Accented Cinema, Daughter-Texts, Decolonial Feminist Representation: Teaching Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance
Mona Hatoum’s experimental first-person video Measures of Distance (1988) engages in decolonial feminist representations of exile, home, memory, and female sexuality, and offers rich pedagogical possibilities for a variety of courses in world literature, postcolonial literature, world cinema, postcolonial cinema, and women’s and gender studies.1 Hatoum was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1952, and was raised in Lebanon. In 1975, she was visiting England when the Lebanese Civil War broke out. Unable to return, Hatoum was forced into exile and eventually settled in London. Also exiles, her parents were originally from Palestine and relocated to Lebanon as a result of the 1948 Palestine-Israel War that is remembered as the Nakba (catastrophe) in the Palestinian collective memory. Hatoum went to art school in London between 1975 and 1981, and has since then produced videos, performance pieces, and art installations that document visceral experiences of displacement, exile, and dislocation. She was an artist-in-residence in Vancouver, Canada, at the time she made Measures of Distance.
In many ways, Measures of Distance resonates with Hatoum’s early experimental artwork during the 1980s, in which she re-created embodied female experiences of confinement and resistance under conditions of war and exile, particularly in the context of Nakba. An exemplary work from this period is her performance piece Under Siege (1982), in which Hatoum spent seven hours confined and maneuvering her naked body within a transparent coffin filled with mud. Measures of Distance documents a series of letters written by Hatoum’s mother and addressed to Hatoum at the time of the Lebanese Civil War. These letters—written in Arabic, and translated and narrated by Hatoum in English—bear witness to the mother-daughter’s intimate memories of home in Lebanon against the multiple histories of war and trauma experienced by the mother during the Palestinian Nakba and the Lebanese Civil War. Through most of the video, the letters are superimposed on blurred, grainy photographic images of the mother’s naked body in the shower. This inscription of the mother’s body and the handwritten letters in the visual track, as well as their juxtaposition with Hatoum’s voiceover and the recorded conversations between the mother and the daughter in the sound track, are significant. They simultaneously signify and enact decolonial feminist resistance to multiple systems of erasure—the hetero-patriarchal familial institution, the nation-state, and empire—which threaten the autonomy and the very existence of the mother’s body.
Situating Measures of Distance in my World Literature Course
I have taught Measures of Distance as part of the “Border Writing, Trauma, and Memory” segment in my world literature course. Broadly speaking, this course pushed students to ask questions about the representation of the self and the other within decolonial epistemological frameworks and through intersectional analyses of multimedia texts: literary texts, documentary and narrative cinema, and spoken word performances by cultural producers from multiple geopolitical locations. By the time students viewed Hatoum’s video, they had some familiarity with the material-discursive contexts of colonialism, Eurocentrism, and orientalism on the one hand, and with postcolonial, feminist, and border writing as decolonial resistance strategies on the other. I began the “Border Writing, Trauma, and Memory” unit with Gloria Anzaldúa’s book Borderlands: La Frontera.2 In Borderlands, Anzaldúa writes from a Chicana feminist location and fuses multiple languages, genres, and accents. In effect, her writing becomes a performance of hybridity that challenges singular, essentialist constructions of identity by hetero-masculinist and racialized discourses in both Anglo and Latino contexts. Anzaldúa’s text was a good segue to discussing the cinematic performance of hybridity—as identity and representational practice—in Hatoum’s video.
Framing Contexts before Screening
Prior to the screening of Hatoum’s short video in class, I briefly explained the terms “diaspora” and “exile,” and I contextualized Hatoum’s location as a doubly exiled filmmaker for my students. I also offered background information on the 1948 Palestine-Israel War and the 1975-90 civil war in Lebanon to which Hatoum’s video alludes. I asked students to pay attention to both the content and the form of the video and take notes on how Hatoum uses cinema to mix multiple languages (Arabic and English), mediums (visual and aural), and textualities—or what Hamid Naficy calls accents (e.g., the calligraphic accent of the mother’s letters written in Arabic and Hatoum’s translation and vocal rendition of the content of those letters in English).3 This discussion productively builds on our analyses of the way Anzaldúa’s writing in Borderlands mixes multiple languages, accents, and genres. In the next class, when we discussed the video, we took up questions about the significance of border writing in Measures of Distance as well as the relationship between the hybrid form of the video and the hybrid identity of the filmmaker regarding her multiple histories of exile.
Post-Screening Homework: Assigned Reading and Online Reflections
After the video screening, students were required to read selections from Hamid Naficy’s book Accented Cinema, and then post brief reflections on Moodle (an online discussion forum) in response to the following prompt: In what ways is Mona Hatoum's personal documentary film Measures of Distance an example of "accented cinema"? The selections from Naficy’s book provided students with conceptual frameworks for interpreting Hatoum’s video as grounded in a tradition of accented cinema, which Naficy defines as reflecting a particular legacy and style of diasporic and exilic filmmakers who have moved from mostly postcolonial and “Third World” countries to Western metropolitan locations since the 1960s.4 Recurrent thematic and formal features of accented cinema include border writing, multi-vocality, multi-linguality, multi-focality, multiple accents, multi-layered visuality and acousticity, calligraphic texts, haptic images, epistolary form, translation, asynchronicity, and self-reflexive representation of homes, borders, border crossings, journeys, dislocation, alienation, loss, hybridity, and identity. The reading assignment and the Moodle activity gave students the opportunity to brainstorm and critically think about some of these patterns in Hatoum’s video prior to our class meeting.
I used students’ responses on Moodle as jumping-off points to facilitate our discussion of Hatoum’s video. We started off with Naficy’s conception of accented cinema and what made Measures of Distance accented cinema. Since we watched Measures of Distance right after reading and discussing Anzaldúa’s Borderlands, students were excited to notice and talk about the multi-layered, multi-lingual, and multi-accented form of Hatoum’s video, which can be seen in the opening images of the Arabic script on a faded white paper sheet that is overlaid on blurred photographic images of the mother’s naked body parts. These images are juxtaposed with taped conversations of Hatoum and her mother in Arabic, mixed occasionally with their laughter, in the soundtrack. As revealed in the end credits, these photographs and tapes are from Hatoum’s visit to her home in Beirut in 1981. Then, about a minute into the opening frame, Hatoum starts reading out loud the letters written by her mother against a montage of photographic images of the mother’s body. The photographs are blurred partly by their black and blue tinge and partly by the superimposition of Arabic calligraphy on a washed-out white background.
When I asked students what they thought of the opening frame, most of them said that they felt disoriented—perhaps unsettled—by the use of the multiple voices and languages in the soundtrack. I used these student responses as a springboard to unpack the significance of the video’s hybrid form. Like Anzaldúa’s writing in Borderlands, Hatoum’s video is performative; it performs the mother-daughter’s lived experiences of border crossing and negotiating their homes and identities as dislocated, exiled subjects across multiple border-spaces and trauma-temporalities. Measures of Distance engages in multiple discourses of home—as gendered domestic space and as homeland—from feminist and diasporic locations. The multi-layered, fragmentary aesthetics thus highlight the simultaneity of the mother-daughter’s embodied experiences of alienation and displacement across their multiple interstitial locations.
In the Moodle reflections, one student commented on how Hatoum was “located by being dislocated” and how the hybrid form of the video “illustrate[d] the fluidity of [her] identity [as]…a process of becoming” across multiple diasporas while another wrote about the “fragmented style” and the “epistolary component.” In class, we discussed that the letters in Hatoum’s video were not just mediums of communication between the mother and the daughter, but were integral to their diasporic experiences. Students also explored the melancholy tone of Hatoum’s voice and her use of the Arabic script. While this tone is part of the experience of alienation, separation, and loss represented in accented cinema, the Arabic script becomes a visual signifier of the exiled Palestinian subject’s reclamation of home and identity through language. In addition, we discussed in class how the Arabic calligraphy, which is superimposed on the photographs of the mother’s body in the video, resembled barbed wire. The barbed wire becomes symbolic of the multiple borders—between the visual and the aural, between history and memory, between the personal and the political, between the private and the public, between the individual and the collective, between languages, between nations, and within domestic and familial spaces—which Measures of Distance simultaneously evokes and ruptures.
In class, we also addressed the relationship between the video’s accented aesthetics and feminist politics. Measures of Distance constitutes a specific subgenre of accented cinema—daughter-text or daughter-film—a corpus of women-authored cinema that focuses on the relationship between the daughter-filmmaker and her mother, and/or between official history and the daughter-filmmaker’s personal lived memories.5 In addition to Hatoum’s Measures of Distance, Chantal Akerman’s News from Home (1977), Ngozi Onwurah’s The Body Beautiful (1991), and Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory (1991) are notable examples of accented daughter-films.6 The politicized use of personal histories by these women filmmakers resonates with the centering of life stories in academic and activist feminist conversations from this period.
Through audio-visual representations of the mother’s body and narrative, the daughter-filmmaker in Measures of Distance challenges the multiple forms of silencing and violence—patriarchal and imperial—that these women have had to negotiate. In the letters, Hatoum’s mother writes about bittersweet memories of home in Lebanon as a space of belonging and unbelonging. Along with the recorded voices and laughter of the mother and the daughter in the background, the letters bear witness to the intimacy these two women shared in their home in Lebanon. One letter refers to the prohibitions imposed by Hatoum’s father on the mother when he saw mother and daughter showering together and the filmmaker photographing her mother’s naked body. Given this context, the artistic collaboration between the daughter-filmmaker and the mother—particularly Hatoum’s inclusion of the photographs of her mother’s naked body—enacts feminist resistance against the patriarch’s injunction. In effect, Hatoum’s video offers the possibility of a “lesbian continuum” that is not allowed within the hetero-patriarchal familial space. The term “lesbian continuum” was coined by Adrienne Rich to “include a range—through each woman's life and throughout history—of woman-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman.”7
One of the students in my world literature class wrote a thoughtful post that drew parallels between the naked female body in the video and the experience of the exiled filmmaker who has been “stripped naked” of her identity, language, and home of origins. The function of the mother’s body in Hatoum’s video is not just metaphorical, however. By bringing these prohibited photographs into the public realm, Hatoum seeks to reclaim the sexuality of the maternal body that her father has forbidden. At the same time, the complex interplay among the blurred images of the mother’s fragmented body parts, the Arabic calligraphy of the mother’s letters, the daughter-filmmaker’s translation and vocal rendition of the letters, and the voices and laughter of the mother-daughter speaking Arabic in the background rupture orientalist perceptions of the Arab woman as a passive victim and hypersexualized object.8
We concluded the class meeting by focusing on the closure of the video. In the final letter read by Hatoum, her mother writes about the bombing of the local post office; as a result, she is not able to send letters to her daughter anymore and, instead, will be sending this letter through her cousin. As Hatoum’s vocal rendition of the letter continues, the screen goes pitch black, and the taped conversations between the mother and daughter in the background stop. In the letter, Hatoum’s mother describes her immobility in war-torn Lebanon. She has not been able to venture out—go to the next closest post office because “there’s always rockets falling on the main road,” visit Hatoum’s aunt around the corner for the afternoon coffee, or cross the Green Line to visit Hatoum’s uncles and aunts—for the past eight months. She continues to explain that “from now on,” the unreliable telephone line will be the “only way of getting news” from her daughter. Through the narration of this final letter, the blank screen—coupled with the stark absence of the taped conversations in the sound track—reenacts the threat of erasure that literally looms over the mother’s body. In this context, the title Measures of Distance becomes significant. While it foregrounds the separation between the mother and the daughter under exile, the video itself becomes an enactment of a dialectical tension between closeness and distance, between presence and absence, between life and death, and between erasure and resistance.
Lebow, Alisa, ed. The Cinema of Me: The Self and Subjectivity in First Person Documentary. New York: Wallflower, 2012.
Lionnet, Françoise. Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.
Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992.
Renov, Michael. "The Subject in History: The New Autobiography in Film and Video.” Afterimage 17, no. 1 (1989): 4–7.
Russell, Catherine. “Autoethnography: Journeys of the Self.” In her Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999. 275–314.
Sa’di, Ahmad H., and Lila Abu-Lughod, eds. Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
1 Measures of Distance, directed by Mona Hatoum (New York: Women Make Movies, 1988), 15 min.
2 Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 4th ed. (San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 2012).
3 Hamid Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).
4 Naficy, Accented Cinema, 10.
5 Naficy, Accented Cinema, 127-31.
6 News from Home, directed by Chantal Akerman (New York: World Artists, 1977), 85 min.; The Body Beautiful, directed by Ngozi Onwurah (New York: Women Make Movies, 1991), 23 min.; History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige, directed by Rea Tajiri (New York: Women Make Movies, 1991), 32 min.
7 Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” in Feminism and Sexuality: A Reader, ed. Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 135.
8 The belly dancer and the harem girl represent popular stereotypes of the hypersexualized Arab woman while the veiled woman is represented as simultaneously hyper-eroticized and oppressed in orientalist discourses. For feminist scholarship on orientalist representations of Arab women, see Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem, trans. Myrna Godzich and Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986); Sarah Graham-Brown, Images of Women: The Portrayal of Women in Photography of the Middle East, 1860-1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992); Meyda Yeğenoğlu, Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); and Mohja Kahf, Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999).