August 26, 2019

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  • Khan’s ‘Ambition’ captures crisis of connection

    Scene from "Blind Ambition" directed by Hassan Khan. (Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel6)

    BY WAFAA WALI Cairo Imagine the oddity of watching on screen Cairo’s visually noisy streets without the actual noise. The phrase “eerie vacuum” comes to mind, but that’s precisely what director Hassan Khan has done in his latest offering “Blind Ambition”.

    Khan’s work, which was commissioned for the prestigious dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, premiered in Cairo Sunday as part of the downtown D-Caf festival. The 46-minute film split into nine different episodes taking place around Cairo shows diverse groups of people engaged in conversation which do not all revolve around a specific issue. With no clear aim and not reaching any conclusion, the scenes individually, and the film as a whole “seemingly” has no climax or denouement. Although all the scenes are shot in public spaces, the live audio in the footage is removed and all the conversations are dubbed.

    Khan shot the film in black and white using a mobile phone camera, a medium and equipment he says suited the nature of the work. Using regular filming gear would not convey the scenes in the “reality” mode the film tries to capture. In one of the scenes, two girls are walking in a busy shopping district. The presence of a regular camera in such a scene would attract the attention of passersby and consequently affect the “authenticity” of the scene. The alternative of using a regular camera from a distance to avoid intruding on the street vibe, Khan says, would create an unwanted voyeuristic effect.

    Overall, Khan’s technique is successful. In all the scenes, including one in a coffee shop and one in a public bus, the versatility of the mobile camera allows you to penetrate spaces, both real and metaphorical, without the characters discomforted by the invasion of a regular camera.

    But then we get the silence, the oddness of listening to the conversations in the void. It is as if the starkness of visual reality rendered by the use of mobile collides with another starkness, that of the silence. As we are left to ponder the image and listen to the conversations with nothing to distract us from the redundant dialogue, what comes across is characters drowning in their own voices, “ambitions” incapable of “communicating” with one another.

    Evoking the cyclical dialogue of Valdimir and Estragon in playwright Samuel Becket’s “Waiting for Godot”, the characters in each of the episodes are engaged in a monotonous monosyllabic dialogue. On the surface the interlocutors seem to desire communication; but they are not listening to one another. Again like Becket’s characters, they are engaged in futile exchanges that fill up space and evoke the vacuum of loneliness. Could this be the vacuum the city invokes? As viewers, we wait for something to happen, for a resolution. And with the beginning of each scene, our hope is rekindled, but Godot never arrives. By the eighth scene, we get it. We watch knowingly.

    To create the work, Khan auditioned and selected 27 actors. The scenes were improvised based on rehearsals with the actors. Even though Khan had an idea about the scenes and how he would like them to develop, he did not communicate that to the actors but rather allowed them to develop the scenes based on triggers (words, situations) he provided. As the rehearsals continued, the actors created the scenes and the characters started to take shape. On the day of shooting, Hassan allowed the actors to get into character and shot them for hours. Using this footage, he edited it into the length the scene would take in “real” life.

    This film builds on Khan’s earlier work. In “Transformations” (2000) Khan interviewed people from different walks of life who all live in Cairo. Even though it is a documentary, the conversations Khan records portray an array of discrepancies within and between the characters that inhabit the city. Each character in “Transformations” presents a real problematic, a conflict.

    In “Blind Ambition”, the scenes evoke realistic situations but the problematics portray an absurd existence. Is this Khan’s commentary on the life of Cairenes in both eras? Are the hopes and concerns of Egyptians who lived in the 1990s different from those who inhabit contemporary Cairo at this specific juncture in history?

    In “Transformations” issues like the veil, class and drugs come to the forefront whereas “Ambition” revolves around the characters’ attempts to attract more attention and seek more space. Is this a representation of the senselessness of an era and a generation that has become so blaze with everything that happens that nothing is left but engaging in vain cyclical one-sentence conversations?

    Khan’s film addresses his audience tongue in cheek. In most of his work he maintains the position of the omnipotent observer, almost veering towards the persona of a social medic examining us all with his camera lens. In spite of the intimacy the phone camera creates between the characters and the viewer, there is little room for the audience to make up their minds about the characters. Khan has already done that for us.


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