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Roisin Tapponi

Róisín Tapponi is a curator, writer, and the founder of Shasha Movies, an independent streaming service for Southwest Asian and North African cinema. She also founded Habibi Collective and the Independent Iraqi Film Festival (IIFF), and regularly contributes to Frieze magazine. In April, Shasha Movies released its new programme spotlighting Zineb Sedira’s filmography, in partnership with Archives Bouanani and Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie. Between her job as a curator at Lisson Gallery, and sitting on the jury for various film festivals, Róisín is also working on her PhD at the University of St Andrews. TANK spoke to Róisín about Shasha Movies’ engagement with the archive and the politics of streaming services.

Interview by Lydia WilfordPortrait courtesy Róisín Tapponi

LYDIA WILFORD What is Shasha Movies?
RÓISÍN TAPPONI Shasha Movies is the first independent streaming service for cinema from Southwest Asia and North Africa, or SWANA, the decolonial term for the Middle East and North Africa. I am the founder, and it’s run by a very small group of women from the region. My industry background is predominantly in film programming, but because of Covid-19 lockdowns I couldn’t programme anything in physical spaces, so I decided to launch the platform. It provided an opportunity to screen films that couldn’t be shown on the ground, such as queer films – all the films on Shasha Movies can be viewed globally, without censorship. I’m very invested in the means of production – systems and structures over any form of representational politics – so we built the site from scratch without using any Silicon Valley hosting services. There’s considerable discourse on the politics of space offline, which we wanted to translate online. Owning tech and owning your means of production is power, so we don’t have to compromise in terms of content. I believe that truly independent cinema is not just independently distributed but independently produced.

LW Where does Shasha Movies sit in relation to other streaming services of independent cinema, such as MUBI or Criterion?
RT I came into the streaming-service business as someone deeply rooted in the culture, in the community, and with a film-industry background; I’m not an investment banker. The learning curve in terms of tech and business has been huge. We’re now launching as a distribution company to formalise the in-between space of artist film. A huge component of the work we do is to situate local films within a global context of independent film and video art beyond the restrictive parameters of identity politics I see in a lot of streaming services. I’ve identified the business model of each streaming service, and Criterion is probably the one we are closest to in terms of how we operate.

LW What is the relationship between Shasha Movies as a streaming service and Shasha Movies as an archive or archival resource?
RT In 2015 I founded and ran Habibi Collective to produce and disseminate feminist video and film from SWANA. Some people used to call it an archive but I was like, please, this is an Instagram account! I’m just reposting; this is not archiving. The actual archival work that we are starting to do at Shasha Movies is restoring films. I work a lot with Izza Génini; we are working together to restore some of her rushes for her archive in Paris. The filmmakers we work with, we don’t just stream their films. We want to have a long-lasting relationship with them.We go out partying with them. We work with them repeatedly. We help them with industry things like film festivals, applications, whatever, so we have relationships that we build with our filmmakers and with our audience. When I think of archiving, I think of the work of restoring and archiving physical film reels, because we don’t have any institutional archives in the region. There have been excellent restoration projects carried out by individuals, such as Léa Morin [co-founder of Atelier de l’Observatoire in Casablanca]. Still, on an institutional level, there’s just not much care for our film history, so it’s essential to do that work.

LW That is something that you wouldn’t get with MUBI or Disney+, the concept of care within a film archive. What was your first encounter with Izza Génini’s work?
RT I don’t know! I can talk about other people’s encounters, I think that’s interesting. We did a screening of films at LE 18, which is an incredible grassroots art space in Marrakech. They reacted very differently to her work there than, for example, audiences watching the same films at e-flux in New York. Knowing your audience is important in curatorial work, and it can change the meaning of a film entirely. But generally, my encounter with filmmakers often comes from word of mouth. Of course, I go to all the festivals, but we focus more on films that circulate outside the festival circuit. If I am in a city in the region, I’ll make some friends, we’ll go to a party, and I’ll ask to be introduced to all the filmmakers in the room. That’s genuinely how I find artists and filmmakers, through going out, through friends, and also just being very on it, knowing exactly what’s coming out, really having my finger on the pulse. We have worked with so many filmmakers, but we keep tabs on what they’re all doing.

LW Something I noticed in one of the films shown at the London Short Film Festival, Valentin Noujaim’s film Avant d’oublier Héliopolis, is the use of 3D-rendered space; it’s reminiscent of virtual reality.
RT I’ve been thinking about this in the context of Palestine, through the idea of Indigenous Futurism, a term coined by Grace Dillon. It’s really about highlighting the dystopia of the present. Many filmmakers work with themes around speculative futures and virtual realities to highlight the dystopia of the present, and also as a means of constructing narratives around political reality without necessarily being able to document it directly. There are a lot of films from the region which use staged, theatrical or narrative reconstructions of scenes which happened in real life. Valentin is constructing a place that he can’t actually go to anymore, that no longer exists, but which has affected and informed his identity and social fabric in some way.

LW Some might argue that Izza Génini’s films are not political or that she wouldn’t want to see her films as overtly political. Is this something emphasised in Shasha’s presentation of her archive?
RT Her films are political, everything’s political. It’s about making films politically, not making films about politics. I have these conversations with her all the time. For example, there’s Aita [1987], which I distribute and also wrote about in a chapter of my PhD. I said to Izza, “This is radical because you were filming gendered spaces in the 1980s; this was maybe the first time a lot of people saw inside the bedroom of a cheikhat [a Moroccan cabaret dancer].” And she’s like, “What gendered spaces? I just went in.” She has her own way of looking at her films, which I also think plays down her incredible historical importance.

LW What’s next in the programme?
RT Our next season [launched April 1] is a full retrospective of Zineb Sedira’s filmography, accompanied by some recent restorations and archival films presented in partnership with Archives Bouanani and Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie. You can subscribe to watch the films globally, and sign-up to our newsletter to be kept up to date with our many offline events.

LW How do you hope an audience will interact with the work of Sedira, in both local and global contexts?
RT Well, she represented France in the Venice Biennale last year, so she’s already well-known globally in the art world. I’m excited for people to see her early work and to bring in some additional feminist archival films with our incredible partners.

LW Is there something you have read or seen recently, outside of your PhD, an article or book or poem, that’s really made you stop and think?
RT I have kept returning to the Joseph Beuys exhibition at Thaddeus Ropac, which includes some of the most emotional drawings I’ve ever seen. I’ve also been watching Godard films every night. I rewatch and rewatch and rewatch his films. I watched The Image Book [2018] last night, which I think of as a gift. It is Godard’s last film, and it mainly comprises images from the region, Arab images. It’s the greatest gift to know that my favourite filmmaker, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, ended his life thinking about images from our region. I feel, in many ways, a responsibility to pick up from where he left off.

LW You are a film curator and engage with filmmakers at every level of their career. Do you see yourself getting behind the camera? If so, what kind of cinema do you see yourself creating?
RT PK Nair, one of my idols, said, “I don’t make films, I make filmmakers.” Right now, that’s more interesting for me. ◉