Dust and Debris in the Films of Naeem Mohaiemen


Two Meetings and a Funeral, Naeem Mohaiemen, 2017

by Chris Moffat

What does an anti-colonial building look like? In Naeem Mohaiemen’s 2017 film Two Meetings and a Funeral, Vijay Prashad stands in the centre of La Coupole d’Alger in the suburbs of Algiers, and he is sure that this isn’t it. Oscar Niemeyer’s flying saucer-like sports hall, built in the 1970s, is an impressive and spacious construction, whose circular seating could be defended as manifesting a democratic principle, but ultimately, for Prashad, is egotistical in its ‘giganticist’ form. More damningly, it is inappropriate, unrealistic, for its context: amidst all the other challenges facing Algiera in the wake of independence and after a protracted war of liberation, how could anyone expect to maintain such an unusual structure? Where would the resources come from, and who would do the work?

Mohaiemen’s lens traces the building’s contours, moving slowly around its outside circumference. The stains, decay and disintegration Prashad has noted become obvious across the film’s three-channel projection. The quietude of the building on the day of filming is juxtaposed with archival footage of earlier activities: sports competitions, the athletic feats of gymnasts presented in grainy black-and-white. This is a film on futures past, and in it architecture stands as testimony to a historical moment of insurgent hope, solidarity and assertion, but also to that moment’s eventual dissolution. Mohaiemen is drawn to those places of assembly constructed in the wake of decolonization and designed to facilitate new south-south and east-east alliances – the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation prominent among them, alongside other initiatives of pan-Arabism, pan-Africanism and Afro-Asianism that calcified and later shattered amidst the tumult of Cold War geopolitics.

These buildings evoke the desire for a new infrastructure of global interaction – political, economic, cultural, athletic – but also force confrontation with the failure of such projects, interrupted by internal feuds, external interventions and the shifting priorities of a changing world. Some buildings have been neglected or left to ruin; others have been rebranded and repurposed for different aims. Even newer buildings connected to these movements, like the Bangabandhu International Conference Centre in Dhaka, designed to host the 13th Non-Aligned Summit in 2001 but not completed in time, are surveyed to underline the exhausted effects of these projects today. The artist is unable to film inside the Dhaka building during his visit: the interior is crowded by the busy stalls of an international trade show, the hall smoothly serving the demands of a capitalist consumer present rather than reflecting any search for a new global economic order.

Two Meetings and a Funeral is currently on display at Tate Britain as part of its Turner Prize exhibition alongside another of Mohaiemen’s films from 2017, Tripoli Cancelled. Architecture is an important presence in both films. In the second, we follow a man trapped in the ruins of Ellinikon Airport, the international hub that served Athens until 2001, its East Terminal designed in the 1960s by the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen. Here, an architecture of departures and arrivals is transformed into a trap, a prison, precisely because it is no longer a place of movement. Critics have focused on the protagonist’s dilemma as a cipher for the contemporary drama of the refugee; “his confinement is a metonym for suspension outside national borders, and the uncertainty of what awaits,” writes Natasha Ginwala, curatorial adviser for documenta 14, for which the film was originally commissioned. Yet so embedded in our post 9/11 era is the experience of the airport as a restrictive and highly securitized (not to mention highly commercialized) space, that there appears something strangely liberating and exhilarating about the protagonist’s free movements across this expansive, light-filled area – a sense reinforced by the sweeping shots of the airport complex, especially the early sequence sound-tracked by Dawn of Midi, and the man’s demonstrated capacity for play, dance and make-believe. The freedom to climb, to damage surfaces, open doors, rustle through scattered documents and so on is possible, of course, only in the airport’s state of ruin.

Prashad laments La Cupole’s decay, but viewers are also led to be skeptical of buildings that appear tidy and overly polished. What does such a state conceal? The United Nations Headquarters in New York, pictured in Two Meetings and a Funeral, is characterized by bright lights, vacuumed floors and clean surfaces – the absence of dust. Prashad – the Indian historian and Marxist intellectual who appears on screen as interlocutor for an off screen Mohaiemen – examines a vast row of catalogue card drawers in the Manhattan building. All have been emptied, row upon row upon row now devoid of any contents. During an extended sequence, Prashad speculates on how these drawers might once have been used and what has since been lost, the intellectual possibilities associated with a complex material presence and the unexpected findings that might have been thrown up in the search for something else. Along the way, opening several empty drawers, one tiny fragment of card is found, barely enough to hold a single word, and the lens dwells on it, balanced on Prashad’s finger tip. Debris as testimony; one piece that resists erasure.

Similarly, in Tripoli Cancelled, it is the tidied nature of the man that suggests something is not quite right. We watch the days passing by the thousands. He has been in the airport for at least ten years. While the building falls to pieces around him, while every step crunches glass or grit or rubble underfoot, the protagonist appears in his pristine white shirt – the same white shirt, we note, that he sleeps in on a disused conveyer built. The viewer is shown, in the film’s opening sequence, that the man is committed to maintaining his appearance: we watch the calm, methodical manner in which he shaves his short beard, staring directly into the camera as he does so. Perhaps this is an affirmation of the individual’s capacity for care and dignity in even the most hopeless situations. But then there is something untimely about the man’s presence, as Mohaiemen himself reflects in the Tate Britain catalogue: the protagonist refers to Hannah Arendt as a dinner party guest, he dances to music from the late 1970s, the airport itself displays the paraphernalia of the 2004 Olympics. Is he a ghost? What is going on here? Does the conjuring of a new universal figure – the refugee, der Muselmann – necessitate such abstractions, his distance from worldly textures of dust and dirt?

Both films approach ruination and rubble not simply as cause for lament but as testimony and enduring possibility. This sense of opening and opportunity located in decay and debris is reminiscent of the political and aesthetic possibilities the author China Mieville identifies in this very concept of ‘salvage’. “Word-magic,” he writes. “A retconned syncretic backformation from ‘savlation’ and ‘garbage’. A homage to, rather than repudiation of, the trash-world wanderers and breakfasters-among-the-ruins that always transfixed me.” For Mieville, this is about dispensing the polished playbooks and “permanent preemptive certainty” that characterizes the contemporary left, its faith in the arrival of “new times”. We must recognize, he tells The Boston Review, that “this shit is where we are. A junk heap of history and hope… It is too late to save, but we might repurpose. Suturing, jerry-rigging, cobbling together. Finding unexpected resources in the muck, using them in new ways.”

For Mohaiemen, too, animating this “junk heap of history and hope” does not mean a search for treasure – for that messianic remnant that will change everything – but rather it is about learning to think sideways, to occupy the world differently in dialogue with its rubble. In an interview with Tate Britain about the Turner Prize exhibition, Mohaiemen talks about his strategies for untangling the masses of film reels produced across the twentieth century, stored in scattered film archives both official and personal and often taking him to unexpected places. “In a way,” Mohaiemen admits, “if I really found the really, really valuable film reel, it might be too much responsibility. You know, I always think there’s such a film reel out there, but I am relieved not to find it. I’m quite happy with the outtakes, and the rejects, and the not-important film and working with that.”

Mohaiemen’s work is demonstrative but not didactic; it insinuates but does not instruct. This places a responsibility on the viewer, who leaves the darkened projection room into the clean and cool brightness of the Tate Britain and is immediately suspicious, trained to be wary of such polished spaces. But they also leave equipped with certain salvage strategies, modes of engagement for life among ruins. This is a provocation for our twenty-first century present, a moment of accumulating crises, political and ecological, all falling in the wake of punctured giganticisms, sabotaged solidarities, and the stalled pursuit of ruptures between past and present, nature and culture, the human and non-human. This is a time for repurposing, for resisting erasure, for resuscitating “the outtakes and the rejects”, and finding new possibilities in the act of cobbling together, in telling new stories, as adventurers navigating the shit we find ourselves in.


About the Author:

Chris Moffat is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in History at Queen Mary University of London. He writes on death, politics and the public life of the past. Chris is the author of India’s Revolutionary Inheritance: Politics and the Promise of Bhagat Singh, published with Cambridge University Press in 2019.