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Towards a history of the vanishing present
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Appendix: Makrem’s Archive
The Interpreter evokes the time between a clandestine crossing of the Mediterranean Sea at the end of the 1990s and the forced return of some of its young protagonists: Jaouhar and Mohez, two former smugglers, a fisherman and his friend, who arranged the voyage towards Italy.
The film is based on transcripts of conversations and of a recorded interview with Jaouhar and Mohez in their hometown Sayada, a small village near Monastir. It was produced in close collaboration with geographer Makrem Mandhouj and benefitted from elements of his ongoing field research on local and international migration in and from the area of the Tunisian Sahel, in particular his analysis of socio-spatial dynamics in Sayada resulting from these patterns.
In the video, the voice of the narrator reconstructs a fragmentary narrative in Tunisian Arabic dialect and suggests the various acts of translation that embody it. He becomes the "interpreter" of the words of Jaouhar and Mohez, since the recording of their individual accounts could not be publicly disclosed without exposing them. He recalls the conditions under which furtive meetings took place in several places, as well as he comments on the production process of the film itself. The Interpreter evokes the difficulty of putting into narrative one's own history. It calls attention to the impossibility of openly testifying in the context of criminalization of undocumented migration and deprivation of freedom of speech in Tunisia under the regime of former president Ben Ali.
The film retraces the significant sites of the narrative and makes a detour via the recording studio in Tunis where the voices of the film were actually recorded. It ends where the project of crossing had originally been planned and implemented several years earlier – in a plantation of olive trees – refuge of harragas*, alcohol consumers and lovers – which is gradually covered by the expansion of the city and the impressive houses that successful emigrants living in Europe are currently building.
* The Arabic name given to those who cross borders undocumentedly
The Interpreter might be a starting point for future works that examine a post-revolution context in Tunisia, as the recent events have overwritten some of the premises of the film. What has happened since the production of The Interpreter in 2009 asks for reconsidering anew the material that had been collected during the making of the film – its significance in the current situation, its further implications –, as well as to reflect on how history shifts perception and meaning.
The Interpreter, 2009
Exhibition views, Les Complices*, Zürich, CH
The Interpreter, 2009
Exhibition views, NH Biennale, Haarlem, NL