Many of us, isolated from family and friends, have had time to think in these past months, to reflect on the state of things.
In between shifts of exploring the world with my nearing two-years-old son, I managed to finalize my latest film, Mapping Lessons, this summer. I spent four years deeply enjoying exploring a world history of local governance as alternatives to the nation state, particularly in the Levant, trying to answer the question, how do we prepare now for the next time? Regretfully, the conclusion of that project has been a rather harsh experience with online screenings, not a single in-person interaction with an audience, and film festivals—unsurprisingly—ill-prepared for such online interactions. Finishing a film during the corona pandemic has been a complete anti-climax. In the grand scheme of things this is not a serious issue. But the experience made me realize how much I have taken for granted: from everyday things like sitting at a bar, standing in line brushing shoulders with a stranger, sitting in an uncomfortable seat in a packed cinema, to much bigger things like hugging the people I love, thoughtlessly spending time with friends in gatherings, and traveling beyond the confines of the city I live in.
What strikes me as a real disaster is that many people around me consider the consequences of our actions as the crisis, when actually it is our actions that are the problem, actions which led to the outbreak of this virus. Most of us long for a certain normality in social interaction once again, the normality of the way we used to live just less than a year ago. But we are ignoring the destruction we have caused; we don’t want to admit that normality was the problem, as one campaign has put it. The crisis is not the virus.
This is a mountain, no actually it’s an iceberg, but why is it floating here in the middle of the city, sliding down our streets, getting everything wet and making the sidewalks slippery? This mountain of ice doesn’t belong here. Call in the scientists, call in the specialists, call in the modern healers! But they have no solution, We need to undo what we have done, to unlearn a way of living on this planet, if we don’t want its wrath to return once more.
We happen to be members of a species that has paid scant attention to the home it inhabits, with greed and the disease of excess as a driving force. In the Cree language there is a designation for this pandemic, the wétiko disease: it is what wiped out such a large part of the population of Native inhabitants across the globe to feed a capitalist hunger, and it is what is destroying the natural habitat that we breathe. “Tragically, the history of the world for the past 2,000 years is, in great part, the story of the epidemiology of the wétiko disease,” Jack D. Forbes writes.
It is no small irony that the coronavirus poses the biggest threat to the oldest human inhabitants of the earth, just as it is no small irony that the punishment for our behavior is ever-increasing social isolation from each other. Maybe the earth is sending us a message.
And what does this have to do with the meccas of culture?
Film festivals and art spaces are places where discourse is shaped. When the Egyptian Revolution—whose 10 year anniversary just passed—was taking place, the world gloated over those images of revolt. Someone from the Berlinale called me and my collaborator Jasmina Metwaly one evening, after they screened a short video we had made in the streets just days before, to an anonymous audience in a packed room in Berlin. There was excitement in the air; it was a highly unusual screening in the atmosphere of tightly controlled submission rules and deadlines, competition over world premieres—who would be the first to show the filmmakers who would become the next rage. Art spaces and film festivals feature the latest political “events” and dissect the latest hot topics—not surprisingly images of or around the latest virus, our latest fiend, are particularly sought after these days. These cultural events have rituals, openings, screenings, gossip, after parties, Q&As, ceremonies, prizes. Then it’s time to go home and the process begins again for the next show.
It’s time things change, it’s time we take responsibility, everyone, for their own part, for their own doing. We hope the virus is not here to stay, but what if the next one is worse?
The protagonist in W. E. B. Du Bois’s science fiction short story, “The Comet” (1920), emerges from an underground bunker to find the world devoid of people. Has our world not been shaken up enough to consider changing our actions?
“Corona is the virus, capitalism the pandemic,” we find written on walls. Indeed normality was the problem. “How can we vaccinate ourselves against capitalism?” We cannot afford for this question to fall on deaf ears.
So what are we going to do about it? We, the decision-makers of film festivals and art spaces, we the artists and filmmakers without whom there would be no festivals, and we the audiences, without whom there wouldn’t be anything called culture.
Let me reiterate how I started this letter. I deeply miss the atmosphere around cultural events, the excitement I feel when engaging with an audience, seeing my film on a large screen, the conversations that emerge, meeting new people, it is an exhilarating time. I wouldn’t ever wish this away as we have had to do this year. But things cannot just go back to normal, some things need to change.
Cultural institutions and practitioners can’t keep championing social and political issues the world over without addressing them when we carry a direct responsibility towards them. We must do something about the condition of the earth and we can, but the window of time won’t last much longer.
In The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Guy Debord quoted the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach: “And without doubt our epoch … prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to the reality.” The art and film worlds like to consider themselves progressive light towers of culture. But the political isn’t limited to the images we show, rather it includes the actions we take. The doomsday clock says we are at 100 seconds to midnight. Bill McKibben, one of the early prophets of the climate crisis, puts it bluntly, “A decade is a hundred and twenty months. That’s about five hundred weeks. It’s all the time we’ve got.”
This has been an extreme year of seeing with our own eyes and feeling on our bodies the effects of the damage we have caused. While forest fires have raged, we can read articles and see images of huge chunks of the Arctic floating around our oceans, while coastal cities are shrinking. The more striking matter is that it has become quite clear that it is also human actions that directly lead to the corona pandemic: the cutting of trees, the constant drive for more, the bringing of human and wildlife into contact in unprecedented ways have altered the conditions of life on this planet. We made this happen. And yet I feel we are still collectively in denial.
In a recent article McKibben maps out what we need to do before it’s too late. “If civilization is to have a chance, we should be thinking of the years from 2030 to 2050 as the mopping-up phase: the big, hard breaks with the status quo have to come in the next nine years.” There are a number of practical matters about what we do as individuals. Bill writes that we need an “epic change in the way that we move ourselves and our stuff around the world.” But we also need to get behind movements that demand and make sure that companies and governments put an end to new fossil fuel infrastructure: no new pipelines, no new natural-gas hookups, no more deforestation, no more investment in fossil-fuel energy, retrofitting old buildings to have the capability to be added to the new renewable energy grid, and educating ourselves and pushing for ways to “grow foods that soak up, instead of spew, carbon.”
Much like the Bechdel test that assesses the active presence of women in fiction films, we need a test to keep spaces of culture accountable as to what they are doing to address their treatment of the earth. As cultural practitioners we need to strike a balance between promoting our work and caring for our home. Accompanying the direct action Bill is urging us to engage in, here are just a few practical suggestions of where we might want to start:
- We can no longer fly countless times thoughtlessly across the globe; we need to become more local in our activities. Do we limit the number of international visitors invited to physical festivals and exhibitions, and beyond those focus on invitees in a particular radius accessible by train? In light of that, the “hybrid festival” and online exhibitions accompanying physical ones must become better. In my limited experiences during the past months under the regime of lockdowns and online festivals certain things worked, but many did not. Cultural programs need to be able to organize a Q&A with an audience online so that, for example, films do not “screen” in the cybersphere without the critical conversations that follow.
- As lockdowns became widespread publishers made e-books available for free and online screening programs exploded. Let us learn from this experience to make art more public, rather than return to its largely private nature.
- We need to re-think the premier status of films in festivals. If festivals will maintain some hybrid form or sporadically return to online editions, film screenings shouldn’t be geo-locked to certain countries just in order to be permitted to “screen” again in other countries. Few festivals already do this; it’s time the rest shed this relic of competition.
These are just a few starting points and certainly no conclusive standards, but this is a conversation we need to have.
In “Rethinking the Apocalypse: An Indigenous Anti-Futurist Manifesto” (2020), the authors carry out a critical altering of the structure of time, pointing to the weight of colonization, the exploitation of the earth, and the destruction of particular forms of life. Accordingly we reap the future. “Our world lives when their world ceases to exist,” the anonymous authors write. It is time for that world of exploitation and constant growth, to end.
If we take ourselves seriously as intellectuals, as champions of culture, we must take responsibility for the reality around us. If we don’t we will go down in history as the torch-bearers of a culture of utter hypocrisy, in which we continuously burn down our own house, while ecstatically clapping at the images screened on a wall of firefighters hopelessly trying to put it out.