Inquiring Minds: Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Gabi Dao, Eitan Efrat, Sirah Foighel Brutmann, Henry Hills, Onyeka Igwe, Martina Melilli
by Steffanie Ling
The cohesion of three particular films—Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Walled Unwalled (2018), Onyeka Igwe’s Specialised Technique (2018) and Gabi Dao’s The Protagonists (2018)—anchored the Inquiring Minds program in distinct considerations of sound and experimental inquiries. The more I thought about the program’s aims to highlight the complexities, tragedies and triumphs of recorded lived experiences, it became apparent that zealous objectivity has historically produced more than a few models of false authenticity.
In Walled Unwalled, Abu Hamdan performs across three sound effects studios at Funkhaus, the former headquarters for the German Democratic Republic’s state radio. Today, this purpose-built facility is a highly sophisticated recording complex hosting a plethora of recording artists. In his description of the work, Abu Hamdan writes that worldwide, 49 border walls have been constructed in under two decades. The title alludes to the ironic, molecular by-product of border states that he explains in the film:
“As these walls were being constructed, millions and millions of invisible cosmic particles called muons descended into the atmosphere. Scientists realized that these deep penetrating particles could be harvested, and a technology could be developed to use their peculiar physical capacities to pass through surfaces previously impervious to X-rays…. Today, we’re all wall, and no wall at all.”
Recording studios are designed to isolate and control sound, but Abu Hamdan’s movement between them, followed by the camera, treats the spaces fluidly, his performance pouring through them. His script incorporates narratives drawn from legal cases that focused on evidence based on what witnesses heard. He is accompanied by a drummer, stationed in one of the studios, hitting a repetitive lick throughout the performance like a subtle human metronome. The testimonies describe explosions and the sounds they make, as heard by earwitnesses who struggle to imitate the sounds that produced a decimated room. The choreographed display within this culturally coded site emphasizes how far removed audiences at a film festival are from the events that prompt these testimonies.
Specialised Technique shows archival footage of Nigerian women dancing, recorded in the mechanical, slow, unadorned, cinematographic style developed by British colonialist William Sellers for the Colonial Film Unit in Nigeria in 1939. These documents are interrupted by white-on-black intertitles or text super- imposed onto still images. They are simple, taut questions: Is it ok? Is it why I look down? The film’s deep score further emphasizes the heaviness of the women’s movement, soaked with the weight of accumulated colonial gazes. Igwe’s trilogy, of which this film is part, strives to unpack colonial moving image by reassembling it before us.
The textual interruptions seem to be drawn from the voices of her subjects, but a voice in intertitles is barely a voice at all—a mere projection. So, this is a film about movement, not a commentary, not a study. Since voice cannot be recuperated here, how about gesture that can transcend calculated witnessing? In a new frame, projected onto the artist’s midsection is some of this colonial footage. Igwe wears a high-waisted leather skirt, and her body recites the vernacular of the African dance depicted in the footage that illuminates the surface of her clothing. This moment in the film—intensely alluring, complicated, produced by an embodied investigative impulse—also provokes the question: when do we ever think of bodies on top of bodies in ways that are not sexual or violent, but as reclamation? In “Mechanical Eye, Electronic Ear, and the Lure of Authenticity,” Trinh T. Minh-ha describes how the scientific universalism of moving image technology has always been a one-way power dynamic: “In the progression toward Truth … one can only gain, never lose. First, conform to scientific demands, then show scientists are also human beings. The order is irreversible.” Minh-ha’s critique of that gaze was in 1983, before mass surveillance and big data, fields of inquiry—given as natural, uninterrupted documentation—that have been instrumentalized to oppress the subject anew.
Yielding to “scientific demands” guarantees that the authentic subject cannot be removed from the neutral technical gaze, so the gaze must be averted, interrupted. Dao’s 8-minute film The Protagonists compresses a catalogue of imagery from her parents’ home and garden in British Columbia. Fronds of aloe are sliced, their shape echoing the hand that dissects them with a kitchen knife. A mechanized, 3-D-printed hand pathetically flinches as it tries to grasp that knife, the plant’s gel applied across its inorganic fingers, its fingertips later adorned by long gem-laden nails. Scenes from Apocalypse Now and Platoon hover over shots of the garden, like clouds, juxtaposing the jungle with the suburban vegetable patch. Vibrantly coloured smoke bombs are discharged around a small greenhouse. Rapid cuts browse this catalogue energetically.
Dao’s cryptic voice-over breathes prose into the film’s popping and clicking repetitive soundtrack. A hand in the domestic cinema is a will over bodily manipulation. The hand is a busy instrument, cutting, pressing, throwing, but not in service of. The only innocent record in history is the dirt that you churn with your petal fingers. The only innocent record in history is what we touch and you can’t see. I return to the domestic cinema at the end of the day. Her script speaks and references indirectly, swerving at every opportunity away from making lived experience legible. In other words, it is encrypted against the banner of authenticity. In the description of her solo exhibition A knife to wither your petal fingers at Blinkers, in Winnipeg in 2018, the film was said to propose “a subtext that allegorizes the movement within moving images to diasporic experience.” Dao’s film is without the typical trauma and nostalgia that informs the colonial imagination. Instead, through this unapparent assemblage, it mystifies. The Protagonists pays homage to the Vietnamese diaspora by employing an iconography that speaks to the diaspora, before all other audiences.
When sound is processed by human description and becomes legal evidence, when the colonized reinterpret the archives of the colonizer and when authenticity is the secret visual language of the diaspora, dusty empiricism is kicked to the margins of inquiry. A house of intellect is repossessed.