‘-did you tell them? [pause]—did i tell them what?—you told them this was fiction? (towards a possible manifesto)’ is a thirty-minute film by artist Sulaïman Majali. Featuring a cast of recurring tropes, props, and overheard conversations, the film wrestles with the certitude of language and its violent histories of fixing, naming, defining, claiming. What constitutes legitimate forms of coherence, it asks, if coherence implies a cultural standard that upholds hegemonic narratives? The film describes a practice of orientation that privileges ambiguity over certainty. If the latter is the requisite quality for being legible to a world system structured by imperialism and colonialism, might ambiguity—all too often a safe haven for white mediocrity— be reclaimed as a territory for resistance?
Punctuated with voices that have been intentionally disrupted or distanced, the film creates an acute sensation of eavesdropping; I couldn’t help but feel like an interloper. I’m reminded of the sensation of being in public space—on the bus or in a busy cafe—where the pitch and frequency of someone else’s conversation makes it impossible to ignore or tune out. Here, the specifics of voice and how we might be inclined to characterise them are eradicated by a soundtrack that evokes the experience of a car window open on a motorway—punishing, but also kind of invigorating—the kind of sound you hear with your whole body.
Qualities such as timbre, tone, accent, gender are supplanted by transcript—clerically impersonal subtitles. It feels impossible to reconcile these voices to speakers, situated within bodies. Describing them then as ‘text’ seems more appropriate, but not quite adequate. The transcript is dutifully faithful to the familiar lags, rifts, and glitches of telecommunication, and scores them accordingly, forming another layer of punctuation—or agency—within the text.
The sense of travel, of itinerancy, and ultimately, of diaspora is present throughout the film. Despite the two conversants’ efforts to arrive at common ground there is distance between them; one only ever present through the silent pauses created by their interruptions, questions, utterances, and gestures that indicate whether or not someone is being understood. ‘Where are we?’ frequently redirects the trajectory of the narrative; you’re left uncertain as to where they’ve lost their place and what position they are attempting to negotiate: their conversation, their text, geographically, historically?
Also subject to disruptions and interference are the various objects forming a series of tableaux. At points almost motionless, they’re activated and agitated by small movements, gestures, and interventions—like a still life in the process of being set-up or dismantled. At one point during the screening I felt inclined to begin developing a list of these objects, a kind of closing credits. In order of appearance: palm fronds, watermelon, lemon, black silk, black latex, pomegranate, salt, dates, honey. My inclination to compile this list appeared to be rewarded by the inclusion of such a credit sequence at the end of the film. For a moment, I allowed a smugness to wash over me—silently congratulating myself on having correctly identified, catalogued, and named these items.
As the film opened up to discussion, such logic revealed itself to be inherently problematic, that in order to placate my anxiety at being outside of the conversation, to ease my discomfort at eavesdropping, I felt entitled to project my own reading onto these objects as a way of inferring meaning. I had sat labelling and fixing, creating coherence and meaning, reinstating and centring my own inclinations and predilections and in the process, reaffirming the cultural hegemony that serve as their foundations.
The film opens up and creates dialogue with such inclinations, stating, ‘we need to find a way to articulate whilst reserving the right to ambiguity’. While closed captions are used in instances where it is necessary to describe content that cannot be heard, the use of subtitles assumes that the viewer can hear, but cannot understand. These ideas of communication, coherence, understanding, and ambiguity resonate throughout the film. The use of subtitles as an indication and knowing anticipation of misinterpretation, a lack of understanding is in itself a provocation. Constructed by language, built on nouns and not verbs, categories are only of comfort to those who get to define them, and who neatly and coherently fit within their perimeters. The filmconsiders how ambiguity might offer a critical vocabulary that anticipates, but does not foreclose.
In order to reconcile language with the film’s notion of ambiguity, perhaps etymology might present a more useful model of thought than definition. Where definitions are concerned with identifying, classifying and fixing, etymologies privilege traces, journeys, and mutations, often complicating the notion of an original or essential ‘source’. Etymology is not a narrowing of words but can instead be understood as opening them up, of articulating the historically accumulated baggage attached to words, troubling the givenness with which they circulate in the present.
Etymology shares the same temporal grammar as the film itself, working between the proximate coordinates of Past, Present, and Future Perfect tenses in order to expose history as both fictional and subjective, disrupting the assumed validity of authors whose power and agency allows them to document their beliefs and activities as history. Ambiguity is frequently defined as doubt, uncertainty, a lack of self-assuredness or clarity. Its etymology, however, presents a means of reclaiming it from these pejorative associations. Meaning ‘to wander, to go about or around’, ambiguity can be productively employed to contest that the notion that the only valuable knowledges are those that can be clearly stated, argued, and defined. In Majali’s film, ambiguity is a disruption of and refusal to uphold cultural standards of orderliness, coherence, and legibility. Through suggesting ‘its hard to imagine that future with all these words’, the film presents a way of imagining otherwise, of a possible remaking of worlds.
This review is indebted to the company gathered at the screening and Q&A on Thursday 22nd June, and the discussion and conversation that was had there
Kirsty Hendry is an artist who produces writing, events, and curatorial projects interested in practices of distribution and their relationships to technology, identity, and subjectivity