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“The real does not speak by itself”

Interview with Isabelle Ingold and Vivianne Perelmuter by Allan Deneuville
Isabelle Ingold, Vivianne Perelmuter et Allan Deneuville
Traduction de Yarri Kamara
Cet article est une traduction de :
« Le réel ne parle pas de soi » [fr]

Texte intégral

1In this interview, Isabelle Ingold and Vivianne Perelmuter discuss the making of their film Elsewhere, Everywhere (2020 [Ailleurs, partout] in its original French version)1 which arose from their encounter with the young Iranian Shahin Parsa, when he was living in a refugee camp in Greece. A few months after their first encounter, the filmmakers found a metamorphosed Shahin in the United Kingdom where he had applied for asylum. A disparate collection of documents make up the film: surveillance footage, a reading of an interview with the British immigration office, phone conversations between Shahin and his mother in Iran, etc. Through the film and its mediations, the two directors interrogate media representations and framings of the exiled, as well as the complexity of an individual who is under no obligation to resemble any preconceived image that one may have of him.

Allan Deneuville: Please tell us about your film Elsewhere, Everywhere and also about Shahin Parsa and your relationship with him?

2Isabelle Ingold and Vivianne Perelmuter: The film came about because of a chance meeting with Shahin during our first stay in Greece when we were location scouting for a film that in the end was not made. Our paths crossed his on the outskirts of Athens, where he was living in a refugee camp. At the time, he was a young man, barely twenty years of age. We were drawn by his energy, his curiosity and his faith in the future despite having probably just gone through the most trying and dangerous period of his life. It was a significant encounter for us. Meeting him swept away everything that we thought we knew, everything we had read about migrants. We no longer knew anything, we were just there, in front of this being, in the immanence and embodiment of an encounter. We kept in touch through writing. A year later, Shahin told us that he had made it to England. We went to visit him there and it was a shock to find him so changed, cloistered up in his room, looking out at the world only through the internet. It was this transformation that made the film necessary, to understand what had happened, to give Shahin the possibility to look back over his two years of wandering about Europe and make something different of it.

3Shahin is not his real name, it’s his pseudonym. Parsa is also not his family name. When we were preparing the film credits, we were faced with this challenge: we needed to protect his family who had remained in Iran, and therefore not mention his real last name, but at the same time we did not want to use just a first name for him. So, we proposed that he choose a name. He took it as a game and also as an opportunity. He chose Parsa because in Farsi, Parsa is someone who takes good decisions. He had the feeling that in his life, he had not often taken good decisions. He hoped that the name would bring him luck. In other words, the fictional situation, in which we asked him to choose a name, brought in the real.

A. D.: Your film is composed of a disparate collection of documents and mediations. Why did you need these to tell the story of Shahin? We get the impression that each one of these documents offers us a framing of Shahin, but that none can truly capture him as he is. The use of documents also seems to interrogate the burden of proof that these institutions subject asylum seekers to.

4I. I. and V. P.: We started the film with a feeling of urgency, under shock, after our trip to England. We therefore did not write it out in advance. We dove right in and writing, shooting and editing took place simultaneously.

5The term document is rich because it encompasses the questionnaire from the Immigration Office, conversations between Shahin and his mother, our own chats with him, as well as webcam images. What was important for us, and which relates to the question of documents, was that the material came from outside. These material surprise us, resist us, are obstinate and opaque, like an effraction of the real. It was also necessary that the material used be very heterogenous, with different languages, tones, and styles, so as to not lock Shahin in an unequivocal image, to not reduce his being to one single dimension. Heterogeneity allows Shahin’s various facets to be diffracted. The image that we construct of the young man in the film changes constantly, it is all the less fixed given that a young person changes very quickly, and even more so when going through such tough circumstances.

6A document is also matter, and also sensory, in that documents don’t just appeal to your intelligence, but also to your senses.

7In the film, each document constitutes a narrative thread which interacts with the others. They complete each other, interrupt each other, and even contradict each other. The narrative mode that they form together is a non-linear one, it is not one that follows the burden of proof, but one that actually challenges it, punches holes in the Immigration office’s discourse of truth. It makes us see that there is nothing straightforward in telling Shahin’s story, that there is no objective truth, but by telling the story differently, you can glimpse slivers, bits of truth. Certainly not the whole truth, not even the truth because truth is plural, full of gaps and opacities, indeterminate.

8As for the mediations, these seemed necessary to us to curtail our automatic reflexes with regard to the image of migrants. There is a relationship to be built. That is what relationships are about, they are to be deconstructed and then reconstructed, otherwise we are just trapped. With clichés, there is no encounter. The mediations are a way of shifting the expectations of viewers: no, you are not going to see what you expected to see. There will be no Zodiac boats, no camps, no such images. Obviously, this disconcerts, it confuses, but that is when one starts to pay more attention, and a new space of listening and perception opens up. The mediations also allowed us to not approach issues head on. This is actually also what we were doing with Shahin. We never asked him to tell his story, much less explain his story. We did not ask him questions because that would have been another way of putting him once again in the situation of being interrogated. We would tell each other stories, and when you tell one story, it leads to another. It was an indirect approach, about building a relationship that left each the freedom to go where they wish. Building this relationship also meant leaving a lot of space to the off-camera. You will not see any image of Shahin, and we don’t try to illustrate what he is talking about. We left the regime of representation, we created this gap between image and sound, which allows other connections to emerge between them, evocations and resonances. This is how the surveillance camera footage came in. It started because Shahin had watched the footage. He was the first to show them to us. And then, they resonated with his own trajectory, filled with obstacles and control in a world that gave the illusion of being so open.

A. D.: Your film constructs an on-the-edge mental landscape, where your subjectivity meets that of Shahin. How did you manage this given the inequality of positions between you and Shahin? How did you make this film with him, without instrumentalising him and without also becoming mouthpieces that make him invisible? Sophie Mendelsohn and Guillaume Wavelet, in a previous issue of Hybrid2 reminded us of the risk of empathy leading people to take the place of the other.

9I. I. and V. P.: It is a trembling edge. What is important is that subjectivities on both sides are brought to play, that Shahin is thus not just the object of the film, but also a subject. This means, first and foremost, rendering him in his complexity. Shahin shows himself different, expresses himself differently whether he is talking to his mother, to the immigration officer or to us. You have to be careful then not to flatten these differences. This takes place on several levels. The level of language is one. Each party has theirs: Farsi for him, French for us, English for the immigration office, and the language in which we communicate. More fundamentally, it requires not compressing the gap between him and ourselves, because we are not living the same realities. Each of us has their own perspective, situated somewhere, with its blind spots. No one can see everything about the other, and no one is transparent to themselves, nor to their present experiences. But in this wide gap, it becomes possible to listen, connections emerge. It’s never a foregone conclusion, one is never completely there (in someone else’s shoes). It is a necessity, but also an impossibility. It is a movement. The difficulty of putting yourself in another’s shoes starts very early, you see it already within a couple. How can you take yourself a bit out of yourself so that you can hear some of what the other is saying, of their priorities, and put yours in perspective? It is a process full of misunderstandings and hitches. In the film, in the only phone conversation between Shahin and us, he tells us that we are off mark. He says to us: “You speak to me of philosophy, but I am not part of that. I am about survival.” We felt bad of course, but it was not a problem, from the moment that there was space for him to tell us this and that we could hear him out and adjust our approach. Snags, blind-spots and gaffes are a two-way street. Shahin, for example, could not understand that one could dedicate one’s life to making films that did not make much money. He made some funny comments that could have been offensive or just plain vulgar. In the end, this was a wonderful opportunity for exchange. Everyone came with their history, their strengths and their limits, but the aim of interaction, the essence of a relationship is to mutually affect each other, to expand the world. Of course, there was a radical difference in our statuses, there was this inequality, but adopting a protective or benevolent stance is not enough and it can even turn into condescendence. You have to esteem the other person. Just because they lack many things and have limited means, does not mean that they lack foresight, thoughts and desires. Shahin is not just a victim. He is a being full of qualities. Our voice in the film is not one of a mouthpiece, as we are not speaking in Shahin’s stead, and we are also not holding court. Our voice is one that narrates our relationship and presents it not objectively, but as a lived experience. Shahin tells us things which we present in an indirect style, but we do not speak in his stead. The other material make Shahin talk from his point of view and not from ours.

10It was crucial for us that in our approaching Shahin we left him room for manoeuvre. For example, for the phone conversation with his mother. We noted that they were very close and talked each day. We asked Shahin if we could film one of these conversations, with his mother’s permission. We did not give him any directions; he was the director deciding the course of the discussion. We could feel that he had thought about it beforehand, even if we did not understand what they were saying to each other, as they spoke in Farsi. Normally, they phoned without video, but this time we had asked them to do a video call. It was very moving for them. Shahin was directing, and at the same time, he was overcome with emotion. He chose what he wanted to speak of with his mother, excluding subjects that could have caused too much pain.

11With us too, Shahin had control, we adapted to his rhythm. Shahin told us the hardest things that happened to him only in England, a year and a half after our first meeting. We had found him so closed off and tense that we took him for a walk in a national park. We saw him start to unwind. We were walking and it was rather steep. Shahin made a move to steady one of us, a very efficient but also discreet movement. Later, we talked to Shahin about that gesture. It seemed to us that he must have used it in other circumstances. He then told us about the crossing by land, where he had helped a woman who had fallen. That night, he shared even more stories with us.

12That said, without a frame, the real does not reveal itself. You have to provide a frame for chance, but not too much of a frame, otherwise there is no encounter, just a frame provided by two women who have their papers in order and live a comfortable life. We provided a frame of experience that the other can explore in their own way.

13A frame is even a surprising condition of experience. For example, for the recording of the immigration office interview. During a screening, we were asked why we did not hire an actor to play the officer who could provide the responses to Shahin, rather than Shahin “playing” both roles. Once again, we definitely did not want to take Shahin back to that situation. Nor to reconstitute it. Shahin was not to relive or pretend to relive this episode. Moreover, he does not act out the scene, he just reads. We gave him instructions in this sense, we said to him don’t use any intonation, it’s enough to just read, you are presenting a document that shows what you had to go through, like the burden of proof of the interrogation. Doing this, Shahin changed position, he considered this episode which had been very painful for him, differently. He was no longer crushed in the position of the one who must respond and who is suspected of lying. He became a sort of historian. The time and the energy that he gave to us was a gift, but making the film was also a new experience for him. And then, because asylum seekers in England cannot work, unlike in Greece, Shahin had a lot of free time. Working on the film gave him the feeling of doing something and discovering new possibilities for himself.

A. D.: In the film, Shahin seems as much a prisoner of his room as the people locked in the frames of the surveillance footage that he watches. How were these stories, these lives, these images framed?

14I. I. and V. P.: Shahin is a prisoner of those images as are the people filmed by the surveillance cameras, and like all of us. The film in effect operates an inversion. We don’t show the life of a migrant, but through Shahin’s life and his experiences, we revisit the world in which we all live, each of us in a different position, but involved and intertwined with each other. Shahin is not just a prisoner of these images, in front of them he shows the sensitivity and the intelligence of a semiologist. He has this strength of a free gaze and of free thought. What does a person who migrates and goes into exile think? What do they think of what they see? We wanted to get to these questions.

15With respect to the surveillance camera footage, it’s a type of material that obviously must not be used in an inconsiderate way. Such footage is part of a violent and harmful system of control. But from the moment that we take them as material, we can’t refuse to truly consider them, that is, by brushing aside all our preconceived notions so as to perceive everything that is at play and signalled in the footage. Otherwise, we just limit ourselves to finding what we were already looking for, and which, in turn, will inevitably lead you to find a demonstration. Georges Didi-Huberman recommends that one first disarm their gaze, and only thereafter rearm it. The curious thing is that, whatever the means of production of an image are, even if it is a system of control, there is always something in an image which poses resistance. But you have to be patient to perceive it. With such patience, images can attest to a certain presence in the world, can say things other than what they were produced to say. They tell us in particular that contrary to their objective, we don’t see everything, we actually don’t see much at all. And yet, we also see other things in these images, we see the fatigue of people, their confusion, but also their grace. Even in this solitude, people hold up with grace. Their way of holding themselves upright, the tiny gestures they make, passing their hands behind their neck, we see all that. We had to accept to be surprised by the images from the surveillance camera footage. There is this moment, for example, where in a restaurant in Asia, the staff is sleeping. It is poignant because we feel their exhaustion. At the same time, there is a kind of jubilation, because they have space, but have decided to huddle together. Another detail, in Japan, we discover a small airport ritual. When a plane lands, a team is designated to come and greet its passengers. In a world that is becoming uniform, there are still some marvellous small differences that we can perceive if we pay attention to them. These images vibrate with ambivalence and invite us to not remain on the side of the worst. The image gapes and then the imagination gets to work. Imagination is not a fantasy that allows you to escape reality, it’s an eminently political faculty. Goethe said that “few people have the imagination for reality.” For reality, to see another possible world lying latent.

16But how could we make this visible through the surveillance footage? We gave ourselves a protocol, a working code. We would eliminate all images that the cameras were installed to capture, all the things that they track: misdemeanours, crimes, accidents and catastrophes. And yet, the first image that Shahin had showed us was one of an explosion in Iran, in a petrol station while a couple was filling their tank. Taking Shahin’s reality as inspiration, we had to transpose it to make something different of it, to make people see something else, divert the images away from their surveillance function, to not give play to nor titillate with the violence of this type of image. We excluded all the who and what that these cameras were aimed at, we hijacked the cameras, we picked their pockets so to speak, and diverted them to something else. Lots of signs then emerge, gestures, presences, seeds of another reality, but also of the life of the image itself, its failures, its texture, its rhythm. They tell us something about this world.

17To return to the question of empathy, there is this term, revived by Carlo Ginzburg: estrangement, to estrange yourself. This is a method and an ethic. You have to first estrange yourself. The frame, for us, was this too, a manner of unframing the gaze. And even of frustrating the impulse of wanting to see. In a civilisation marked by such a profusion of images, especially images of migrants, to be guided by sound forces you away from your references. We no longer have our habitual references, we cannot take recourse to our automatic reflexes. Another type of attention comes into force. Without a minimum of patience and will to move beyond yourself, your expectations, the other does not exist, their alterity becomes an abstraction, like our own alterity. We are in automatic pilot in the world and within ourselves. Who is the other? We actually do not know who the other is. They are often not there where we think they are. To put yourself in someone else’s shoes means starting by not sticking them into a particular place from the outset. Nobody is in just one place.

A. D.: There is an image in the film which interrogates us, in line with your idea of an armed gaze. We see a queue of people, whom we imagine, given the context of the film, to be migrants along a border. It looks like there are crosshairs of a weapon when a cross forms a target on these people. Why did you use this image?

18I. I. and V. P.: That video comes from a YouTube stock and not from live webcams, contrary to the other images in the film which we recorded live. It also stands out from the rest because there is someone behind the camera taking aim. This image could not come too early, as then it would have conditioned the film from the start, it would have been taken for granted. There had to be a whole journey in the film first, for the image to emerge as a question, as a scandal, and for the viewer to then be able to consider the specificity, the framing and the essence of such an image. Throughout the film, we rejected violence in images so that the violence becomes that of the image and of what Shahin is going through, for the violence to be in the head of the viewer.

19The film uses a language of gentleness to avoid redoubling and reproducing violence in the world, all while aiming to criticize such violence. We counter violence with this gentleness. Moreover, there is a gentleness in Shahin’s tone, his way of being, so we were obliged to go this way. Nonetheless, the violence of the world had to hit us at a certain point. We had to show it as it is, and that’s why this image appears. If there is anger perceptible in the film, it is progressive, never declared, rather it rises within the viewer. We are not telling them what they must think. We don’t want to spare them or absolve them from making their own experience. And that starts by shaking them up. We no longer know anything. Anything we may have read, watched or thought crumbles away. In all experiences that mark one for life, you have to take a pause and you no longer know anything. When we no longer know anything, that’s when we start to think, to watch/listen.

20The radical wager to not show Shahin or the things he talks of, says to the audience: here is a suggestion of how to approach this young man, the condition of exile, and this world in which we live. It’s a suggestion, because the real does not speak by itself. That’s why you need a frame. To construct the gaze, and also to construct a question. The issue of migration is not taken up in the way that it often is, we have reconstructed it. We have also moved it out of its frame, in particular to not focus on the sea crossing, but to focus on what happens after exile. The very quotidian snippets of Shahin’s life allow us to not speak in generalities, but concretely, to ask ourselves what does he do with his days, and how does that affect him, change him. What are his new habits? What are his new daily small pleasures and his disappointments?

21Once again, it is Shahin who set the tone because he does express himself very concretely, never in generalities. He did not try to give us what he thought we expected from him, in particular, the image of the good migrant. He was as he was, where he was at, with of course a bit of murkiness that is inherent to that stage of life, to a young person seeking himself, discovering himself by bits. There is, for example, a moment where Shahin wants to start online trading. It was terrible for us, to leave one type of alienation for another, and we said so to him. He listened, but responded that that was where he was at then, at that precise moment. He has changed since, phew. He wrote to us and mentioned that discussion that we had. All these exchanges between us, which were a two-way street, this is what a relationship is about, and, while they are not all explicitly presented in the film, such moments fed the film.

A. D.: One of the motives behind this issue of Hybrid was a desire to understand forms of selective empathy, with the idea being to interrogate a certain media hierarchy of the causes that should touch us. In your film, you use selective empathy—you are focused on Shahin, and not on someone else—but with the aim of addressing larger issues: the condition of exile, the contemporary regime of images, surveillance, etc.

22I. I. and V. P: We understand what you mean by selectivity, but that is not how we see things. The film was born from an encounter with this young man that marked us. We did not meet a representative identity. We did not embark on a thesis in sociology nor an encyclopaedia on migration. We sought neither exhaustivity, nor the big picture. On the contrary, we limited the field, we singularised to the maximum. We were interested in what a person becomes. Singularity is a watchword in film. It moves you away from all stereotypes, from all ideas that are too massive or too spectacular. It insinuates, it works inside of you. It is through singularity, through the senses it stimulates, by the thinking that it provokes, by the cinematic codes that embody the singularity, that you profoundly touch people, that you involve them.

23Not all significant encounters, not all singularities give rise to the necessity of making a film. It is mysterious, and it is also work. The beautiful singularity of Shahin moved us, dazzled, intrigued, charmed and shook us but we still needed to work on it, to distil it so that it could sparkle, reverberate in the lives of others, of people who also migrate, of those who appear in the surveillance footage, and also in all of our lives. This is not about identification, it’s about the gap, an interplay of resonances and connections. We worked on the editing in this direction, but it is the viewers who activate the interplay, depending on their own histories and sensitivities. The fact that Shahin was not present in the images enhanced the work of distillation, all while laying out his singularity. He is singularised by his voice, his inflexions, by what he recounts, by how he recounts it, it is this young man and not another; but, as he is not on the screen, his feelings and thoughts, his experiences, seem expanded, raised to a shared and collective frequency. Others can find resonances with their own life in it. The wider the gap, the more we reconsider our own conditions, positions, our own feelings, and the more we reconsider the other, we discover them differently.

24People often speak of the political “dimension” of the film, as if it was a dimension separated from the others. For us though that dimension is always intermixed with all the other registers of life. Our choices are inextricably aesthetic and political. The way of diffracting the various facets of Shahin, of inviting viewers to make the film as much as we made it, all of that contributes to a political dimension: put yourself in movement. That said, obviously a film is derisory with regard to the urgent actions needed in the world. Derisory, but nevertheless, we believe that it brings something necessary and vital, in that way of unframing the gaze, creating connections, making new viewers emerge, making witnesses emerge.

A. D.: What are your thoughts on the exhibition of your film? I get the impression that there is a pragmatic and an ethic for the exhibition of this film which should lead to discussion, to make people talk, to stimulate things, etc.

25I. I. and V. P.: The idea was to transform the cinema hall into an agora. We invited people to get the discussions started by asking them to intervene as “experts.” We asked them to speak from a personal resonance that the film had elicited in them, so as to not intimidate the audience and stifle discussion. We also tried to get away from the radio interview game of question-and-answer, so that people would talk and listen to each other, so that they would talk to us and tell us something about what they saw from their place, a place where we are not. In one screening, there was an asylum seeker who said that he was touched by the film because we finally showed the urban areas in which he lived and hid, but which most of us simply pass through. There were also some very beautiful silences after someone spoke and it was as if everyone was still listening to the echo of what had just been said. Another day, a woman told us that she had not planned on coming to the cinema, but our gazes crossed in front of the hall, and she decided to enter. She said: “I feel so alone in this world and here I feel a little less lonely, but what can I do and where can I go to help?” The others in the cinema hall gave her suggestions. Another time, a woman took the floor telling us that she came with her daughters on the advice of her social worker. She was an Afghan refugee living in France for the past ten years, and she wanted her daughters to see what she went through, and also, on her part, to be able to close that chapter. The film, for us, does not end with the closing credits. Moreover, in the DVD which was just released we included bonus material with people who helped us and some audience members, because they are a part of this story. And it is an adventure for us, we discover and experience some pretty wonderful things, and we never know where or when these will happen, but we have to ensure that they can happen. Another example: during a screening in the Méliès cinema in Montreuil, there was a film editor in the hall who was learning Farsi, as well as an association which had brought along an Iranian refugee. The screening allowed these two people to meet and to promise each other that they would meet again to work and study together. A cinema hall is still an opportunity to cross borders in our heads, to proliferate connections.

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Notes

1 See an extract on the webpage of the production house, Dérives.

2 See “Reverse empathy, psychoanalysis on the upside”  by Sophie Mendelsohn and “Empathy and translation in cross-cultural consultations” by Guillaume Wavelet in Hybrid #10.

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Référence électronique

Isabelle Ingold, Vivianne Perelmuter et Allan Deneuville, « “The real does not speak by itself” »Hybrid [En ligne], 11 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2024, consulté le 20 mai 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/hybrid/4155 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/hybrid.4155

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Auteurs

Isabelle Ingold

Isabelle Ingold is an independent editor and director who graduated from La Fémis film school. She has worked with a variety of directors including Amos Gitai, Vincent Dieutre, Bojena Horackova, Itvan Kebadian, Hélène Marini, Julia Pinget, Jean-Charles Massera, Léa Todorov, Joana Dunis, Fabienne Godet, Barmak Akram and Laurent Aït Benalla. She teaches at Corte University, as well as at La Fémis.

Vivianne Perelmuter

Vivianne Perelmuter is a Belgian-Brazilian filmmaker who lives and works between Brussels and Paris. Following studies in philosophy, she joined La Fémis’s directing department. Her films, which are regularly screened at international festivals and have won awards, explore both the documentary realm as well as fiction and cinema d’essai. Installation art and photography also form an important presence in her work. The functioning of memory and the de-familiarisation of the gaze are recurrent themes in her search for new narrative methods. She is a member of SoundImageCulture’s artistic team and was a visiting professor-artist at the Le Fresnoy National Centre for Contemporary Arts for the year 2022-2023.

Allan Deneuville

Allan Deneuville is an associate professor at the University Bordeaux-Montaigne (MICA). His research covers the circulation of texts and images from and on socio-digital networks. He is the co-founder of the research and creation network Après les réseaux sociaux (http://after-social-networks.com).

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