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Milena Desse

Fragments of (an absent) film (neither here nor there)

Reading of an absent film, poem by Milena Desse read by Reem Shilleh, 2020

As the title ‘Fragments of an absent film (neither here nor there*) tends to indicate, the constellation of the present elements constitutes an attempt to give (some) visibility to something which is not shown. For I found myself in the midst of the current pandemic, facing some of its subsequent effects, preventing us, among other things, from showing and seeing art in the conditions we had hoped for and expected. Conditions to which we are, here in Belgium, used to and, one could say, sometimes taken for granted. On the other hand, I was facing the impossibility of publishing my last film on this website as it will premiere this summer at FID Marseille – Marseille International Documentary Festival. Somehow, these obstacles became a pretext to explore an alternative way of making the work visible, through glimpses and re-interpretation of its ingredients, using the tools that were in our reach and given the pace in which the adaptation had to happen. 

I consider films as a way to tell stories. Through a collage of images, sounds, words, and inside  a set duration, stories are being told. This has always been the cause of a great fascination to me: how do we tell stories, which elements are selected, remembered, which ones are cut out, forgotten, and how do we assemble them into a somehow coherent whole. Maybe even more than moving image-making, my work is first and foremost concerned with storytelling. 

In my last film ‘The Sun and the Looking Glass – for one easily forgets but the tree remembers’ (2020), a performative relation to text is at play. Letters seem to magically be drawn by the sunlight, focused through a magnifying glass, on small sheets of paper. It allows one to read, but at a specific pace and rhythm, the poem constitutes the narrative architecture of the film. These shots are interwoven with super 8 film picturing the landscape, and still images of found objects under the scope of the same magnifying glass.

For ‘ Reading of an absent film’ (2020), Reem Shilleh and I made a recording in which she reads out loud that same poem. The realization of this sound piece came from a desire to allow the text to escape the surface of the screen, penetrating and invading the third dimensions of the different (private) spaces in which it will be heard.

The visual composition entitled ‘One second times five’ (2020) is a collage of selected images used in the film. They appear as strips, as if they were film strips directly photographed on a light table. Each column represents one second of the original footage in their respective formats: the super 8 film being shot at 18 frames per second, the video at 25, and the still photographs being shown as one singular frame. 

*This sentence is borrowed from a poem by the Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish (Another road in the road, 1986, translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché – University of California Press 2003) 

Milena Desse


In this story there is a character, the qaiqab tree, that witnesses – silently but steadily – the Israeli occupation in Palestine. I was very curious to know what is so special about this tree. Can you tell me more about it?

The qaiqab tree is indeed the main character of the film. The story is somehow told through its perspective. He represents another scale of time, counter-balancing the human perception of history.

That specific tree, which appears in the film both inside the texts and in the images, is about 200 years old. If we imagine its lifetime in relation to history, it means that he has witnessed  the last century of the Ottoman Empire, of the British occupation of Palestine from 1920 until the Nakba in 1948, of the annexation of the West Bank by Jordan from 1948 till 1967, and the current Israeli occupation. The qaiqab tree is the witness of time, but he doesn’t speak. Thus one could see the film as an attempt to lend him a voice through the poetic writings which appear by the effect of sunlight. 

The film ends with the sentence “For one easily forgets but the tree remembers” (which is also the subtitle of the work), and another interesting characteristic of that species, the qaiqab tree, is that its fruits contain chemical substances which have a defence effect on memory impairment. Hereof one could speculate on its power – both medical and metaphorical – to prevent the layers of history it has witnessed to fall into oblivion. The qaiqab is endemic to the Middle-East and Mediterranean region, and its lifespan can reach up to 400 years. In consequence, besides embodying the memory of past times, it also contains potentially  memories of the future.

You look for traces in nature (tree’s bark, rocks) and in the human constructed landscape (buildings, roads). They appear to be on the same level. But the poem says  « the tree still stands, still provides shades » while some roads are forgotten, the houses are empty. How important it is to explore, in your work, the materiality of things and its connection/disconnection to language – as another human construction?

My practice revolves a lot around the use of language as a material, by means of transposition, transformation or deconstruction. This practice is probably influenced by the environment in which I grew up, surrounded by books and by the stories my mother would read to me when I was a child. I was fascinated by the act of writing, and I remember trying to mimic her, by filling up pages of abstract symbols. She was a litterature, latin and ancient greek teacher, so whenever I was asking about the meaning of a word she would cut it into pieces and explain its etymology. In a way it rooted in me the idea that words and language are human constructions, subjected to time, to translations and borrowings from diverse origins, and to transformations through new usage and contexts. They are revealed or erased, remembered or forgotten, somehow awaiting to be inhabited – like the shadow casted by the tree. Besides, languages are living beings, just like the tree is. They carry their inheritance and history with them. Naming the roads, the stones, the marks in the landscape, writing them on the sheets of paper and then filming them, contributes to turn them into an other kind of trace, adding another (subjective) layer to the writing of their stories.

Is the combination of super 8 with digital footage a way to set different time frames? 

The decision to weave together all these different formats (super 8, digital video, analog and digital photographs) is not primarily a way to set different time frames. It rather comes from the necessity to question the notion of document, the existence of an image as a trace or as an evidence. In a way, this profusion only highlights the inherent subjectivity of any image-making, by multiplying it, in an attempt to exhaust the desire to represent and to reveal the impossibility to document with objectivity. In as much as the writing of history is never objective, there are no true images. There are no true memories. They are only paths of access to older times through their actualization. A memory only exists in the present of its recollection. And this is not to say that it bears no value, on the contrary, I mean that for the memory to keep existing we need to actively keep it alive, by tracing its path again and again, and through many different ways.

Another point that would be worth discussing in this regard is the importance of the subjectivity and of the diversity of the perspectives, of the voices, and of the ways to tell stories about the past. And again this is not to say that subjectivity is problematic or makes the gaze illegitimate. Any story is subjective (for it selects among the events and it translates them into language) and we need as many different voices as possible. It is the diversity of these voices that will bring relevance and complexity to the story that is being told. This is crucial on a political level, for the monolithic discourse can only lead us to dogmatism, to authoritarianism, to the formatting of the mind in accordance with the dominant powers’ interests, and finally to a polarization and extremization of the opinions. We need as many tales as we can imagine, for it is in their harmonies and in their dissonances that we learn how to think and that we can define where we stand.

How do you translate this into the visual composition One second times five’ (2020)?

The composition ‘One second times five’ (2020) manifests itself as a visual and spatial translation of a duration. The same unity of time taken from each shot is spread vertically on the page resulting in a different amount of frames and subsequently occupying different amounts of space. The analog and digital technologies of moving images allow us to give the illusion of movement and temporal continuity through a rapid succession of still images. This fragmentation of duration into snapshots is particularly noticeable when working with analog film where there is a physical equivalence between dimension, speed and duration. This piece stems from my deep interest in philosophical understandings of time, particularly here in Bergson’s definition of duration, his reflections on its measurement and its representation as a line; this interest encountering a vivid fascination for the materiality of the filmic medium. **

** Henri Bergson ‘The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics’ (La Pensée et le mouvant, 1934 – Citadel Press 1946) “Ever since my university days I had been aware that duration is measured by the trajectory of a body in motion and that mathematical time is a line; but I had not yet observed that this operation contrasts radically with all other processes of measurement, for it is not carried out on an aspect or an effect representative of what one wishes to measure, but on something which excludes it. The line one measures is immobile, time is mobility. The line is made, it is complete; time is what is happening, and more than that, it is what causes everything to happen. The measuring of time never deals with duration as duration, what is counted is only a certain number of extremities of intervals, or moments, in short, virtual halts in time.”

In the film, you set a very interesting rhythm, by allowing the text to be readable as it is being written. It makes me think of oral traditions of storytelling. Is orality another way by which you re-think and work with language? 

Orality definitely is a cornerstone of my exploration of and work with language. Even though my practice often takes the shape of films, performances or installations, my stomping ground and primary material is always language. The film ‘The Sun and the Looking Glass – for one easily forgets but the tree remembers’ for example, performs a translation of the oral storytelling’s inner qualities into moving-image. The act of translation is by definition imperfect, for it transforms and betrays the “original”, and it is in the cracks created by these imperfections that I find the most excitement. 

Has working with sound allowed you to explore another dimension of the same story?

For the ‘Reading of an absent film’ (by Reem Shilleh and I, 2020) which was conceived especially for this online exhibition, the decision was made to explore another relation to the text. Indeed the sound of a voice reciting the poem triggers a very different approach and relation to it. In a way it was perhaps about coming back to the origin of its initial writing process, at the time when Haifa Zalatimo and Sahar Qawasmi were sharing the stories of this place with me, and about allowing it to enter again the realm of orality. The desire to record it and to ask Reem Shilleh to be the orator of the poem came from a combination of factors. We happened to be working in the same studio at the same moment and I got to know more about her engaging practice as an artist and as a researcher in that context. Her practice revolves around the question of archives and the transmission of history in and about the Palestinian context. We found ourselves talking about a variety of subjects, among them the amazing and multiple emergence of online radios all over the planet during this period, and about the power of sound to escape the realm of the screen while still allowing us to be connected with each other. Her oratorical talent and her own relationship to the story that is being told undoubtedly took a big part in it too.

Is language a way to remember and forget at the same time? Could the moving-image be a way to find a common ground between the two? 

The answer to this question differs greatly if one chooses to consider spoken or written language. Their inscriptions in time and matter being almost opposite; nevertheless, the extraordinary power of the moving-image lies in its capacity to record both, by imprinting, or coding, sound and light waves onto a medium, be it a file or a film strip.

This link, artificially created by the technologies of pooling sound, image and even text, allows us to question and play with their respective inscriptions and resonances, both within the audio-visual material itself and in the memory of the viewer. Indeed, the memory of a narrated story, that of an image, and what remains in one’s mind of a text after reading it, may manifest themselves in different ways, but they all come together in our perceptions of the film and form a composite but coherent assemblage. As a trace of a fragment of subjectivities, the film can therefore lay claim to the status of a document, or pretend to become one, and yet again be subjected to selective memory and forgetting processes.

Milena Desse interviewed by Sofia Lemos Marques
May 2020