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Blackbirds and work songs: A watery meditation on times of transition

On downtown’s Mahmoud Basiouny Street, at the corner with the After Eight café, you can duck into a dark, empty shop space to watch a film of a river. As the camera moves steadily forward between the river’s grassy banks, a woman speaks over the sound of cicadas in Standard Arabic.

She speaks of the blackbirds that changed their calls as they moved to cities during Europe’s 19th century industrial revolution, of work songs from the fields being co-opted by US factory owners, and of the movement to elevate the Finnish language to replace Swedish in government and academic circles after centuries under foreign rule.

The words are repeated in English subtitles at the bottom of the screen, just as the sky and the trees are reflected on the surface of the river.

At first the narrative sounds official, with the tone of a nature film or parts of a research paper, but as you hear its varied parts and odd connecting phrases — “How do we know what we think we know?” — it takes shape as something more personal, winding unpredictably like the river.

“Blind Understanding” (2009) is a film by Swedish artist Saskia Holmkvist, and it is installed on Mahmoud Basiony Street as part of PhotoCairo 5, away from the main group shows at the Contemporary Image Collective and Townhouse Gallery.

Holmkvist explains that the text came first, and that she later chose the long single shot of the river because it “serves the purpose.” The river as a mirror relates to how language mirrors culture, while the clear reference to Vietnam War films — such as Francis Ford Coppola’s “Heart of Darkness” — explores “this narrative of getting lost in culture, and how that is reflected in films.”

It is also a bit of a trick. “The image is mimicking something,” she points out — the river is not in Africa, and the noise of the cicadas is an effect she put on top.

The film was originally in English, and the Contemporary Image Collective created a new, Arabic voiceover for PhotoCairo. Although the work is about language, as a non-Arabic speaker Holmkvist had to leave the decisions about the details of the new voiceover to the curators — “it was out of my hands,” she says.

In the original version, which can be seen online, Holmkvist did the voiceover herself, and you can hear that she is not a native English speaker. Slow and carefully spoken, it sounds like it could be the artist’s own inner voice, a collection of thoughts not originally meant for public consumption.

In PhotoCairo’s version, the choice of Standard Arabic over Egyptian dialect means that it sounds more authoritative, or official. And in the recording studio it became clear that the Arabic narration had to speed up, to make sure it all fit into the film, so the film’s pace is much brisker.

“It was initially a reaching out but it does something to the work,” Holmkvist says of the Arabic voiceover. “I don’t know if we made the right decision — and I don’t think I’m the right person to ask.”

Perhaps, situated in a relatively unintimidating space, without even a door or a curtain in its open doorway, passersby and people who don’t tend to go to art galleries will go in and see the film.

Holmkvist seems happy with the location, pointing out that in a group show you’re always tempted to go the next work, whereas with the shop space you get a more focused and concentrated experience. The downside, she says, is that some people visiting PhotoCairo might miss it.

The experience of watching the 12-minute film, just you and it in the dark shop space, is surprising in more ways than one. It is refreshing to be confronted with a work that seemingly has nothing to do with Egypt. One wonders what a film that centers on aspects of European and North American cultures is doing in Egypt right now, especially considering that the majority of contemporary artworks shown in Cairo are in some way or another connected to Egypt.

“The curatorial framing has to help thinking about how it relates to the situation here,” Holmkvist says. PhotoCairo, which deliberately approaches Egypt’s revolution in idiosyncratic and indirect ways, “explores forces at play in reshaping reality, such as paranoia, the act of recognition, and altered states of consciousness,” according to the curatorial statement.

In terms of the situation in Egypt right now, Holmkvist points out that her film is “about another change of legacy.” As an exploration of changes in ideas, language, behaviors, and patterns — “ideas that transform you in ways you’re not aware of — long-term changes,” Holmkvist says — the film may speak to people in Egypt during this time of upheaval and uncertainty.

“To change one language for another is very difficult for human beings,” the voiceover says, in a simple but loaded remark made far away, three years ago, when no one could have predicted the changes that Egypt is undergoing today.

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