11 Feb 2023
There is a War: Rouzbeh Rashidi’s Elpis
by Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin
Elpis marks a new path in the filmmaking trajectory of Rouzbeh Rashidi. Almost completely erased: people, bodies, figures – which is surprising, coming from an artist who has previously invested so much creative energy into the visualisation of human presence and performance. Now, there is mostly landscape, often held by a static camera for a long time; landscape warped and tunnelled – an effect achieved, not by digital manipulation, but optically, via the extensive use of (as the filmmaker tells us) various XIX century “photographic portrait objective lenses”. The future of cinema calls to us from the past …
Another important, new presence is a single, continual voice-track – superbly recited by Claudia Basrawi. Sound design has always been a key element in Rashidi’s cinema, but here he reconfigures the interrelation of voice, music (by the indispensable Cinema Cyanide), and other aural effects. There is a minimalistic intensity at work here, a slow build of carefully isolated and layered streams.
There are in a sense, two ‘voices’, two alternating texts in Elpis: one is spoken, and the other is written. Whether either or both are woven, in part, from quotations is something left up to the viewer’s speculation; the on-screen credits are not giving away any secrets in this regard. The notion of voice implies singularity – or, in this case, duality. But perhaps it would be better to talk about a multiplied duality that verges on dissolution. For, to the constant criss-cross between the oral and written, we must add the various levels of articulation that converge in the film: the personal and the impersonal, the I and the she, the musings of a writer-narrator (Basrawi) and those of a filmmaker-orchestrator (Rashidi) – a blend of genders and genres, of verbal tenses and subjects of enunciation, that makes it almost impossible to determine who is speaking, and from where.
There may be, in fact, many more voices at work and play here. You could be reminded, at moments, of the shifty voice-over narration – displaced from the male filmmaker to a female reader – in Chris Marker’s Sunless (1983); and/or the numerous interventions of on-screen text (rendered in Elpis as if from an ancient, manual typewriter) in Jean-Luc Godard’s film and video work. Elpis is, in some way, shape and form, an essay – and that, too, is a new inflection for Rashidi.
Connoisseurs of Rashidi’s work will be surprised to note the almost-total absence of overt, delirious psychedelia in Elpis, alongside the elision of allusions to or quotations from the B or Z genre cinema of Jean Rollin and others. But let’s not overlook the more subtle traces of sci-fi atmospherics here: in these geological vistas that seemingly burn from within, we pick up the faded imprint of Andrei Tarkovsky’s spookily depopulated Zone (Stalker, 1979), or Marguerite Duras’ apocalyptic setting sun (India Song, 1975).
An essay film; but an essay about what? This is a more elusive and mysterious matter. A matter of film poetry. We could start from the list of countries provided in the final credits: Ireland, Germany, Latvia, Estonia, Iran and Hungary. Another reminder of Sunless: a peripatetic filmmaker’s travel itinerary. And the time span of its production: the three years leading to the beginning of 2023. But Elpis is no mere travelogue. It is an evocation and an invocation – of a mood, a spirit, a feeling, a perception, a sensation. 2020 to 2023: the pandemic years, an inescapable shadow informing current artistic work. But also a time of many other changes and crises crisscrossing the globe. There is a war; there was a war – somewhere, always. Everywhere and at every moment you look, there’s disaster. But there is also Elpis …
Elpis is the name of the Greek Goddess known as the Spirit of Hope. She appears in the myth of Pandora, and it is worth mentioning in which circumstances. Pandora is the first human woman – akin to Eve in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Both were charged with having brought doom to humanity by committing the sin of curiosity and rebellion, by challenging the superior powers. But let’s not forget that Pandora was created at the request of Zeus, as a means for him to take revenge on Prometheus. Zeus gave Pandora a beautiful jar as a gift; and he forbade her to open it.
However, Pandora opened the beautiful jar – which was as venomous as Eve’s green apple. Then, a swarm of spirits – the spirits of trouble, sickness, plague, evil – were released into the world. Pandora rushed to close the jar, keeping inside the only good spirit thrown into the mix: Elpis or Hope. Isn’t it telling that hope was always in company of disaster?
As the only spirit left in the jar, hope is both the most precious and the most elusive gift. It does not roam freely in the world. But it is – as the saying goes – “the last thing lost”.
Place names and historical dates are strewn about Elpis in no chronological order. At the outset it is dedicated to “all the human beings who died in the unjust, absurd and excruciatingly devastating Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988”. This is followed by a specific dedication “to Mahsa Amini, and the Women, Life, Freedom revolution” – the former being the 22-year-old Iranian woman who died on 16 September 2022 in highly suspicious circumstances after arrest by the “morality police” for not wearing the hijab, and the latter the collective movement that spontaneously and powerfully arose in the wake of that atrocious occurrence.
From that initial point on, things become more abstract. The female speaking voice slips in and out of fragments of narration and reflection – philosophical musings about time and history, dreams and images, the wounds of trauma … “Our language is better suited to depicting rage than sadness, because nostalgic feelings require more metaphysical language, while the desire for vengeance stirs imagination and turns grief outwards”. This voice cannot be tied to any specific person or story. Ditto for the text written on screen. There are references to a war being waged, a book being written, a crater in the earth.
This is the agony at the heart of Rashidi’s art: an agony of exile, distance, displacement. In terms of cinematic poetry and creative expression, that translates across to a voluptuous sense of everything that is ungraspable, unrepresentable. Time is effervescent and memories decay. Images and sounds cleave away from each other at any direct level, but join up again at a higher plane of emotion and intuition. It is a re-invention of the Durassian legacy once more.
It is said that green is the colour of hope – for it is associated with nature, with the eternal renewal of vegetation and foliage. However, there isn’t much green in Elpis. That might seem like a contradiction. However, in a world devastated by so much destruction, in a world that has abandoned and blamed the feminine, in a martial world that denies the nurturing milk of life and thrives on the power of murder … can hope still be dressed in the innocent, unadulterated colours of Mother Nature?
Rashidi transforms the greenery of the landscape into a different set of colourised vistas. Elpis’ synthetic colour palette is dominated by reds, oranges, crimsons, magentas – those are the colours of war, blood, flames, sunsets, burnout, apocalypse. Perhaps it is time that Mars – the God of War, the Red Planet – finds its own renewal from within. Perhaps it is time to soak in the infra-red radiation of rage, in the sulphuric acid of our own juices, so that a new hope can emerge from the depths. This is a novel invocation of Elpis, the Spirit of Hope. Hope from the smouldering ruin of the Sublime.
There is a war: the war is everywhere and nowhere. It has been; it will be. It has never gone away; it will always restart. History is one giant catastrophe. There is landscape before and after the battle; there is landscape in the mist. Yet Elpis is also in pursuit of a hope that springs from the febrile tension of all its unfolding and slowly overlapping elements: the “uncharted territories of the future”.
Does the future exist? Actually no, there is no such thing as “the” future. Where can you find it? You can find it nowhere. The only way to imagine the time that comes after now is to project a recombination of images that we have stored in our brain. Imagination is this, at the end: it is a remix of our past experiences, it is the enforcement of info-expectations inside the frame of an already existing gestalt. Imagination is the continuous act of reshuffling of fragments of memory. (Franco “Bifo” Berardi)
© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin, February 2023