Larissa Sansour In vitro (2019) – a 28-minute sci-fi film, co-written and co-directed by Søren Lind – takes place in a cavernous concrete bunker deep in Bethlehem’s Old Town, 30 years after a devastating ecological disaster. There, two female scientists discuss: the eldest, Dunia (Hiam Abbass), is lying on her deathbed. The youngest, Alia (Maisa Abd Elhadi), stands at the foot of Dunia’s bed, draped in retro-futuristic black clothes. Beyond the setting, an orchard of native Palestinian plants grows in the safety of the bunker, grown from heirloom seeds preserved before the disaster.
Alia grabs the bedframe while talking to her oldest child, “The only past I know of is here. Everything else is fairy tales. The camera zooms in to show the two women facing each other in profile on the movie’s split screen. Dunia straightens up, leans forward and replies, “Entire nations are built on fairy tales. The facts alone are too sterile for a coherent understanding. But Alia doesn’t back down. The camera moves again to show the women side by side on the split screen, looking towards the viewer. We watch Dunia listen to Alia retort: ”I don’t care about your nations, their stories, their rituals, their repetition of images. […] memory channeled through a handful of tropes […] this history reduced to symbols and iconography, a liturgy recounting our losses.
Dunia and Alia’s generational disagreement over the importance of cultural heritage and memory following collective trauma is at the heart of Sansour’s film. Debuts at the Venice Biennale 2019, as a commission for the Danish Pavilion, In vitro is now showing on the High Line at 14th Street in New York City as part of its video program, ‘Channel’. Born in East Jerusalem and based in London, Sansour has long used science fiction in her video works to probe questions of nationalism, memory and identity. His fascination with hereditary trauma – and, in particular, with epigenetic inheritance – informs In vitrothe science fiction plot of. Alia is a clone of Dunia’s deceased daughter, and although she never knew the world before the ecological disaster, she was genetically modified to contain the memories of her ancestors.
The black-and-white film uses its two-channel split screen to effectively switch between the two women, between past and present, and between Alia’s lived experience and the legacy memories that flood her thoughts. Scenes in the underground bunker are cut from flashbacks to life before the disaster and old archive footage of Bethlehem. In shots of the eco-disaster itself, we see a thick flow of viscous black liquid run through the city’s narrow streets – an image that evokes classic post-apocalyptic tropes while also evoking specific environmental disasters, such as 1991 Gulf War oil. spill. These scenes take place as Alia and Dunia continue their conversation, creating a fluid movement between time limits and individual and collective memory.
For Sansour, this feeling of suspension between past and future is fundamental to the Palestinian experience in the aftermath of the 1948 crisis. Nakba (disaster), when Israeli forces forced 750,000 Palestinians out of their homes and destroyed over 500 villages. In vitroS sci-fi plot heightens this sense of temporal limbo, allowing Sansour to momentarily silence the stories and hate propaganda sparked by recent political debates to ask critical questions about the identities and future of the diaspora. in a Palestinian and global context. How do past traumas shape our sense of self? What do we do with memories of a place that no longer exists? How to define a national identity? What other modes of belonging could we create in the face of the colonial and climatic catastrophe?
Another example of Sansour’s speculative futurism is the film’s fascination with preserving native plants. Mixing images of the heirloom underground orchard with flashbacks of Dunia and her daughter harvesting olives outside Bethlehem – a landscape that is currently made inaccessible to Palestinians because of Israeli settlements – In vitro stresses the importance of indigenous land and agriculture as a sustainable part of cultural heritage.
By avoiding the specifics of current politics in favor of illustrative science fiction details, Sansour risks depoliticizing or isolating his characters beyond recognition. Yet in his hands, science fiction instead becomes a tool to disrupt our expectations of political art and reframe our perception of present realities so that we can better imagine new futures against violent nationalism, ethnic cleansing, and the climate change.
Larissa Sansour In vitro can be seen on the High Line in New York until October 20.
Main picture: Larissa Sansour / Søren Lind, In vitro, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artists
Vignette: Larissa Sansour / Søren Lind, In vitro, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artists