Life Under Threat: Kasim Abid’s Whispers of the Cities
Most of us interact with “‘conflict cities”’ like Ramallah, Baghdad and Erbil through the media, which cyclically delivers news of car bombs and shootouts, mass arrests and incursions, death and mourning, from these spaces of chronic misery. Through his documentary ‘Whispers of the Cities’, Iraqi filmmaker Kasim Abid confronts his audience with alternative images from these broken places – images of ordinary life.
A completely observational work lacking dialogue and narration, the film allows its viewers to witness snippets of life in these three cities. Children struggle to cross muddy roads in the rain, cars maneuver traffic, street vendors sell Arabic pretzels, the poor beg for spare change, construction workers go about their business and, in the background, curfew announcements and explosions, rushing ambulances and smoke. Abid watched the residents of these three cities from windows or balconies over a remarkable ten years, recording them as they went about practicing what the Arabs call sumud, or steadfastness, determinedly imposing some sense of normalcy through mundane routine on their immeasurably difficult and threatening circumstances.
Our easy access to information from around the globe has desensitized many of us to images and word of violence, death and destruction. If a tragedy takes place faraway enough, our mind can absorb it as a kind of fiction, reacting as it would to an invented narrative with a momentary frown or tear but then quickly dismissing it. The residents of Ramallah, Baghdad and Erbil, the media has taught us, are enthralled trapped in a perpetual state of conflict that makes them too alien for those of us in relatively stable contexts to connect with. The most we can offer them is temporary, perfunctory sympathy, before changing the channel or turning the page.
We rarely imagine ordinary life in such spaces – that would be too unsettling. Seeing the inhabitants of these cities get on with their days and weeks, months and years, despite their extraordinary circumstances, seeing them perform the same routine tasks we engage in regularly and witnessing the challenges they must overcome to achieve the most banal, taken- for- granted aspects of life, links us to them. It makes their pain comprehensible, transforming their tragedy from a distant tale into a morbidly realistic possibility. The people in Abid’s film are mirror images of the viewer, distorted by war and geopolitics. Watching the familiar in a wholly and terrifyingly unfamiliar context, it becomes more difficult to move on, forget and dismiss the narrative on screen because these cities no longer feel as foreign and distant. Abid’s documentary might strike some as boring, simple or even un-movie likecinematic. Where is the narrative, one might ask? But this is a powerful, viscerally evocative piece, one that subtly creeps under viewers’ skin, showing them nothing they haven’t seen before but introducing into their emotional register something the news cannot – empathy.
Second Screening: Tue 10/29/2013 16:30 VOX 4