Londoners will have the opportunity to see international artist Basma Al Sharif's first feature length film Ouroboros, which pays homage to the Gaza Strip, at her first solo exhibition, The Gap Between Us, that opened on Friday.
Al Sharif, a filmmaker and photographer, was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, before moving to France and later the United States.
She spoke to The National about how her nomadic upbringing, conflicted sense of identity as part of the Palestinian diaspora and political consciousness has influenced her work.
“My mother’s whole family was living in Gaza up until I was in my early 20s and they were the most family that we had in Palestine so I ended up going there very frequently,” said Al Sharif, who moved to the US at the age of eight after her family were denied residency in France.
“It’s not the kind of place you get to escape politics. But I think I also got to have a connection with a place that’s familiar, domestic and banal. It was just about being home for the summer with family and seeing cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents.
“It felt like a reconnection with my identity.”
Like many Palestinians who live outside of Palestine, Al Sharif feels conflicted over whether to identify as Palestinian. “As a political identity I’m Palestinian because I am a product of the occupation and as an ethnicity too. But as an authentic Palestinian – whatever that means and I’m not sure if I believe in it – no.
“I wasn’t born there, I didn’t grow up there, my cultural references and childhood experiences are a mix of different places.
“But I also think that maybe the Palestinian identity is that. If you were born in the West Bank or 1948 Palestine or Gaza or in a refugee camp, all of us are Palestinians but with so many different identities.”
This conflicted sense of identity informs much of the coming together of Ouroboros, even leading Al Sharif to decide not to be present in Gaza during filming. Instead she hired a Palestinian production company led by a friend to shoot the scenes in the blockaded territory.
"I've made work there before and I've spent a lot of time there but for this film in particular I didn't want to be physically present," she said.
“There are scenes inside of a house, which is my family’s house in Gaza, which is now empty, that we also co-ordinated the shooting of remotely. I think for me it was to distance the emotion from the filming. It’s complicated for me to shoot there and to see straight.”
The film begins in Gaza with the opening sequence captured by a drone from the ocean, which is lapping away from the shore in reverse motion. Using Gaza as the central launching place it then moves on to explore other seemingly unconnected landscapes in the US, France and Italy with the intention of linking the plight of the Palestinians to that of other suffering peoples throughout history.
Al Sharif said she wanted to "bring Gaza out of its isolation" by incorporating Native American history, Hispanic history in California and Fascist Italy into the film. The title, Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail, symbolises the way in which history repeats its mistakes.
“I think for me it was tied to the idea of the eternal return that we’re bound to make the same mistakes endlessly,” she said. “One of the ways to move forward is to forget but that’s also a way in which we repeat our mistakes and so I looked at different cultures and different histories that are unconnected and forced them together.”
The Gaza sections of the film show the destruction left by the Israeli bombardment of the territory during the 2014 conflict, which left 2,205 people, mainly civilian Palestinians, dead.
Given the message about history repeating its mistakes and the visualisation of the ruins left by Israeli bombing, an audience member could be forgiven for not seeing a message of hope in the film.
But Al Sharif said the concept of hope is evident. "The Native Americans had the same situation as what's happening to the Palestinians but they're still around. Their culture survives and they're fighting for their rights.
“You can’t just erase a people, it doesn’t work out. We constantly live with a lot of horror but we’re able to move forward and we’re able to hope.”
Now based in Los Angeles, Al Sharif is living under a government that caused international uproar and mass protests last year by formally recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
“America’s a strange place to be in because you’re in this massive country with many different ethnicities even among white Americans,” she said. “It feels like a new era now but it also feels familiar in a way. I can’t say it doesn’t feel worse, because it does feel worse.”
Al Sharif left the US during the Bush administration because she was frustrated at the country’s response to 9/11 and the Iraq War. But, despite the ever-growing hostility towards immigrants from the Middle East, this time Al Sharif has decided to stay.
“It’s important not to abandon it [America], to move to Europe or the Middle East,” she said. “There’s something important about being here and also recognising who can’t leave.”
The Gap Between Us, Basma Al Sharif’s first solo exhibition, is now open at London’s Mosaic Rooms, running until March 31