Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship: Joanne Nucho

We are pleased to present a trailer and abstract for Dr. Joanne Nucho who received a Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship to aid filmmaking on The Narrow Streets of Bourj Hammoud.

The Narrow Streets of Bourj Hammoud from Joanne Nucho on Vimeo.

The Narrow Streets of Bourj Hammoud

Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship

The Narrow Streets of Bourj Hammoud is a 90-minute experimental ethnographic film about a working class suburb of Beirut called Bourj Hammoud that was initially built to permanently settle Armenian refugees who had escaped the 1915 genocide in Ottoman lands. Today, it is a diverse district that is home to Lebanese of various sects as well as migrants and displaced peoples from Syria and all over the world. Filmed over a period of seven years, the film examines the overlapping histories of displacement through interlocutors’ experience of urban space over time. Through an innovative practice of “map-drawing interviews,” my collaborator and I, Lebanese artist Rosy Kuftedjian, asked participants to draw a visual representation of the neighborhood that reflects something that has changed over time, or that is meaningful. The results of the map-drawing interviews shape the narrative of the film, which is anchored in the city’s constantly shifting material urban infrastructures and the ways in which people variously experience rootedness and displacement through the materiality of streets, electricity cables, bridges and buildings. The result is a lyrical ethnographic reflection on space, time and material accretions of the past as narrated by longtime residents as well as recent arrivals to this city. The associated website for the film can be found here.

I am very pleased to report that my 90-minute ethnographic film, The Narrow Streets of Bourj Hammoud, has been completed. This project is the culmination of several years of ethnographic research and filming in Bourj Hammoud, a municipal district just east of Beirut, Lebanon. A working class suburb with a diverse population, the film explores Bourj Hammoud’s rich history as a city built by survivors of the Armenian genocide settled in Lebanon in the 1920s and 30s as well as subsequent histories of displacement, exile, eviction and movement throughout the Lebanese civil war and, today, the conflict in Syria. These histories are explored through a series of “map drawing” interviews with various interlocutors in Armenian, Arabic and English, in which participants narrate the histories of Bourj Hammoud’s shifting urban terrain and conflicted histories through their own experiences in space and time. The film takes as its object the making and remaking of Bourj Hammoud’s urban materialities as well as shifting memories. The film project consists not only of a completed film, but it also incorporates an online “archive” that features the map drawings as well as excerpts from the interviews with the film participants who created them. The website is open for contributions of photographs and drawings of Bourj Hammoud by current residents as well as people in the Armenian and Lebanese diaspora who have, in recent years, taken an interest in this neighborhood which has been at the center of artistic projection about pre-war Lebanon (see, for example, artist Ara Madzounian’s recent photography book about Bourj Hammoud). The website can be found here: http://mappingbourjhammoud.com/

Organizing footage that was filmed in multiple different formats over a number of years was daunting. I first set about re-digitizing tapes and transcoding formats in order to match newer footage shot on digital formats – no small task for hours of footage. I carefully translated and logged the footage, creating rough sequences and identifying the gaps in b-roll footage, since I planned to return to Lebanon in order to conduct the map drawing interviews and further filming. One of the challenges in working with this footage is that the interviews were conducted in three languages – Arabic, Armenian and, occasionally, English. I am a firm believer that a documentary filmmaker and editor needs to log her own footage, but in this instance it would have been quite difficult for me to collaborate with someone else who knows both languages (in their local dialect form) and also knows how to edit and log footage. My primary artistic collaborator and assistant director, Lebanese-Armenian artist and drama therapy activist Rosy Kuftedjian, served as an important interlocutor throughout the logging and editing process. I shared various cuts and subtitled sequences with her digitally, and we actively collaborated across thousands of miles, as she is based in Lebanon. The thrill of digital technology and (slowly) increasing Internet speeds in Lebanon made our collaboration across a wide distance ever more possible.

I returned to Lebanon for one month of filming in 2015 in order to conduct more “map drawing interviews” with participants to enrich and expand my existing footage. We framed each map drawing interview with two questions “What has changed in this place? What do you remember?” Some of our participants answered these questions through detailed illustrations peppered with texts, others drew sparse lines and illuminated their sketches with detailed oral descriptions. We filmed all of these interviews, focusing both on the hands and faces of our interlocutors as they drew and sketched, mixing Bourj Hammoud’s past with its present and speculating upon its future. Through these powerful visual reflections on the violence of the civil war years, to countless evictions and displacements, to meditations on more recent displacements due to the conflict in Syria, the participants’ drawings collectively produce a multivocal portrait of a highly diverse area at the center of numerous tumultuous histories.

One of the most powerful experiences during this additional month of filming was an interview with a Syrian man who was sketching his commute to work each day. He had only recently come to Lebanon, and the small angular drawing of his path to work was crammed into one corner of the large paper we had given each interlocutor to draw on. He explained that his long working hours made it impossible for him to know much else about the neighborhood. This interview made me realize the power of drawing as a mode of ethnographic collaboration to illustrate those aspects of life stories that are often made marginal and the ways in which subjectivities are created in and through everyday life experiences in space.

After the additional month of filming, I logged and translated all of the new footage, which comprised of several hours. The editing process and incorporating the new footage took several months, as there were so many different years of footage, and making them fit into a narrative (though by no means a linear one) was a difficult task. Because the film has so many different interviewees and stories, I decided the best way to approach this process was to put the city at the center of the film’s narrative arc.

Divided into three sections, each part of the film illuminates some aspect of how my interlocutors’ notions of “time,” “space,” and “war,” respectively come through their narratives about Bourj Hammoud as a city, their sense of the passing of time, the changes in space and the impact of war on their own lives and the physical city. Many of the interviewees return at various points in the film, and the interviews are intercut with filmed sequences of life in the city, everything from a group of bystanders trying to rescue a stray cat from underneath a car, to a group of children playing on the street, to a reenacted sequence of one of my interlocutors going downstairs to turn on the power switch on the shared electricity subscription system that powers her apartment. The pace of the edits is meant to reflect a certain pace of time, a particular kind of speed and duration that only a film or time-based art can produce.

I photographed the map drawings themselves and began thinking about the best way to present these materials as the significant works that they are. In collaboration with Rosy Kuftedjian and Simone Rutkowitz, I began putting together the web-based project known as Mapping Bourj Hammoud. The website features an interactive map that allows visitors to click on a point on an illustrated map of Bourj Hammoud which will open up a close-up of the map drawing that corresponds to it in a separate page along with an excerpt from the interview in which the drawing was produced. The digital images of the maps themselves are stored on a Tumblr blog that will serve as an archive open to contributors who want to add photographs and drawings of this rapidly changing neighborhood, as at least one informal space, Sanjak Camp, that is documented in the film is currently being torn down.

The completed film is being prepared for festival screenings by Beirut-based post-production professional Belal Hibri and by Toronto-based sound engineer Matthew Ledermen. They are prepared to output the film into DCP format if it becomes necessary for some festivals. Daniel Fetherston provided additional post-production assistance. I am currently in the process of submitting the film to a number of festivals this spring and throughout the summer. I am also organizing my own screenings at other venues. The first screening and lecture will take place on March 15th at an invitation of sorts, a series curated by Suzy Halajian, Anthony Carfello and Shoghig Halajian in Los Angeles. With the assistance of Rosy Kuftedjian in Lebanon, I am also arranging to screen the film there, though most likely not in an art or festival context, but rather in a context that would be more comfortable for my interlocutors in Bourj Hammoud.

Moving forward I seek to adapt the film into an installation project that incorporates video and the map drawings. Making the film and the associated media available in various forms, both as a traditional ethnographic film as well as a video and drawing installation, would help present the work in a number of different contexts as well as push the work into a potentially more interactive context. The various layers of texts produced in and through this ethnographic project can have a life beyond the context of the film. As singular works, I seek to display the drawings in the context of further screenings or speaking engagements about the visual ethnographic collaborative practice that gave rise to this creative work.

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