A Zwaanshals Experience:
Vacation_Destination>Home @ Wasserette
Text by Daniela Swarowsky
March 2003

After the summer vacation, Jan and I were confronted with the fact that although quite a few people promised to make 'home movies' while on vacation, not a single person actually did so. Was it a matter of trust? Was it a matter of insecurity? Was the problem that they did not know how to make such a film? Didn't they want to share their backgrounds with others? Was it too intimate a thing to ask? Many questions arose...

After the initial disappointment, we decided to ask people for old vacation>home material. Two people finally handed us old footage: one from a family picnic in the Moroccan Rif mountains and the other from a latest visit to Arbil, the Kurdish capital of Iraq. We took instructions from both participants on how to edit their material...

X, a girl working at the Wasserette, gave us her tape from her vacation in Morocco under the condition that we eliminate any human figure that appears in the footage so that no one could be recognized. As a result, only pure, abstract landscape emerged. For me, this demand was very difficult to comprehend because I saw nothing but nice pictures in this little movie and did not understand the fear of being recognized.

Through numerous conversations with my friend Gadiza and other Moroccan acquaintances, I found out that for many Moroccans home movies are something very private. They are meant to be viewed only by themselves and their family members. Most of them consider it inappropriate to show their family videos or photos to strangers. Perhaps this has to do with the taboo of image representation in Islamic tradition, but given the fact that in many other Muslim societies people are much less sensitive about private images, it seems to be more intimately connected with highly sensitive notions of gaze and privacy in the Rifi society.

Perhaps especially from the Rif region, a Moroccan understanding of the private versus the public sphere might differ dramatically from the Western notion. Allowing people to look into one's intimate private spaces is something that has developed into a frenzy in the West in recent years (see Big Brother and its many follow-ups). The Dutch in particular have a reputation for putting their homes on display as they often do not use curtains. Rifi Moroccans, on the contrary, often associate being seen with being exposed.

Perhaps making one's home exclusively a 'private' realm is an issue of pride: keep private things intimate where intimacy is due. Or perhaps it is a result of insecurity arising from an uncertainty as to how one's family will be perceived by others. But who are the others whose gaze it is which people seem to be so afraid of? Is the extreme sensitivity of being seen a border intended to shut out the Western 'other' and to keep tradition and cultural identity alive and tighten the family circle as a defense against a foreign world? Or are people perhaps more concerned about the gaze of neighbours, colleagues and distant relatives who through the power of gossip can ruin the reputations and futures of entire families? I also learned that there remains a strong animistic tradition alive in the Moroccan* everyday life: the fear of the evil glance -based on the belief that seeing and envy have an innate destructive power- is very present, intertwined with the Islamic laws and traditions. Women in particular are subject to this archaic rule. So many Moroccans are very careful not to expose their female family members to strangers, whether in everyday life or in home movies. This was my first lesson.

The second lesson was a more mutual one. The day before the first screening of Vacation_Destination>Home, I mentioned to X that I left the voices of people in the movie. To my surprise, this remark provoked a vehement reaction from X. As we were asked to cut out all human imagery, how could we not realize that we were to remove the voices as well? I had asked Gadiza to translate these three brief seconds of off-screen dialogue: "Get into the picture!", a man, presumably the filmmaker, shouts. From a distance a child's voice responds, "Papa, Papa!". I had a hard time when X demanded to listen to the audio in order to decide whether to leave these few spoken words in or not. It was really hard for me to understand, after all, the dialogue was completely harmless! It turned out to be impossible to cut the voices at that point as the CD was already burnt and could not be redone.

I realized that this little incident confronted the very basis of my world view or personal ideology, challenging some of the ideals I held most dear: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of the arts, etc. "And where does 'freedom of privacy' come into your text?", Gadiza asked when she was reading an early draft of this text.

For my part, I felt suffocated by X's demands. From my viewpoint, I didn't see the necessity for what I perceived as censorship imposed upon me. I felt forced into something that I did not want to stand for. In such a context, did I still have the right to make an artistic decision? I had come to really like these few seconds of audio. I found that it brought physical space into this video and was highly poetic. The next day, which was the day of the opening of the program, the family in question watched the edited version and finally accepted the voice to stay in the film.

Throughout the entire process, questions arose as to how to deal with this 'foreign' material, to which degree compromise was necessary and acceptable and how much space remains for one's own artistic decisions.

When Idriis, a butcher in Zwaanshals, gave us a tape from his last visit to his hometown Arbil in the Kurdish part of Iraq, we did not know that this would take Jan and me on a different kind of journey.

There were about forty minutes of footage that we needed to edit into a five-minute short. The entire tape was shot inside the house of Idriis's father and most of the action involves a large family gathering in the living room. Family members living in exile are paying a visit. Everyone sits on the floor in a circle, talking, making jokes, discussing.

First, I looked a couple of times at the material. Although I didn't understand a word, the interaction between the people, the warmth and humor, was striking, even touching.

Idriis gave us complete freedom to use the material however we wished. However, it soon became clear that I needed his help in translating the conversations to me in order to let the layers of the story to unfold...

Video in migrant communities serves as a communication tool which keeps families spread throughout the world -due to political or economical pressure, war, or poverty- informed and in contact. For those in exile, this tool also serves as a way to keep the memory of HOME alive. The people in Idriis's film sent spoken messages to relatives in other countries. They joke about living abroad and say that many of those remaining in Iraq want to live in the West and try with both energy and money to escape. But many are sent back after being picked up near the border by Turkish police and end up losing all of their and their families money in the attempt.

An old woman who turns out to be a storyteller is being asked to sing. She sings the 'blues' of her people: "When I had to bury my brother, nobody came to help me" is the starting line of her song. I did not understand the full meaning of this line until Idriis told me that it referred to the 1991 war when Saddam Hussein attacked the Kurds. So many died during that war that every family was busy burying relatives. In her last verse, she sings about the beauty of her country and that she doesn't understand why so many are leaving.

"Because you cannot live with permanent war, even if this is the most beautiful and rich place on earth! You need peace." Idriis is telling me. He and his family took refuge in the Netherlands years ago. They express that they are not happy here and want to move back as soon as their country turns into a more peaceful place. They find the way of living in Holland deprived of many things they hold dear. "Here everything is about money. People are cold, the food is nothing, the weather is bad. My lifestyle here is by far worse than in my own country. But Holland is not at war. So our children can grow up in a peaceful environment here." Idriis did not want to get involved in political discussions. I had no chance to ask him about the war and if he and his family support the American politics of intervention that were about to lead to a new war in the next year.

I found Idriis' reluctance to talk politics surprising given that he, with his particular Kurdish background, had at the same time the openness - maybe even a need - to tell his and his people's story. This is how I interpreted his offer of hours of video material to me as a 'You can use it as you wish' attitude. I also appreciated his trust in sharing his story. I personally was deeply touched by the video footage, especially the song of the old woman, in which I felt some of the pain and beauty inscribed in many migrants' stories, of home left behind.