Uriel Orlow interviewed by Alessandra Ferrini and Elisa Adami.
This is the first part of our interview with Uriel Orlow about his latest show in London, The Reconnaissance at Seventeen Gallery. The Reconnaissance is one of ten elements that make up the project Unmade Film. In this first part of our interview, we will be discussing Unmade Film (2012-13), while in Part 2 we will be exploring The Reconnaissance.
A Conversation about Unmade Film
AF: Unmade Film is a film fragmented into its component parts: closing credits, location scouting, staging; it points to the structure of a film but never fully becomes one. You made the deliberate choice to play with the element of the fragmentary, unfinished and unmade. Can you explain what it means, conceptually and aesthetically, to make an Unmade Film? What role do the elements of openness and unfinishedness play in this work?
UO: First I should say that what interests me about the ‘unmade’ is that it has two meanings: it is both something that has been made and then taken apart, and something that is not yet made. For instance you could say an ‘unmade bed’ – something not made yet – but also use it to speak about something that has been fragmented after having been made. The main reasons behind using this strategy is to do with the core of the work and with my realisation that the work that I wanted to make in Jerusalem was not possible to make in this way, as a complete film, for a number of reasons.
AF: Could you tell us more about your initial project and how it developed into Unmade Film?
UO: It was supposed to be a film about a specific place near Jerusalem: the Palestinian village Deir Yassin that was destroyed in 1948 in a very significant massacre that contributed to the Palestinian exodus. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled after this event. Three years later, in the same place, an Israeli psychiatric hospital was established, to treat Holocaust survivors. The double history, and the double trauma of this place, immediately presents us with a moral aporia: you cannot compare one trauma or suffering with another. It is morally problematic and impossible to compare the Holocaust and the Nakba. For this reason, it seemed impossible to contain these two traumas in one work even tough they obviously need to be addressed together. The second reason is to do with the notion of catharsis. Since the trauma is not really over – the psychiatric hospital and the occupation are still there – I did not want to produce a closed work which could produce some kind of catharsis. By catharsis I mean a sense of relief, which is triggered when you encounter a traumatic history and eventually get released from it as a viewer. This is the strategy employed by most films about war, the Holocaust or other traumas. You live through these traumas and come out feeling almost cleansed from this terrifying experience, because you come out alive and it is over. I did not want to produce this kind of effect, or some kind of containment. Obviously there are strategies to avoid this even within a single work, but for me, it was important to acknowledge the ongoingness of the trauma and not containing it in a single work.
EA: When you refer to the impossibility of making a film or a single work, do you refer to the idea of the impossibility of representing something traumatic, echoing Adorno’s claim of the impossibility of making art after the Holocaust?
UO: It definitely has to do with questions of representation, but it’s not just about an impossibility of representation, but the problems inherent in simply representing an event like that. In my earlier work I was very much interested in the notion of trauma as a way of thinking about questions of representation, focusing on the repetition and return of a symptom. Now, however, my thinking has moved towards what might be called a hauntology: ghosts. Although ghosts also refer to a return or a repetition, they precisely avoid the notion of catharsis and, consequently, of a release from a trauma. It is a different way to think about the past as unfinished business. What I find interesting about ghosts is that there is a temporal and spatial conjunction, a return of something from the past in the present. An of course, it is a kind of half representation, between presence and absence.
EA: Do you consider the ghost to be a symptom of the trauma?
UO: No, I would not say that. I think the ghost is the return of something unfinished from the past, which we have to deal with in the present. This is very much inspired by Avery Gordon’s book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. The ghost comes back to remind us that there is something we need to do. I am interested in this ethics that is at stake here. A symptom is something more closed, it relates to the past. I think ghosts refer to the future as well.
AF: Talking about ghosts, I cannot help but wonder how this relates to the fact that Unmade Film is informed by autobiographical events. Could you tell us a bit more about the personal link with these traumatic events and the way it has affected your thinking?
UO: I knew this psychiatric hospital because a great-aunt of mine lived there for thirty years. She had survived Auschwitz, ended up in Palestine in the 40s and had a breakdown in the 50s, when she ended up in this clinic. As a kid I would visit her there, so I have a very personal memory of this place, which links to my family history and survival. I encountered many Holocaust survivors there, without realising that they were being treated in a Palestinian village and that a massacre had taken place there. So it was quite a shock when, during a conversation about the Nakba, I put the two things together. At first I did not want to make work about this place as I felt that it was too loaded, but then I kept going back to it, or rather it kept coming back to me.
AF: It is interesting as well to think about the fact that mental hospitals are notoriously considered as haunted places.
UO: Yes, but I think that this notion that mental hospitals are thought to be haunted has obviously to do with our culture being unable to assimilate mental illnesses. In The Birth of the Clinic Foucault wrote about the way mental patients are generally placed outside of the city, in another place. It is the same idea of ‘unfinished business’, things that we have not been able to deal with as a society end up coming back, somehow.
EA: Unmade Film is composed of ten parts. One of these parts, The Staging, came out of a series of workshops that you held in Ramallah and Jerusalem. Could you please tell us more about this work?
UO: Films generally aren’t single-authored, so I was interested in setting up different collaborations with different people. A lot of people are affected by Deir Yassin – and it means different things to different people. I didn’t want to tell just my story and create a single-authored work that only refers back to me. Once I decided that it was going to be an unmade film, divided into its constituent parts, I started to think about the different, formal elements of a film. One of them is the staging – when you stage something for the camera. I wanted to think about this on its own, without involving conversations as I am using language in other parts, like The Voice Over or The Script. So The Staging was a bit of an experiment, in which I collaborated with Frances Rifkin, a theatre practitioner who has extensive experience in the theatre system that Augusto Boal developed under the umbrella of the Theatre of the Oppressed in Brasil in the 1960s. I invited her to join me in Jerusalem and Ramallah and we developed a workshop together. We worked specifically around one aspect of the Theatre of the Oppressed, which is the Image Theatre, a form of theatre that consists of physical images, or tableaux vivants, that contain complex narratives in a single image rather than a sequence. I was interested in the multiple meanings that these images provoke. At first we were doing exercises, then moving towards what Deir Yassin – and the stories it contains – mean to the participants in the present, rather than trying to re-stage the past. They worked in groups of four over three full days and created very powerful images, which I filmed and which became the piece The Staging.
AF: Could you tell us more about the last part of Unmade Film: The Proposal, which you will be performing on Saturday 2 November at Whitechapel Gallery?
UO: The Proposal goes back to the very beginning and it is a lot about my great-aunt’s story, which does not feature in the other works because I did not want Unmade Film to be autobiographical. I did not want to tell this very complicated history via the personal or autobiographical because it would be like claiming a history that is not mine. For me it was more important to trace the history that I was excluded from, because it is repressed. There is no plaque in that mental hospital acknowledging its history. The different works look at this repressed history. In the end, I felt that I had to re-anchor my story and that I could only do this live. Telling my story in a lecture-performance, I set up a kind of contract with the audience – they witness something in that moment. It is not something that I make and send off, and that exists on its own, but rather it is connected to my voice. I am also using different elements from the different works, trying to think about what it means to think about a film fragmented into elements.
EA: So, The Proposal, which should come first in the whole process, comes at the end. Is this a retrospective movement, in which you look back at what you have done?
UO: There is certainly a complication of temporality here. It would be too linear to think of it as retrospective, but rather it is a way of thinking about making a movie in the future and what that might be. Even if that is done in retrospect it is not a summary at the end. I guess it’s inserting my own working process into this complication of temporality.
Visit the artist’s website here.