A person in light clothing and a dark headscarf crouches down in the desert looking at the ground

Arwa Aburawa & Turab Shah: And still, it remains

'And still, it remains' (2023) film still. Courtesy of Arwa Aburawa and Turab Shah.

And still, it remains (2023) is a brand new twenty-seven-minute film by Arwa Aburawa and Turab Shah, a film making duo dedicated to examining legacies of colonialism such as race, migration and climate crisis. They have an ongoing interest in the notion of ‘the end of the world’ and the Anthropocene. Their work has been exhibited at Humber Street Gallery, Phillida Reid Gallery and the National Gallery of Art in the US. Their latest film, ‘I Carry It With Me Everywhere’, was commissioned as part of the Brent Biennial 2022. 

Commissioned by Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, the premiere screening of And still, it remains takes place on Thursday 6 July 2023 at Toxteth TV. Leading up to the event I am intrigued to see Aburawa and Shah’s work on the big screen, particularly as I have researched artwork about climate justice by global majority artists for a number of years. There is a warm and inviting ambience, a generous buffet of Middle Eastern food on offer, and an intimate audience from a range of backgrounds and generations in attendance. The premiere is preceded by the screening of another short film, Marwan and Khalil (2021), by artist Leila Gamaz, that was also shot in Algeria. It is a personal narrative focussing on North African storytelling and the artist’s family history. The films are followed by a panel discussion and Q&A facilitated by local poet and writer Amina Atiq.  It’s encouraging to see three women sharing their art, inspiration, and purpose authentically.

And still, it remains is filmed in a village in the Algerian Sahara, featuring interviews with residents who are surrounded by rock art and the legacy of nuclear explosions on their land. During the 1960s France tested and detonated a series of nuclear bombs in the desert that poisoned the land with radioactive material, inflicting devastating and permanent ecological and humanitarian harm. Lives were lost, many were left disabled and contamination to the air and water has had an effect until the present day.

Shah is Pakistani. Aburawa has Palestinian heritage and speaks Arabic. They have a shared personal interest in Arab and Muslim states, their histories and connections with colonialism. It is this combination of factors that led them to investigate and share the story of Algerian people continuing to live with the afterlife of toxic colonialism. The filmmakers explain that the archival material they encountered in their research, which tells the French story of the nuclear testing, is from a Eurocentric and celebratory perspective which frames the tests as successful. Aburawa and Shah wanted to make space for people’s stories which might counter this narrative, that have been ignored or forgotten in historical accounts.

In their shared filmmaking practice, Shah takes a lead on cinematography and filming and explains that the language of cinema has been highly considered in this project to capture the pace of life in the village. The film is shot in wide angle using anamorphic lenses so that the landscape becomes a key character and central to the narrative, with people placed in it. There are many still shots – which capture the movement of sand and dust in the air, in a way that panning would not – representing the gentle pace of life, as well as scenes with young children smiling and playing. Nature and human life are represented with equal importance, reminding viewers that the explosions affected animals, water, and the land, not just people.

A shot from high up which looks down on an audience before a panel of three women with a large screen behind them
Premiere screening event at Toxteth TV, 6 July 2023. Image courtesy Liverpool Arab Arts Festival. Order of panelists: Amina Atiq (left), Arwa Aburawa (middle) and Leila Gamaz (right).

Taking us to the village and the desert, the film has a calming effect. The silences are loud and vast, and pay respect to the land by enabling it to visually speak for itself. The voiceovers of local people telling their story in Arabic alongside the accompanying English subtitles are powerful. Scenes that do include people show them in daily life, doing day-to-day activities. Their descriptions of their pain and suffering through the ongoing fallout of the nuclear explosions, combined with their deep faith that justice will be served is humbling to hear. Aburawa explains that a lot of consideration was given to how the artists connected with local people. It was important to take care and respect everyone they interacted with. This is evident in the film with many shots of individuals taken from a distance, focussing more on the activities they are doing than their faces. In one such shot which shows children playing game together, only their hands are in the frame, not their faces.

Algerians have a specific history with camera. The French regularly forced villagers to be captured in film, often without their consent or permission. It was therefore important for Aburawa to establish a connection and not force anything: she felt a huge responsibility towards the local people while making the film. Aburawa points out that in the UK we regularly ask for consent before filming or taking photographs, so should do the same abroad and applied this protocol in Algeria. People should have the power to say yes or no, and here in some cases people are heard and not seen.

I think this is a key criterion in co-curating and genuinely working cooperatively with communities and the people in question. What is the intention of the artist? Is the artist extracting content and material? What is the narrative, lens, privilege and position of the storyteller? Whose story is being told? One of the main points to come out of the panel discussion is that there is never only one story when documenting and recording history. And still, it remains honours the stories of local villagers and is essentially an act of solidarity.

Aburawa and Shah tell me they know that how the film will be interpreted is beyond their control, but they managed the process of how it was made carefully. They learned and want to share from their research that the impact of colonialism does not go away, it is embedded in soil and land. Colonialism is not just a historical narrative but alive and well right now: a current phenomenon. The three artists on the panel speak of their ancestral heritage, how trauma and pain is present in their bodies and needs to be explored and healed. This resonates strongly with my Indian heritage and how the end of the British Raj in India led to much bloodshed and loss for my ancestors. Closer to that is the trauma of my parents migrating to England, and the ongoing suffering and struggle of leaving one’s land. Such experiences have a huge impact on the offspring of generations who migrate to unfamiliar lands with low social and monetary capital.  

A member of the audience asks the panel: what would justice and reparations look like? The panel replies that acknowledgement of wrong doings and harm caused is a good place to start. On reflection, for myself it is important that justice includes the ongoing opportunity to educate and inform society with broad accounts of history and colonialism. Even today, many people are unaware of key moments – much of what is taught in the West taking a Eurocentric and patriarchal view. Personally, I did not know about the nuclear tests taking place in Algeria by France. And still, it remains has brought this story from the 1960s to the fore. More understanding and awareness can be a start in bringing people together in solidarity and towards equality by learning from the mistakes of the past. Art is a great tool to facilitate this process and question the status quo. And now this film can be appreciated by the local people of Liverpool – one of the most diverse cities in the UK, with multiple migrant communities living side by side and many histories to share amongst themselves. 

And still, it remains is an excellent interpretation of an ongoing tragedy in North Africa, a story like many others that desperately need to be told so that society can wake up and face its own tragedy of ignorantly repeating patterns that inflict pain and trauma.

Arwa Aburawa & Turab Shah: And still, it remains, is part of Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, 6 – 16 July 2023.

Harpreet Kaur is a Manchester-based speaker, writer and researcher, advocating Cultural Value through a socio-political lens, platforming marginalised voices. A cultural consultant working on facilitation, audience development and qualitative evaluation in the UK and internationally.

This review is supported by Liverpool Arab Arts Festival.

Published 12.07.2023 by Jazmine Linklater in Reviews

1,425 words