Screen still, Descent into Heaven, Essma Imady
Interview by Madie Hamilton
Ever since I first learned to read, I was captivated by words. I used to believe nothing could convey the complex thoughts and emotions of another human being so articulately as the written passage. I became fascinated with filmmaking, however, when I realized the transcendent power that can come from pairing images with sounds. I sat down to interview Ae Film Fest artist, Essma Imady, to discuss the sights, sounds, and ideas behind her film Descent Into Heaven.
Hi Essma! Thanks so much for allowing me to ask you a few questions about your moving film “Descent into Heaven,” in which an unnamed refugee mother attempts to cross the sea with her daughter to flee the violence that is plaguing her country. The voice in the narration, accompanied by images of stormy weather and water, is haunting. Is this woman a real person? If so, how did she come to participate in the project? If not, how did the narration come about?
The trip in the film was conceived of after I traveled to Istanbul to visit friends, two of which were at the time refugees and one whom was a journalist working with National Geographic on a piece on illegal immigration. Hearing about the sources she was talking to at the time who were planning on attempting the harrowing trip across the Mediterranean and those whom had already taken this journey, I was overwhelmed with a feeling I had no name for-- at one point my friend whom I had grown up with and who had a small newborn confessed to me that she was considering taking this journey herself. She never followed through, but as a new mother myself knowing that this had been a very serious consideration of hers made me understand what had been stirring in me; a deep and unwavering survivor’s guilt; and once I was back in the states I stared into my baby girl’s eyes and asked myself what it would take to bring me to such a choice, and how I would rationalize it to myself and to her. The woman in the narration is me. She is me without the privilege of an American passport and the good luck to have left before it was too late. The woman’s doubts about the ultimate fate of her drowned daughter are my doubts, her rationalizations are my own. But she is also my childhood friend and the thousands of desperate parents who make it and do not, everyday, across the world.
As an artist, are there any other media you like to work with beyond film? Why did you choose to tell this particular story through experimental film?
I am most interested in installation accompanying video to create an immersive experience to pull the viewer into a strange world where the gateway is the commonality of human suffering and the key is compassion. I choose experimental film in order to both push the viewer outside of the narrative and to pull them in; the jump cuts, the overlays, serve to point to the artificiality of the images depicted; that they are also in a manner a mythology like the one told by the mother to her daughter only symbols pointing to that which cannot be framed. I also employed experimental film in order to pull the viewer in, only the voice of the mother remains; what she wears how she looks her hair eyes skin color does not cannot matter it is the infliction in her voice and her loves and losses that matter. She could be you; you are not separate from her or her pain.
In the film’s description you note that you grew up in Damascus, Syria before leaving to study art in the United States in 2011. How have your upbringing and experiences in Syria affected the art you make?
Growing up in Syria meant I had both more and less exposure to art, I had no art classes throughout middle and high school; but I was consistently surrounded by art. Roman pillars, temples to Jupiter, and old damascene homes left me both hungry for art and sensually overwhelmed with it. Growing up with an American mother meant that I was always searching for what my “identity” was; living a dual identity, a theme that carries into my work, and my piece Descent into Heaven where the story that is told in Arabic is ever so slightly different than the one told in English, as her story is translated it also undergoes a certain transformation, the subtitles have a life of themselves almost separate from the audible story; at one point they even shift with the weight of the tragedy. Being surrounded by nonrepresentational art also meant that I was fascinated with the power that “Withholdment” could contain, that sometimes not showing the key characters in the piece was more powerful than revealing them.
What do you want your relationship to be with your local arts and film community?
One of the main reasons I love this state is its art community, the dialogue I enjoy with artists I meet is everything to me and my practice. I want my relationship to be that of deep dialogue and constructive critique; one where we expand each other’s horizons and work onwards engaging and participating in the communities that surround us.
Other than film, what else are you passionate about?
I am passionate about traditional craftsmanship and alternative versions of art history and theory.
Essma Image's film Descent into Heaven exhibits with the Ae Film Festival on Friday, July 29 during the Perceptions screening at The Southern Theater. Buy your tickets now! Nominated for the Creative Vision Ward, Imady's film is an experimental short film.
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