Credit: Video Data Bank
by Jesse Catherine Webber Featured Film

Deep Sleep — Basma al-Sharif

February 28, 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.

Two of the most striking shots in Basma al-Sharif’s 2014 short film Deep Sleep feature boats in reverse motion, pulled backward by their wakes. Near the end of the film, each shot is shown in forward motion, but the effect is not quite refamiliarization, as the opportunity to observe the boats’ motion returned to its natural sequence is occluded by the suddenly remarkable appearance of the Siege Bell Memorial on the coast from which one of the boats departs. When the structure, a colonnaded bell tower memorializing the WWII Siege of Malta, first appears, its visual conspicuousness is eclipsed by the large ship moving impossibly toward it. After the second reversed boat shot, the memorial makes its subjective debut in the film, in a darkened room next to a display case of Coca-Cola. Though this may seem as impossible as a boat falling into its own wake, and indeed double exposure is one of several visual motifs accumulating alongside the reversal of footage, this juxtaposition is actual, though the Memorial isn’t. It is, in fact, a model several feet high, which is carried outside by two people who appear only peripherally (another motif). Then, a closeup, in which the level of detail seems to suggest the actual memorial, until its movement against the sky makes clear it must still be the model in motion down the street, the reappearance of, presumably, al-Sharif’s hand confirming this scale. Thus, the natural motion of the ship several minutes later is equally as disquieting as its initial, altered appearance, as the coastline from which it departs features the actual appearance of this landmark that has heretofore drawn attention only as a facsimile.

The shots of Deep Sleep featuring the Siege Bell Memorial probably take up less than a minute of the film’s 13, most of which are no less entrancing. Alongside reversed footage and double exposure, al-Sharif repeatedly employs strobing, first-person tracking shots, and intense lens flares. The sequence featuring the model falls in with the film’s stated theme of dual locality, having been shot in Athens and Gaza, as well as Malta, by al-Sharif, who was born in Egypt to Palestinian parents and has lived and practiced nomadically. Performing self-hypnosis both in front of the camera and behind, the filmmaker expresses this over-mutability with her person as a particularly potent part of the audiovisual presentation. It’s the final appearance of the bell, though, that is most challenging to resolve (and perhaps ought not to be). Here we see not just a person existing in two locations, but two locations existing within each other. The unjust and unjustifiable borders we draw have deleterious effects on the people who must live among them, of course, but they also destabilize physical reality. Inconceivably, the broadcast of horrific death and destruction continues to be insufficient to promote the cessation of the occupation of Palestine, but in Deep Sleep the decolonization of Palestine takes on metaphysical obligation, as the occupation phenomena is as fundamental as the constancy of space.