Apparitions Strange and Familiar: The Film and Video Works of Nour Ouayda

Coinciding with this month’s Movie Club screening of Nour Ouayda’s THE SECRET GARDEN (2023), we present a text on the evolving rigor and subtleties of Ouayda’s cinema, including a look at several titles available via Shasha Movies. THE SECRET GARDEN is available to stream via our Patreon from February 7th-21st 2024.

by Alex Fields

In 2014, when Nour Ouayda found a MiniDV camera in her dad’s closet and began filming around Beirut, she had no plans for making a film. She was simply drawn to certain images, especially those of the sea along the Corniche. After accumulating tapes over several years, she sought out editor Carine Doumit, and they worked together to craft the film that became One Sea, 10 Seas (2019). Its structure directly reflects its creative process: a playful text exchange between “N.” and “C.” appears on top of the video images, and a third character, “T.,” represents sound artist Tatiana El Dahdah.

One Sea, 10 Seas (2019)

The work is a remarkable dialogue not only between its creators, but between the camera and what it views, the microphone and what it hears; between abstraction and representation. As extreme zooms bridge the distance between the Corniche and the sea, clear views of shores and waves dissolve into pixelation and color bleeding. The cheap digital video technology passes its limits, and in doing so its images “touch” what the eye cannot: motion blur and poor focus blend with the movement of the waves, the static of low resolution blends with ripples of the sea’s surface. Like David Gatten’s What the Water Said (which was created by exposing raw film stock in ocean water and adding various literary texts to that footage), it speaks to and about the moment of its creation while existing as something fundamentally separate that announces its own presence too loudly to be seen as a direct representation. The distinction between medium and content is erased, and the work emerges as a material object in its own right.

Ouayda and Doumit interrogate the meaning of this object through written text, which offers recollections of the filming process as well as differing interpretations of the images. “N.” sees the abstraction of light on water, “C.” sees floating corpses. The text is at times matter of fact, but also poetic, gesturing even toward speculative fiction: the characters speak of “apparitions” that emerge in the recording process, of “surreal sound” disconnected from the environment. The artwork is a historical archive of human interaction with the environment and technology, but it also offers access to a more subjective realm. In a short film made the following year, I was grateful the wind tore out my camera’s microphone (2020), Ouayda visits a beach and recollects her participation in an occupation protesting the privatization of the beach and exorbitant ticket prices charged to enter. The same theme exists in the background of One Sea, and informs the notion of distance (between camera and sea, between the moment of editing and the moment of shooting) that structures it.

Towards the Sun (2019)

Ouayda’s second film, Towards the Sun (2019), was shot inside Beirut’s National Museum. It shows mosaics and other archaeological stoneworks, offering only glimpses of the full objects and focusing mostly on textures of stone obscured by grain and rapid camera movement. Here the text is delivered in monologue by a voice imitating a museum guide, who offers notes about the history of the objects and how it has altered them, describing the damage they suffered during the Civil War (both directly, through bullet holes, and indirectly, through the process of encasing the objects in concrete to preserve them), the wear from sea travel and human touch. Where One Sea was primarily a reflection on itself as an artwork, Towards the Sun looks outward at older works, but has the same understanding of art as a material object documenting its own creation and history. It also continues Ouayda’s interest in more speculative interpretation. The guide describes a boy’s fresh bruises and encourages us to touch his skin while the screen shows flat, stained rock.

Ouayda’s most recent works dive deeper into a fictional mode. In 2022, she collaborated with artist Rhayne Vermette on the fifth episode of the Cinépistolaire series of “filmed correspondences.” The epistolary, dialogic format of the series is a natural extension of Ouayda’s existing work. Vermette shoots in 16mm film, Ouayda in video, and both artists heavily emphasize the natural grain and distortions of their formats. The distortion is so heavy in the video portions that they’re frequently indiscernible, recalling Peter Gidal’s structural-materialist films and their dialectical play with representation/abstraction. Very unlike Gidal, however, Episode 5 uses text to develop a story about a golden lynx with mythical ties to the moon. The fiction is minimal, enough to suggest mood and elaborate on imagery without establishing a narrative arc or sense of action.

The fictional strategy is fully embraced in The Secret Garden (2023), Ouayda’s latest work and her first shot on 16mm. As with her first film, it had its origin in a compulsion to film an aspect of the urban environment, in this case plants, that the artist had begun to obsessively notice, which she says came to her in a dream. Also like her first film, she worked with Carine Doumit to structure these reels into a major work. “N.” and “C.” become full alter egos here as “Nahla” and “Camelia,” who observe the overnight appearance of strange plants in their city (implicitly Beirut) and discover a journal describing a secret garden at the edge of the city. The two seek the garden, a magical creature, and the mystery of the plants, but the story functions on the level of myth and suggestion, avoiding concrete events or linear storytelling. 

In a way, it’s a form of magical realism, but notably the magic is found entirely in the commentary made on the images by text and sound, not in the images themselves. The narrators attempt to systematically catalog the plants even as they reach toward fantastical explanations for images which show nothing that inherently suggests even fiction, let alone fantasy. The strategy resembles that of Canadian filmmaker Miryam Charles, especially in Towards the Colonies (2016) and Three Atlas (2018). Like Charles, Ouayda incorporates a variety of sound sources which together call attention to the constructed nature of the film. The static rippling of wind recorded on an iPhone speaks to the recording artist’s physical presence in its creation, and contrasts with higher fidelity field recordings of ambient noise and the movement of vehicles, as well as the startling imposition of a bombastic orchestral score. Shots of plants and balconies around Beirut—sometimes fairly static and sometimes in the jittery, frame-by-frame in-camera editing style of Helga Fanderl—unfold observationally. What emerges in totality is a search for understanding in the face of disruptive events, “a rift where everything is neither entirely familiar nor completely strange.” 

The Secret Garden (2023)

That sense of disruption is easy to relate to the city’s recent history, from the Civil War that destroyed much of Beirut and the multiple Israeli invasions, to the port explosion in 2020 (while The Secret Garden was being made), the economic collapse, and even COVID. Indeed, there’s a rich history of Lebanese experimental film and video artists grappling with questions of place and disruption, from the essay films of Jocelyne Saab made during and about the Civil War, to the ‘90s video works of Jayce Salloum which take up the Israeli Occupation of Palestine and southern Lebanon, to the contemporary works of Rawane Nassif about the displacement from and return to Beirut. All of these artists are centrally concerned with questions of representation—some, like Rania Stephan, have primarily worked with found footage that interrogates the racism and imperialism of international representations of the region—and have innovated formally as they sought means to explore a relationship to their home and history that seemed impossible to grasp through conventional documentary or fictional modes. 

Ouayda does the same, working in an elliptically fictional mode that allows her to generate a tangible state of suspension or drift, implicitly addressing the violent geographical changes that continue to shape her city from a certain level of abstraction. One mention of the garden housing refugees at the western edge of the city could be understood as a specific reference to Palestinian refugees, most of whom settled in the western part of the city in the displacements after the Nakba and the Six Day War, fueling the demographic changes and political tensions that led to civil war. However, the film maintains a more open-ended symbolism that captures both the ominous danger of incursions on land and public space and the potential for newfound beauty.

Alex Fields is a film writer and postal worker in Knoxville, TN. They write regularly on formalist, experimental, and genre film for Tone Glow and their blog, Not Reconciled.

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