Writer and independent researcher, Sumaya Kassim, looks at how film is being used to explore what diaspora, issues of transnational belonging and British national identity mean to Arab womxn and non-binary film-makers.
Film is the medium for collective dreaming. And the short film in particular is a form which – when done well – angles our vision through specificity, through the fragment. I can’t think of a better form to consider the fragmentation which emerges from the diasporic experience. I hosted an event at Dardishi’s first festival in Glasgow March 2019, introducing five contemporary short films (curated by Samar Ziadat). The films are: Shish Barak (written and directed by Bayan Dahdah, 2016), In the Kitchen (Georgette Mrakadeh-Keane, 2016), Clash (directed by Amrou Al-Kadhi, 2017) and The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised (produced by Arwa Aburawa, written by Sumaya Kassim, 2018) and Al-Ghorba (written by Alia Hijaab, 2018). All the films are by Arab womxn and non-binary individuals experiencing and exploring what diaspora means to them in their contexts (Britain and Canada, with roots in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Yemen). Through the films presented, I want to consider the work that the term ‘diaspora’ does. Indeed, Dardishi’s Festival is distinctly diasporic or, more accurately, it centres global affiliations and transnational belongings: through gender (“womxn”) and Arabness. It pushes against the homogenisation of ‘BAME’, whilst simultaneously coming up against the mercurial definitions of Arabness and gender identity.
As is often the case with diaspora, questions of authenticity and audience are central: who are these films for? What modes of authenticity do they rely on or reject to tell their stories? What does it mean to have solidarity across difference? Not only the oppressions we face day in and out on this island, but across the different historical trajectories that brought us here.
Both Clash (commissioned by BFI and BBC4) and The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised are made by Arab filmmakers brought up in Britain, and it shows. The central conflict in both pieces is staged between a wider notion of diaspora against the narrow constraints of British national identity espoused by British institutions, namely the period drama and the museum. Both seek to redress historical silences by confronting these colonial institutions.
I made The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised with my friend, the Palestinian filmmaker Arwa Aburawa. When making this film together it triggered many questions in me, particularly about what it means to be a storyteller now when people are being deported, whilst others are refused entry at borders, and the new generations of refugees and migrants are making their homes here in Europe. I thought about how, for us, as racially marked women born here, the idea that the UK can be a home is a fraught one. Central to our project is our sense that the mainstream media’s approach to racism is gaslighting and ineffectual. News outlets often rely on a decontextualized ‘perpetual present’, denying the importance of history and causality. This colludes with other British institutions, such as museums, school curriculums, period dramas and so on, to maintain a state of (white) ignorance. Combining archival film footage and critical race theory, the film connects the history of Birmingham, Empire, and the forgetfulness of memory institutions. Interestingly, Arwa and I had long conversations about our families, respectability politics, the unusual and yet inevitable ways we and our kin succeeded and failed to navigate the expectations/hoops of British multiculturism. But, watching our film, you would never know that. One could say we are still learning to live uncensored lives. But one could equally see this as a refusal to give in to the white gaze, refusing to write the “expected” narrative from diasporic people. For me, our conversations played a key role in the creative process, learning to give language to our traumas, and to navigate the cultural terrain which is hostile to our racialised bodies, but also to nuance itself. Though the content of our conversations were not in the final cut, the act of collaboration is part of the artistry of diasporic being.
We can see the commitment to collaboration and community in Clash, which features queer people of colour (Basi Akpabio, Travis Alabanza, Umber Ghauri, and Temi Wilkey) talking candidly about belonging in the UK, interspersed with brilliant sequences of the interviewees in full seventeenth century regalia (wigs and all), playing croquet and drinking tea. Clash effectively queers period drama. Al-Kadhi’s use of costume raises questions around representation and the performance of British national identity in period dramas, a genre that is infamous for erasing history. It provides pure escapism for Middle England, presenting a cis-het England without Black people and people of colour.
The message is clear: LGBTQ+ BIPoC have always been here. And also, that English history is rather queer. You don’t even have to look that hard to see it.
A central issue with being a member of a diaspora is that the trauma of exile is always seen as secondary to the trauma of those living back home or in the past. Many of us are seldom given space to explore or verbalise exile in our families. By virtue of where we are born or the circumstances of our migration, we do not have permission to feel our feelings, which are often depicted as lacking the authenticity of someone who has ‘stayed’. This is explored beautifully in Alia Hijaab’s animated short Al Ghorba (written by Alia Hijaab, 2018) which means ‘to be in a state of estrangement’. Through the protagonist’s dreams it voices how our longings of the past (even if it is an imagined past) feel more real than the mundane act of living in a metropolis built on settler colonialism like Toronto. In Al Ghorba the main character is simultaneously homesick, haunted by memories of Syria, and berated by a relative who remains in Syria and is bent on forcing her to contend with the reality: Syria as she knows it no longer exists. In that sense, Al Ghorba reaches into my ribcage, wraps its hands around my heart, and pulls. That sense of being both emotionally present, yet also absent, defines my own diasporic experience. It often feels like I have no right to my emotions, particularly grief. People “back home” resent you for ease of living in a western democracy, and you resent them for the perception that they have family, good food, an unbroken heart, and home. It is this deep, conflicting pain that is captured beautifully through the colourful dream sequences in Al Ghorba.
Shish Barak (written and directed by Bayan Dahdah, 2016) and In the Kitchen (Georgette Mrakadeh-Keane, 2016) explore personal experiences of diaspora and how the present is haunted by the past through two very different mother-daughter relationships. In Shish Barak, the main character is literally haunted. As she flicks through an old recipe book, her mother – and her sharp shaami words (when you know, you know) – return, threatening to upend the decidedly “western” life she has built. In the Kitchen is an intimate documentary short that depicts a daughter’s relationship with her migrant mother. Georgette prepares food beside her mother, who reminisces about Syria and her settling in the UK. This is a quietly powerful, dreamy short that subtly reflects on the fragmentation of memory through footage from Syria, the mosaic of wood in an inherited table, and books.
What does it mean to be part of a diaspora, to be part of a community, that is scattered? How can we listen closely to each, finding commonality but honouring the complexity and variousness of our experiences? We can say that the desire for home, for belonging, is universal but it is through specificity – through storytelling – that we can come together and connect with each other’s pain and our journeys to overcome or succumb to circumstance or to other people’s dreams.
It is important to remember that one person’s dream may be another’s nightmare. That can be true of individual dreams, but also true of collective dreams and fantasies. I think about the desire to conquer and rule a people: the dream of an empty land, the dream of being powerful through domination which inevitably requires crushing the dreams of others. But these films made me reflect on how even the smallest dream can be the start of powerful resistance. Like Scheherazade reading one story after another to stay alive, we must tell our own stories and listen to one another’s in order to resist and survive stories that will, given the chance, swallow us whole. Even in the face of terrible violence and erasure, our stories, these films, channel her spirit.
Sumaya Kassim is a writer and independent researcher. She was a co-curator for Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s exhibition ‘Birmingham and the British Empire: The Past is Now’ (2017-18), an exhibition which sought to decolonise the museum’s colonial legacies. Her article chronicling the curation process, ‘The Museums Will Not Be Decolonised’ (Media Diversified, 2017) was shared widely in the sector. Her archival/textual interventions have been exhibited internationally. She has given talks across the UK at various universities and art galleries as well as museums such as the V&A, Wellcome Collection and The British Library. Her interests include but are not limited to memory, secularism, race, alternative institutions/DIY methods of dissemination, the body and the environment. She was a 2019 Research Fellow at the Research Centre for Material Cultures in Leiden. She has an essay forthcoming in the collection Cut From The Same Cloth (Unbound, 2019). She is currently working on a set of essays and a novel. For commissions or for further information, contact Sumaya on Twitter @SFkassim or via email: email@example.com