• CNAP Award  
  • International Competition


Maria Iorio, Raphaël Cuomo

Maria Iorio, Raphaël Cuomo
How do you recount the facts of our time? By making a chronicle ? The facts announced here are made up of multiple comings and goings, from one shore of the Mediterranean to another, from yesterday to today. First there is our encounter with Abdelhamid, a worker returning to Tunisia, a guide, witness and companion on this voyage through space and time. His story merges with that of the recent events in the middle of Mediterranean, a common space that has become impassable, a fact embodied by Lampedusa. Beyond these basic yet terrible events loom the recent, ever-increasing border closures and the invisibility of those forgotten souls swallowed up by the sea as they tried to cross it. Far from sensationalising, Maria Iorio and Raphaël Cuomo strive to link image, time and journeys. The images have renewed resonance now, theirs in particular: unseen archive footage from projects filmed in the 2000s, a magnificent Roman mosaic in Sousse and the ambivalent movements of history of which it bears the traces and testament. A journey haunted by ghostly bodies, marked by the insistence of a persistent narrative voiceover which marks hiatuses and the missing, erased or impossible images. The film’s refrain is haunted by the image of a port filmed between dusk and dawn, unfolding the links pulsing with an all but forgotten song hummed by Oum Kalthoum, with a melody in search of itself. Gradually the mage emerges, laid out piece by piece, in between the cracks, just like the splendid ancient mosaic which depicts the sea and its inhabitants, which punctuates the film. It interlaces time and voices in numerous impregnable accents – Sicilian, French, Italian and Arabic. From the mosaic to the melody, these motifs welcome invite the various cycles « in search of the rests between the notes and the intervals which link our time to another, chronicles of that time » as the film’s title suggests.
(Nicolas Feodoroff)

Interview with Maria Iorio & Raphaël Cuomo

1. Chronicles of that time goes back to the rushes of your earlier artistic work, including Sudeuropa (2005-2007) and The Interpreter (2009). Can you retrace the beginnings of this project and explain the need to return to these images from the past?

The earlier work focuses on the situation in the Mediterranean and how the border regime in Europe changed, forcing countless people seeking a safe haven to take dangerous routes and risk their lives, and also making the age-old practices of neighbourliness, mobility and exchange illegal. When these rushes were produced, southern European borders, especially Lampedusa Island, became the subject of intense media scrutiny and became the venue for a “border spectacle” (as described by N. De Genova and P.Cuttitta). The images and messages of emergency and racist stereotypes fuelled the imaginary idea of invasion that, instrumentalized for populist and xenophobic ends, began to produce new political divisions and new realities throughout Europe.

When we found the DV tapes and original sequences shot years earlier, it became clear that a shift was necessary – while the perception of borders and migration is generally spatial, these materials prompted us to take a different approach, focusing instead on the temporal dimension of these processes. First of all, the rushes enabled us to set a date and examine what’s happened since then. Today, we observe with sadness and indignation that the measures of territorial exclusion – exceptional and seen as scandalous at the time (e.g. the first deportations to Libya from Lampedusa in 2004, 2005 and 2006 under more or less secret agreements between the Italian and Libyan governments) – have become the aim of European migration policies, enrolling neighbouring countries to stop the movement of people, to intercept them, to prevent them from reaching the continent, to carry out repatriation and pushback operations to contexts where these people are in danger of even more atrocious violence – when they’re not abandoned at sea. In July 2020, while we were in the middle of editing the film, none of the boats chartered by the NGOs could carry out rescue operations at sea. They were immobilised in the ports and rescue operations were again criminalised by governments who were trying to avoid their legal and moral obligations. Without civil witnesses, the Mediterranean is in danger of becoming a blind spot. Chronicles of that time points out this downward spiral and tries to retrace the ever-changing distribution between the visible and the invisible that border “management” policies impose, at a time when the violence of this new regime is moved further and further away from public scrutiny.

We combine more personal aspects with the geopolitical and historical context. We noticed that some of the tapes we filmed were starting to deteriorate, and we tried to preserve a few sequences so that we could show these rare images to the protagonists who featured or to their friends and family. There are some precious shared moments – but also, perhaps, the disconcerting power of film to keep loved ones alive who have, nevertheless, departed. This inspired us to look at the sequences that were rejected for our earlier films in a new light. They manifest the hospitality, generosity and friendship that made our work possible.

2. The film’s starting point (and also one of its driving forces) is the search for a melody that a friend (Abdelhamid Boussoffara) shared with you about fifteen years ago when you travelled together between North Africa and Sicily. How did this search guide you and how did you plan the screenplay?

After we’d stayed with Abdelhamid and his family in M’saken in Tunisia in the winter of 2006, we travelled with him to Lampedusa Island where, with the start of the tourist season, he was going back to his job in a hotel on the island (and where we’d planned to scout for locations for Sudeuropa). At Porto Empedocle, as we were waiting for the last ferry and a cold rain was streaming down the windscreen dissolving the view of the port and the outside world, Abdelhamid wanted to translate a song for us. But he realised he’d forgotten most of it. After a long time spent trying to remember that song, the rhythm and the melody slowly came back and enable him to reconstruct discontinuous fragments of the song. The film was inspired by the logic of this remembering process: to recompose forgotten or neglected fragments of the past, you have to remember and follow the melody.

The film explores the lapse of time between the moment Abdelhamid shares this song with us, and the moment when we go back to it, years later, in a chronicle that traces some subjective experiences and trajectories with, as a backdrop, the necropolitical drift of European migration policies. But the reprise of the melody also introduces a more mysterious, non-linear timeframe: past and present find echoes and resonate with each other; the past can be reactivated, find a new relevance for the present times, return as potential, and open up new possibilities for the future.

3. The melody from the singer Umm Kulthum isn’t the only one in the film. How did you decide on the rich musical corpus that inhabits the film? And, more generally, how did you construct the sound track, produced in collaboration with Gilles Aubry, Alessandra Eramo and Mohannad Nasser?

First of all, the film introduces us to some of the songs that Abdelhamid liked and he’d kept in his head, which he used to hum to take his mind off work and shared with us during his brief breaks while he was working in the hotel. This “corpus” is subjective, occasional and eclectic; it contains some old local refrains as well as hits that marked his youth, popular throughout the Arab world. For him, like everyone who travels and experiences exile, music is this easily transportable form that accompanies them in their movements… Abdelhamid’s performances are sometimes inspired, sometimes fragile and vulnerable, depending on the flow of memory and forgetting; they led to listening situations, which the film records. We reactivated this format by devising new listening sessions with Gilles, Alessandra and Mohannad: this involved listening attentively to the materials that we’d been able to preserve, concentrating on the details of the sources, tuning into the tonal complexities of Arabic music; but it also involved drifting from the melody and improvisational possibilities of the maqam system, digressing, changing register and having fun experimenting. The process made it possible to create new melodic motifs that set the rhythm for the film and give it momentum.

In addition to the musical aspect, we wanted the movie to stress the aural dimension, which develops independently of the visual dimension. The film encourages viewers to let go of the visual aspect in order to listen more carefully – especially to the voices that, all too often, are not heard.

4. The film takes us to look at the mosaics conserved in the Sousse Archaeological Museum in Tunisia. Mosaic becomes a key motif in the film, to the point of haunting the very texture of the images, now damaged and with glitches. And the idea of a mosaic made up of fragments and gaps seems to reign over the very structure and editing of the movie. How did you reach this decision? Was it something you planned from the beginning?

When Abdelhamid showed us these mosaics, we were struck by both the register of the chronicle that characterises this profane image (which captures the ordinary actions of work, forms of everyday life and the desire to learn from the waters) and also by the presence of these missing pieces that archaeologists call lacunae or lacunas. The film is inhabited by haunting images that are partially visible, but also affected by what’s lacking, the gaps… How can you tell a story with the little that’s been preserved, with what hasn’t been documented, with what’s been lost forever?

We felt it was important not to approach images as mere representations but as material objects. These Roman mosaics are, in fact, the tangible products of a long history of conquest and domination. We owe their rediscovery to French soldiers who worked as archaeologists, digging and excavating the land in North Africa. Exhibiting these antique artefacts from Imperial Rome in regimental Halls of Honour or newly founded museums also served to legitimise the domination of a new Empire – French colonisation during the Protectorate years… Above all, the historical dimension lies in the historicity of the images themselves – this observation significantly influenced the vision we had of our own sequences shot several years earlier.

Chronicles of that time recalls the Eurocentric fantasy of the Mediterranean and sets it against this history of domination and violence along with other experiences of the globalised contemporary Mediterranean such as precarious seasonal work, and mobility made illegal by European migration policies.

5. In this composite, mobile structure, the voiceover, which measures the time lapses, progresses through cycles and variations. How did you devise the writing? And the diction is extremely meticulous and depends on the very precise intervals and metric pauses. How did you craft this dimension and why did you choose to use the Italian language?

The writing took shape slowly, with successive versions, at the same time as relationships and affinities emerged between the different visual and audio elements. Creating the film became a long process of writing and rewriting, editing, dismantling and re-editing. The voice creates intervals and silences, spaces that allow other voices to emerge, but also that allow the melody and its vocal modulations to respond, to weave itself into the narration, and to pick up the tale and become the driving force of the film. In each of the film’s voices, we can hear other languages in the language spoken, we can sense complex migratory trajectories and histories. The narrator’s Italian is both intimately familiar and distant, as is the case for a lot of second-generation migrants. It has accents, bizarre rhythms; it is hybrid, contaminated and enriched by other languages – undoubtedly irritating for ears obsessed with the idea of the purity of the national language, with monolingualism. The film takes the side of translation and heterolingualism, which seem to us to be key foundations of the Mediterranean area throughout its long history.

Interview by Marco Cipollini

  • CNAP Award  
  • International Competition

Technical sheet

Switzerland, Italy / 2021 / 76’

Original version : Arabic, French, Italian.
Subtitles : English, French.
Script : Maria Iorio, Raphaël Cuomo.
Photography : Raphaël Cuomo.
Editing : Maria Iorio, Raphaël Cuomo.
Sound : Gilles Aubry, Alessandra Eramo, Mohannad Nasser.
Production : Raphaël Cuomo et Maria Iorio (Le réel et le possible).
Distribution : Laurence Alary (Argos, Center for art and media).
Filmography : Undead Voices, 2021. Appunti del passaggio, 2014-2016. From thousands of possibilities, 2013-2014. Twisted Realism, 2010-2012. Fabriques, 2010. The Interpreter, 2009. Orient Palace, 2010-2012. Sudeuropa, 2005-2007.