Bouchra Khalili’s videos have an intuitive as well as intellectual appeal. It seems possible to see in them “only” audio documents of illegal immigrants or to completely lose oneself, on a visual level, in hypnotic cityscapes. Yet the existence in the background interests the artist mainly as a philosophical phenomenon and the beginning of a new storytelling style. In this way, Bouchra Khalili, born 1975 in Casablanca, follows the path of literary scholar Edward Said, who, in exile, recognizes immigration and the crossing of borders as experiences which give “us new narrative forms and a different type of storytelling”. In her films, Bouchra Khalili tells individual stories of exile, loss, and rootlessness.
Regarding her own story, she grew up in Morocco and France, studied film at the New Sorbonne University in Paris, and acquired a master’s degree in video art at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts de Paris-Cergy. Her films and installations investigate the boundaries of film and the visual arts, but also embrace documentary and experimental filmmaking. Since 2002 she has produced over twenty video works, which deal with the topic of migration in various ways.
Bouchra Khalili, who describes her creative approach as leading the medium of video back to its roots, wants to capture reality in all its heterogeneity. In doing so, she remains free of the need to indulge in romantic, linear narration. In her works, sound and image always travel separate routes, and this disassociation generates a multifaceted, thought-provoking and emotional echo for viewers. On the level of sound, Bouchra Khalili usually has the refugees themselves speak. She attaches great importance to documenting their specific language. The related stories revolve around real and imaginary places. There is the abandoned homeland, the longed-for place of refuge, and the forced stopover. The majority of Khalili’s interviewees fled from civil wars; none of them left willingly. They live underground, illegally, and their existence is defined by temporary solutions and detours.
In the “Mapping Journey” project (ongoing since 2008) selected refugees create an “alternative” map of the Mediterranean region by marking their own zigzagging routes on the surface of the customary geography. No more than the map and the hand of the narrator are visible in the video. Personal experience is challenged by the surface of pure cartography. A young Algerian manages to get from Annaba to Marseille. To reach southern France, however, he has to travel via Sardinia, Naples, Milan, and Paris.
At the same time as the “Mapping Journey” project, Bouchra Khalili worked on the so-called “Straight Stories” about modern nomads – a video project divided into four parts. The first part is about the Strait of Gibraltar. In 2008, the second part was created in Istanbul. Both locations represent much more than a delineating of cultural and territorial borders. Since the 1990s, they have increasingly become waiting rooms for refugees as well. But the chances of obtaining a visa for the West are relatively slim. In the videos of her “Straight Stories” series, Bouchra Khalili’s camera moves in slow motion through cities and landscapes void of all signs of human life. The audio track tells viewers, for example, of Ahmad, who fled Afghanistan, and his fervent attempts to obtain legal status in Istanbul; young Musa, longing to return to the Sudan; and Anya, an Iraqi woman, whose dream of obtaining a visa for Australia becomes a reality after twelve years.
In the video installation “Circle Line” (2007) Khalili suggests the existence of a nomenclature for entry into the United States. Various tracking shots and images of the concrete canyons of New York City multiply on three monitors at once. One audio track is the recording of a naturalization procedure. Here too, the names of different countries are listed without stopping. On the other track, accommodating two monitors, questions meant for Green Card candidates are juxtaposed with excerpts from a conversation with an illegal immigrant.
In “Vue aérienne” (2006) viewers see aerial photographs of an unknown Western metropolis. The topic of discussion, presented in German, is of missed and planned encounters. The clips are taken from Fassbinder’s film “The Third Generation”. In her ten-minute video, Bouchra Khalili examines cinema as utopia and the world as “the will to portray”.
The 30-minute film “The Round Trip” (2005–2006) numbers among the “motionless journeys” in Khalili’s work: an exchange of letters between a man and a woman. Imaginary or real, the letters likewise represent a correspondence between two cities and their destinies. But the man no longer corresponds in the end.
Bouchra Khalili’s films have been shown at festivals worldwide, in galleries and museums, as well as in art collections. They were screened in the House of World Cultures in Berlin, in the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley (USA), in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Cinématheque Francaise, at the Rotterdam and the Oberhausen film festivalsl, the Reina Sofia National Museum in Madrid, and in Spain’s Filmoteca Espanola. Her first monograph, entitled “Story Mapping”, was published in the autumn of 2010. Bouchra Khalili co-founded the Cinémathèque de Tanger in Morocco, a non-profit organization dedicated to presenting and fostering Arab and innovative international cinema since 2006.
Text: Maike Wetzel / English translation: Karl Edward Johnson