Philip Rizk

rebellious eyes.
through the archive.

[1] In the film Mapping Lessons by Philip Rizk, we travel with K through time and place to a Middle East being colonized. Putting in conversation struggles from the early days of the Soviets, 1936 Spain, the Vietnamese resistance and the Paris Commune to the Syrian Revolution.
Kulthum Auda found me while I was searching for a protagonist for the film Mapping Lessons.[1]   There are scatterings of rough anecdotes about her available in Arabic, in Ramallah’s public library I found a poorly researched biography, and in English a single article based on her writings in Russian state archives. Kulthum was a teacher from Nazareth who traveled to Russia with her doctor husband on the cusp of the first Imperial war, where she volunteered as a nurse, and then participated in the Russian Revolution. Later, Kulthum spent some years in the rebellious sailor’s city of Kronstadt, then worked for a women’s organization headed by avant-garde feminist Alexandra Kollontai while based in the Ukrainian countryside, one of the hotbeds of opposition to the Bolshevik monopolization of the Revolution. Amongst those villages the anarchist Nestor Makhno had led an army of farmers against the remaining pro-tsar Russian troops and began establishing farmer-run Soviets. The Bolsheviks first allied with the Ukrainian Makhnoists, but the party found these soviets too much out of their control and so assassinated all the farmer generals and brought the troops under their control. The Bolsheviks knew only one revolution. There is no record of Kulthum becoming a member of the Communist party. Maybe she saw through the hypocrisy. Though if she did, she could never have uttered those words except behind closed doors, never left a trace of opposition to that mighty state. Later in her life many of Kulthum’s Arab compatriots were put to death in Stalinist Russia, she herself was arrested, after which her writings became ever more scientific. 

Kulthum made only one journey back home as an ethnographer in the 1920s. In my film, hers were the eyes with which I wanted to see bilad al-sham - the Levant - in that moment of rupture between the end of the Ottoman Empire and the coming European colonial onslaught. Hers were traveling eyes that would have sought home and the familiar, her travel writing would have entailed a longing and desire for the smell, the trees, rekindling a connection to place. But she also came with rebellious eyes, baptized in revolution, critical eyes, that likely embodied a kind of internationalism that saw no borders. For it is not unlikely that her vision for the future would have been shaped by her mentor Kollontai, who believed in "a coming world in which everyone would live in communes, women would be free to choose whatever sorts of romantic relationships met their needs, and dedication to the 'great laboring family' of the collective would be more important than 'ties to relatives’.”[i] Her sentiment is echoed in Claire Fontaine’s call, “thinking against ourselves will be the necessity of the revolts to come, as desubjectivisation (taking distance from what we are, becoming something else) will be the only way to fight our exploitation…it will mean stopping believing in the necessity of identifying ourselves with the place we occupy.”[ii]

InMapping Lessons, Kulthum seeks Palestine and finds a militant struggle in Syria—though these are not categories that existed then. On her journey home, she must have longed converse in the dialect of her home town, but the language of struggle against the oppressor had also become a part of her in the Russian Revolution. In some of her autobiographical notes, she wrote about her family in Nazareth, “they could not understand…that I had found my own place in life in this country, in the revolution, which in those years I more readily felt with my heart than I understood with my intellect.”[iii] Unlike colonial archives, stocked to the brim with diplomatic correspondences, personal letters, statesmen’s diaries, and army reports that establish the imperial status quo, the archive of our traveler is limited, and tainted by the possibilities of her environs, as well as the archivists into whose hands they fell. Kulthum’s unfiltered diary would have been unlike the travel books that “gave European reading publics a sense of ownership, entitlement and familiarity with respect to the distant parts of the world that were being explored, invaded, invested in, and colonized.”[iv] There are a slew of technologies the conquerer developed in order to conquer—gun powder, the battle ship, the cannon, barbed wire, borders, and the transformation of a flying bus into a war machine. But the effects of the weapons of private property, of writing and cartography were crucial to the brutal project, for “more indigenous territory has been claimed by maps than by guns.”[v] Thus, the importance to join Mary Louise Pratt in inquiring about the codes with which travel and exploration writing has produced “the rest of the world.”[vi] In Mapping Lessons I wanted to subvert their codes by finding new ones to produce a different world, an imagined but real one, a radical but possible one. Kay Dickinson reminds us that the Arabic root s-f-r, from which English gleans ‘safari’ includes the derivatives: to shine, brighten; to unveil, to embark, she then channels Roxanne L. Euben who “attributes to the rihla [journey] what is ordinarily ascribed predominantly to ‘theory’:…to link and to imagine a beyond.”[vii] My starting point in image-ining a beyond was the most radical experiment in contemporary history of the Arabic-speaking world, one written out of most his-tories: the Syrian Revolution.
The Zerda or the songs of forgetting, Assia Djebar, film still, 1982
[2] 858 is an archive of the January 25, 2011, revolution in Egypt. It is of course just one archive of the revolution. It is not, and can never be, the archive. It is one collection of memories, one set of tools we can all use to fight the narratives of the counter-revolution, to pry loose the state’s grip on history, to jeep building new histories for the future.
At some point in 2012 someone passed by the Mosireen office, to drop off footage to add to the collective’s archive.[2] Mosireen had formed in the summer of 2011 with the aim of creating counter-propaganda to government and private media outlet’s slandering the revolution’s true intentions: the desire for the fall of the system. Unlike most of the material we were shooting and collecting, S. brought footage they had filmed on a journey to Syria, where they had spent time with one of many local councils that had sprung up in areas liberated from the Assad regime. This exercise of community self-governance was deeply radical, though tragically short-lived, overtaken by forces on all sides loathe to allow it to blossom. The revolutionary experiments have been cast into non-existence due to its few allies and by a media machine’s incessant desire for the spectacle of war and mass displacement. What I heard and saw in S.’s archive was part of the silenced narrative of rebellion, an “exclusionary zone of tremendous magnitude.”[viii] It taught me to keep myself open for when I encounter it, especially when it goes against my pre-disposed beliefs even be they radical ones. The colonial and neo-colonial archives, past or contemporary, make space for local and foreign elites, their memories, their desires, their music, their way of seeing. Rarely, do we have access to desires and dreams of the ones who oppose power, and so we must imagine these judged by their actions. We need to strain “against the limits of the archive…to tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling” in order to counter erasure of certain people and narratives.[ix] The stance of Kulthum traveling through the world inspired my own movement through the archive. In Mapping Lessons, the archive that was brought to Mosireen’s office, gets dislocated in space—with images of similar struggles across the globe, and in time—excerpts of Kulthum’s imagined travel diary include a conversation about the revolutionary local councils with the Syrian anarchist Omar Aziz in 2012.[x] Kulthum’s method of travel, then inspired my method of image-making.

On February 17, 1917 Kulthum and her fellow revolutionaries toppled Tsar Nikolai II and removed his family from power. Soon thereafter, the archive of the royal’s footage fell into the lap of editor and filmmaker Esfir Shub. Her 1927 feature film The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty was the first film of its kind, editing images in such a way as to undermine the intentions of their creators. She imbued images intended to serve authoritarian domination with new meaning for a radical counter-narrative, subverting the power that once lay in them. Years later she did the same with images of the Spanish revolution to counter the images of a global fascist conquest of another radical experiment. Reflecting on the origins of the moving image and its coming to the colonized world, Michael Allan writes, “film makes thinkable Egypt in an entirely new manner: the transformation of the timeless and eternal Great Pyramid to the immediacy of the actuality film.”[xi] Unlike the Lumiere’s images of conquest I don’t want to make thinkable, I want to make revolt imaginable, I want to “take the imagination to go visiting.”[xii] In Passagenwerk, Walter Benjamin reveals “a world of secret affinities,”  a “whole magic encyclopedia,” and not unlike the pre-colonial tradition of the Arabic citation of text as a form of respect for its author, in the film I want to do the same for the images’ takers as well as the struggles they depict.[xiii] Following Esfir Shub and Walter Benjamin’s strategies of disrupting archives, I want to disrupt “the image of thought to the point of no return.”[xiv] In Mapping Lessons a sequence about the male gaze of desire excerpted from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is set side by side with images of military conquest of Vietnam, and revolutionary Spanish communities, and aerial footage of Palestine filmed from a German military plane prior to its European colonization. The sequence is accompanied by contorted sound of Wagner’s Cry of the Valkyries, in an attempt to lay bare the image-takers intentions. Their gaze was one of the imperial eyes that the journey of Kulthum wants to undo. Mapping Lessons also shows strategies of autonomy from the archive of revolution. Here, tutorial-like, we see how to source energy locally while under siege, cook with a sun oven or how methods of agro-ecology are passed down from one generation to the next. To grow food without reliance on external, private or state systems is the bedrock of autonomy.

 In her final novel Fantasia, Assia Djabar describes the arrival of the French fleet that is about to conquer Algiers for 130 years, with artists on board. They are ready to represent the event before it happens. It is time we do our own drawing and represent a different narrative, traveling with liberated eyes through time and space, and through the archive. It takes “a certain amount of madness…to turn your back on the old formulas,” be these in how we create our liberated spaces or how we tell its stories. [xv] Let us move with rebellious eyes through the archive, and through life. For we must prepare for the struggles to come.

[i] Menicucci, Garay, “Kulthum Auda, Palestinian Ethnographer: Gendering the Palestinian Landscape” in The Landscape of Palestine — Equivocal Poetry, Birzeit: Birzeit University Publications, 1999, p.85.

[ii] Fontaine, Claire, Human Strike has Already Begun & Other Writings, PML Books: 2013, p.55.

[iii] Menicucci, Garay, “Kulthum Auda, Palestinian Ethnographer: Gendering the Palestinian Landscape” in The Landscape of Palestine — Equivocal Poetry, Birzeit: Birzeit University Publications, 1999, p.84.

[iv] Pratt, Mary Louise, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, New York: Routledge, 2008, p.4.

[v] Quiquivix, Linda, “When the Carob Tree was the border: On Autonomy and Palestinian Practices of Figuring it Out.” in Nature Socialism. 2013, p.6.

[vi] Pratt, Mary Louise, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, New York: Routledge, 2008, p.5.

[vii] Dickinson, Kay, Arab Cinema Travels Transnational Syria, Palestine, Dubai and Beyond, London: Palgrave, 2016, p.19.

[viii] Gordon, Avery, The Hawthorn Archives: Letters from the Utopian Margins, New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2017, vii.

[ix] Hartman, Saidiya, “Venus in Two Acts,” in Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12, no. 2: 1–14. 2008, p.11.

[x] Aziz, Omar, "A discussion paper on local councils in Syria,” in A World without Maps. Rizk, Philip (ed.). Delhi: Kochi-Muziris Biennale, [2011] 2022.

[xi] Allan, Michael, “Deserted histories: The Lumière Brothers, the pyramids and early film form,” in Early Popular Visual Culture, 6:2, 159 — 170, 2008, p.168.

[xii] Arendt, Hannah, Lectures on Kant’s political philosophy, ed. Ronald Beiner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982, p.43.

[xiii] Benjamin, Walter, The Arcades Project. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2002, p.540 & p.207.

[xiv] Kuecker, Elliott, “Post-Qualitative Inquiry and Walter Benjamin’s “One-Way Street”,” in Qualitative Inquiry, 1–10. 2018, p.3.

[xv] Sankara, Thomas, Thomas Sankara Speaks. Atlanta: Pathfinder Press, 2007, p.232.

Philip Rizk

Philip Rizk is a film-maker & writer from Cairo living in Berlin. In his films he experiments with methods of “making the habitual strange.” In Out on the Street (2015) he uses performance, in his found footage films Mapping Lessons (2020) and Terrible Sounds (2022) he experiments with the technique of montage. In a world that is breaking down, a question that runs throughout Rizk’s projects is, “how do we prepare ourselves for what is to come?” Rizk is a member of the Mosireen video collective behind the archive His writings include the essay “2011 is not 1968: a letter to an onlooker,” and the co-authored book with Jasmina Metwaly On Trials: A Manual on the Theatre of Law (Archive Books, 2021). He irregularly teaches in classrooms and workshops. He is a 2022/23 fellow of The Berlin Artistic Research Grant Programme.

︎ ︎ ︎ ︎