Wednesday, 8 December 2010

How Is It Possible To Create Oblivion?

StoryDoc brings us to Athens, and I try to remember when I was here last. I recall, from my parents' stories, that we were here as a family when I was a child. Maybe only two or three years old. But I can't be sure. Driving into the city on my way from the airport, I remember I was in transit here a few years ago, as well. I don't remember where from, or where to. But I had a layover of several hours in the airport, and I took a bus into the city. I bought a coffee, and a small notebook.

In "Stolen Antiquities: The Story of the Parthenon Marbles", someone says the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Greece, because this is where they need to be seen. "In the light of Athens. In the air of Athens." I see that light around every corner. It floods into the streets from the perpendicular avenues to the East. It blinds me every morning when I come around the corner onto Panepistimiou street, heading towards Titania Hotel, or the Goethe Institute for our sessions. At times the sun slithers through the street, reflecting off the white marble walls, like fire.

On our second day, there is real fire on the streets. Demonstrations to mark the two year anniversary of the killing of Alexandros Grigoropoulos. And, more recently, anger at corrupt politicians and the IMF bailout. Glass is broken, telephone booths and mail boxes are overturned and set on fire. Police fire tear gas, we walk through the hanging clouds on our way to dinner. It's still in the air as we're eating. We can hear percussion grenades exploding loudly outside while we discuss our projects, in a surreal juxtaposition.

There is a screening of Into Eternity, a film of incredible beauty and boldness. A science-fiction poem about the life span of nuclear waste, and the eternal tomb being built under the bedrock of Onkalo, Finland to contain it. I am mesmerized by the movement, and the voice of Madsen, questioning "how is it possible to create oblivion? How can we remember to forget?" Because this what Onkalo asks us to do: bury the waste in a giant tomb and then forget it ever existed. Hope future generations never think to dig it up. Because this facility needs to last over 100,000 years. We've never built anything to last that long.

I'm trying to clarify the story of The Runner in my head. What is at the core?
Is it endurance?

Niels Pagh Andersen talks about this core. He urges us to find it. He asks us to simplify, simplify, distill, reduce, simplify. What is the essence? The events, details, statistics may be complicated but the story is simple. It must be simple. How, otherwise, do you know what you're looking for? You may not know how your film will end (I don't...) but you must know the question that you're trying to answer.

How far, before you stop running?

Sanna Salmenkallio and her music of intensity and restraint. Witholding. Don't give too much away. It reminds me of Walter Murch, cutting out significant portions of a scene, withholding them until later. Or getting rid of them entirely. They may take on a new significance at a later point in the film, or if not, the whole story may be greater with less. Sanna says "film music is ritual music. It doesn't matter how it sounds, as long as it works. We don't want to think about the details...we want to see through the music."

"Bury me standing." This is the endurance of Maria Tanase. Her voice could melt lead, her eyes burn a hole through your heart and seduce you at the same time. "Maria Apassionata." We may all find our own way of resisting.

How far, before you stop running?

On our final night, after ten days of little sleep, we walk through the Gazi neighbourhood looking for a drink. These giant eyes peer down on us from a nearby wall.

A pregnant dog follows us from her owner's garage to the corner of Gazi's bar district.

And it's a long night. History here in Gazi is like Dalston, or Shoreditch before her, or New York's Soho, or the most fashionable neighbourhood of any city. The industrial sites turn to ruins, are then given over to artists, then to developers. But Athens today needs to be isolated from these cycles of ruin and fortunes. On my last day, Dominique Strauss-Kahn visits the city, and there are more protests planned against the latest conditions to be imposed on the country.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Seven Years Later, The Reunion

The shoot in Avignon is over. From my desk in London, I remember one thing overall. Salah's dedication, his singular obsession with the Sahrawis, remaining within their orbit, trying to stay as close to their centre as possible. He is constantly connected to the news from the camps and Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. He falls asleep listening to Sahrawi radio, people from around the world calling in to share their thoughts on the latest news, events, rumours. This is his universe, and he can't stand to be too far from it.

This film is not a traditional portrait, with archive pictures, histories, and disembodied narratives. This is not a historical reportage. This is a zoetrope. The perception of a full story is achieved only by peeking through thin slits as they spin quickly by. You see blinking movement, only brief glimpses. The images themselves are still but the cylinder, spinning around, gives the impression of motion.

Last night, I watched with Salah a video of him returning to Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara for the first time in 7 years. He hadn't seen his family for seven years. His mother, father, his brothers and sisters, his cousins, aunts and uncles. When he left seven years ago he was just a good athlete. When he returned he was a symbol of everything that gave the people hope. In the video, he is surrounded by cheering friends and family. Outside the tent, visible on the edges of the video, are rows of Moroccan police watching, taking pictures of everyone who attends.

You can see the joy on the faces of the crowds, clamouring to hug Salah and welcome him back. You can hear the excitement in their cheers. Salah, all the while, is overwhelmed. He occasionally spots a familiar face and breaks into a smile, but otherwise his eyes look around, searching for something familiar. He is not expecting this. There is very little familiar about it. There is a mixture of joy - the reunion - and loss. This would, after all, have to end.

On the train back to London, I can see the snow is thick on the ground. This is far from where I last saw Salah, in the Algerian Sahara. On Sunday, I'll fly to Athens to pitch the film for the last time this year.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Only Thing Certain Is That Nothing Is Certain

Paris is freezing. My hands are in pain, trying to hold the metal of the camera. The sting of the cold is almost too much. I think of the men and women I saw last night sleeping in the waiting room of Gare de Lyon.

There's a mist of frost over the city. Mostapha is here for his asylum application interview. Last night, the friend we were staying with in Paris asked Mostapha "do you want to know the history of Western Sahara?" as preparation for his interview. They've been going through significant dates together, to make sure the timeline is accurate. They watch an online video of an interview with an Egyptian Sheikh explaining the history of Western Sahara, but Mostapha doesn't like some of his conclusions. He shakes his head and tuts when the Sheikh says Western Sahara was part of the Moroccan Kingdom. "He's lying."

The next morning, in a cafe near the ministry of refugee affairs, we sit waiting for the offices to open, trying to stay warm. Mostapha is still running through the details of his journey to France, and his reasons for applying for asylum, to get everything straight and clear in his head. He disappears for a few minutes, and we smile when he emerges from the bathroom wearing his Dra'a, long blue robe, with the folds of cloth wrapped around his arm. We're used to seeing him in jeans and a t-shirt, but he says it's important to wear the Dra'a for his interview. He takes pride in it, even though it means he'll suffer from the cold on the walk to his interview. We wish him luck and he leaves a little early to make his 9am appointment.

An hour later, he returns to the cafe, a smile on his face. "It was fine," he says, calmly. "Their questions were simple. They asked how I got here to France and about my background and my family. I think it was fine. They say I'll get a decision in one month." We sit down for another coffee.

Later, back in Avignon, Hossam asks "what if they don't accept his application?" But I don't know the answer.

I'm reminded of certain arguments. They're not far from the arguments we always have about Palestine. There are differences of opinion about how to approach the Sahrawi cause - differences that are becoming clearer to me now. The recent protest camp, and all the violence that followed, has split the opinions of the Sahrawi down the middle. "We have the right to defend ourselves" one said. "No, those camps were a shame on us and all Sahrawi" another told me, "violence only breeds violence."

Some say Moroccan policemen were slaughtered like sheep. Others say it's not true, those videos were fake. We don't now the real number of dead and injured. We don't know the real timeline of events. Was anyone else there to witness? The only thing certain is that nothing is certain.