Review of Permanent Transit July 2008:
Undisclosed Recipients: database
documentaries and the Internet
Dale Hudson Amherst College
This article argues that new media disrupt the linear structures conventionally ascribed to documentary, emphasizing spatiality and relationality. On the Internet, ‘database documentaries’ facilitate selection and recombination of ‘documents’ (audio-visual evidence) through user acts, hypertext, algorithms and random access memory. Specifically, the article examines two pieces that address the controversial subjects of globalization and war. As database documentaries, Eduardo Navas’s Globalization and the collaborative Permanent Transit: net.remix by Mariam Ghani, Zohra Saed, Qasim Naqvi and Edward Potter destabilize quests for ‘totalizing meaning’ by emphasizing interactivity, contestation and multiplicities of meanings. The database evokes endless recombinations, so that meaning, Hudson argues in relation to these works, is explicitly polyvocal, unstable and contested.
“Structured as a database, Permanent Transit would seem to question the very assumptions of data- base search engines to produce meaningful results. Although the videos document travel through eleven states, images of these disparate places are seen only through the windows of vehicles and locations of transit. Cultural and political constructions of ‘the East’ and ‘the West’ collapse upon themselves when the visual markers of familiar and foreign are largely obliterated in partial views. Memories of one flight splinter into memories of a thousand flights. ‘What was the order of cities?’, asks Saed’s text; ‘Beirut. . .Baghdad. . .Damascus. . .New York. . .Baghdad again. . . Amman. . . New York. In the ellipses we find only war.’ Memories become sites for contestation between generations. Meaning of images for one generation is produced in relation to the meaning of another generation.
As an unreliable structuring narrative for the piece, Rula Ghani recounts her memories of Syrian comedian Doreid Laham’s absurdist tale of a man trapped in a no-man’s land. The gaps in Ghani’s memory of Laham’s tale, originally televised in 1981 but only remembered and recorded decades later, are evocative of the work’s attempts to document what is lost every day.
‘How many windows can we look from? How many rooftops await our return?’, asks the text alongside the images. The clicking and chiming of clocks in the waiting rooms of airports, bus depots, railway stations and checkpoints comes to replace the call to prayers once heard from the local mosque. In another segment, sounds of prayers mix with sounds of traffic as a woman eats a meal by a window.
‘God and radio hold hands in the eternity of no-man zones’, suggests the text at one point. Although ‘bells, work, clock – all cut up the day as neatly as a traffic jam’, little relives the sense of being in a state of ‘permanent waiting’, emphasized by looped video across a multiplicity of screens. Permanent Transitalso explores possibilities for recuperation of identity and grounding: ‘There are borders, there are checkpoints, and there are our mother’s stories to undo them all with one twist of a tale and a gentle laugh like glass breaking.’ To break the glass of the windows that stand as barriers between modes and sites of permanent transit suggests a substitute for home, particularly home for families whose individual members may have strikingly different memories of home due to histories of movement across borders. For the hybrid generation, the sound of the mother’s voice is perhaps all that binds identity at times.”
Studies of Documentary Film vol. 2 issue 1
The link to the actual video art work by Mariam Ghani: http://www.kabul-reconstructions.net/transit/
I wrote the poem for this beautiful piece by turning my back to the screen and writing based on sounds. It was all one stream of words. No edits. In the lines are also my own experiences of living in multiple cities between Jalalabad and Brooklyn before finally settling down, for now, in the last city. Thanks to Mariam for inviting me to contribute poetry to this project.