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, Sirah Foighel Brutmann and Eitan Efrat, S.M.A.K.

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Photo by Dirk Pauwels. Courtesy of S.M.A.K.

Text by Rose Higham-Stainton

A pup-less bitch, a camel, camels, tourists, a bush vibrating at the frequency of desert winds, a tree vibrating at the frequency of desert winds, a Bedouin man playing the single string of a rebab against the side of a stationary car. These are the inhabitants, transients and settlers of the Negev-Naqab desert in Israel-Palestine and, along with the late filmmaker Chantal Akerman, the subject of Là, Sirah Foighel Brutmann and Eitan Efrat’s current show at S.M.A.K. in Ghent.

In No Home Movie (2015), the final film Akerman made before her suicide in 2015, the Belgian-Jewish filmmaker captures the same Negev-Naqab desert but none of its life-force or its inhabitants, and centres instead on her elderly mother Natalia – a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor who she films from afar using the now nearly defunct technologies of Skype, Blackberry and hand-held camera. Akerman employs the desert as a counter-image to the interiority of her mother’s home and perhaps also her psyche as Natalia shuffles around or sits within the formal constraints of her apartment in Brussels, constricted by its doorways and windows and the right angles of the furniture – and to “cleave” the film in two, she once said. Akerman speaks over but does not make reference to or name the desert; neither does she touch it, filming it from a distance, from the passenger seat of a moving vehicle, allowing it to take on an unreal and faraway quality – hot and burning and rushing and empty-looking. She does not slow down long enough to acknowledge its inhabitants, like the pup-less bitch, the camel, the man with the rebab, and when she does it feels merely incidental.

It is the not naming, not noticing, but also the not touching of Israel’s formation that becomes so profound in Akerman’s film, and the central preoccupation of Là, particularly when read through the current moment of Palestinian genocide, extreme human crisis, malnutrition, famine, summary executions, dead children, fingers grasping for life through the rubble, women with white flags being gunned down.

Like Akerman, Foighel Brutmann and Efrat are Jewish, and live and work together in Brussels. They are members of the collectives Messidor and Level Five and, in their artists’s bio, write that “refusing any form of monetary transaction with government-subsidised institutions in Israel, [they] support the struggle for the liberation of the Palestinian people in Palestine and around the world.” In 2022, Foighel Brutmann and Efrat, who have worked together on a collaborative practice for almost 18 years, received a grant to explore Akerman’s audio-visual relationship with the desert in Israel-Palestine, and the footage in moves between the snow-smattered parks in Brussels and the intersections of Jewish settlements and Zionist resorts in the desert, and between 16mm and digital footage. They were unable to return to Israel to finish filming, and so assembled reams of 16mm and digital footage into the series of films that occupy six lightless gallery spaces at S.M.A.K. and extend to new works such as Horizons (2024), which document, in a rolling-format text, their process and materials: using water from the Dead Sea to develop 16mm film on location, leaving natural residues of bitumen (used by the Negev-Naqab desert’s indigenous Bedouins for ailments and as a fixative) and saline water bubbles and marks upon the work.

translates the gallery spaces at S.M.A.K. into a filmic environment concentrated around tactile latex screens the texture and colour of some skin – or sand –  suspended throughout the gallery, the light from the projectors absorbed and re-emitted by their membranous and translucent surfaces. is described by the institution and the makers as an “elegy” to Akerman, and their slow, transient panning shots and tight frames – lingering on the quotidian, moving through the desert – are characteristic of the deceased filmmaker. But an elegy – from elegos, from “song of mourning” – sounds too singular, ecclesiastical, holy and straightforward for these works, which are discordant and unharmonious and celebrate Akerman while also attending to her omissions. The filmmakers do not reconcile but reckon with Akerman, and unlike Akerman’s removal, or distance from the desert, bring it and the various histories and cultures that reside there into focus.

The filmmakers frame the exhibition within an epistolary tradition, and in the first film, titled Un Âne (2022) they respond directly to Akerman’s No Home Movie, tracing her journey across the Negev-Naqab desert along road 3199 between Arad and the fabled Zionist pilgrimage site of Masada. But rather than seamless panning shots of its contours at sunsets, Foighel Brutmann and Efrat film the desert from the dashboard of a car, so that the camera jumps relentlessly with every rock or depression on the dirt road. Towards the end of the film, Foighel Brutmann begins to read, with the same rhythmic cadence as Akerman to Akerman, in French, trying to speak to someone who can no longer respond while enunciating the desert in its Arabic name. “Dear Chantal,” she says, “We’re here in the desert where you filmed,” and later, as a white donkey enters the screen, “we thought it could be you,” because in Judaism a white donkey carries the Messiah. On social media, Foighel Batumann wrote that Akerman’s “family’s history is so similar to my paternal family’s history, just a generation removed.” We don’t learn the specifics of Foighel-Batumann’s ancestry but feel its resonances: “How I wish I’d still had the opportunity to talk to Chantal Akerman,” Foighel Brutmann laments. “To ask about the feminist Jewish experience in Belgium and how I’d wish I still had the opportunity to ask about Israel, about this blind spot in post-traumatic European-Jewish experience…”

The exhibition opens with Un Âne, which is shaped by Sirah Foighel Brutmann’s voice and personal history and it is not until the final film in the exhibition that we see Efrat and hear him speak, Foighel Brutmann now in control of the camera. Foighel Brutmann was drawn to Akerman’s filmmaking for its feminist politics, but also because of a sense of kinship to Akerman, and it is the particulars of her identity that shapes that the direction of the narrative. Meanwhile, Efrat was drawn to Akerman’s work because of his intimacy or knowledge of the desert, but by the end, says Foighel Brutmann, “Eitan shares this sense of intimacy, as I share the relation to the desert.”

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Film stills from Un Âne, Sirah Foighel Brutmann and Eitan Efrat (2023)

In Là-Bas, in her ruminative and rhythmic cadence, Akerman says “This all has to do with that. With Israel or not Israel, of course not real Israel. With an Israel where all of a sudden I would belong. But I know that’s also a mirage,” suggesting both her complicity in and refusal of a settler-colonial narrative – a generation closer, or farther back to its formation than the artists, while lacking their courage to touch it. There is both a personal and collective imperative to – the filmmakers do not want to make peace with settler history but challenge its narratives, raising questions around European-Jewish accountability, the contours of intergenerational trauma and subsequent blindspots. “Eitan and I have started a conversation with Akerman’s images from the desert, the desert in Israel-Palestine, al-Naqab, the Negev […] to unpack the sense of belonging to a locality, the violent conditions that make this sense persist,” says Foighel Brutmann, referring to a pervasive version of recent Jewish history that is not contained to Israel, but extends across Europe. The artists’ conversation with Akerman is full of ambivalence – hers towards Israel, theirs towards her. Their conversation with Akerman is the kind of conversation modern Jews are having with family members, especially those a few generations closer to her in age, with similar blindspots: engaging with the violence of complicity amid the complexity of their own European-Jewish identities, moving between French, English and Yiddish.

This push and pull motion towards and away from Israel-Palestine, and from Akerman, is made explicit in the title of the show. means different things for different people and speaks to the pluralism of language: in French, it means there and refers to Akerman’s 2006 film Là-Bas, which means over there, and was made from inside a rented apartment one hot summer in Tel Aviv, blinds serrating the frames and images of ordinary seaside life. Men and women drink tea on their terraces and balconies, children play in the street, all marking the geographical distance between Akerman in Israel and her mother back in Europe. In Arabic, the sound lah means no. Within the context of Foighel Brutmann and Efrat’s work, it speaks to and of the land long inhabited by Palestinians and Indigenous Bedouins who refuse, despite displacement, to give up on their culture or sense of belonging. In Hebrew, the sound lah means for her, and returns the work to a sort of ode to Akerman, but also to the dialectics of land as something gendered female: fecund, but also pillaged, nurtured and nurturing. The pluralism of the title, like the works themselves, feels closer to a collective lament than an elegy: mourning the living as well as the dead, drawing on the material objects, the landscape and ephemera beyond the body: the heightened sound of the road and wind, the weeds whispering their own language over the wind and the fibrous sack of the camels and the rope around their legs.

In the penultimate room of the exhibition, we come closer still to a collective lament. The space is dark and vast, cut and spliced by 11 films on smaller freestanding latex screens, each one accompanied by a 16mm projector playing short films of the Negev-Naqab desert while the note “la” (A, around 440hz) – ordinarily used to tune an orchestra and sung here by musician friends of the artists – plays from each projector creating a polyphonic and discordant sound that responds to the auditory dimension of Akerman’s work but also to the visual looping and echoes in the films: the same footage appears and then reappears in different formats, on different screens and in different rooms of the exhibition, and we become complicit in shaping them as memories: of the pup-less bitch, the windblown tree, the saline Dead Sea watermarks. As fallible and transient humans, we move between and around and sometimes in front of those projectors, disrupting the tunnels of light and images, blinded by the brightness and implicated as viewers in the landscape, and in settler-colonial narratives. After a while, all the screens go blank and visitors are plunged into darkness. The disorientation demands something of us again – to take heed or action in revisiting those narratives. Because, of course, the desert is not, as the Israeli officer in Adania Shibli’s novel Minor Detail (2017) declares, “barren”, nor empty, but animate and shaped by its inhabitants: flocks of white birds glittering against the blue desert sky, the living, the dead and the displaced. For Foighel Brutmann and Efrat, the desert does not operate as counter-imagery, or the counter-imaginary, but is the subject at hand, suffering the continuous and daily erasure of its culture.

In , Foighel Brutmann and Efrat nurture a kind of intimacy with Akerman but also with the Negev-Naqab desert and in doing so, remind us that intimacy is complex – is a kind of relation that involves the risk of loving and wanting, of losing and gaining both faith and people. They also remind us that despite its grand, severe exteriority, the desert is an intimate space, a place for reconciling with the living and the dead. Foighel Brutmann and Efrat seek it out among the roots and in the sand, the Dead Sea water and its bitumen traces beyond. ◉

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Film still from Un Âne, Sirah Foighel Brutmann and Eitan Efrat (2023)

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Film still from [anan], Sirah Foighel Brutmann and Eitan Efrat (2024)