In the far south of Jordan is the ancient Wadi Rum, or Valley of the Moon, a natural paradise covered in red sand, surrounded by titian-coloured sandstone and granite mountains at the western edge of the Arabian desert. Many films have been shot here, most famously Lawrence of Arabia (1962); in Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) the valley stands in for Egypt and in Ridley Scott’s films Prometheus (2012) and The Martian (2015) as an alien planet and the surface of Mars. In these films, the desert is often disorientated: it’s not clear what or where it is.
‘Al-Qamar, Al Qamar (Valley of the Moon)’ is the first film festival to take place in Wadi Rum and it re-oriented the audience’s gaze from the camera, to the screen and then to the horizon. Across four-days of 13 screenings, conversations, performances and social gatherings, the festival’s point of departure recalled feminist and queer theorist Sara Ahmed’s description of philosopher Edmund Husserl’s writing table: as a site where ‘the world unfolds’.
The idea for the festival came from The Kidlat Tahimik Fanclub, a group of artists, filmmakers and cultural workers based in Jordan and elsewhere who, in 2018, walked for 45 days from the north of Jordan to Egypt as part of Spring Sessions, an annual residency program based in Amman. The Fanclub was set up as a homage to the actor and filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik, a key figure of Philippine post-colonial cinema, whose films they had watched with him over four nights in May in an impromptu cinema in the Wadi Rum desert, inspiring the festival. Fanclub members organized the festival in collaboration with Spring Sessions and MMAG Foundation, a multipurpose cultural institution based in Amman. Together, they invited programmers and filmmakers Faraz Anoushahpour, Gareth Evans, Muhammad Noor Elkhairy and Eliana Otta as the festival’s guest curators.
The festival’s opening title – Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki’s El Mar La Mar (The Sea, The Sea, 2017) – was shot in the Sonoran Desert on the US-Mexico border. Composed of static long shots of the landscape accompanied by spoken testimonies of experiences in this region, the film evokes a place where mythical narratives mingle with harrowing stories of migration. El Mar La Mar problematized the notion of the desert as an open space by highlighting its seemingly imperceptible borders; ones that delineate the act of wandering as a privilege to some and a cause of death to others.
Questions of access and restriction were explored in other films. Particularly memorable was Sara Fattahi’s Coma (2015), which was shot almost entirely in an apartment in Damascus, Syria. Reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), where actions are recorded in real-time, Fattahi documents the mundane activities of living under siege with her mother and grandmother. The film’s repetition, slow pace and non-linearity evokes the experience of the women as a form of imprisonment; like a deep state of prolonged unconsciousness.
Tapping more directly into the experience of being in, and with, the desert, Stanley Schtinter’s psychedelic short film Dreamachine (2018) is a portrait of the artist and writer Brion Gysin and his eponymous invention – a stroboscopic light device that was meant to provoke an effect similar to being on hallucinogenic drugs. In the desert most things have the potential to facilitate a good trip. The same might not immediately be said of Nidderdale, North Yorkshire, Schtinter’s hometown and the subject of his film, Nidder (2019). Imagining a nuclear attack on the US surveillance base located in the town, Schtinter depicts the rural landscape through acid and colour-wash effects. With a soundtrack by a local Sufi brotherhood, who in the film develop an album in tribute to the land and its people, Schtinter represents Yorkshire as a new, almost unrecognizable, site. After the screening, a session with Berlin-based, French-born musician Guillaume Ollendorff took us even further away, towards space, with an enveloping soundtrack from his upcoming solo album SUNATRA IV, which is centred around Eceladus, the moon of Saturn.
While Ollendorff’s electronic music and synth-infused melodies highlighted the silence of the desert, Ismaïl Bahri’s film Foyer (2016) trained our eyes to see without seeing. Shot around Tunis, Bahri placed a sheet of paper in front of his camera’s lens, so all we see is the white paper. The experiment catches the attention of passers-by, including the local police, who ask for proof of the lack of footage on his camera. By asking us to pay attention to what is being said rather than what is seen, Bahri manages to reveal the social and political landscape of a particular place and time. More than any other in the festival, Foyer focused our attention on the images that exist around the screen: the desert’s unwieldy topography, temperature, shifting colours and light.
Eduardo Williams, the director of Parsi (2018), the festival’s closing film, made a last-minute decision to project his work onto the cavernous rocks behind us. Shot by young members of the queer and trans community in Bissau, in West Africa, the film documents journeys by foot, bike, car and roller skates. Mariano Blatt’s poem No es (It isn’t, 2018), a cumulative work that could seemingly go on forever, is recited throughout. Composed of observations that begin with the sentence ‘it seems like’, the poem, like the film, makes a salient point about the relationship between looking and perceiving. By shifting our perspective Parsi reflected on the festival as a whole, reminding us, in the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, that the body is not ‘merely an object in the world […] it is our point of view on the world’.
‘Al-Qamar, Al Qamar (Valley of the Moon)’, Wadi Rum, Jordan ran from 19-22 April 2019
Main image: Al-Qamar, Al Qamar (Valley of the Moon), Film festival, Wadi Rum, Jordan, 2019, a collaboration between Spring Sessions and MMAG Foundation, Amman, Jordan. Courtesy: Kidlat Tahimik Fanclub and MMAG Foundation; photograph: Kari Rosenfeld