If the Record Could Change – Dina Georgis & Alexis Mitchell

The following grows out of a conversation that began last year when Alexis Mitchell invited Dina Georgis to introduce her film CAMP for a Beit Zatoun event in Toronto. This event brought together the work of several artists on the topic of activism, video, and political struggle in Palestine-Israel.

Dina Georgis: At the event Camping: Queer Digital Activism for Palestine held at Beit Zatoun last year, I introduced CAMP with the following quote from Thomas King’s The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative: “The truth about story is that that’s all we are” (2003, 32).

If we are the stories we tell about ourselves, about others, about our pasts; if how we narrate the events that change us is the key to what we are, who we might become and what futures are possible; if story is all that we are – then to change who we are and the world in which we share and have in common, the story must change. 

Your film CAMP tells another story of Jewish history. It’s a story that does not sanitize history from queerness, a story that returns to the religious myths that have shaped Jewish identity and looks for and exhumes its queer or not wanted content. In this rendition of Jewish history, Anne Frank rants about Jewishness, is intrigued by her growing vagina and wants to kiss her best friend Jacque, who is a girl. In this rendition of Jewish history, Jews are not always on the side of good; they are not always victims but neither are they villains. In CAMP, those who believe in Israel, such as your lovely grandfather, are humanized. CAMP wants a different Jewish story for Jewish people. It beckons the viewer to think about how if the story changed, so would Israel. 

Alexis Mitchell: My goal with CAMP was to explore secrets. I thought that by looking to that which lies beneath the surface, the unspoken truths that haunt our contemporary cultural moments, we could learn something about why even the mention of Palestine in Jewish communities is enough to shake solid ground. I think inherent in the idea of a shared secret lies a story changer. In thinking about this, it makes sense to me why people, cultures, societies gravitate to single and fixed narratives, but I think that by troubling that one reading of a traditional religious tale, the one view we have of a young girl trapped in the horrors of a holocaust, and the one way to understand gender and politics in personal relationships, we allow ourselves the space to hear something new, and potentially life changing. I came at this project from such a personal place. I wanted to understand why engaging the politics of Israel-Palestine with my family was such a traumatic experience. So I resonate with what you’re saying: if the stories we tell ourselves changed, the way we understand ideas of a shared history, or shared culture, change as well. CAMP ends with a very personal conversation between my grandfather and me as he cuts my hair. I try to have a conversation about Israel, and we don’t really get to a place of understanding one another, which in the moment felt like failure. But I think what comes out of it is a meditation on politics through family structures and dynamics, and I think it’s these moments that are rich with the possibility of exploring new narratives.

DG: I’d like to pick up on the idea of how your conversation with your grandfather felt like a failure because you hadn’t reached a place of understanding with one another. CAMP comes in three parts. Camp #3, the part that features you and your grandfather in conversation, is meant to represent the horrifying control of a concentration camp, but also its traumatic impact on survivors. Here, like in all of CAMP, the screen is split in two: alongside a running segment from Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour holocaust film Shoah, where a haircut at the barber’s was used to spark a survivor’s memories of Treblinka concentration camp, we see you getting your hair cut by your grandfather at his salon, something you say you haven’t done in 15 years. In a caption you tell us that you figured the same approach might allow you to talk to your Zaidy about topics you have always avoided. It would seem, then, that family conflict is the painful legacy of the holocaust on you. The pressure to remain silent marks this legacy. Something very fragile and delicate is being handled and contained by not talking. Your Zaidy seems to protect the silence—he knows that talking is dangerous—and you fight the silence because its “safety” perhaps doesn’t feel that safe. Your fragility, yours and his, are laid bare, as is your courage: he agrees to be in your film and you give him your hair, a piece of you (something Samson, from the old Bible, could not do for fear of losing strength). But the secret stays in the closet, because letting it out challenges the “record,” which is to say the normative narratives of Jewish history, and could potentially break you and your Zaidy apart.

In my own writing, I’ve thought about the emotional “necessity” of bonding on shared narratives or stories, what “camp” might stand for metaphorically. In stories, we construct the terms of belonging through norms (fictions?) of what ties the group together and what sets it apart from others. Stories offer psychic consolation of pain and make survival possible, which is why it is so difficult to give them up or change them. With stories, we resist outside threat and we erect emotional and, sometimes, real walls. In the words of Jacqueline Rose (2007), groups “bond on hate.” This is why we live by our stories; sometimes we even die for them. Though you and your Zaidy bond lovingly on gender, specifically on his pronounced femininity, this sadly does not give you the platform you want to open a discussion on military and masculine culture in Israel. In the confines of a fabricated environment or a camp of your design, i.e. the haircut in a salon, where you try to cultivate new ties with your Zaidy, it’s not your queerness that must come out but your story of Israel. You want to be differently Jewish with him. But before your story has a chance to come out, he shuts it down by saying: “I know your attitude and it disturbs me.” Arguably, you both anxiously recoil at this moment. An impenetrable wall that stands in between you sadly thwarts your desires. But in the space of not being able to talk, we, your viewers, come into contact with that secret in excess of what’s being said. It would seem, then, that camps are not able to control everything, though they may try.

AM: It’s so interesting because at the core of my relationship with my Zaidy is a gravitation towards deviance. Where some might feel anxious about what marks them as queer to their family members, that which marks me as queer are the points at which we come together. From the outside, or on a superficial level, it seems that my Zaidy has a great deal of “acceptance” for the ways in which I’m different, for the boundaries I push within my family, and in my life in general. But there is a limit to this, and that’s where the topic of Israel really shakes things up. These are the walls erected in my family, a Jewish family that actually doesn’t name itself as “religious” or “political” and who has never felt confrontational enough to broach these more difficult conversations with me out of the necessity of “keeping the peace.” This is one of the reasons why I chose to feature the apartheid wall in Camp #2: necessity. I wanted to really think about the language of necessity and by featuring the graffiti on the wall alongside the writing on the wall of Anne Frank’s attic, I point to the many different ways we construct walls and boundaries in the name of “necessity.”

I think you’ve really gotten to the essence of CAMP as a whole, both through the architectural “camp” schematic, but also through the narratives I chose to broach within those environments. In dealing with camp environments, I was interested in how the camp is a stand-in for various types of societies and communities. I thought that by interrogating the spatial components of temporary, built environments, we might understand something about the worlds we inhabit. So I set up the rules and confines of each camp ironically: Autonomy are camps of choice; Necessity are camps of relief and assistance; and Control are camps that hold areas by force, in order to break them down. I then interrogated various Jewish narratives that prescribed to notions of autonomy, necessity, and control in order to understand the fallacy of these narratives and the structures that mobilize them. By choosing to explore the holiday of Purim within a structure of “autonomy,” I was interested in drawing attention to what doesn’t get talked about when we celebrate Purim. For me that meant both exposing the ending of the story, where the Jews in Persia rise up and seek revenge via a killing spree (the part of the story kept secret from me as a child), and also thinking about what happens when we label something as autonomous. Like the space of the summer camp, the holiday of Purim performs a level of freedom from the confines of societal rules and boundaries, but upholds a level of control in its inability to engage with a massive part of the story.  Similarly, as you so poignantly noted, in thinking about a concentration camp as a camp of control, we find space within those confines when we recognize that rules don’t apply in what Agamben would call a “state of exception.” It’s interesting that conversations about gender and sexuality are actually a place of comfort for my Zaidy and I, and that masculinity is harder to broach than femininity is. Perhaps this is the way narratives of Jewish trauma have worked their way into my family dynamics. But what I think is at play in this section of the piece most strongly is a sense of my own vulnerability in these types of conversations. And I think vulnerability lends itself to a conversation about space as well.

DG: I love the theme of autonomy in CAMP. Even though it’s the official subject matter of Camp #1, where you explore the religious myth of the Purim holiday taught to you in summer camp when you were a kid, I think it’s a thread woven throughout your film. Autonomy, as you say, is a kind of performance or a speech act that conceals the rules and demands of historical representation, the record, group allegiance—all of which restrain meaning and curtail creativity, human becoming, and social change. In all three segments of CAMP, discarding content underlies the historical record. Anne Frank must not be a sexual being or perversely Jewish. And so, the “necessity” of her sexual body, which persistently demands her attention, is taken out of the record. Similarly, Jewish people do not kill for “freedom,” so a religious myth is revised and excised of its troubling or queer content for the ideological interests of a political present. In CAMP, the human that lives in excess of social rules and group demands, arguably the principle of freedom and becoming, returns and is given room to breathe. And what was once discarded now returns as queer. We might understand “queer” conceptually as that which is socially outcast, outlawed, or foreclosed altogether. All the signifiers of (western) queerness re-write the record in fabulous outfits, glitter, and brazen nudity to mark the possibility that the story can change. Even though the ending of CAMP might dishearten us, what it communicates to me is that though it takes courage to revise the record with “better” stories, our courage is always undermined by the reality that we are never completely autonomous. In one way or another, we are all deeply and complexly tied to one another. Most of us fear being disowned by family or cast out by community. And I don’t think this needs to be thought in a negative light because there is something to be learned by, and something politically productive about, the idea of loving a grandfather and a people who are finding it difficult to change the story.

AM: I almost don’t want to respond, or rather, I’m rendered quite speechless by what you are saying in words; I fear I only have a visual or aesthetic language for answering. I’m inspired by the kinds of conversations that have been made possible by engaging in such a complicated approach to storytelling. So thank you for being such a big part of that.

I guess I can break the silence by revealing a lie… I never performed the Purim story at summer camp. Other Jews with similar summer camp experience have watched the video and gotten tripped up right at the beginning because they have self-referenced the fact that Purim happens in the winter and would never be performed during the summer months. There are various sly gestures strewn throughout the piece that provide a similar effect. I think it was important for me to play with story and truth-telling for some basic reasons, feeling like I didn’t want to be guilty of producing another monolithic narrative, but also knowing that I have the ability to be quite confusing, so trying not to go overboard on that front!

My Zaidy was the first person for whom I screened CAMP once it was done. His first question, and actually many people’s first question, was “why did Chelsey have to be naked?” I never really thought about it this way, but after reading your reflections above, I guess what she represents is not just the carnivalesque tradition that Purim celebrations come out of, but a real representation of a new and queered record. In that way it makes a lot of sense to begin CAMP on that note, as it challenges us to be open to the ways that we may change. My Zaidy also noted that though he didn’t necessarily agree with everything I was saying, he was very “proud” of me.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. California: Stanford University Press.

King, Thomas. 2003. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

Rose, Jacqueline. 2007. The Last Resistance. London and New York: Verso.

Dina Georgis is an Assistant Professor at Women and Gender Studies Institute and has a nominal appointment with Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. She writes on postcolonial, diasporic, and queer cultures. Her work draws on theories of trauma, affect, and mourning to think through how narrative and art articulate the affective residues of history and provide the conditions for re-imagining political futures. Her book, The Better Story: Queer Affects from the Middle East (in press with SUNY), is a conversation among postcolonial studies, queer theory, and psychoanalysis. Her present research examines the works of a group of war generation avant-garde Lebanese artists who are concerned with the limits and dilemmas of representing the civil war.

Alexis Mitchell is a Toronto-based media artist and educator whose videos and installations have shown at festivals and in galleries throughout the world. Her work explores notions of queerness, architecture, memory, performativity, and nuanced understandings of contemporary Jewish identity and politics. Mitchell received her MFA in Film and Video Production from York University, where her thesis video, CAMP, won the award for Best Upcoming Director at the World Film Festival. Alongside her independent practice, Mitchell works collaboratively with other artists to produce interdisciplinary works. Collaborations include: a commissioned video project with Tori Foster for Toronto Pride entitled Queeropolis: Toronto 1972-2008; various multi-media projects with Sharlene Bamboat including Border Sounds; and a performative sound and video installation for Toronto’s Nuit Blanche 2011. Currently, she is in production on a number of new works, including STEALTH, a performative video in collaboration with Chase Joynt, and The Break, an experimental documentary exploring gender and the singing voice. Mitchell currently works as a freelance video artist, editor, and facilitator, and is a member of Pleasure Dome’s Programming Collective.  www.alexismitchell.com