Re-Humanising the Backyard: The Auto/Biographical Impulse

Learning Lab: Rehumanising the backyardImage: ‘A World Not Ours’, 2014

Key Note Presentation by Counterpoints Arts at Creative Applications of Biographical Research: Theory, Practice and Policy, University of Durham, September 2014

 Áine O’Brien – Co-Director, Counterpoints Arts


A whistle in the dark is still a whistle

Gideon Levy, The Punishment of Gaza, 2014

When asked to give this keynote, I had to stop and think about the art and craft of biography and its inevitable flow into the intimate spaces and places of autobiography. When mentoring – and as creative producer and researcher – I have long encouraged practitioners to mediate their research through a filmic, photographic and multi-media lens with a specific focus on the creative ethnographic method when researching and crafting migration stories. Seldom have I had the time to stop to think about, what I am calling a ‘biographical impulse’ – the ethical desire to co-produce urgent portraits of ‘others to others.‘

I use the term co-produce in two ways: to refer to the logistics of film production where collaboration is simply a given – one works with others in order to collectively produce content. But also to refer to the more nuanced, intersecting boundaries of documentary co-production found in the empathetic storytelling space between biographer/filmmaker and subject. A fluid, dynamic space often compromised by conventional claims to research and authorship.

Debates about the methodologies of participatory, collaborative arts are being grappled with differently in the visual arts with arguably heightened levels of angst on the part of some artists about the ethics of community participation. Much of what I outline today draws from the practice of creative documentary; but I also refer to some of the participatory and collaborative arts debates and from old-fashioned, humanistic journalism.

Why biography – is it simply innate curiosity, perhaps a basic nosiness, about others that draws us to biographical storytelling? Or is it also a desire to encode our own implicit story through the architecture of another’s? There is something in that basic sense of human curiosity that cannot always be rationalized (perhaps even gets lost or diluted) through the language of theory and explications of methodology. So what drives us – as researchers, practitioners or neither – to become implicated in the stories of others and to what end?

I would like to explore this notion of an ‘ethical desire to co-produce urgent portraits of others to others‘ in the context of what Judith Butler describes in ‘Precarious Life and Obligations of Co-habitation’ as the space/place implications of a global ‘ethical obligation’.

(Here Butler is talking about a notion of co-habitation that challenges a narrow politics of the local and offers a more generous – expansive – vision for how we might act when living in what she calls ‘conditions of unwilled adjacency’ as a result of global migration, forced or voluntary or the re-drawing of the boundaries of the nation state, etc)


If I am only bound to those who are close to me, already familiar, then my ethics are invariably parochial, communitarian and exclusionary. If I am only bound to those who are ‘human’ in the abstract, then I avert every effort to translate culturally between my own situation and that of others. If I am only bound to those who suffer at a distance, but never those who are close to me, then I evacuate my situation in an effort to secure the distance that allows me to entertain ethical feeling. But if ethical relations are mediated – and I use that word deliberately here – confounding questions of location such as what is happening ‘there’ also happens in some sense ‘here’ and if what is happening ‘there’ depends on the event being registered in several ‘elsewhere’s, then it would seem that the ethical claim of the event takes place always in a ‘here’ and ‘there’ that are fundamentally bound to one another. (‘Precarious Life and Obligations of Co-habitation’, 5)

The idea and practice of biographical portraiture I wish to put forward sees the construction of human portraits as a deeply relational art form – evoking the ‘here’, ‘there’ and ‘elsewheres’ imagined by Butler, but also connecting the subject (subjects) of personal portraits with their makers together with a wider set of social, political and geopolitical relations.

I present 3 modes of creative research to unpack three multidisciplinary biographical practices – all of which experiment with that fine line between biography and autobiography and with the notion of the living archive as a source for biographical (auto-biographical) re-imagining in the face of cultures of migration and displacement and the very real challenges of what Butler calls the ‘obligations of co-habitation’.

I’ve divided and named these practices according to 2 central frames and 1 minor and fleeting at the end of my presentation – hopefully opening up a set of questions.

Frame 1Historical Contingencies

Frame 2Place-making and Post-Memory         

Frame 3Return to Empirical Humanism

I will also show 3 film clips, approximately 15 mins in total to illustrate and perform some of the methodologies that I want to unpack in Frames 1 and 2.

Frame 1: Historical Contingencies

I frame my presentation with the opening 4-minute sequence from filmmaker John Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project, premiered last year in 2013 before Stuart Hall died.

This sequence establishes a distinctive form of biographical storytelling implemented by Akomfrah and his co-producers in collaboration with Hall – integrating image, sound and text in a dialogical montage to reveal a rich research and production infrastructure, whereby Hall’s personal story opens out to a multi-layered and multi-authored history. He literally performs – ‘speaks’ his own biography as public intellectual through modes of autobiography in the film – a strategy Hall repeatedly used throughout his intellectual life to unsettle the notion of identity, as he puts it: ‘paradoxically speaking autobiographically’ enables him ‘not to be authoritative’ (Hall quoted in Procter, 2007). In the now classic Hall formulae ‘identity is always under construction’; as we hear him say in the film in repeated voice-over: ‘identity is an endless, ever-unfinished conversation’.

Akomfrah and his team take this notion of an ‘unfinished conversation’ to craft the aesthetic of Hall’s biography, which is, in many ways, an equally open conversation with public and private archives – seamlessly mixing the personal and the public – as stated explicitly on screen the film is ‘made entirely from [Hall’s] film, television, radio and photographic archives’. The mood of the film and its hybrid biographical form is thus set up in this opening sequence, very deliberately and with confident subtlety.

The film opens on a black screen with a low-level sound montage of train tracks then morphing to the haunting music of Myles Davis, juxtaposed with a series of declarative, third person written statements on screen about Hall’s public standing as ‘key architect of Cultural Studies’, etc. The sequence continues via sound design, mixed with still and single shots with production credits listing central institutional and production collaborations: the BFI, BBC Archives, Arts Council, contrasting the more independently-minded Creation Rebel Films and Smoking Dogs Films.

An introductory disembodied and formal-sounding voice speaks over 2 photographs from Hall’s private archive – depicting a younger self, showing him embracing his sister in one and in another wearing tennis gear. For a fleeting moment we do not know whose voice this is (it is in fact Hall’s) and the montage of personal image and public voice echoes the manner in which this multi-layered portrait is constructed. For example, the BBC programme screened in 1992 reflects back on an Open University ‘Social Science’ course on ‘social change and the everyday’, running in easy parallel with the older intimate photographs of adolescence and family.

The shot of Hall in studio in direct address to the spectator, with his slightly clipped performative voice cuts to reveal an older sounding, slightly frail voice, reflecting on the evocative power of Myles Davis’s music. In this overtly meditative and more conversational tone Hall explains how the various moods of Davis’s music matched the ‘evolution of [his] own feelings’. Several photographic portraits of a younger, evolving self are edited with this dialogue in what is a truly moving, mildly elegiac introduction to the film and preceding the title. Hall’s life-long listening to Miles Davis provides the narrative structure (signature) and rhythm for the biography.

We would have to talk to Akomfrah and his production team to get a keener understanding of the mechanics of the production process. But from what the film chooses to tell us in its final form and from the outset: this is a story told through multiple voices emanating from several archives, via ongoing dialogue with Hall, navigated through the ‘musical fragments’ of Miles Davis together with selective explication of key Cultural Studies publications: the Open University Lectures, pages of the New Left Review (with its own identity transformation), and Policing the Crisis. What might have begun as a project aiming to portray the biographical life story of a public intellectual, becomes instead a dialogic portrait of agency, identity, memory, migration, race, class and place – choreographing the quintessential multicultural experience and as noted on-screen: ‘the multiple lives of a multicultural subject’.

The enormity of this intellectual scope would be daunting for any filmmaker or biographer, but here Akomfrah and his team – in collaboration with Hall – translate the ideological vastness into something immediate and familiar. The wider geopolitical, historical landscape is conveyed in bold elusive montages, commenting all the way through on the politics of the visual, specifically photography and the use of archival film footage. Public events become intimate via shared collective memories, shown in fleeting, haunting images of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, CND marches in the late 1950s, Civil Rights marches in US in the 1960s, likewise the anti-Vietnam/war movement, the miners’ strikes of the 1980s, etc. Harkening back to an earlier period yet mapping (performing) in filmic and photographic form what Hall repeatedly calls (following Gramsci and Althusser) a politics of ‘conjuncture’ – in Halls very ordinary but eloquent words: ‘what […] the circumstances [are] in which we find ourselves, how did they arise, what forces are sustaining them and what forces are available to change them.’

To be sure, The Stuart Hall Project disappoints some and no doubt delights others. There are significant narrative gaps with pathways chosen and others elided – like any biography, this is selective; at times most definitely subjective, not ‘authoritative’. But Akomfrah and team stretch the limits of the biographical method further in a three-screen installation, aptly named The Unfinished Conversation – where the gallery audience engages with a horizontal navigation of the biographical form with images moving across three screens, disrupting the optical and spatial logic of the single screen, chronological format. Commissioned by the photographic agency Autograph ABP, this installation ran in the Tate Modern from 2013-2104.

Screen clip silent: (Akomfrah is presenting at the Tapei Tilm Festival and talks about the role that Hall played as a mentor for both him and a whole generation of black British artists and intellectuals).

In this re-versioning of film and photographic footage the archive comes alive and opens out to diverse interpretations and possibly audiences. Akomfrah and team embrace this way of working, as a commitment to a form of ‘radical contingency’ (borrowing from Hall) (wire) where the installation format facilitates a ‘trafficking of ideas between past and present …and of how identities move in time’ (UTube clip Tapwei).

Frame 2: Placemaking and Post-memory        

[In this section I’ll screen 2 clips but will first work through a series of points in the lead up to the clips].

 [Marianne Hirsch: “Postmemory” describes the relationship that the “generation after” bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before — to experiences they “remember” only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right. As I see it, the connection to the past that I define as postmemory is mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation].

A World Not Ours is a documentary feature released in 2012 by director Mahdi Fleifl and his team at Nakba Film Works. The film’s title plays on Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani’s book of short stories A World that is Not Ours’ (1965).   Using multiple archives to form the baseline for a family portrait, the film animates a larger collective portrait of a Palestinian refugee community living in the Southern Lebanese Refugee Camp, Ain-el-Helweh (literally translated as ‘Sweet Spring’). 64 years old and the biggest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, Ain-el Helweh has approximately 70,000 people (or more) living in one square kilometer. Surrounded by Lebanese army checkpoints, inhabitants can leave the camp but are prohibited from traveling abroad. Regarded as foreigners by the Lebanese, they have no economic, political or social rights.

Born in Dubai, Mahdi re-located briefly to the camp in the 1980s then migrated with his family to Denmark but has been returning to the camp to visit extended family and friends regularly since he was a child. Nakba Film Works is currently based in London.

Intending to make a fiction film, Mahdi originally wrote a feature script but realized that the ‘story’ was already there in the 20 years of family archive he had inherited and in his own footage shot over the years in the camp. He borrows heavily from fiction to create the rhythm and narrative pacing with his naive-sounding (incredulous), upbeat voice-over driving the autobiographical framing. Both his and his father’s camera serve as persistent witness to three generations of exile and displacement.

Much like The Stuart Hall Project, this is a story discovered through a maze of differently sourced archival footage. What originated as merely chronicle, becomes a moving family memoir integrating storylines from disparate, scattered sequences within several relational archives; in its wider biographical reach this is a loving, humane tribute to the camp, it’s people and its dynamic everyday infrastructure. The full scale of the archive includes: footage shot by Mahdi’s father who was obsessed (tenderly and somewhat haphazardly) with ‘chronicling’ the family’s diasporic scattering, from the Ain-el Helweh camp to Dubai; other home video footage and photographs exchanged between family members displaced/separated yet globally connected; it includes a slice of historical footage gleaned from ‘official’ archives illustrating the Nakba, concomitant with the creation of Israel and the parallel scale of human displacement; in addition to the integration of a popular cinema archive evoking pivotal moments in Mahdi’s adolescence and the shaping of his imaginary; and, most poignantly, the use of ‘home video footage’ shot in Denmark capturing, almost viscerally, Mahdi’s early sense of ‘exile’ and not ‘belonging’.

Rather modestly Mahdi ironically says: ‘It’s really just a film about family, memory, childhood, and friendship. It’s about more universal things than merely a political situation’.

The infrastructure of the camp is in reality an impermanent/permanent place –composed of incremental layers of buildings, structures and practices that span its 64 years. Cultural geographer, Adam Ramadan, describes the built and cultural form within Palestinian refugee camps across Lebanon, as a type of ‘assemblage’:

The notion of assemblage evokes the piecemeal and gradual assembling of the camps in Lebanon over the course of 64 years, as people replaced tents first with corrugated iron and then brick and concrete, and the slow accumulation of experiences and memories, births and deaths, buildings and capital. In the camp, people, their legal statuses and identity docu- ments (or lack of such things), their relations, institutions, technologies, infrastructure and the built environment combine to create a particular kind of space in which specifically Palestinian values, identities and practices are produced and reproduced. The camp is the people within it and the relations between them: the space and the society are one for- mation, a ‘camp-society’. This camp-society is not a monolithic body with a single pure identity, but a diverse, dynamic and at times divided assemblage in constant motion.

In an effort to capture this ‘camp-society’, the production team at Nakba Film Works (similar to Akomfrah’s team at Smoking Dogs Films) has similarly produced a 3-screen installation tracking the vertical spaces unique to the camp and the warren of claustrophobic, twisting alleyways only really navigable by the people living there – [this installation is frequently installed following the screening of the film- it was commissioned by Counterpoints Arts this year at the BFI for Refugee Week].

The political questions are never far from the surface and the film handles a very wide span of biographical history (like The Stewart Hall Project), from the period of 1948 (Nakba) to the present yet does so with ease and a lack of heavy-handedness – combining humor with heartbreaking observations of intimate family life. The human architecture of the film pivots around portraits of 3 male characters, reinforcing a sense of loss and gain across three generations of men: Mahdi’s grandfather, his Uncle Said and his life-long friend and contemporary, Abu Eyad. Mahdi’s grandfather is 82 when the film was released in 2012 and has been living in the camp since he was 16 (having been removed from his village, Saffouri, in Palestine during the Nakba). Mixing whimsy and tragic irony, the camera captures his grandfather’s resolute refusal to leave (even to briefly visit his family in Denmark) because he does not want to give up on ‘his right to return’. His Uncle Said has long wished to leave but never could – bitterly blaming his extended family in the diaspora for failing to deliver money and exit options. The film ends with a shot of Abu Eyad – in marked contrast to both the Grandfather and Said – who has escaped the camp but is now destitute and doubly ‘homeless’ alongside other undocumented Palestinian migrants on the streets in Athens. Mahdi (the filmmaker) of course is able to come and go and this freedom and obvious mobility marks the oscillation between observational and subjective perspectives throughout.

The final sequence to the film (which I will now show), compresses a range of relational biographical time lines and emotions, beginning with subjective (semi-staged) shots of Mahdi saying goodbye to his Grandfather and Uncle Said before he exits the camp with camera firmly in hand; overlaid with the evocative non-diegetic soundtrack of ‘Lightness’ performed by Peter and the Wolf’ Mahdi speaks back and through the lens of a multi-layered archive to make sense of the accumulated, fraught and fragmented family memories triggered by his father’s (and indeed his own) preoccupation with filming. Footage from previous family departures (trans-generational memories of repeated separations) is woven in with his own open-ended, poignant departure.

Mahdi’s archival re-imagining of ‘what might have been’ is provocative and (I think) terribly moving, refusing any easy nostalgia or reduction to sentimentality, even with its consciously moody soundtrack hinting at a deeper melancholia. The multiple ‘might-have-been selves’ join up across parallel real and re-imagined – political and personal – contingencies of past, present and future: the idealism of the Ben Gurion scene [the first prime minister of Israel] stands in painful, competing contrast with the image of his Grandfather’s exilic life in the camp, aggressively displaced from the family farm in Saffouri. Filtering his imagining through the pastoral Ben Gurion scene invokes a contemporary claim to lost land and collective memories, re-invoking a wider social biography of an imagined community and a more immediate family history both within the camp and transnationally. Yet the images from the diasporic family album contrast the stark reality his friend Abu Eyad faces on the street in Athens. The final shots pull us into the current, harsh orbit for undocumented migrants traveling across Europe, and the material implications of policies like the Dublin 2 Convention, whereby asylum seekers are returned to their original point of entry to Europe for processing. (Abu Eyad was imprisoned in Belgrade for 3 months and then returned to Athens – we see what happens to Abu Eyad in the short follow-up film Zenos [Greek for stranger], 2013)).

I asked film scholar Haim Bresheeth about this biographical methodological balance in Mahdi’s film in a conversation we filmed last June for a Counterpoints Arts Refugee Week event at the British Film Institute (Haim’s own biography is interesting because he was in fact born in the Italian Refugee camp, Cinecittá – Mussolini’s film Studio – in Rome in the early 40s before he and his parents migrated to Israel). In this clip we talk about the fine line between ‘chronicling and storytelling’ in films addressing refugee communities of place, specifically within A World Not Ours. I was interested in what Haim had previously written on Palestinian filmmakers negotiating the lived legacy of the Nakba through innovative uses of archive and filmic biography:

[All these films deal with the scattered limbs of Palestinian existence and are a powerful means of rewriting them into the collective memory of the Nakba. Such films actively reclaim Palestinian identity by bridging and combining memories in storytelling. Palestinian cinema exists in the exilic interstice – between fact and fiction, between documentary and fiction, between the realities of Israel and Palestine, between life and death. Facts are not enough, these films tell us. It is only by telling their story that Palestinians may overcome a national political melancholia and come to terms with the Nakba. A future may be possible through a resolution of the traumatic past.]

Screen Clip: approx. 4 mins in length and part of a longer interview with Haim Bresheeth

What can we learn from this idea of ‘totality’ suggested by Haim – the choreographing, capturing, and editing into story form of subtle sensorial and material moments, adding up to a tightly told poly-vocal biographical and autobiographical story?

I want to bring Butler back into the frame here and argue that both Akomfrah’s team at Smoking Dogs Films and Mahdi’s at Nakba Filmworks, through different biographical contingencies encourage/invite audiences to enter into that mediated space of ethical relations, proposed by Butler where events, experiences and obligations form part of a wider global and connected geopolitical and historical consciousness. Of course there is no certitude that this form of filmic slippage between autobiography, biography and living archive is fully capable of such ambitious address but it’s worth positing, at least as a methodological possibility.

I shift the perspective slightly here moving away from film into journalism- into what I called at the outset ‘old-fashioned humanistic journalism’

Frame 3: A Return to Empirical Humanism

My final frame ‘A Return to Empirical Humanism’ steps out of filmmaking into journalism, to engage with the writing of the Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, to continue this exploration of chronicling versus storytelling and that mediated space of ethical relations (suggested by Butler) and what she describes as the ‘conditions of unwilled adjacency’.

Levy writes a regular column, aptly called ‘The Twilight Zone’ for the newspaper ‘Harretz’. There’s something hugely evocative about his phrase ’a whistle in the dark is still a whistle’ (cited at the beginning). It has intrigued me for a while, conjuring up the image of a deep instinct to tell a story against all odds about others to others. The faint hope is that someone will hear, will in fact register the sound – perhaps even act in the form of a reply – and that these stories will possibly bear witness.

Crafting minute, carefully honed biographical details about everyday life in Gaza and the West Bank, Levy attempts to turn the unfamiliar into the familiar. As he says to re-humanise Palestinians who have been de-humanised by the Israeli media and to try to tell Israelis the story of what is going on in their own back yard – in that very space that Butler calls ‘unwilled proximity and unchosen cohabitation’.

Levy is often labeled (in some if not many circles) as the ‘most hated man in Israel’ – a phrase he ironically used recently in the title for one of his columns in which he takes stock of the negative response of readers to his coverage of the war in Gaza (this summer). What interests me here is not his public notoriety as an individual journalist but rather how he consciously – and repeatedly – utilizes the biographical method by way of recording simple empirical details to shed light on a bigger life story and history.

Most telling is how Levy inverts the biographical gaze from the characters in his stories even while he is using biographical (empirical) detail to tell their story. His biographical subject is, in fact, the Israeli State and word-by-careful-word Levy constructs a reflective serialized biography about its health or ill health.

As he says, I am trying to write about what we are doing – not about the victim [the Palestinians] but about those who are responsible for the suffering. He suggests that the accumulative value of his work is maybe for the archives – to prevent Israelis the luxury of saying ‘we didn’t know’.

Inviting readers into unfamiliar yet exceedingly familiar human spaces and places his writing reads much like small film scripts/short stories do. In fact exiled Israeli film producer, Eyal Sivan, selected many of the weekly articles for Levy’s book ‘The Punishment of Gaza’ (published by Verso in 2010). In one of his most famous, ‘The Wahba’s Last Meal’ published in 2006, the story begins in the middle of a celebratory meal and family reunion in Gaza:

They’d all sat down to have lunch at home: the mother Fatma, three months pregnant; her daughter Farah, two; her son Khaled, one; Fatma’s brother, Dr Zakariya Ahmed; his daughter in law Shayma, nine months pregnant; and the seventy-eight year old grandmother. A Wahba family gathering in Khan Yunis in honour of Dr Ahmed, who’d arrived home six days earlier from Saudi Arabia. A big boom is heard outside. Fatma hurriedly scoops up the littlest one and tries to escape to an inner room, but another boom follows immediately. This time it is a direct hit. A skilled Israel Air Force pilot fired the second missile and it came right into the dining room through the ceiling. Fatma is killed on the spot by the shrapnel that hits her spine. Her brother, Dr. Ahmed, is also killed. His daughter-in-law miscarries her child; the little girl, Farah, is moderately injured; and the baby of the family Khaled, is critically injured in the head. A pool of blood collects on the floor. Only the grandmother is unhurt. It will be many minutes before the ambulance arrives. This was the last meal of the Wahba family.

Excavating the human story behind the (literally) deadening impact of the official media’s reporting of this incident, Levy portrays the Wahbas by way of accumulative empirical detail recast in a humanistic frame. He is not an ethnographer, sociologist, anthropologist, or even officially a biographer. He writes to the tempo of journalistic weekly deadlines and formulas. But I think we have a lot to learn from Levy’s insistence on the transformative, accumulative power of ‘empirical humanism’ even if it is for the benefit of a future archive.

What might a documentary film about Levy look like? Would it centre on Levy as the key protagonist, featuring his agency as the driving force of the action and drama? Much like the lone individual he is often constructed as in the European press? Or would it be a film about the rhythm of biographical, journalistic writing and research: taking the form of an observational and interactive engagement with Levy’s everyday, his rituals, the people and places he visits and documents along with the reflective discipline he applies to his craft? Would this (imaginary) documentary film have a longitudinal dimension – involving slow, immersive fieldwork and verité footage combining in-depth interviews with Levy, the characters and places in his stories, his editors, readers and intimate companions? Finally, what might we learn and unlearn about a global ‘ethics of obligation’ from watching it?