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SWANA Film Festival: contending with complexities of matrilineal relationships from the SWANA diaspora
Friday, March 12, 2021 | Tara Hakim

Film still from Immigrant at Home, directed by Sufian Abulohom.



Three months ago, I grasped the opportunity and flew back to Jordan from Toronto amidst the global pandemic to be with family. It felt as if I was leaving home to go home; an oxymoron in itself - both literally and viscerally. The first few weeks were filled with an inchoate excitement involving reunions, local food cravings, and late-night catch-up conversations. Then, as time stretched and the pandemic slowness set in, so did my feelings and experience of being back. 

I found myself feeling more and more disoriented, fragmented, and dis/connected. Disconnected from my true self, my ways of being, and personal culture I have cultivated for myself; a combination of many cultures and lived experiences I belong to. I’m originally Palestinian, born and raised in Jordan with an Austrian grandmother. I was raised with the clear distinction that I am Palestinian, and not Jordanian, and yet I have never set foot in Palestine. Never felt Jordanian, nor Austrian. No identity. Dual identity? Triple? Where do I belong? Sparingly connected to selected moments, people, and slices of daily life; mainly among my mother and her parents. In this unhome I sometimes call home, I feel most myself and safest in the confines of my maternal grandparents’ home and sometimes, in my mother’s embrace. I’ve been on a journey of contemplation and reflection since, and the relationship I have with my mother and home has somewhat been at the forefront. 

In a synchronous way, the offer to write a response to SWANA, a film festival that presents works from the wider region I descend from fell in my lap. SWANA is the decolonial acronym for the South West Asian/North African region in place of the popular term MENA that is analogous with more colonial and Eurocentric connotations. In a state of disconnection, and in an attempt to connect to, or even decipher ‘home’, I jumped at the opportunity and was excited to delve into the program. Little did I know, the mother-daughter relationship was a thread that would weave throughout. Serendipitous? Emblematic? Whatever it was, it seemed worthy of exploration. 


In this unhome I sometimes call home, I feel most myself and safest in the confines of my maternal grandparents’ home and sometimes, in my mother’s embrace.


Featuring short films, poetry, and workshops, and presented by the School of Art Gallery at the University of Manitoba on Treaty 1 (Winnipeg), the SWANA film festival showcased two weeks of Southwest Asian and North African creativity on-screen that spoke to themes of diaspora, dis/connection, displacement and relationships with mothers, memory, and place. Curator, Christina Hajjar set the tone for the 2021 festival with her curatorial statement introducing the festival as an opportunity to “capture the beauty and complications of many SWANA narratives(…)not in an attempt to conflate the experiences of that region, but to nod to their inherent connectivity, and share the work of artists who create such visceral work to be immersed in, often in the diaspora, and often making visible topics, landscapes, and bodies that have been subjugated.” 

In perfect tendering of that statement, the festival’s opening film Immigrant at Home, directed by Sufian Abulohom, tells the story of Safa, the daughter of Yemeni-Palestinian Immigrants, as she struggles to find her independence and maintain her culture at home, where she still shares a bedroom with her mother. Instead of extending a definitive or all-exposing film, Abulohom offers a visually sophisticated yet genuine insight into Safa’s life. The film weaves different strands of Safa’s daily routine; Safa explains the workings of Tinder to her mother, attends therapy sessions and performs a stand-up comedy show. Among all these daily rituals, mostly happening with her mother, conversations ensue and it is precisely through those everyday conversations that we learn about the complexities behind Safa’s experience. At one point, over a zucchini stuffing session, we learn that Safa’s father passed away in her lap when she was 14. Understandably, it was a lot on her. 

Over the years, the absence of her father heightened Safa’s feeling of guilt with regards to gaining her independence; leaving her mother and following her own path within the confines of her conflicted cultural identity – her reality of being an Immigrant at Home. Safa finds herself consistently drawn back to the safety of her mother’s home because of her cultural ties, unable to tether the umbilical cord. During a therapy session, Safa explains how when her father died, it was as if he had left her mom. Now, whenever she considers moving out, the feeling that she is leaving her mom all alone cannot escape her. To add to this, we find out that Safa has never been to an Arab country, never tasted her own culture. And yet, she is inexplicably tied, treading a tightrope of in-between, being pulled by both sides; her cultural roots and her lived roots. 



Film still from Immigrant at Home, directed by Sufian Abulohom.



Unlike Safa, I’ve had the privilege of living in and knowing my home country. However, like Safa, I do feel like an immigrant at home, both in Jordan and Canada. And like Safa, I find myself drawn back to Jordan time and again, due to cultural and familial ties, always hoping to feel at home, yet never do. The guilt feeling of obligation is real. Immigrant at Home does not reveal all, but rather, makes the nuances between mother and daughter, self and independence, and the diasporic experience of a culture within a culture visible. We are there in the room with Safa and her mother, not looking in, but just there.

In Measures of Distance, mother and daughter are no longer in a room together, but miles apart. In an uncharacteristic autobiographical work, Mona Hatoum creates a layered record of an intimate conversation about loss and longing between a mother and daughter who have been separated by a civil war that smoulders in the country. The video is also a testament and reflection on the intimate relationship between mother and daughter, making visible the ways in which womanhood and female sexuality are passed on generation to generation, woman to woman. 

An intimate conversation between Hatoum and her mother during a visit to Lebanon in many months, if not years before can be heard. There yet lingering in the background, only accessible to Arabic-speaking viewers. “Women chatting in Arabic” is all the screen reads. In actuality, these snippets of conversations offer an added layer of understanding and insight into the intricacies of being a woman and the mother-daughter relationship only privy to Arabic language speakers. As such, I will refrain from sharing the details. 

On the screen, images Hatoum took of her mother taking a shower in that very same visit appear. The images are superimposed by letters written in Arabic later sent from the mother in Beirut to the daughter in London, while Hatoum’s voice interprets them into English. The moving letters on the screen transform into a veil that limits access to the voyeuristic pleasure of looking at an unclothed body; a formal intervention that renders the images intimate, suggestive and evocative of Hatoum and her mother’s closeness. As the images flash by us, Hatoum continues to interpret sections of letters sent by her mother over a period of time, reflecting the sense of separation and isolation caused by war and exile for the both of them. 

In one of her letters, Hatoum’s mom expresses the difficulty she faced when the family first fled Palestine, and how she had felt that her very soul was stripped away from her. In a bid of connection, she attempts an understanding of Hatoum’s feelings of being born in exile, in a country that doesn’t want her. Hatoum’s mother continues to acknowledge Hatoum’s feelings of fragmentation and her inability to locate a feeling of belonging now that she and her sisters have left Lebanon and are living in a second exile, in a country that’s even further away from their own – both culturally and geographically. A feeling of fragmentation and non-belonging, that’s precisely it. Measures of a Distance intricately weaves personal images and audio recordings of a very intimate nature against the backdrop of war, exile and displacement; the personal is inextricably bound with the political.



How does it feel to continuously grapple with questions of identity, familial relationships, and notions of ‘home’ and belonging that are inextricably bound with the physical and psychological experience of exile, and of being subjugated, generation to generation, country to country, mother to daughter?



In the second week of programming, another film that gently traces the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship with a political backdrop illuminated my screen; Though I am Silent, I Shake, directed by Sophie Sabet. White sheets on a clothesline, gently flowing in the soft breeze,  a sense of peace exudes. Over a minute in, if you listen closely, a conversation between two generations, the past and present, between mother and daughter can be heard. Sabet’s mother begins to express her thoughts on being a woman. Yet, before she can continue, Sabet’s voice interrupts and states “okay, we’re not talking about that right now. I didn’t ask about your opinion on being a woman. I just asked about your paintings.” The video transitions to the next setting, inside the home, showing the paintings and sculptural works created by Sabet’s mother.  

Her mother is shown lying on a couch and the frame is focused on her bare neck; her pulse visible. The mother, as if Sabet’s interruption was not heard, contemplates womanhood and motherhood. Again, Sabet punctuates her mother’s train of thought and reminds her that she only wants to know about her mother’s paintings. The camera slowly shifts its angle to display her mother’s bare arms, as she speaks about the restrictions imposed on women during the Islamic Revolution of 1978 in Iran. Finally, the mother describes the theme of the group exhibition presented at the Seyhoon Gallery, in Tehran, in the 1990’s in which she showcased her paintings that Sabet so insistently wonders about. Her mother wanted to show her resistance to the way women were viewed, her paintings expressing her musings about motherhood and its role as “the base of the family.” 

The lens returns to the white sheets hung on the clothesline. This time, the shadow created by the human silhouette behind the sheets draws us in, the dialogue even more sparse now. Her mother’s shadow behind the sheets appear like unremembered memories, or soul-stirring thoughts, that she may be trying to neglect. Back inside, the mother continues her pondering about motherhood, as we watch her pulse move her skin, and details of her domestic space linger before us. Once again, the lens moves to the couch, framing the bare neck, pulse visible, only this time, it’s Sabet. She expresses, yet again, discontent in her mother’s musings, to which her mother irritatedly replies “this is how I feel, you asked me to speak, I’m speaking.” Sabet constantly attempts to pull her mother back to her point of interest—the content in her paintings—yet does not receive the answers she seeks. 

Through the long-take fixed frames that encourage slow-looking and contemplation, and the exposure of the mother’s bare neck and arms that suggest vulnerability and intimacy, the dialogue examines generational gaps, and the ways in which they manifest conversationally, in the lulls, the silence, and ultimately, an unanswered inquiry. The tension and irritation on either end in the narrative is present yet subtle, steadily submerged in the tranquility of the breeze effleuraging the hung white sheets. There is an imbalance of emotion and contextualization of what is being recounted and what is being seen; the image and dialogue in a constant dance of vulnerable tension, highlighting the diverging and overlapping ideas of womanhood, the body, and familial relationships. 

In each of these three films, the tenderness, intimacy, and closeness of the mother-daughter relationship is undeniably felt, whether through formal interventions, imagery, dialogue or simply through the assertion and exposure of the relationship itself. It is felt, without having to be said. In each of these three films, the complexities, tension, nuances and inner truths of differing subjective realities within the mother-daughter relationship, specifically in diaspora, is also undeniably felt. Two separate individuals, inextricably (umbilically) bound, the mother passing down notions of womanhood and female sexuality, the daughter attempting to decipher her own ideas on these topics, propelled on a journey to find her place as a woman in a world in which home is a distanced place, perhaps only felt and experienced through stories, memories and familial connections. 

Through my own pondering on the relationship I have with my mother, in tandem with viewing these films, I have realized that it is a relationship of great complexity, that perhaps will never be fully understood, or deciphered. When I think of my own relationship with my mother, there is a sense of conflict. It is a relationship that no other is like, one that provides me with safety and love, one that I am undeniably bound to and one that often symbolizes home for me when I am away from or can’t find home. It is also a relationship that is sometimes ridden with guilt, one that manifests in differing opinions, one that hinders my independence at times, and one that has undeniably passed on notions of womanhood, sexuality and ways of being that require me to work through, question and resolve. I return to a line Hatoum’s mother expressed in one of her letters to her daughter, only I address this to my mother:

Mama, “you are so close to my heart, yet so far away from me.” 

In a time where many of us have found ourselves back home with our families, or far away yet yearning for the safety and closeness of our family that is perhaps not always attainable or found, the SWANA film festival brought a slice of home and contemplation to us SWANA descendents, while simultaneously inviting all viewers to take a plunge into the visceral work of artists whose works illuminate the connected experiences of peoples living in diaspora, and the inherent complexity that comes with it. What does it mean to live in diaspora? How does it feel to continuously grapple with questions of identity, familial relationships, and notions of ‘home’ and belonging that are inextricably bound with the physical and psychological experience of exile, and of being subjugated, generation to generation, country to country, mother to daughter? Questions like these do not come with answers. Questions like these are continuous explorations and struggles that endlessly propel people to search, feel, grapple with and attempt to answer. Questions like these are what the works in the SWANA film festival so beautifully illuminate, reveal, and open space up for, ultimately reclaiming topics, landscapes, and bodies that have been subjugated.

The above text is by Toronto/Jordan-based multidisciplinary artist Tara Hakim.