulted by a denial of language and customs and their enforced replacement with white ways that are not passed on with the necessary tools to imitate these prosperously – a void that has only been deepened by the disastrous introduction of alcohol into the mix.
Life itself is always a raw, potentially subversive force.
The impoverished conditions inside the Palestinian refugee camps, their streets overhung with exposed electrical wires (which cause not infrequent deaths, we learn) echo this manner of economic oppression and life as imperilled, insecure subsistence. But under the violent politics of erasure – when identity is regarded already as an indictment, suspiciously perused from patrolling American police cars, or Israeli checkpoints – visible existence («the mere fact of my breathing in the heart of the camp,» as one Palestinian woman puts it) becomes a form of resistance. Life itself is always a raw, potentially subversive force, and to persist on one’s own terms while affirming others doing the same is the very essence of solidarity in freedom.