Credit: Mona Hatoum
by Grace Boschetti Featured Film

Measures of Distance — Mona Hatoum

February 22, 2024

The staff of In Review Online have come to the collective decision to abide by the international call from Strike Germany. We will be withholding coverage of the Berlin International Film Festival on the grounds that its institutional backing from the German government is marred by the latter’s censorship and marginalization of activist voices. Germany’s military and financial support of Israel, alongside the repression of those speaking up against Israel’s genocidal actions against the Palestinian people of Gaza and its assault and expropriation of those within the Occupied West Bank, should not be ignored or condoned. We wish to send our commitment of solidarity to all filmmakers and cultural workers who have joined this strike; business as usual is unacceptable. As over 100 Palestinians are killed each day in Gaza, we find the festival’s attempt to mitigate these criticisms with the gesture of The TinyHouse Project to be a condescension toward active and ongoing genocide. The festival’s poor attempt at good faith gives little actual space to the voices who push against empire, and offers only a tiny house, filled with hot air, off to the side, where no one else can see or hear you. While we will not be covering the Berlin Film Festival, that will not be the end of our participation in the strike. Instead, as a form of counter-programming, we will be reviewing selected works within the Palestinian Film Archive and publishing original writings related to these films. We declare solidarity with all participating in this strike, and solidarity with those participating in protests across the festival grounds.

In Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance (1988), a woman living in war-torn Lebanon addresses the trauma of being exiled from her homeland, and speaks to the way it has also shaped the life and identity of her youngest daughter, now an artist living in London:

“If I seem to be always irritable and impatient, it’s because life was very hard when we first left Palestine… I personally felt as if I had been stripped naked of my very soul… so, when you talk about a feeling of fragmentation and not knowing where you really belong, well this has been the painful reality of all our people.”

In this explicitly autobiographical short, Hatoum overlays photographs of her mother taken in the shower with excerpts from her letters. The director’s soft and solemn reading of these letters overlaps animated conversations taking place in Arabic. The contents of this correspondence are vast, spanning the relationship between mother and daughter, resentment in marriage, female sexuality, the experience of displacement, and the daily fears of living in conflict. Measures of Distance is stunning in its intimacy, and a profoundly moving work to behold. But this isn’t Hatoum’s only text haunted by such specters.

The director was born in Beirut in 1952 to displaced Palestinian parents who were denied Lebanese identity cards. She was visiting London in 1975 when the Lebanese Civil War broke out, leaving her unable to return. This led to Hatoum’s performance and video work of the 1980s, which had a strong political focus reflecting this personal history of exile and loss. The Negotiating Table (1983) was conceived in response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. In the recorded performance, excerpts of Western broadcasts accompany the close-up image of a heaving, plastic-wrapped body — so bloody and exposed it at first barely appears human. As the camera slowly pulls back, the vague, insincere words of political reporters and leaders continue on a loop. In So Much I Want to Say (1983), the titular phrase is repeated while, in a montage of still images, Hatoum is shown with hands gagging her mouth, restraining her from speaking. And even more viscerally upsetting is the filmed performance piece Variations on Discord and Divisions (1984), in which a live audience observes the artist repeatedly falling, scrubbing the ground with a blood-like substance, and tracing her balaclava-clad face with a knife, concluding with the service of raw kidneys. In each of these works, Hatoum presents the vulnerability of her body to violence, contextualized within her experiences of sociopolitical conflicts.

But Measures of Distance is markedly different from these films in form, and has been described by Hatoum as “the culmination of all the… narrative, issue-based work” that she was making in this time period. The film lays bare the nearly unbearable ache of separating from a loved one, unsure when, or even if, you will next see them. “My dear Mona, the apple of my eyes, how I miss you and long to feast my eyes on your beautiful face that brightens up my days,” begins a letter from Hatoum’s mother. She continues by expressing her frustration at the war that is keeping her family apart. As the film draws close to its end, the letters reflect that it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain communication under the constant threat of violence. It is a distance not even the dearest of familial relationships can bridge.