Identity as struggle, struggle as identity: a Q&A with the directors of ‘Spaces of Exception’

A new documentary film, Spaces of Exception, directed by Malek Rasamny and Matt Peterson, premiered last weekend at the Sharjah Film Platform. A culmination of four years of footage and research from a flurry of different places, documented under the umbrella project: The Native and the Refugee, the documentary reveals numerous short films covering two distinct groups, Palestinian refugees and Native Americans.

What really breathes life into the project as a whole is the synthesis of these two. By placing them side by side, the filmmakers highlight the parallels between these two oppressed communities and the spaces they both finds themselves in. I sat down with the two directors, Malek Rasamny, a Lebanese-American documentary filmmaker, and Matt Peterson, an American artist, at Metropolis Empire Sofil to discuss the project and their thoughts about the impact they hope it’ll have.

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Courtesy of Malek Rasamny and Matt Peterson

Ayman Makarem: How did you two meet?

Matt Peterson: Malek and I met in New York in the context of overlapping communities: people who were interested in both radical politics but also in critical or experimental arts, mostly in film and video. I think we had seen each other in both kinds of spaces that were showcasing one or the other. It kind of formed a venn diagram where those of us interested in both subjects would gravitate towards one another.

AM: What is the Native and the Refugee? What is it as a concept and as an actual cultural product? how did it begin?

MR: I think it really came through thinking about native reservations in the United States and Palestinian refugee camps as parallels. Growing up in Lebanon, I knew that Palestinian refugee camps were unique spaces in Lebanon, ones that existed outside of the sovereignty of the Lebanese state. In a similar way, native reservations occupied a terrain within the United States. So growing up in both countries, I could see that there were parallels between the two spaces and the historical experience of the people who occupied them.

AM: How so?

MR: Well, what we often hear in the case of Palestinian is the comparison with South Africa and that’s a good comparison, but I don’t think it’s as accurate as the Native one. This is simply because in both the case of Israel and the United States, the central issue is land and settler colonialism, whereas I think apartheid South Africa was more of an issue of economics, racism, and labour. The South African population is still present on the land but as a lower class whereas Natives and Palestinians were displaced. I think both the reservations and the refugee camps are living products of that history. So, it’s more about looking at these things through the lense of the communities that live there today rather than providing some kind of historical overview of those spaces.

MP: To go back to the original question, about the Native and the Refugee. We initially started it exclusively as a multi-media inter-disciplinary documentary project or platform where we would explore the different frameworks of the project through different practices and collaborations. As opposed making a standard documentary film, we knew from the beginning it would be a more dynamic and engaging process if we went about it in a more multi-disciplinary approach. So, Spaces of Exception is just one component of the project.

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Courtesy of Malek Rasamny and Matt Peterson

AM: That’s a good segway into my next question: what were your intentions going into this? How did it match with the reality of it? What were you expecting to come from this project?

MR: It was a long-term research project and we were open to where it would take us. A lot of the short films we were doing along the way were of different genres — some were activist films, some were more poetic ensembles, and others were strict documents. We were really interested in seeing what people thought and how they would react to the idea and to the films themselves. In the Palestinian case, maybe there was some reticence when we would talk about the idea but when we showed them some of the work from the reservations, their perceptions of Native people changed. That was interesting to see.  

This formed a feedback loop of sorts: the work is made and shared, and then the reception of it informs the later work. They feed into each other. It’s not strictly a process of work that produces an effect. Here, there’s filming, then the filming produces an object, the object produces more filming, and the filming produces more objects that are then shown. That, I think, is a better idea of what art is.

AM: So, there wasn’t a strong political intention or a political motive that you wanted to push out there?

MR: There was definitely a political framework, but I wouldn’t say there was a political message that we were trying to force. There were certainly political tendencies and political solidarities that underpinned the approach, but there wasn’t a specific political message we were trying to feed the audience. It was more of a framework and within that we allowed a process to happen organically.

MP: The films themselves are not organised around a particular campaign or cause, and these spaces have existed for decades or centuries with multiple generations in them. It was clear to us that we could continue going back to these places dozens and dozens of times. As filmmakers, there wasn’t a clear time to stop.

AM: Did you have a specific target audience, especially with the idea of trying to change perceptions?

MR: Different films have different audiences. For example, we made a short film called We Love Being Lakota. It was made with the explicit intention of showing it to Palestinians in refugee camps when we went to Palestine and Lebanon. With Space of Exception, we’re hoping to speak to a pretty broad audience — people in the camps, in the reservations, filmmakers, or just a general person going to their local multiplex.

MP: That’s also part of the multi-disciplinary aspect of this project: we made a film that we hope is versatile enough and accessible enough to be screened at a place like Sursock Museum as well as a refugee camp. We’re curious to see if we can show the film in such different contexts or how effective it will be at generating thought or discussion.

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Courtesy of Malek Rasamny and Matt Peterson

AM: To talk about the film itself, it doesn’t really cover any climatic event, it is more of a day-in-the-life-of kind of approach, going back and forth between the lives of Palestinian refugees and a Native Americans. What were your intentions behind this choice?

MP: I mean, it’s not even a day-in-the-life because even that temporality is a bit different. We aren’t following a specific person to see what their literal daily life is like. There are some moments of that but even those thing are a bit more anecdotal or experiential. We really wanted to focus on these places, what they looked like, and what they felt like to these people. We wanted to document that. We deliberated on whether we should include text or narration, but we decided against it because we really felt that the people we had focused on and highlighted had a strong narrative of the place and a strong analysis and description of what it meant to be in that place.

AM: So, you didn’t need to impose that narrative —  it just came organically.

MR: Yeah, I’ll say that traditional documentaries might have a particular character or story or cause that they’re showcasing, but I think — in our case —  that central space is occupied by place. It’s really about places, so these spaces occupy the thematic placeholder that a character or a cause or a story would in another kind of documentary.

AM: The parallels and distinctions between the two are made very clear. There is one thing that you brought up earlier, that there is a parallel between the Palestinian cause, the plight of the Native Americans, and apartheid South Africa is that there’s a common oppressor: settlers. It’s an implied theme in the film, but it’s not explicitly discussed. Is this not a point you wanted to drive home too directly?

MP: In one of the West Bank episodes, they talk a bit more directly about their occupiers because they confront them directly. Of course, these occupiers are at fault in that they are the reason these places exist in the way that they do, but we were more interested in exploring the spaces on their own terms. Rather than having a simplistic narrative to rail against, such as the wrongdoings of these nation states, we want to showcase different thoughts and experiences of the actual people living in the reservations and camps because, in fact, the dynamics of citizenship and refugeehood are quite complicated to think about. That’s not just the fault of one settler state or another.

MR: I think when you broaden your critique, it can actually become quite apolitical because you then end up railing against a system, which is fine, but you lose the specificity of the struggle as a result. As a politically committed person, I think not exploring what’s going on specifically can have deleterious effects on political activism. For example, when you talk to Palestinian refugees in camps in Lebanon, they say our oppression is a three-layer cake. The first layer is their own factions, the second layer is the Lebanese state, and the third layer is Israel. It’s not about letting Israel off the hook, rather about exploring how these things materially take place.

MP: Similarly with the Natives that we worked with, they primarily talked about their language or their ceremonies as a force of being who they are. A sense of identity is the first terrain of struggle for them.

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Courtesy of Malek Rasamny and Matt Peterson

AM: One last question: what’s next for the Native and the Refugee?

MR: Two screenings, one in Burj al-barajneh and the other Burj al-Shamali in Tyre, both of which are featured in the movie.

MP: Then we’ll screen the film in Palestine, in Ramallah, in mid-February. Hopefully, we’ll be able to revisit some of the camps we focused on in the film. Beyond that, we’re working on a festival release. Ultimately we want to return to the reservations we filmed as well and share the film with them. That’s just as important to us as a festival in some European country.

AM: Awesome. Thank you both very much!

Spaces of Exception will be making its Lebanese premiere at Sursock Museum on Saturday, February 2nd, at 4:00 PM.

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Ayman Makarem

Ayman Makarem is Lebanese Screenwriter and Editor. His interest mostly lies in the intersection between film and politics. He has written articles for numerous magazines including Muftah and Beirut Today. His most recent short film Al-Hmar is making its rounds through the festival circuit while he develops his next project, a feature-film set in Mount Lebanon.

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