In her 2013 memoir, The Girl Who Fell to Earth, artist, writer and filmmaker Sophia al-Maria recounts an identity crisis brought on by having been raised between the Arabian Gulf and the United States. Her story begins in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia in the Bedouin settlement of Kuzahmiah, from where al-Maria’s young father Matar departs on a journey that takes him to Washington state, where he meets al-Maria’s American mother, Gale Valo. They have two children (Sophia and her younger sister); events lead them back to the Gulf; al-Maria ends up living in Doha before entering the American University in Cairo (AUC) in 2001.
It was "in the great megalopolis of al-Qahira" that al-Maria came of age, she tells me "sprawled between whatever East was and wherever West began." Here, she came to terms with her dual identity, expressed in her memoir through two moments. First, when she meets an academic at AUC after having discovered his book on the culture of her tribe, and he tells her: "The life your father led was premodern, elemental. It must seem irreconcilably foreign to a digital native like yourself." Then, she travels to eastern Sinai, and tells a Qarasin Bedouin woman, Kawthar, how her name alternates between Sophia and Safya, depending on the context, to which Kawthar replies: "Girl, no wonder you're so confused. Your stars were cast too far apart." In the end, al-Maria reasoned: "From politics to particles, everything that made me in every most profound sense was on a constant, polarizing drift, stretching further and further apart." She concludes that these forces, though they shaped her, will no longer govern her.
Al-Maria's story as an artist begins when her memoir ends, when she turns those forces that once shaped her onto her life's work. This resulted in projects such as The Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi (2007-08), which consists of artworks, text and an alter ego, and the term "Gulf Futurism," which she coined with artist/musician Fatima al-Qadiri to describe "what is happening to our bodies, our minds and our land in the process of being dunked into a hyper-consumerist capitalist machine." Indeed, al-Maria's view that Gulf Futurism is "bi-partite" and is "happening everywhere" permeates her work. Her short video made in the style of a Lynchian, faux perfume advertisement, Liminal: A New Fragrance by TAZ (2010), features the Doha skyline-including a key Gulf Futurist-esque building, the pyramidal Doha Sheraton. The video installation Between Distant Bodies No. 1 + No. 2 (2013), presented on two Cuboglass televisions, is described on Al-Maria's blog as "the beginning of an infinite video," bringing together ideas around time travel, transience, transition, transgression and “a xillion other ‘trans' bi-products.”
Arriving soon is Al-Maria's first major exhibition to date, “Virgin with a Memory" (opening on September 6 at Cornerhouse in Manchester), where viewers will see her evolving approach. The show is based around al- Maria's unfinished debut feature film, Beretta, through which we return to those five years in Cairo when al-Maria was, like many women, “cat-called, dirty-talked, insulted, felt up, slapped, hotly breathed upon, and groped." Yet, for the first time, there is a certain distance from the science-fiction influence in al-Maria's work: "I can't really say there is any link between Beretta and the science-fiction stuff," she explains. "The Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi was very firmly entrenched in finding a way to express a world of ideas around technology and lived experience... Beretta is about delivering a one-two punch and dropkick to the head of its audience."
This martial artistry is clear in the show's composition. Punch one is Beretta, a film that recalls (but is not solely based on) an incident in The Girl Who Fell to Earth when al-Maria ended up in a commander's office at a police station after being punched to the ground by a flasher. (She described seeing a standard issue Beretta on the commander's desk). “I got very angry," she says of this period. So she plotted revenge and planned to make a film in which a woman would do all the things she wished she could have done to her aggressors. Hence, Beretta: a rape-revenge thriller set in contemporary Egypt, which follows mute heroine Suad on a killing spree. "That is what Beretta was born from," she continues. “It's stalled, but it's not over yet."
And here lies punch two. Since scheduling, budget and legal complications have kept Beretta on hold in preproduction for three years, this exhibition is a conjuring of a movie that doesn't yet exist. The script will also be released as a novel written from Suad's perspective, alongside entries from al-Maria's production diary, research, emails, budgets and storyboards, as well as excerpts from the shooting script. Titled Virgin with a Memory: The Exhibition Tie-In, the publication is a statement by al-Maria on how, in independent cinema, “the only way to achieve an unadulterated director’s cut of a film is to write it as a novel.” Four new pseudo-documentary films based on Beretta have also been produced using existing footage and audition tapes: Slaughter (2013), Class A (2014), Your Sister (2014) and Evil Eye (2014). Al-Maria conceptualizes them as “the extras you might see on a DVD,” because “to have supplementary materials for something that doesn’t yet exist seemed like a good way to tell the story of creative frustration so many people deal with when their ambitions start to demand more than one person to achieve.”
Finally, the dropkick is delivered in the exhibition’s title, which is named after a song by Vancouver indie band Destroyer, the lyrics for which start with a question: “Was it the movie, or the making of Fitzcarraldo?” This refers to Werner Herzog's movie, Fitzcarraldo (1982), which is based on the hubristic effort of Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald to haul a steamship over a mountain, and on Les Blank’s documentary following the making of Fitzcarraldo and the difficulties Herzog faced re-creating this feat, entitled Burden of Dreams (1982). As al-Maria explains, the two references become interchangeable in this lyrical query: both are about the struggle to do “something completely ridiculous and insane, with a
foolhardy, stubborn, lurching will,” which is “so often what it takes to get a film made.” The songs first line also produces a spectrum between the creation and creating, communicating what al-Maria admits about her experience of making Beretta: “So much of my own lived experience has seeped into this brutal little piece of genre, that the lines began to be blurred.”
Here, we return to a kind of autobiography. When talking about the differences between filmmaking and artmaking, she says: “Filmmaking is a
different world; it’s more about fronting to get something made, keeping the focus practical and the story succinct enough for a one-sentence pitch if you need it. Artspeak is the total opposite of that.” Yet al-Maria speaks both languages, and in Virgin with a Memory her potent reflections on being a woman, artist and filmmaker enable this interchangeability. This approach allows for a reflection expressed in The Watchers No. 1-5 (2014), a central piece in the exhibition, depicting five men who represent Beretta’s villains caught in an “eternal vigil.” On the piece, al-Maria says: “It’s a way of turning a spotlight on that hair-raising feeling of being in a Panopticon of our own making,” because, quoting al-Maria again: “Sometimes ‘the making of” is better than the movie.”