Archive Fever: A Conversation Between Naeem Mohaiemen, Maha Maamoun and Rania Stephan

Rasha Salti

Rasha: Your three projects use existing footage from films (both fiction and non-fiction). Can you describe how you each tried to resolve the question of negotiating for the rights to use these films? How is the notion of “public domain” articulated in the situations you have had to work with?

Rania: My film is entirely made out VHS extracts from Soad Hosni feature films. When the idea to work with her archive as an actress came, VHS was the only material available to do this research (V.H.S. stands for Video Home System). It’s accessible, malleable, and cheap. Still, I needed to organize for suitcases full of tapes to be sent from Cairo to Paris, where I was residing at the time, in order to gather her filmography to its fullest extent. I finally got seventy-six available films out of the eighty-two that she’d made.
As at first, I was logging the material in writing, I sometimes flirted with the idea of coming back to a “better quality image” (35 mm or even Beta) for my editing. But what started as documentation material quickly turned into a passion. The use of the VHS seduced me and I fell in love with the images. In addition, they were the reminder of how I had discovered Soad Hosni films in the first place. Not only did they become the sole material of my film, but they became an integral part of the aesthetics: the VHS “matter” was made part of the narrative of the film itself.
I had always felt that these images belonged to my memory. So how does one estimate them? Or put a price on them? To whom do they belong? Where does the borrowing start and my imagination end? Where’s the border between the private and the public spheres? As the work progressed, there was always this edginess, this unsettled matter pending over them. When the film finalized, it turned out to be a strange object, quite like I had imagined it would be. It couldn’t have been otherwise. I thought that as long as the film remained in an underground or art-type circuit, I would not deal with the issue of rights. But when the film finally did get exposure, I had to consult someone.
There is no official body or institution that handles this kind of information in Egypt. So I found an Egyptian rights lawyer who told me that it would be inextricable, endless and infinitely costly to pay rights for VHS extracts in Egypt. I discovered then that the law does not settle this uneasiness since law itself is based on a matter of interpretation. The law just frames it. In an art context, the fine line between borrowing, using and pirating remains blurred, suspended, and unsettled, and I have to live with this suspense.

Film stills from The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2011) directed by Rania Stephan
Film stills from The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2011) directed by Rania Stephan

Film stills from The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2011) directed by Rania Stephan

The film is very much a homemade, low budget film. “Moïra” or Fate, let’s say, gave it a surprising exposure. Morally, I don’t mind collapsing the meanings between being a “passeur” (a guide) of images and a pirate of these images. Maybe that’s because Egyptian cinema as an artistic object is so underrated in the Arab world and practically unknown in the rest of the world. The film gives it a kind of exposure and value.But the thing that I love the most is to imagine that Soad Hosni would be very pleased to know that she is now playing at MoMA PS1, and that by a strange twist of destiny, she has made it, post mortem, from the Nile to New York. Something tells me that she would have loved it! So just for that, I’d brave all the risks.

Maha: My film entirely uses scenes from Egyptian Cinema from the 1950s to the 2000s. I got the films from VCDs, VHSs, DVDs, and the internet. When I first started to inquire about how to get permission to use these scenes, I was advised by a friend in the industry not to start this quest for permissions as it would open up an overly complicated chase with no clear standards or procedures. This advice may have been affected by the knowledge of the context I work in, as a visual artist, and the field and venues my work will end up being shown in, which have so far been fairly “under the radar”. I imagine the advice would have been different if I had worked in cinema or television. I did not know which films I wanted to use or the durations of the scenes I would use until the work was complete, which did not make for a timely investigation of the question of rights. I comforted myself with the “quotations” alibi. Three years later, I am still trying to figure how to resolve this question of rights.Copyright laws and definitions of what falls in the “public domain”, which I am sure are more or less clear if one undertakes this research, were not so apparent to me. Or at least they were not the issue for me at the time of doing this project. In a second video that I’ve just recently made using clips from videos posted on YouTube, I was able to directly contact the people doing the uploading, who mostly happened to be the owners of that material, and they readily and simply allowed me to use it.

Naeem: Well, a large portion of United Red Army is audio, with text on screen as a subtitle/echo. The tapes came from the lead negotiator—somehow they ended up with him in the post-event chaos. With the video interludes, where the film goes from pitch black to bright light (with the introduction of archival footage), a lot of that material came from NHK Television in Japan. The footage appropriated from VHS is the opening credits for Zoo Gang and the Carole Wellsouttake from Funny Lady. I would like to go back and secure a full-resolution version of the Zoo Gang footage, but I also prefer the blown-out feel of that segment as it currently exists.The hijack was a pivotal event for Japan, so a lot of television newscast material emerged around it. Because it was filmed for nightly news, these are mostly short shots, sometimes without sound, with just enough footage to cover the newscasters reading. So, you have a sequence where the relatives are waiting at the Tokyo airport, and the camera will pan and cut in all of five or ten seconds. There is no lingering shot to pick up accidental moments. I was not able to use a lot of NHK footage for that reason. Some of the sequences, when they are slowed down, contain a barely perceptible fade (which I had to cut out if I wasn’t using adjacent sequences). Clearly there were longer shots, which were edited and merged for the newscast. But NHK didn’t have that original footage anymore; the only things left were the edited versions.

When I first contacted them, I think they considered it a routine footage request for a traditional documentary. There was already a Japanese television documentary on the hijack, in the standard talking head format that uses archival footage for a minute or so. But once I went through the shot list and sent back my request, they realized that I had requested almost everything. So then they went back through the footage very carefully, and returned with a list of sequences that they were not able to license. It turned out that they did not have clearance forms for several interviews that they had filmed at the airport. At one point in the film, the narration talks about what the brother of the Mitsubishi bombing victim had said—I had to do that because they were unable to give me the rights to that interview. Of course, in the context of the incident and the prevailing rules around news interview clearance in 1977, it makes sense that they had never obtained written permission from anyone for interviews. I suspect that is the case with a great deal of non-studio interviews that are conducted after any incident. Later, when they digitized their archives, their lawyers probably went through the footage and listed all the items that they would not be able to share without consent forms—and of course it would be very difficult to track down these hostages now and get their consent. It can be done with a lot of time and money, but I doubt they would be able to do it just to accommodate my one small project.

So then we went back to NHK with a significantly reduced request list, with all the interviews taken out (except the press conferences, for which they had obtained consent—probably under some type of blanket rule). This time they came back with another glitch (what we call in Bangla slang arek fyakra). Now they stated that all the runway and control tower footage (in black and white) had been captured from Bangladesh Television. This was done either by filming it from a television screen, or capturing it from the satellite transmission to Japan (I found a news item in the press talking about this as the first live television transmission Bangladesh had done with Japanese technical assistance). So they could not grant the rights to that either. This was a much bigger setback, because it meant withholding over half of all the available footage. A long process then started, where I tried to get copies from BTV, and definitively established that they did not have copies of the material (there had been no preservation mechanism). So finally, we had to make a long appeal, over multiple letters, saying that since BTV did not have copies, we wanted them to lend us theirs. This labyrinthine process with NHK, which lasted over several months, had to be conducted in Japanese. Every letter I wrote and sent as a signed document was then translated into Japanese. My collaborator and partner on this project was the Japanese artist Michikazu Matsune (we collaborated before on Le Saigon Café) and he did a fantastic job of managing the entire process. The project would have been impossible without him. At the time, Michikazu lived in Austria, NHK was on Tokyo time, I was editing in New York, and working with Hana Shams Ahmed in Dhaka—we had to work across four time zones to catch the end-of-day deadlines, which mattered mainly for NHK, as they are on a strict office schedule.

Rasha: The existing footage, as a “raw material” for the fabrication of the work, is in many ways part of a repository of collective memory, even though it is not yet fully recognized as such in the contexts in which you have produced your work. Can you elaborate on the poetic versus the political motivation in using it as the raw material for the work’s manufacture?

Rania: Poetics are not outside the political. What is at stake in the use of archival images, is not only the relation to memory, to the past, but the remembrance of oneself and the world as humans and as viewers. The cinematic image carries with it its history and thus its own unconscious.The narrative of the film is constructed to draw the spectator inside a story despite the disparate and heterogeneous elements that constitute it—images and sounds ranging from 1959 to 1991, undone and then redone. The image unfolds, resonates and discloses the archive in order to tell another story.This diffused and floating impression which feels like a rêve éveillé, a waking dream, puts the spectator in a sensual place; a sensitive space where there is room to roam and space to dream, to feel, to play and to reflect. This in itself is political.

Maha: The footage that I have used in my film was drawn from a wide range of Egyptian cinematic scenes that used the Pyramids as their backdrop. The Pyramids themselves were the “raw material” used for the “fabrication” of those original scenes, and their assigned role was very often to stand as the “repository of collective memory” against which the transient and extraneous are deliberately or accidentally identified, poeticized, belittled, glorified, bashed, and/or ignored… The actual Pyramids, as well as the footage of them, as raw material or repository of memory, were the device to drive statements, to re-calibrate social relations and political positions, to highlight or subdue the individual, the present, and/or the exception. I was interested in foregrounding these dynamics.

Naeem: I thought for a long time about the idea of making the entire film in darkness, with only text. That would have been an endurance test for the audience. With the final structure, I was curious about the effect of being in darkness for extended periods of time; the effect of the surprise of opening your eyes and finding yourself in the middle of the archive. When I first listened to the audio tapes (twenty-two hours, repeatedly, over many days) I started getting a little delirious—I was inside that story and straining to hear every word. There are patches of tape where it is impossible to make out what is being said, and I kept playing them in the hope that, just this once, it would be clear. I wanted a structure that would induce people into that obsessive habitation of the story, without having to be immersed in the tapes for twenty‑two hours.In Bangladesh, some people who have seen the film asked if I had shifted to the late 1970s (my earlier work took place between 1971 and 1975, before the first coup) as an attempt to demystify the military regimes. Well, that is part of the research path: for a country with a history of military interventions into democracy (in both the Pakistan and Bangladesh periods), it is impossible to consider where politics might lead next without understanding those events. On another level, the film is bracketed within the larger The Young Man Was project, which is, among other things, an inquiry into the compulsions that make people join messianic movements that, from our temporality, seem doomed, but from within their contexts, must have appeared to hold some potential.

Rasha: Each of you has had to learn and negotiate the difference between the work being regarded as a film, or as a (single channel) video installation, and to reflect in terms of how that bears an impact on the use of existing footage. Would you elaborate on this for us?

Rania: I conceived the film as a story to be watched from beginning to end, with a narrative becoming more complex, more ample, more eerie, and subterranean as the film unfolds. Each act builds upon the last, and the third act rests on the viewer’s knowledge of the first two. The film has a very strong underlying structure.However, as I was editing, I didn’t know how long the film was going to be. The story kept unfolding and the film developed until one day there was nothing more to say, or to show. The story ended and I realized that the film was finished. I stopped editing. Up until then, I had only watched the film at home on my computer. I didn’t see it projected.At the Sharjah Biennial, the film was displayed as an installation. All of a sudden I saw it differently. I realized that the spectator could come in and out, take just bits of images and ideas and leave, then come back and revisit them. The people who got caught in the narrative would stay on, lie on the floor and see it in their own time loop. They constructed their own order of sequences. This gave it an interesting point of access; another dimension.

Film stills from The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) (2011) directed by Naeem Mohaiemen
Film stills from The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) (2011) directed by Naeem Mohaiemen

Film stills from The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) (2011) directed by Naeem Mohaiemen
Film stills from The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) (2011) directed by Naeem Mohaiemen

Seeing it as a feature film in a big theatre with a huge screen offers yet another level of viewing, related to the physical history of the image and to that of the cinema. One sees not only the layers of grain which were built along with the transformation of the image from 35 mm to Beta to VHS then digital, but feels the dimension of the cinematic image behind every excerpt: its light, its texture, its quality, and its testimony of lived experience lingers on despite all the transformation that the images have gone through.When I saw it for the first time on the big screen at La Criée Theatre in Marseille, it opened in me a reflection on the perseverance of the cinematic image despite all the transformations in time and texture. The impregnation of real light onto chemical film remains a magical alchemy. I was stunned to discover how much I loved this prevalence.So the film encapsulates many different experiences. At MoMA PS1, it’s a combination of the two. The installation is set in a very comfortable and isolated space with good sound, so one can have this “cinematic” layer playing in the narrative, but can still come in and out of the room and take whatever image or sequence they want back home with them, like a flâneur.

Maha: I first conceived and showed this work as a video installation, with a small screen/projection. One of the reasons for this was my not knowing how far I would be able to take the quality of the footage. I also wanted to stay away from the big, projected cinema image. And though I did construct an emotional and temporal progression through the film, I felt at the time that one could also walk in and out of it. I have come to prefer it being seen from beginning to end however, and have agreed to show it as a film screening. The two presentations, and the relation of the images to the viewer, are different of course. One imposes a distance; the other shortens it. I think I prefer not to fix this work to one form or the other.

Naeem: That it was installed in a very large, black room at Sharjah worked well. People would walk in and be disoriented by the darkness. They would see the text on screen and expect, from past experience, that it would pass. Then the minutes would go by and I am sure some people would start thinking, “Wait, is the whole film like this?” I would stay in the back of the room and observe them. They would stand for a long time and then, when the archival footage appeared, they would finally see by that reflected light that there was a bench, and then they would (maybe) sit down. This whole process of disorientation was, for me, helpful to a certain reading of the film. I have talked with you, Rasha, about screening it in a theater with a set start time, because one thing that changes with the black box installation is that, depending on when people walk in, the entire buildup that leads to the collapse in the talks can be obscured. I have also discussed this with Michikazu, and he said: “I personally imagine that the film comes across more strongly if it is seen from the beginning and that the audience follows the whole dramaturgy of suspension developed throughout the film.” On the other hand, something is gained from giving the audience a path to walk in and out of the story—the register changes so much within the negotiation, the moment when they walk in defines which story they catch (especially if they do not stay for all of it). I am still thinking this through. I may have a different feeling about this (if and) when it has been screened in a theater.

Rasha: Would you ever consider disseminating the work, or perhaps versions of it, using cheap, disposable, widely available distribution media? This is a candid question, as I understand that it runs against the logic of the political economy of the contemporary art world and that such a maneuver is potentially destructive, especially for non-western artists. (You know, we can’t all be Jean-Luc Godard…)

Naeem: After the Sharjah Biennial, I was approached by a collector who was interested in the film. I did not continue the conversation, because I wanted to think through these issues. What I want most of all is for as many people as possible to see it. However, if a museum were to acquire the film and then screen it, and were willing to loan it out to others, then that also fits with a mass audience intention. We also have to continue the conversation about the museum installation of videos. What it means to “install” video and then all the variations of black box projections, wall monitors with headphones and theater screenings (e.g., the loop, the scheduled screenings)… The video pieces that I find to be very specific to the museum or gallery are the ones where there is a discursive mode generated by the installation that cannot be realized in a theater. Whether it is directly responding to physical aspects of the environment (Spiteful of Dreams, the mirrored video installation by Jane & Louise Wilson at Sharjah Biennial 9), building an archival environment around the work (Mariam Ghani’s interpreter/translator video The Trespassers at Sharjah Biennial 10), playing with the possibilities of alternate projection surfaces (Paul Chan’s 1st Light) and double-sided viewing (Omer Fast’s The Casting), splintering video into simultaneous chapters (Amar Kanwar’s Torn First Pages), working as one of many spokes within a curiosity shop of structures (Mika Rottenberg’s Dough in New York and Goshka Macuga’s weirdly spectacular Sleep of Ulro at the 2006 Liverpool Biennial), or digitally generated random sequences (Eve Sussman’s white on white).

So, with a short piece such as Der Weisse Engel, there were specific things I was trying out with regards to darkness and an absence of image: what would happen if after the first snippets from Marathon Man there was never any further visual relief? That piece exists as a black box projection, and there are specific things that happen when people walk in and out, especially when they catch it in the middle and are disoriented. That work functions within the gallery. But United Red Army could be screened in a theater—it is something I am working out, still.We are having this conversation in what feels like a context of continuous flux. Last summer, when Black Power Mix Tapes came out, it was a film I had wanted to see in theaters, with my community (especially left organizers). Somehow time ran away, and it was gone from theaters (documentaries always struggle to stay there for any meaningful duration). But before I could even get disappointed, the film showed up on Netflix. Of course something is lost because each of us will see it at a different time, and we will not have the impact of that intense conversation we would have had if we had all seen it together. (Instead, I saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes with friends and then, over dinner, we parsed it as an analogy for the Russian revolution). That is why 3D has become so commercially important; it is one of the few mediums left where people are made to see it in the theater. Besides the obvious commercial examples, a notable recent project is Wim Wenders’s Pina in 3D. It is difficult to imagine that any given video screening style within the visual arts will continue to exist as is. It will inevitably be fractured and remade.

Rania: Last July, the Serpentine Gallery screening was held at the Notting Hill Gate Theater; a beautiful old cinema with red velvet seats, heavy curtains and golden fittings. I was sitting at the back, attentive to the response of my first English audience. Suddenly I noticed a small square light coming from a center row. A man sitting in the middle of the cinema was re-filming my film with his mobile phone. I watched, waited. Was he just a fetishistic viewer who wanted a few shots of Soad Hosni on a big screen; an image we haven’t seen in decades, since these films are not screened in theaters anymore? He kept filming. How many images will he take? I was troubled. He didn’t stop. My film took so much work, energy, and determination, and this guy was picking off the fruits of my labor just like that—his hand up in the air, his finger on a button. The film unfolded and his miniature screen kept flickering, recording.

Film stills from The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) (2011) directed by Naeem Mohaieme
Film stills from The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) (2011) directed by Naeem Mohaieme

Film stills from The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) (2011) directed by Naeem Mohaieme
Film stills from The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) (2011) directed by Naeem Mohaieme

My head was storming with questions. Should I cross the floor, manage my way to the middle of the seats, disturb half the viewers and ask him to stop? Should I just shout something at him, stop the screening altogether, catch him at the end of the film and ask him to restitute the “stolen” images? Do these images belong to me or to the audience? I took them from VHS tapes myself; he took them from the screen. Moreover he could never reclaim my film. It was a personal (private) obsession; the work of my imagination; a unique task impossible to imitate. Time was ticking and Soad Hosni’s story continued its fatal unwinding. He had recorded the near-entirety of the film on his tiny device. As the lights came out, I leapt from my seat to catch him and ask him about his purpose. But as I was walking down the aisle with determination, the curator diverted me to the front of the stage for the question and answer session. The discussion lasted for a while, the man vanished, and all of my troubling questions remained whole and unanswered.

Maha: Yours is a tough question. In general, I find this condition imposed on artists to edition their work, in smaller and smaller numbers, absurd. When possible, I believe that artists should push to increase the number of editions of their work; in that sense, to reclaim its ownership. On the other hand, in regards to my film here, in principle I wouldn’t mind sharing it through cheap and widely available media of distribution, since this is exactly where I got the film material in the first place. What would prevent me from doing that, however, is the unresolved problem of copyrights. I worry that wider dissemination would expose me to potential lawsuits. But I intend to post on YouTube the video that I worked on, which is made from YouTube clips whose owners have permitted me to use them. For some reason I feel that spreading the work cheaply and widely should not prevent me from considering it and selling it as a “limited edition”, though of course that might deter potential buyers. I believe these, the high-quality DigiBETA, and the internet file, are all different forms and qualities of the work, each form having an edition suitable to its form and circuit. Whether this is, or can be made legal—I don’t know.

Rasha: How has the audience reception of your work been so far? Furthermore, to what extent has your subjective play with “elements” of collective memory inspired discussions on the subjective rewriting of history and of the present? Has the audience and critical reception inspired you to delve further using this “raw material”?

Naeem: A few people have expressed interest in the list of names at the end. It was deliberately minimal, and if you blink, you miss it. During audience discussions, I have talked about the symmetry between the Red Army members, who found themselves revolutionary orphans without a home in the Middle East (once tagged by Interpol, they were of no “use” to the movement), and the fate of the hostages. For example, Carole Wells—she was in Barbra Streisand’s Funny Girl—her career seemed to go into limbo after JAL 372. I found some audience members wanting me to do further work on the aftermath. At the end of the film, a snatch of spoken dialogue gestures against legibility, but people want to unpack further and find answers that help to make sense of… events, both past and present.Bengali audiences have a different relationship to this material. Not everyone takes lightly certain distancing strategies within the narration. A Bangladeshi writer told me after watching it: “You create an emotional schema here which might even work against you in ’desh.” That’s a more complicated response, one worth parsing further.

Postcards used for Domestic Tourism II (2008) directed by Maha Maamoun

Rania: I’ve been thoroughly surprised, intrigued and thrilled by the audience’s response. I had never imagined that a personal passion could be shared with so many different people. The restitution and circulation of these images generated an amazing range of responses, from strong emotions, to a sense of having taken a trip “down memory lane”, to having been caught in a dream or to having gone on a strange and addictive trip. It triggered reflections about the cinema, film, Egypt and its society, about women, violence and representation. Some claimed the necessity of fighting censorship; others confirmed their interest in being exposed to unknown worlds and unsuspected images. Soad Hosni as an actress and a woman moved them beyond her representations, and her luminous talent and tragic destiny spoke to them regardless of cultural differences. Quite intriguing is the issue that keeps resurfacing in the questions with the public. Having restored omitted sexual scenes and kisses that are no longer shown on Arabic television, some people criticized the film as having verged on soft porn; while others argued that the reuse of classical narrative images of women constructed to please men’s gazes was problematic for them. Both groups consider the images as somewhat taboo material to be tampered with, putting themselves outside of a new viewing experience or field of reflection. How is it to them to watch these images now: the told and the retold? What does pushing boundaries and blurring borders do to their memory and senses? They preferred to hang on to their certainties. The reuse of existing images and raw material is a constant in my work, as well as the desire to further the reflection on mirrored images.

Maha: The audience reaction varies greatly according to people’s familiarity with the films and with Egyptian cinema in general. Those unfamiliar with Egyptian cinema often discover that there actually is an Egyptian cinema industry. There is also an increased familiarity with images and people who seem less archaic than what transpires of them through mass media. As a side effect, there is their seeing of the Pyramids, maybe for the first time, out of context (the touristic context), but actually in their real context; national political rhetoric, inferiority/superiority complexes, local gender politics, local politics of space and time…For an Egyptian audience, I have encountered the excitement of seeing scenes that are so familiar being inserted into a different context, entertained curiosity about how many films I have seen and used, been given suggestions of films that I have missed, and sometimes even encountered the unspoken suspicion: “But is it Art”?