Rosalind Nashashibi’s Bachelor Machines Part I centers on the unspectacular activities of the Italian crew of the cargo ship Gran Bretagna as it travels from Italy to the Baltic Sea. Over the course of thirty minutes, the men go about their business — attending to ship activities, eating, smoking and playing cards, dancing (furtively) in the dining room. But this is not the stuff of “reality television” — the onboard community of men is not subjected to the sort of documentary-making that seeks to expose its subjects’ private lives to an audience hoping for a prurient glimpse of a world they’ll never know. Nor is life aboard ship aestheticized. There is a sense of respectful distance, a refusal of intimacy that belies the filmmaker’s intimate access — a refusal underlined by the dialogue being in Italian, none of it subtitled and none of it important, really; or rather, not to the point.
Instead, Nashashibi’s cinematically literate shot-making animates the ship and the literal machinery of global commerce — dockyard cranes, shipping containers — in a way that evokes both Dziga Vertov’s constructivist celebration of the machine age and Jean-Luc Godard’s dystopian reprocessing of Vertov in 1970s films such as British Sounds. One scene, in which two seamen repeatedly open and close an uncooperative door on deck, verges on silent comedy. In another, the setting sun heaves brilliantly into view through an open hatch, creating a textbook vision of the cinematic sublime — a vision so entirely part and parcel of the everyday experience of the crew that it passes entirely without acknowledgement.
The artist’s use of 16-mm film (as opposed to more readily manipulated digital technologies) and the interpolation of herself and her camera as an acknowledged but silent character situate her as an unreliable eyewitness, neither orchestrating events nor erasing her own presence. She keeps her head to the ground. Her method suggests an unspoken collaboration with the people she represents; the work neither depersonalizes nor universalizes its subjects, and there is no sense of performance for the camera or of an attempt to produce some emblematic moment that can sum up the complexities of individual lives.
Her earlier Hreash House (2004) centers on the gathering of an extended family in an apartment block in Nazareth. It also avoids the conventions both of televisual storytelling and of the handheld, uncut art video, assembling a simple narrative whose interest is generated in the cinematic details, the particular gestures of the participants and the close-up shots of textiles and interiors, as much as by its overall arc. There is hardly a story, just an ordinary middle-class family going about the preparation and aftermath of a fast-breaking meal during Ramadan. Also presented without subtitles, the film subtly communicates a sense of social convention that is at once spontaneous and scripted. Once again Nashashibi finds herself in a context that is not her own, allowing us to occupy her subjectivity without feeling guilty or manipulated.
This balance of poetic subjectivity and documentary restraint can be traced back to the films of the French ethnographer Jean Rouch, which had an outsize influence on European filmmakers in the 1960s. But Nashashibi works in light of the very public deconstruction of the techniques she has adopted, and she employs her verite; approach to build a deliberate fiction, secure in the knowledge that no one will mistake her work for an attempt to portray the inaccessible truth of the situations she is filming. There is a latent politics at work in Nashashibi’s practice, though she avoids addressing the direct political questions that might attend, for example, the working-class identity of the sailors in Bachelor Machines Part I or the Palestinian identity of the family depicted in Hreash House. Rather, she manages to explore a wider representation of the relationships between behavior and belief, control and convention. Her film of students in the Glasgow University Library, for example, simply titled University Library (2003), is a compressed typology of behaviors, presented via shots and setups that also foreground the modernist architecture of the university building. The contrast between the evident intention of the architecture and institution (highly controlled and directed toward an idealized model of learning) and the actual activities of the students (caught between the dictates of the institution and personal or social imperatives) makes for a gentle and subtle investigation of the ways that power operates, and the ways it fails. Appropriately, Nashashibi captures the students distractedly tapping their pencils, staring into the ether, listening to music on their headphones.
Nashashibi’s background as an Irish-Palestinian artist educated in England and Scotland (she graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2000) is often invoked as an explanation for her interest in the workings of particular subcultures and communities. But her interest, at least in ethnographic terms, can be seen more easily as having something in common with structuralist anthropology. Her film Eyeballing (2005), for example, is a playful series of static shots of objects and landscapes, some close-up, some in wide angle, in which it’s almost impossible not to see the apparition of faces. Plainly, for evolutionary reasons, the human brain is hard-wired to recognize the combination of two dots or circles with a line beneath them as a face. These images are intercut with footage of New York City police — men and women — shot as they enter and exit what looks like a side door to one of Manhattan’s many police stations. The juxtaposition between the deeply structural recognition of the faces and the deeply cultural, costumed roles played by the cops emphasizes the place of representation and ritual in the world around us. The faces emerge from the city and are both its inhabitants and its totems — or, in the artist’s words, its “gods or monsters.”
Recently Nashashibi translated her investigations into book form. Mute: On Sound is an essay composed mostly of found photographs and archival images, from reproductions of premodern art and documentation of ritual behaviors and local traditions to modernist architecture and performance. An acknowledgment of the influence of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films on Nashashibi’s work, it uses his unorthodox reading of Freud and the assertion of the stubborn presence of ancient mythology in contemporary culture as a framework within which to draw together the artist’s particular personal inspirations. Symbolism and ritual are presented as ways not of binding us to the past but of creatively resisting or transcending the conditions of the present.
Carl Jung once said that mythologizing “gives existence a glamour we wouldn’t Want to be without.” Nashashibi seems to agree — she borrows from the quote for the title of her most recent set of photographic works, a triptych of found images representing dancers in the Malawian village of Gumbi, a scene from Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex, and a portrait of La Cicciolina. But the ideas of myth and glamour she is interested in are not those produced by the contemporary star-obsessed mass media, but rather, the glamour of everyday life, the myths made by rituals that arise from direct, sometimes banal, social interactions.
Still, one of the characteristics of the documentary mode in which Nashashibi works is that it seems to offer the possibility of truth, and so some kind of truth is always attempting to return beyond the index of the image, all the reality that can’t be caught on film: the world outside the frame, the time before and after, all of the invisible conditions that surround the production of a particular image. It is a paradox of this kind of myth-making, this kind of ritual or glamour, that, while the documentary image can never embody the relationships of meaning that give it its power, it nonetheless exists as the social production of imagery, of symbols and their meanings.
In the end, it is as if Nashashibi is telling us that we are condemned to act out the rituals of a script we have only inherited — whether as model-airplane enthusiasts in Omaha, Nebraska (Midwest: Field, 2002), as young men playing football in an East Jerusalem town (Dahiet Al Bareed, 2002), or as members of a crew on a cargo ship making its way across the sea. After all, this is a world and a series of myths that are not of our making but that, in occasionally subtle and often unsubtle manner, make us.