Date: 2004

AUTHOR: Alia Arasoughly

LOCATION: Ramallah

PUBLISHER: The German-French Cultural Centre Ramallah

SOURCE: The German-French Cultural Centre Ramallah

Haunted Mothers in War in the Video of Mona Hatoum, Measures of Distance

Alia Arasoughly  (Filmmaker, Cultural Theorist & Media Development Professional).

Palestinian Women Filmmakers Representations of War

Last week, (mid-November 2004), at a ceremony in Zurich, Mona Hatoum received one of the most prestigious art prizes in Europe awarded by the Swiss Roswitha Haftmann Foundation for outstanding work by a living artist.  She received it for her installation work which revolves around the theme of the vulnerability of the individual whereby everyday objects like a bed, chair, cooking utensils, turn from innocuous objects into threatening, often razor-sharp weapons which induce in the viewer an acute sense of being under threat, both physically and mentally. The dangers of life are all around us, Mona Hatoum, born in 1952 in Beirut from Palestinian parents, is telling us.

Where does Mona Hatoum’s knowledge of vulnerability and threat reside in? As Hatoum’s installation work has gained international attention, little or no mention is made of her 1988, 15 minute biographical video “Measures of Distance.” Life has been dangerous for Mona Hatoum, with her legacy of being a Palestinian refugee child from parents who escaped war in 1948 Palestine and lived through the 1975-onward civil war in Lebanon.  Emotional distance is measured by the separation of loved ones as surrounding space, emotional and physical, is overtaken by advancing war with its fissures, ruptures and violent breaks between family members.  The mother laments the separation from her own family in Palestine, “I felt as though I had been stripped naked of my soul.” As the video tape progresses we realize that it is a stripping naked of Mona’s soul in the profound sorrow of her separation from her mother.  The physical nudity is that of the mother in the videotape, the voluptuous full warm encompassing flesh of a mother’s body, but the emotional nudity is that of the daughter, the filmmaker. 

Mona Hatoum’s “Measures of Distance” has been sited as one of the best personal\political video pieces which began as a performance installation with the artist herself before it was put in a form, a videotape, whereby it could travel without its author and creator, granting Hatoum another distance from her internal landscape of war and loss. 

In the video Hatoum attempts to narrate and represent the distances between safety and unsafety, mobility and confinement as the images of the mother’s flesh and her words do not provide us with a world outside of the mother.  There is no archive footage of 1948, nor of the civil war in Lebanon in this video of the intertwined lives of a Palestinian mother and a daughter who escapes war to London, leaving a piece of her flesh behind.  This flesh of the daughter is in the folds of the body of the mother’s naked full body in the shower, the only image in the film.  This image is inscripted over by the words of the letters between the mother and Mona.  The handwritten words of the letters superimposed on the mother’s naked body feel like a stain, as the mother narrates her own losses in war, and at the same time like a veil, covering her body both literally and figuratively and at the same time exposing it as the pain of separation between mother and daughter sears in the quiet reading of the letters by Hatoum.  Mona reads in a monotone, “Dear Mona,” etc., etc., etc.  betraying the confinement of the emotions in her own body as the mother’s body is in different perspectives, angles, textures and fragments defies confinement in its own perimeters.  “Dear Mona…” the mother writes of her inability to call Mona as the phone lines in their neighborhood have melted from the shelling.  Then she writes of not being able to send Mona letters as the closest post office has been bombed, and the other one is too dangerous for her to reach….the last letter, as read by Mona’s by now very quiet and heartbreaking voice, is sent by the mother with someone who is going to England as she says she doesn’t know when she can find another person going to England to give them a letter, and not knowing how close the war will become and if it will enter her already confined space in the house, a premonition of a lasting separation between mother and daughter.  This last letter is read over a black screen as the flesh of the mother is now being absented by war.  We suddenly realize that the Arabic text of the handwritten letters superimposed on the mother’s body have been like barbed wires denying entry and union with the mother’s body, although it was the site of union of mother and daughter.  The visual surprise and disparity of this blackness as the voice continues leaves a profound guttural feeling of emptiness and the destruction of war, much more powerful than any destroyed building or street.  We have permamently left the cocoon of the mother’s body and we are alone in a threatening world.

The sound-track mixes these letters which measure the increasing encroachment of war with a recording of a lazy afternoon intimate chat between mother and daughter on their sexuality during Hatoum’s last visit to her parents in Beirut.  The sexuality of the mother and daughter unfolds in a world of women, where the father intrudes and disrupts as a policing force.  They shouldn’t be talking of these things, and Mona should not be taking photos of her mother in the shower.

In this video controlled outpouring of love between mother and daughter there is the writing of guilt, a mother scarred by war and a daughter who refuses to live in it physically and yet her work gives it life.  The mother says, “I understand you feel so fragmented.  You feel you don’t belong anywhere, so you stay in England.”   The images of the mother’s body have now become a series of fragmented body shots of an elbow, a knee, a waist, a hand as the fragmented landscape of Mona’s life becomes alive for us.  In telling both their stories of war, dispossession, profound loss and the guilt of escaping and leaving loved ones behind, Hatoum uses the colors and tints of red and tan in the video…as Hatoum meditates on that which is flesh and blood….