Bentson Moving Image Commission, Walker Art Center
co-comissioned by Sheryl Mousley and Fionn Meade in collaboration with curator Mason Leaver-Yap
Essay by Mason Leaver-Yap:
Marwa Arsanios’s new film examines the structures of self-governance and knowledge production fostered by the Kurdish autonomous women’s movement. She asks: what kinds of democracies are enabled without a state, and what kind of ecology is produced under the conditions of war? A propositional portrait of guerrilla ethics, Who is afraid of ideology? Part I disassembles the traditional documentary format, not only to show the contradictions inherent in such a portrayal, but also to doubt the regime of transparency.
(2017, video, 22 minutes)
Much beautiful cinema has been born from the circumstance that someone was not allowed to show something and therefore replaced an illustration with an illusion, using omission as a means of allowing room for imagination.
—Harun Farocki, “A Cut, or Television-Makers’ Revenge,” 1989
Organizing information is an inherently political act. What one chooses to prioritize, reduce, or exclude is not simply a way of making stories. It is a way of making a world. Awareness to these choices and the impact that such decision-making entails is a key facet of making documentary film, though often its perceived skill (the “good” or “well-made” documentary) is in successfully masking its formal processes of argumentation in order that its organization of information appears as an absolute reality. The viewer is usually treated passively, nudged in one direction or another, only to arrive at a conclusion that, on reflection, always seemed inevitable. Marwa Arsanios’s Who is afraid of ideology? Part I endeavors to counter such conventions and their concealed modes of persuasion. Instead, her film depicts not only the lived paradoxes of its documented subjects, but also the contradictions in the effort to capture such complexities on camera.
Shot in the mountains of Kurdistan in early 2017, Arsanios’s film primarily focuses on the Kurdish autonomous women’s movement and its structures of self-governance and knowledge production. This is a guerrilla-led movement that views gender liberation as a coexisting and equal struggle to that of resolving the conflicts of war, feudalism, religious tensions, and economic struggle. But despite its core emphasis on ecology and feminism, the movement is not a liberal project. It is an ideology that has emerged from and is practiced through war. The movement’s most recent participation includes the Syrian Revolution, which began in 2011 and remains ongoing.
Through recorded testimony, Who is afraid of ideology? Part I tracks the practical work of the movement—how to use an axe, how to eat fish within its biological cycles of production, when to cut down a tree for survival and when to save it. But the film also explores how individuals come to a conscious participation in the movement—in short, how they become part of the guerrilla. “‘Guerrilla’ stands for a collective process of learning with the aim to ‘collectivize’ the individual so that one will keep up collective learning,” so Ulrike Meinhof (the German journalist who transformed into a left-wing militant in the 1970s) describes the term. “Politics and strategy live within each individual of the Guerrilla.” The importance of group learning is indeed key to the Kurdish autonomous women’s movement. While filming in the mountains, Arsanios spent her time attending and recording reading groups, meeting with ecological, natural medicine, and education teams across various locations in the region, and later recorded additional discussions with her subjects by phone and Skype.
In the film, the soundtrack of these testimonies, analyses, and critical histories from those within and in proximity to the movement are edited together in a single, solid density. Voices abut one another in a steady surge of dialogue, with pauses only appearing on the intake of breath. With only one exception (where the artist relates an anecdote to the camera from the backseat of a moving car), the recorded dialogues are divorced from each speaker. Faces of speaking subjects subsequently appear on camera as muted bodies, though whether their testimony is included in the film’s soundtrack is ambiguous. Arsanios’s conscious choice to work almost entirely with non-diegetic sound (where audio does not run in synchronicity with image) is an interruption to what critical theorist Kaja Silvermann calls “classic cinema’s rigorous ‘marriage’ of voice to image,” or, in other words, the film defies the conventions of documentary portraiture in favor of foregrounding the complex difference of what it might mean to be heard and what it might mean to be understood—two different things.
Traditionally, the muting of subjects is one of the video editor’s utmost forms of violence—one usually hidden within the operations of the editing room. Such muting bypasses the testimonies of recorded subjectivities and instead allows for the instrumentalization of individuals to fit the argumentation of the film. But Who is afraid of ideology? Part I so dramatically intervenes upon the traditions of diegetic sound that the fissures of this operation are openly displayed to the viewer. These editorial tactics ask what does it mean, not simply to mute a body, but to also show the structures of muting. Method is exposed—demonstrated, even—so we might see differently.
The editor’s transparency of her tools preserves, to borrow a term from philosopher and poet Édouard Glissant, the “opacity” of her subjects. Sound is detached from bodies not to limit the agency of the speaker, but rather for three reasons: firstly, to attune the viewer to what exactly is being said, where one can listen consciously to a person who offers their thoughts (rather than their looks) to a collective movement; secondly, to anonymize these individuals; and thirdly, to allow the flow of dialogue to preserve power in the space of collective abstraction rather than individual legitimacy, and thus circumvent the need for each subject to appear fully comprehensible (or not). This irrepressible flow of voices—sometimes ventriloquized by the artist, a translator, or the technological audio apparatus that emphasizes their distance from the viewer with its digital scrim—seeks to level documentary’s traditional platform for the voice of the external expert with that of the guerrilla. These are voices not simply of relation but of the collective belief.
That this tactic would surface specifically in relation to the portrayal of women’s bodies and voices points to the artist’s intent to find more careful and precise forms of representation, not only within this film but also as part of an artistic practice that examines cultural moments where certain bodies are allowed to become visible, as well as where and when can they speak. As reckoned in her previous film Have You Ever Killed a Bear? or Becoming Jamila (2012), Arsanios is acutely aware that the bodies of women traditionally only become visible to the media and to the wider public in moments of death. Often, this is death by forms of societal destruction, and includes examples of heroic narratives of martyrdom, death by selflessness, and those unlucky enough to die on the brink of patriarchal recognition.
Who is afraid of ideology? Part I is concerned less with the ways through which women and their bodies (dead or living) become cultural icons of battle, however, and more engaged in the question of what a women’s structure of organization might look like within the conditions of war. The spectacular representations of violence and of war conventionally associated with the heroic notion of the militant guerrilla is elided here in favor of ethical complexity, even if that means muting a body and compiling its voice into a wall of sound.
The aural density of the film is dramatically counterpointed by the visual sparseness of the Kurdish landscape where, rather than presenting the body of the speaker for the camera, the mountains are featured as the central character of the film. The dominant landscape expresses the paradox of an environment that demands knowledge of its nature in exchange for the protection it can offer. As the film notes, the people who inhabit this region “sing songs to the mountain, not about the mountain.” The mountain thus emerges as an enduring symbol for the guerillas’ ecological framework, as well as a physical landscape that offers alternative forms of survival where statehood has disintegrated. Its epic sense of geological time is represented over the temporal intensities of war. As one of the subjects interviewed in the film states:
Natural geographies have always been sites of protection for people, not because they are there in the service of humans, but because humans are part of that region. Humans have, until the creation of big city states, understood how to live together with nature.
Relatively static, these extended landscape shots lend a certain cool detachment of a war zone, both in its blue palette and its sluggish pace. At points, there is tranquility—an environment in winter stasis. Arsanios’s approach to time—seasonal, political, geological—is indicative of the film’s durational preoccupation, one that also takes into account the precarious future of the Kurdish autonomous women’s movement. As recently as April 2017 alone, the Turkish military carried out airstrikes targeting the feminist militia in northeastern Syria, killing 12 members of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units. To date, their ability to survive remains uncertain. Who is afraid of ideology? Part I is mindful of these instabilities. The film closes with a single extended shot of a makeshift graveyard deep in snow, its soundtrack of wind and crowing birds now revealed to be the ambient soundtrack for much of the film, even its near-silent opening.
* * *
Who is afraid of ideology? Part I embeds within its title both a question and a limit. During its making, Arsanios admitted the film had become a wider enquiry regarding what kinds of democracies are enabled without a state and what kind of ecologies are produced under the conditions of war. Part I, then, serves as its opening meditation. The title’s question, meanwhile, appears to be directed less towards the subjects who lend their image and voice to the film but to those beyond the guerrilla collective. An address to the viewer perhaps, the title is clearly directed at those who situate themselves outside the logic the movement proposes.
While critiquing Harun Farocki’s 1989 film Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges (Images of the World and the Inscription of War), art historian Nora M. Alter concludes her essay by quoting filmmaker and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha:
Documentary reduced to a mere vehicle of facts may be used to advocate a cause, but it does not constitute one in itself… Meaning can therefore be political only when it does not let itself be easily stabilized, and, when it does not rely on any single source of authority, but rather empties it, decentralizes it.
In its narrative disorientations, formal delays, and inversions of image and sound, Who is afraid of ideology? Part I occupies such a politics of disassembly. Indeed, its very materials—including frank displays of physical recording apparatus and conspicuous editorial techniques, aural and visual—appear to reflect upon the precarious conditions that allow its assembly to exist in the first place. As a propositional portrait of guerrilla ethics, the contradictions inherent in the very act of portrayal are pushed to the surface, casting doubt on the conventional documentary’s regime of transparency and its seductive attempts to explain or resolve the complexity of its subjects. Who is afraid of ideology? Part I presents the belief in a documentary that refuses to speak purely in illustration and metaphor, and instead provides multiple points of relation with the human world. A gravestone might signify death, but only within a landscape of the living.