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Remembering Sound

[The opening scene of [The opening scene of "Hamule" (2014). Image copyright Mauricio Misle.]

Hamule, directed by Mauricio Misle. Palestine/Chile, 2014.

Diasporic and non-Western artists have increasingly turned to the archive as a source for their artistic practice. Mindful of the histories of colonialism and slavery, they have attempted to address the archive as a contested site where knowledge about the past is produced and legitimized. In their refusal to treat the archive as a sanctioned repository of fact, or as an accurate and objective representation of the past, they have conceptualized it as an unfinished and unreliable narrative. Their artistic practice aims to interrogate its absences and exclusions, manipulate its forms and mediums, and expand its definitions by constructing alternate modes of remembering the past.

Pioneering work in the late 1980s and early 1990s by artists such as Mona Hatoum, Richard Fung, Tracey Moffat, Sankofa Collective, and Trinh T. Minh-ha, among many others, paid close attention to the relationship between audio and visual material in its efforts to address the archive as a site of knowledge and power. Filmmakers such as Tracey Moffat and Isaac Julien employed specific objects from the imperial archive: Julien used Francoise-Auguste Biard’s painting Slaves on the West Coast of Africa in his short film, The Attendant (1993), while Moffatt’s film, Nice Colored Girls (1987) included narrated passages from the diaries of the colonist Lieutenant William Bradley. Both films engaged in a deconstructive archaeology that rearranged the colonial configurations of pleasure and desire presented in the archive. Other filmmakers, such as Mona Hatoum (Measures of Distance, 1988) and Richard Fung (My Mother’s Place, 1990), focused, instead, on archives that relate to their personal lives, layering letters, interviews, and home videos to construct oral histories that address loss, displacement, disorientation, and exile, specifically as a result of colonial violence. Rather than undoing the colonial archive, they reassembled personal and intimate narratives as affective histories, relying on the force of their evocative montages to deconstruct the objective mode of the archive.

Like Hatoum’s and Fung’s films, the Chilean-Palestinian filmmaker Mauricio Misle’s documentary, Hamule (2014), which premiered at the Fifth Annual Palestinian Film and Arts Festival in Washington D.C., uses audio cassette tapes sent by his relatives in Palestine to his grandmother, Hilane, in Chile, between 1976 and 1979. Placing these recordings alongside interviews, old family photographs, home videos, and footage of contemporary Palestine and Chile, he constructs a fragmented history of the Palestinian diaspora in Chile that is attentive to the affective work of portraying loss and exile.

Resisting a coherent, seamless narrative, Misle moves back and forth between different times, locations, people, and events; the shifts in narrative are only tenuously related, either by affective ties or tangents of memory. But in abandoning the linearity of conventional documentary filmmaking, Misle better captures the exile’s experience of disorientation, subverting the viewer’s expectation of a chronological narrative. In its focus on the emotional and familial ties that exist within and between Palestinian diasporas, in its unrelenting commitment to the voices of the displaced, their passions and feelings, the film seems to be gesturing at the impossibility of objectively capturing a history of the Palestinian diaspora in Chile—indeed, of any history that hopes to grapple with the radically diasporic nature of Palestinian existence.

                               [Mauricio Misle subverts the viewer's expectation of chronilogical narratives. Image copyright the filmmaker.] 

The intent is clear from the beginning. The film’s opening scene is a close shot of a woman’s mouth, in black-and-white, as the eager, recorded message of a child plays over it: “Aunt Hilane, good morning! I am Rami Hanna Yanine. I love you, I want to know you, I want to see you. Come over so that I can see you! I want to see my brother’s daughters.” There is no narration, no discussions of the political or historical context in Chile or Palestine. We begin with a simple declaration of love, a desire to undo the violent consequences of imperialist occupation. The subtle and powerful reactions of the woman to the audio recording—a slow pursing of the lips, a hesitant smile—focus our attention on the affective labor of remembering one’s homeland. The phantasmic relationship between the recorded voice and the image evokes a sense of unbridgeable desire. Thus, instead of choosing to document loss through a study of historical events and political conflicts, the film focuses on the intimate performance of loss in a personal archive.

The intimate, subjective tone set in the opening shot is maintained throughout the film. Home videos with scenes of families getting together to eat; travelling between Chile, Palestine, and the United States (on planes, ships, and cars); visiting amusement parks; celebrating Mother’s Day; bathing babies; bursting a piñata; and cooking communally, all set the visual tone of the film’s depiction of the exile’s experience. When important historical events of the mid-seventies that practically affected Palestinian life are discussed, they are articulated as nodes in a web of familial ties, expressed as intimate realities and emotional experiences. About halfway through the film, a recorded voice announces:

Did you see Lebanon? They destroyed it. A strong war in Lebanon. If you saw the thousands of children who are left without parents, most of them are Palestinians. My aunt was with us for two or three months, and she left two days before the war. Her husband came; he was working. And after that he went to Lebanon. Now we do not know where he is.

Misle chooses to pay attention to the personal and intimate portrayal of war—the anxiety of the aunt, the looming presence of the husband’s death—refusing to hierarchize public or official archives, allowing the documentary to be overwhelmed by the intimate process of mourning.

The role of familial and affective ties in connecting peoples and histories is especially emphasized in the interviews conducted with members of the Chilean-Palestinian diaspora. During his interview, Tito Yarad, a musician, plays a tune on an oud, before remarking that the instrument is an original from 1936, which has been circulated amongst generations and networks of musicians. While talking about how the instrument was passed down to him, he stresses the emotional import of such networks: “None were purchased. All were given, as a form of affection.” In a later shot, the filmmaker’s mother, Elizabeth, is filmed preparing stuffed zucchini in the kitchen. During the scene, she remembers the process of preparing food along with other members of the family when she was a child, and, as with Tito Yarad, she underscores the importance of affection and intimacy in her process of learning: “I learned to make them by watching. No one taught me, I learned only by looking at grandma or the grandparents or my mother.”

Set against the hybrid backdrop of diaspora, the engagement with diverse Palestinian cultures of music and food helps to orient the exile. The rupture of exile, the brutal separation of people from their land, necessitates alternate methods of recording and remembering the past. In such a context, preparing stuffed zucchini and playing the oud become ways to evoke the emotional relationships that constitute the fragmented memory of homeland in the alien-present of a foreign land. In many ways, Misle’s own attempts to create a cinematic representation of exile out of the cassette tapes that have been passed down to him mirrors the labor of Tito Yarad, or his own mother, in its impossible desire to continually stitch together the affective economy of exile.

In the closing scene of the movie, a woman, dressed completely in black, stands at the edge of a gray, isolated beach, facing the sea. As the camera zooms out, we see other women, all dressed in black, solemnly and intently walking towards the sea. Suddenly, the distance between Chile and Palestine, which had been crossed and re-crossed throughout the movie—whether through audio recordings or video footage from planes and ships—becomes absolute. The loss of the exile—especially the Palestinian exile, forever turned towards the past, walking towards an impossible land on the other side of the sea—comes forcefully into view.

                                                             [The closing scene of Hamule. Image copyright Mauricio Misle.]

At the beginning of his essay “Reflections on Exile,” the theorist and activist Edward Said remarked:  

Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.

Is it possible to objectively depict such loss, to construct a coherent and linear narrative that would do justice to the exile, who is forever walking towards the sea, her back turned to the reader? Can such trauma ever be relayed without breaking down? We would need an entirely new language to depict such pain and to mourn such loss. A language that originates from the “unhealable right forced between a human being and a native place,” despite understanding, all the while, that such “sadness can never be surmounted.” A language constructed from the fragments of the past, turned towards the past, loyal and responsible to the past. A language that does not put the past to rest, but allows it to stay present, live among us, allows mourning to continue. In its focus on the displaced voices of exile, in its attention to the textures of loss, Hamule is a courageous and hopeful step towards such a language.  

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