Film-maker uses sci-fi to tell Pales­tine’s story

▶ Alexan­dra Chaves speaks to artist Larissa Sansour about why she uses sci­ence fic­tion to ex­plore iden­tity and con­flict

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Larissa Sansour’s vi­sions of a fu­ture Pales­tine are of­ten not op­ti­mistic. The open­ing scene of her lat­est film,

In Vitro, shows a river of oil spilling down Beth­le­hem’s streets, de­stroy­ing the his­toric Church of the Na­tiv­ity. The eco­log­i­cal disas­ter razes the city.

Be­low this post-apoc­a­lyp­tic world is a bunker with an or­chard of heir­loom seeds saved by sci­en­tists who wish to re­plant them in the soil above. At the film’s core is a di­a­logue on loss, mem­ory and ex­ile be­tween two fe­male sci­en­tists – Du­nia, 70, the founder of the or­chard, and her suc­ces­sor Alia, 30, who was born in the bunker. Monochro­matic im­ages from the film’s pro­duc­tion shoots and stills are on view un­til Thurs­day at

Sansour’s Af­ter ex­hi­bi­tion at Dubai’s Lawrie Shabibi gallery.

Like Sansour’s more re­cent films, In

Vitro – on view at the Dan­ish Pav­il­ion of the 58th Venice Bi­en­nale un­til Sun­day, Novem­ber 24 – is rooted in sci­ence fic­tion. But even though sci-fi has be­come

a big part of the Pales­tinian artist’s prac­tice, she says she didn’t grow up on it. “I wasn’t a sci-fi buff. I’ve never watched a Star Wars film.”

In­stead, the choice was more a form of re­sis­tance. “It came out of a need of not doc­u­ment­ing stuff from Pales­tine and de­fy­ing ex­pec­ta­tions of a Mid­dle Eastern artist and a woman … where I can speak about the Mid­dle East or gen­der in a par­tic­u­lar way. I think we of­ten as­so­ci­ate sci­ence fic­tion with coun­tries that we think of as pro­gres­sive coun­tries or the West and also very much male and white.”

She’s right – think renowned film­mak­ers Stan­ley Kubrick, Ri­d­ley Scott, Steven Spiel­berg and James Cameron. “Us­ing sci­ence fic­tion is al­ready tak­ing agency, try­ing to be part of that di­a­logue and try­ing to say, ‘I am also part of that vo­cab­u­lary’,” she ex­plains.

Sansour didn’t al­ways work with sci-fi. Her short doc­u­men­tary-style work from 2003, Tank, shows footage of peace ac­tivists block­ing an Is­raeli tank as it makes its way through the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries. Grad­u­ally, her videos im­bued more fic­tional el­e­ments, and her foray into sci-fi was ce­mented with her 2009 Kubrick­ian

A Space Ex­o­dus, an in­ter­ga­lac­tic com­men­tary on displaceme­nt. In it, the first Pales­tinian astro­naut in space, played by the artist, plants a Pales­tinian flag on the Moon to claim it for her coun­try.

A Space Ex­o­dus was fol­lowed by two other films – Na­tion Es­tate (2012) and In The Fu­ture They Ate from the Finest Porce­lain (2016) – that com­pose her sci-fi tril­ogy. For all of th­ese pro­jects, Sansour worked with her part­ner and artis­tic col­lab­o­ra­tor Soren Lind.

“Work­ing with sci-fi is quite lib­er­at­ing be­cause I work with dif­fi­cult is­sues … I like to con­tex­tu­alise th­ese di­a­logues in a frame­work that is not re­ally ex­pected,” Sansour says.

The genre al­lows her to es­cape the con­tentious po­lit­i­cal jar­gon tied to the Pales­tine-Is­rael con­flict, she says. “I can cre­ate my own world and my own vo­cab­u­lary in which I can ad­dress the same is­sues.”

This can be seen in Na­tion Es­tate, in which the en­tirety of the Pales­tinian pop­u­la­tion and ter­ri­to­ries have been con­tained in a sin­gle sky­scraper. Each floor houses a city – Ra­mal­lah, Nablus, He­bron, Gaza, Jerusalem, to name a few. On the sur­face, the de­vel­op­ment ap­pears slick, mod­ern and even con­ve­nient. But from a dis­tance we see that it is still sur­rounded by the Is­raeli wall.

Res­i­dents have a view of the Dome of the Rock shrine from their win­dows, a scene that mir­rors real life. “It’s quite emo­tional for Pales­tini­ans that they can ac­tu­ally see the real house that they were kicked out of … but a lot of Pales­tini­ans are be­ing ex­iled within Pales­tine it­self,” Sansour says. “They can see their house in Jerusalem, but they live out­side in a refugee camp.”

Sansour speaks from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. She vis­its Beth­le­hem, where she has fam­ily, once a year. While there, her move­ments are of­ten re­stricted and she has no­ticed the spread of set­tle­ments in the city and be­yond. “There are parts where you ac­tu­ally can see the whole city sur­rounded. It feels like a com­plete prison, like you’re be­ing suf­fo­cated,” she says.

De­spite its fu­tur­is­tic, ex­trater­res­trial or dystopian el­e­ments, sci-fi is never truly dis­tant from our world and time. In the same way, Sansour’s films are hardly re­moved from on­go­ing Pales­tinian con­cerns. “It’s quite im­por­tant for me to dis­cuss the Pales­tinian iden­tity be­cause it’s an iden­tity that’s in trauma,” she says.

In Vitro, for ex­am­ple, ex­plores a con­di­tion faced by those in the di­as­pora. “I was raised on nos­tal­gia. The past spoon-fed to me. My own mem­o­ries re­placed by those of oth­ers,” Alia says in the film. Though she didn’t live through the eco-disas­ter she por­trays, she still bears the trauma of those that came be­fore her. “The pain th­ese sto­ries cause are two-fold be­cause the loss I feel was never mine.”

She chal­lenges Du­nia’s in­ten­tions to pre­serve his­tory by pass­ing down such mem­o­ries to the next gen­er­a­tion, re­sult­ing in a clouded present that is sus­pended be­tween past and fu­ture. “I de­spise the idea of the present as noth­ing but a void. A tran­si­tion be­tween what was and what’s to come,” says Alia.

For her, the ven­er­a­tion of the past is merely a “liturgy chron­i­cling our losses”, re­duc­ing his­tory to “sym­bols and iconog­ra­phy”. The older Du­nia re­sponds that th­ese sto­ries are vi­tal to sur­vival. “En­tire na­tions are built on fairy tales,” she says.

Sansour takes no sides here. In­stead, she asks what con­sti­tutes na­tional iden­tity and what hap­pens when trauma trans­forms it. “Pales­tinian iden­tity is linked to re­sis­tance and pro­ject­ing for a fu­ture and for a Pales­tinian state … once that’s gone, it’s hard to un­der­stand what Pales­tinian iden­tity be­comes,” she says.

The idea of myth­mak­ing takes on an­other shape in the last film of Sansour’s sci-fi tril­ogy, In the Fu­ture They Ate from the Finest Porce­lain. A “nar­ra­tive re­sis­tance” hero­ine buries kef­fiyeh-pat­terned plates un­der­ground with the aim of fab­ri­cat­ing his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tions for fu­ture ar­chae­ol­o­gists to “un­cover”. The film was called anti-Semitic by a Jewish com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tion in the UK, though Sansour re­sponded that it more broadly deals with the mal­leabil­ity of his­tory and a ques­tion that arises af­ter con­flicts: who gets to tell the story and what will they say?

Sansour’s pro­jects con­tinue to evolve. The artist points out that hu­mour plays less of a role in her later works. A Space Ex­o­dus, for ex­am­ple, still had a sense of play­ful­ness, while In Vitro is more ru­mi­na­tive. It also in­tro­duces a new theme, the prob­lem of cli­mate change, which the artist says is ur­gent. She says she is now work­ing on a fea­ture film and her next com­mis­sion will stay in the realm of sci­ence fic­tion – a sci-fi opera on ge­net­ics that will be screened in Liver­pool and Toronto next year.

Larissa Sansour’s Af­ter ex­hi­bi­tion is at Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai, un­til Thurs­day

There are parts of Beth­le­hem where you can see the whole city sur­rounded. It feels like a com­plete prison, like you’re be­ing suf­fo­cated LARISSA SANSOUR Pales­tinian artist

‘I wasn’t a sci-fi buff. I’ve never watched a ‘Star Wars’ film’

Larissa Sansour’s film ‘In the Fu­ture, They Ate From the Finest Porce­lain’, is the last in her sci-fi tril­ogy Pho­tos Lawrie Shabibi

Larissa Sansour’s lat­est film, ‘In Vitro’, is rooted in sci­ence fic­tion and fol­lows ‘Na­tion Es­tate’, be­low left, and ‘A Space Ex­o­dus’, be­low right

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