A Collision Of Worlds And Times In Sofi Naufal's Latest Project
AN HOUR SPENT
By Aya Nassar
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to experience two worlds that are over 40 years apart at once? Well, in Sofi Naufal’s last project you can.
In her last project that exists at the intersection of a short film and a music video, Naufal blends footage from Borhane Alaouie’s 1981 film Beyrouth Al Lika (Beirut, The Encounter) with others of herself in the streets of Berlin in our modern day, mirroring the actions of the film’s protagonists.
To accompany this special artistic trip, Naufal has created a soundtrack specifically for it to reflect the complicated emotional state of disorientating sadness and anxiety. The whole project is a journey in and of itself that will not only immerse you in the world of this juxtaposition, but will also cause you to explore themes of migration, loss and fear as well as inherited trauma.
Divaz sat down with the one behind it all, Sofi Naufal, to know more about the process of her project and her artistic story up until this point. Check the full piece at the very end of the article and keep reading to know all about it.
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your art piece, and how it came to be? How did you decide on this juxtaposition, and what do you hope to achieve through it?
The whole process unraveled so mysteriously and happened over a couple of years. The footage of me standing in the street was filmed in Berlin soon after I moved there. Me and my friend, Jonathan, were making a video for another song and had the equipment for another day. I was new to the city, we were just coming out of a second lockdown and a really long bleak winter. The shots capture the alienation and vulnerability that you can feel moving to a new country, but then, 2 years later, when they were placed in this very different context using Borhane Alaouie’s film, something interesting happened.
Back then, I had just recorded this song ‘an hour spent’. I remember really distinctly going home that night and the moment that I remembered Beirut, the Encounter and then the realization that the song I’d written almost exactly narrates a scene in the film as one of the protagonists waits for the other in a cafe and he never arrives. She leaves her cup and cigarette behind which he finds on his arrival. I became really fascinated with other parallels between the film and my song.
Although I didn’t end up editing that specific scene into the video’s final cut, the feeling of that scene permeates the whole film and the song. I also felt drawn to the airport scene both aesthetically and for all that an airport represents as a threshold especially in the context of migration. It’s all a feeling of loss but an active loss; a loss you participate in by leaving, a loss that embeds itself in action and renews in new places. This is the function of these moments shot in Berlin, they show this renewal in the present and an attempt to process the past rather than turn and run away from it.
The soundtrack for your art piece is a song that you wrote. Can you talk about the creative process behind the song and how it ties into the overall theme of the project?
This song emerged spontaneously and borrows words, guitar patterns and chords from my other songs. It’s almost a collage of my musical journey so far. When I write a new song, I normally have to learn to play it but, with this one, I already knew how to, so I was able to record it almost right away, within the same week of writing it, which allowed for a really genuine and intense performance. I think you can feel that. The lyrics of the song set out a scene that a listener can imagine and relate to. Someone is waiting for someone else who never arrives and leaves their cup and lighter behind to show they have been there. The story is symbolic.
This is what I took away from Alaouie’s film too; The way the film communicates disappointment and loss in this layered and repetitive movement as the characters attempt to meet again and again which was something that I also found in my song. I say found because I didn’t plan it. The writing process was very organic. In this song, I do not talk about war because I have not experienced war but I attempt to communicate an atmosphere which I do feel is connected to what my Lebanese family have come through. I am very close to my mother and my grandmother, who sadly passed away two years ago, and I absorbed a lot from them that I am still working out. It’s still a very mysterious and intuitive thing which I struggle to put down in words.
Your art piece in a way is a conversation between you and the 1981 protagonists. It explores the emotional, psychological, and rhythmic similarities between your work and Borhane Alaouie's film. Can you talk about some of these similarities, and how they connect to your personal experiences as a war migrant's child?
Even before the characters in Alaouie’s film fail to meet, even as they call and plan their meeting, you feel, in their voices and their movement, that it won’t happen. From the very beginning of the film, Alaouie communicates grief. Not because of the dialogue or any specific action on screen but in the atmosphere and how the characters carry themselves. I think these similarities in how we communicate loss as something ongoing and alive is very much connected to trauma and war.
In Lebanon, the war is yet to end and the social and economic collapse in the country can be traced back to the war or even before that. The same power structures that led to the war are still in place and what happened there has been carried across land and sea and passed down to us, the children of the people who experienced it.
I especially felt it in how interesting it was connecting with Daoud, Borhane Alaouie's son. He was also born outside of Lebanon to Lebanese parents. We became friends through the process and we even played a concert at the Arab Cultural Centre in Brussels. I contacted him to ask to use his father’s film to make a video and he immediately connected to the work and music. I think he felt I understood the film and that I reinterpreted it in a way he appreciated which really meant a lot to me.
In your opinion, how does inherited trauma from war and conflict impact art and creative expression?
I don’t see loss and grief as inherently bad things. In general, a lot of art is about processing difficult things. Even though there is undoubtedly darkness in my song and also Alaouie’s film, I see them as having something very positive in them as they attempt to digest a complex and difficult experience. Trauma is something that occurs when we don’t have the space to do this. There are many people today like me who have a parent or parents who experienced war and who have been born into a very different world than that of our parent(s). We might have the space that our parents lacked, if we are lucky, to process some of the inherited trauma.
Living in a place where I feel safe and supported enough to pursue an artistic career is a big part of this for me. I can’t speak about what it’s like to experience war, to be forced to leave your home or, even worse, forced to stay in a place that has become unlivable, but I can try and process what I’ve taken from being raised by someone who has experienced war. At school, we learn about history in facts and dates, but this more psychological-emotional perspective on the past has been missing for a while and one that has been brought back into consciousness partly through recent migration patterns, but this isn't only related to war. Recently people are starting to digest family trauma of all kinds. I think it's very exciting how people are more willing to do this and open up about their emotional experiences. I just hope to be part of this.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you became interested in music and composition?
My father plays flamenco guitar and has had many guitars at home. When my parents split, when I was 8, he moved out and left me a couple to play with. Slowly I began picking them up and playing them. I never had formal, official lessons so the learning process was very slow and organic. I developed an unusual style of playing and a ‘weird rhythm’. It took me many years to understand it and work with it rather than against it. I was always singing to anyone who would listen or just on my own. I would come up with musicals and perform them to myself. As you can guess, I was an only child. Singing was the way I’d keep myself company. Even today, singing can bring another, fresh perspective on a situation I might be dealing with, some new way of looking at it that’s been buried in my subconscious.
What are you currently working on and what can we expect from you next?
I am currently working on an EP and I am also assisting Daoud Alaouie with getting more of his fathers films restored. I also run a monthly event in Berlin with artist Yael Mor called GRAT that showcases artists working with sound and words. It has grown to become a really nice community.