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Watch, See, Feel: Kasim Abid’s 'Whispers of the Cities'

In his documentary 'Whispers of the Cities' Iraqi filmmaker Kasim Abid explores life in Ramallah, Baghdad, and Erbil, forcing viewers' hearts to feel, rather than merely note, their people's daily suffering

Sophie Chamas, Monday 16 Dec 2013
Whispers of the Cities
Film still from Kasim Abid's 'Whispers of the Cities'. Image copyright of the filmmaker (Photo: courtesy of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival)
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Iraqi filmmaker Kasim Abid’s documentary Whispers of the Cities, which premiered at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in October, is the result of 10 years spent observing life in the “conflict cities” of Ramallah, Baghdad and Erbil.

The director set up cameras near the windows and balconies of his apartments in the three locations in order to passively document the drudgery of day-to-day life in Erbil in 2002, Ramallah in 2003, and Baghdad between 2004 and 2012, as the Iraqi capital attempted to hold itself together in the violent aftermath of the American invasion. 

The film contains no dialogue, narration, or fanciful cinematography. The art is in the editing, in Abid’s meticulous sifting through years of footage to stitch together 62 minutes that allow the residents of these troubled places to summarise their own condition, assert their humanity, and showcase their steadfastness simply by going about their day, unscripted.

Whispers of the Cities opens in Ramallah. A man weaves a cart of kaak (pastries) between cars and streets, his advertorial singsong characteristically indicating the start of the day. A paperboy displays his product on the sidewalk, lining the pedestrian pathway with the news of the day. A bride stuffs herself, gown and all, into a rickety taxi as traffic is awakened. A man calmly paints a street sign. Suddenly, curfew is announced by a herd of tanks that seemingly appear out of nowhere. The sound of what might be a minor explosion, or shots being fired, emerges from an undisclosed location. In the distance, an arrest in progress is glimpsed. Soon, night falls, and the streets are abandoned, save for a stampede of rain. Minutes pass and then the sun rises; it all begins again.

The largest portion of the documentary is dedicated to Baghdad, which Abid obsessively filmed over the course of eight years. The footage is largely concentrated on the city’s congested roads. Cars honk fearlessly at tanks trying to cut them off. An ambulance rushes past an abaya-clad beggar sluggishly making her way from car window to car window. A traffic monitor hears gunfire but does not flinch, carrying on with his job. The sounds and sights of construction are ubiquitous. Buildings seem to slowly limp their way upwards out of the rubble, as cars inch forward towards jobs and homes, and ambulances rush victims past the civilians they were and civilians past the victims they might become. On the sidelines, construction workers pause to pray on makeshift cardboard rugs.

Erbil is presented to us before war, invasion, and insurgency. It is calmer. It is quieter. It is free of sirens and tanks. Watching these scenes of supposed normalcy, composed of children laughing on their way to and from school, neighbours chatting in the street and other, similar banal aspects of what I consider ordinary city life, I felt fooled ¬– for a second – into believing things were empirically better in this “before,” but then I remembered Chemical Ali. I remembered that life was simply a different kind of difficult back then. I remembered just how long Iraqis have been suffering.

Those of us living far from cities like Ramallah, Baghdad and Erbil, in relatively stable contexts, probably have our interaction with them limited to the mainstream media, which cyclically delivers news of car bombs and shootings, death and mourning, from these spaces of supposed chronic misery. The media tells us that the residents of these places are “other,” enthralled in a perpetual state of conflict that makes them distant and alien. The most we can offer them is temporary, perfunctory sympathy, before changing the channel or turning the page.

Limited to disturbing yet unfamiliar descriptions in articles or images on screen, it becomes difficult to imagine ordinary life in such cities. Perhaps that would be too unsettling anyway. Seeing their inhabitants get on with their days and weeks, months and years, despite their extraordinary circumstances (seeing them perform the same routine tasks most people regularly engage in), and witnessing the challenges they must overcome to achieve the most banal, taken for granted elements of life, links the “ordinary” viewer to this “extraordinary” other, making their pain universally comprehensible. Such footage transforms their tragedy from a distant tale into a morbidly realistic possibility, making the precariousness of our precious stability and comfort tangible, and their condition, in the process, much more difficult for us to accept and turn the channel on.

This is precisely what Abid confronts this audience with, through his recordings of the residents of these cities practicing what in Arabic is referred to as sumud, or steadfastness. We watch as they determinedly impose some sense of normalcy through mundane routine on their immeasurably difficult and threatening circumstances, and stubbornly find creative ways to live, rather than merely survive — by swimming, for example, in fountains, or bursting into spontaneous, collective song and dance in the streets. The people on screen are mirror images of the viewer, distorted by war, violence, and geopolitics. Watching the familiar in a wholly and terrifyingly unfamiliar context, it becomes more difficult to move on, more difficult to forget, more difficult to dismiss, because these cities no longer feel as foreign and distant.

Cameraman, producer, and director, Abid is known, among other works, for his critically acclaimed look at the life and death of beloved Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali, and his poignant documentary Life After the Fall, which chronicles the filmmaker’s emotional return to a post-Saddam Iraq to be reunited with his family after a 30-year absence. In 2004, he also co-founded the Independent Film and Television College in Baghdad with fellow filmmaker Maysoon Pachachi. The free film-training center was the first of its kind in Iraq, and aims to provide critical support to emerging Iraqi filmmakers in need of production facilities, as well as access to funding and training.

Despite appearing like a collection of passive surveillance footage, Whispers of the Cities is not a departure from the filmmaker’s more personal past works. It is observational, but not objective. The scenes, while not staged, are nevertheless choreographed. Abid had no control over what he saw, over the events unfolding before his camera’s lens. But he could exercise some power over what the film’s audience would see. He dictates what is and is not significant through what he edits out and what he allows to remain, through what he chooses to linger on or skim over, through his arrangement and positioning of scenes.

The camera zooms in on an arrested youth in Ramallah, shackled, shirtless, and blindfolded. We do not know how he got there, and we do not know where he will go, what will become of him, what crime he did or did not commit. We are left to contemplate the endless options, to wonder if his bare chest shivered in the ensuing rain, to get lost in his vacuous anonymity. Similarly, in Baghdad, our gaze is fixed on the traffic monitor as ambulances whizz by. We cannot stretch our necks to see where they are going or turn around to identify their point of origin, to figure out what kind of tragedy summoned them, to discover who sits, lies, breathes, or suffocates on the gurney inside them, and why. We, along with the monitor, also fixed in place, can only speculate.

A disclaimer at the beginning explains that this film “requires the viewer to watch, see, and feel,” but by maneuvering what we are conditioned to imbibe as fact, Abid shapes, or at the very least directs, what and how we feel. We see what he has deemed necessary to be seen, and we are deprived of that which he does not wish us to be exposed to. By making this power dynamic known from the start, with another disclaimer that reads, “This is film is made of up three separate, observational, and at the same time emotionally linked visual stories,” Abid provokes a much needed meditation on contemporary media, both mainstream and citizen-led. He implicitly highlights the impossibility of perspective-free accounts of events, places, or people, and the viewer’s responsibility to engage with, interpret, and investigate the images, videos, and quotes that daily bombard her senses, rather than passively absorbing them.

Abid’s documentary and its scenes of day-to-day banalities, devoid of narrative structure, plot, and even theme, might strike some as boring, simple, un-cinematic even — resembling, as it does, the commentary-free rolling footage presented by some media organisations like Euronews in between programs. But it is a powerful piece made viscerally evocative by its subtle oscillation between moments of utterly routine normalcy like the flow of traffic, and jolts of horror provoked by gunshots or explosions which, combined, provide a bona fide look into life in these cities, not just death and conflict. In so doing, the film makes the conditions of their residents both more palpable and tragic, creeping under the viewer’s skin, showing her nothing she has not seen before, but introducing into her emotional and intellectual register something the news cannot: empathy. 

This article was originally published in Jadaliyya.

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