x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A space oddity

Art Larissa Sansour's playful films liberate Palestine from the tyranny of grim documentaries. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie welcomes the imagination.

Larissa Sansour's short film <i>A Space Exodus</i>, which revamps Stanley Kubrick's <i>2001: A Space Odyssey</i> as an account of the first Palestinian on the moon, screened at this year's Dubai International Film Festival.
Larissa Sansour's short film <i>A Space Exodus</i>, which revamps Stanley Kubrick's <i>2001: A Space Odyssey</i> as an account of the first Palestinian on the moon, screened at this year's Dubai International Film Festival.

Larissa Sansour's playful films liberate Palestine from the tyranny of grim documentaries. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie welcomes the imagination.

It is late in the evening on one of the last days of the Dubai International Film Festival, and Larissa Sansour is exhausted. Sansour, an artist who makes short, punchy films that use pop culture and kitsch to translate the grim realities of Palestinian life into fanciful bursts of surrealism, has been working flat out for months. Since August, she has travelled to Lebanon, where she participated in an international artists' workshop in the mountain town of Aley; to China, where she took part in the third Guangzhou Triennial; to South Korea, where her work was featured in the 2008 Busan Biennial; to Egypt, where she just completed a new piece for the fourth edition of Photo Cairo; and to the UAE, where her latest film, A Space Exodus, made its world premiere this month at the Dubai festival's short film competition.

Now, having already been clobbered by screenings, meetings and industry events, she is also being stalked by a British television crew making a documentary about her. So there is some irony when she says: "I am quite tired of Palestinians always being the subject of documentaries." Sansour is referring obliquely to Jean-Luc Godard's 2005 film Notre Musique and the paradigm it proposes for understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the film, the veteran auteur leads a masterclass with film students in Sarajevo. He holds up two images from 1948. The first is a colour photograph of boats arriving on a Mediterranean shore, people rushing toward dry land in triumph. The second is a black and white photograph of people trudging into the sea, their bodies bent by the weight of horror, sadness, coffins and earthly belongings. "In 1948", Godard says, "the Israelites walked in the water to reach the Holy Land. The Palestinians walked in the water to drown. Shot and reverse shot. The Jews become the stuff of fiction. The Palestinians, of documentary."

While it does not follow from Godard's swift diagnosis that Palestinians since 1948 have only been the subjects of documentaries, or that artists and filmmakers have only used the documentary genre to articulate the history and identity of the Palestinian people, it is certainly the case that, more often than not, films and works of art or literature about the Palestinian experience adhere to the hard edges of realism. Marshalling facts is common; taking flights of the imagination is not.

Notre Musique explicitly inspired A Space Exodus, and all of Sansour's work reflects her desire to counter the circumscribed, documentary condition of the Palestinians described by Godard. A Space Exodus is a brief, stylish remake of a few key scenes from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the artist cast as the first Palestinian cosmonaut. The film takes a narrative of extreme technological progress and transposes it onto a situation in which a population is bound, constrained and denied the most rudimentary of movements. Sansour imagines a dream scenario in which the Palestinians are free to advance, innovate and run in the space race. At the same time, A Space Exodus undercuts its own premise: Sansour is emulating a film from 1968, after all, suggesting that even this imagined Palestinian space programme is decades out-of-date. But as the option of a viable independent state becomes ever more remote, deep space imagined in the mind of an artist might be the only alternative they have left.

"There is massive emigration from Palestine now," says Sansour. "People's lives are becoming so intolerable that they are forced to leave... As our reality is so absurd, I felt free to make up my own space. Instead of pressing the same rhetoric and the same competing historical narratives on both sides, I decided to make up my own world, a positive one. This work goes very much along the lines of Godard's statement," she says. But rather than accepting Godard's dichotomy, Sansour takes it as a provocation - to claim fiction, dream and myth for the Palestinians. "I wanted to create my own myth."

Sansour was born in Jerusalem in 1973 to a Palestinian father and a Russian mother. She grew up in Bethlehem, but at this point she only returns twice a year. "A trip that should take six hours by plane from Copenhagen to Tel Aviv now takes more than 24 hours," she says. Palestinians registered in the West Bank are no longer allowed to land at Israeli's Ben Gurion International Airport, so they must travel via the Allenby Bridge from Jordan. Still, she adds, "it is important for me to return. Everything changes fast and even when I am there I find it hard to keep up with all the new rules and designated areas."

In the 1980s Sansour moved to London, and in the 1990s she attended seven different art schools, including the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she earned her bachelor's degree, and New York University, where she completed her master's. In between she did stints at Blake College and Byam Shaw in London (figurative art), the American College in London (computer animation and video art), the University of Baltimore (art history and criticism) and Denmark's Royal Academy of Art. Ostensibly, she lives and works in Copenhagen (her husband is Danish), but she moves around more than she sits still.

Before 2005, Sansour was working in traditional media: painting, sculpture and the occasional installation. The siege of Bethlehem that year, however, dramatically altered how she thought about and executed her work. "I had family and friends trapped in Bethlehem and their stories conflicted heavily with that of world news," she says. "Around that time I developed a strong desire to counteract the proclaimed objectivity of the coverage on channels such as CNN and BBC World. Video was the most suitable medium for achieving that."

Too often, video art from or about Palestine expends its energy attacking newspapers and broadcasters for following a set political script, one that is undeniably weighted in favour of the Israelis. Against news media accounts, these works put forth maps, statistics, archival documents, buried histories and eyewitness testimonies. All of this is urgent and crucial, to be sure, but it frequently makes for dreary viewing, and it occasionally risks either polemics or pity.

Sansour's work is both surprising and counterintuitive in that it is splashy, colourful, energetic and quirky - adjectives not commonly associated with contemporary Palestinian cultural expression. It is fun. Bethlehem Bandolero, a five-minute video from 2005, spoofs the spaghetti western genre and features Sansour as a Palestinian gunslinger facing off against the Israeli security wall. Wearing a cartoon-sized, candy-red sombrero and a teenybopper's black and white polka dotted scarf, she struts through the streets of her hometown, all stones, shutters and labyrinthine alleys. She may have a sizeable pistol strapped to each hip, but her weapons are laughable in the face of eight-metre concrete slabs. A soundtrack of loopy, Mexican-style surf guitar further heightens the weirdness and hilarity.

Happy Days, a two-minute video from 2006, also draws strength from its soundtrack, this time the theme song from the American television series of the same name. While the original Happy Days cast a nostalgic eye on the 1950s from the vantage point of the 1970s, Sansour's film depicts everyday life in the Palestinian territories. Instead of diners and drive-ins there are jostling churches and mosques, checkpoints and watch towers. Instead of Fonzie and Ralph Malph, there are relatively affable Israeli soldiers. Instead of jukeboxes and pinball machines, there are folkloric emblems of Palestinian identity. At one point, Sansour is seen absent-mindedly strumming an oud. At another, she clutches the hose of a narghileh while girlishly swinging her legs over a stone wall. (This tendency to upend the folkloric also appears in A Space Exodus, in which Sansour's custom-made space suit incorporates traditional embroidery and the Palestinian flag into a minimal, streamlined, "funkified", "Arabised" and "feminised" astronaut outfit.

Sansour says her work seizes "the seductive power of pop culture and at the same time tries to subvert it. I want my work to address a wide audience and to break away from the elitist nature of the art world. As an artist, you are expected to be avant-garde and subversive, yet there is a very authoritarian dictation as to how this subversion or analysis is to be done. I think that art making often undermines the very forms it tries to critique.

"Pop culture is more digestible, so it is capable of reaching more people. The language of pop culture is also universal. I grew up in Palestine but with American sitcoms and films. This hybridity is something I find very interesting. Of course, framing Palestinian reality in an American sitcom from the 1970s is sugarcoating an abject condition. But I think kitsch is perfect for pointing out the perversities of media and mass communication."

Sansour's films situate the Palestinian experience in the realm of ludicrous fiction, but the fact that she appears in all of them is, for her, an anchor to reality. She began casting herself in her videos due to budgetary constraints. "I couldn't afford actors," she says. "But the more I make work, the more it is becoming my signature to include myself and my family, and I am starting to believe it is a more honest rendition of the subject matter I choose." Her work does not document, nor does it fictionalise."It reflects the absurdity of what is happening in Palestine," she says, and in doing so cleverly combines both practices.

This tendency is best exemplified by two very different films in Sansour's oeuvre. One, titled Soup Over Bethlehem (Mloukhieh), from 2006, captures a conversation among friends and family that turns from a discussion of the famous Levantine dish to a debate over the politics of occupation. The other, titled Land Confiscation Order 06/24/T, from 2007, details the actual seizure of a summer house in Beit Jala that Sansour's grandparents owned, and stars her sister Leila and her brother Maxim. Both films are presented in the documentary style, with the testimonies on screen delving into the speakers' dreams. They offer wildly imaginative schemes for escaping confinement, defying the land seizure, reclaiming the lives they once lived or thought they would live. These are fictions, but they illuminate as much if not more than actual accounts. In the middle of Land Confiscation Order, Leila and Maxim stop speaking. Against a resplendent landscape honey-coloured by a late afternoon sun, they unfurl an enormous swath of black cloth and slowly, mournfully wrap it around their grandparents' home.

"We have rituals for various events in our lives, from weddings to funerals," says Sansour. "But there is no ritual for dealing with your land or your house being taken from you. This somehow felt like adding insult to injury. I wanted to document a place I knew very well, to drape the house in black. It was like a surreal funeral. I will never be able see this house or this land again." The scholar Joseph Massad, writing recently about modern Palestinian art, noted the long history of artists whose works "register both continuity and rupture ? and tell both familiar and unfamiliar stories differently. In doing so they communicate visually what is beautiful and sublime in the Palestinian experience, even and especially when they have to tease it out of tragic scenery."

This is what Sansour achieves in a single, striking metaphor. It is the most haunting scene in all of her work. And the fact that it comes with no prior referent, no pop cultural appropriation, suggests that she has both powerful and original works to come.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Beirut for The National.