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Ismaïl Bahri,  Interview: Pierre Schwarzer

Foyer, was filmed in Tunis in 2014 and 2015. The pace is slow and yet, one is drawn into a trance-like state of concentration – precisely because one does not see anything precise, but not nothing, one lets the eye roam across the screen and focus on the sounds, on the voices. Just like the wind is a sort of cameraman, it is up to us to make something of the voices, of the words, separated from the bodies out of which they emerge. The gaze is captured by the dances of light, instead of becoming affixed to people, suspended in mid-air, allowing for a different state of experience. There is indeed a strange intimacy to the film, a surface upon which things are projected while transformed into flickerings of white, turning into a vibratory surface which allows us to look onto a place already routinely captured by news-outlets, without it being turned into a dramatic event, without it being reduced into the usual news-sections. In veiling the screen, other veilings are lifted. The camera, becomes sensible — a Seismometer — capturing infinitesimal vibrations where it is placed.

This screening and interview are accompanied by the Essay “(un)imagining”, published on Public Seminar.

Pierre Schwarzer: Could you tell us a bit more about the story behind the title of your work? Is it an expression of your relationship towards the location of filming or could it be a double meaning (in French “foyer” refers mainly to that which harbours something, a home of some sort, while in English it designates a place of waiting, an entrance?

Ismail Bahri: In French, the word “foyer” can refer to the locus of a fire, which is the place around which one can gather and talk. In this film, the camera becomes such a “foyer”. The white screen can perhaps also be assimilated to a source of warmth, of brightness around which various words, perceptions and mental projections aggregate.

The word “foyer” also refers to the home, the place one feels one belongs to. This film, which takes place in Tunisia, lets resonate within itself a certain something of the country where I grew up and which I left several years ago. The films marks the trace of returning, the attempt to film the place of a far-away intimacy.

Pierre Schwarzer: Many people within the film commented in various ways your work and your position as an artist – you’ve chosen to include them, was this integration of questioning planned to be part of the film to begin with?

Ismaïl Bahri: The insertion of the voices of the bystanders was unwanted originally. At the start of the project, I was interested in very formalist questions : I was filming a white piece of paper for months in the streets of Tunis to learn how to observe the infinitesimal colour-nuances and its way of reacting to the variations of airstreams. Everyday, bystanders came to talk to me and asked me questions on the work I was doing. I spoke to them without noticing the importance their voices would have in the film, obsessed as I was by my initial project.

It is only during the process of de-rushing the videos that I heard them and recognised their strong poetical, political and humoristic significance. My attention then focussed on the margins of the experiment, on the voices, in order to make this film. Those discussions are therefore really involuntary and were not sought for, the film made itself. It is those I talked to that showed me, without knowing it, which film to make.

Pierre Schwarzer: Through the combination of the topical colours moving around on the screen and the soundtrack of street-noises and commentaries, one gets the impression of touching the surface of something, a place, a society. Could this dimension of research, of analysis repeat itself – or put differently: do you intend to repeat the experiment with another elsewhere, with another experimental setting?

Ismaïl Bahri: No, I don’t intend to repeat the experiment. Like I explained, this film ended up being unintentional, the context, the place, made the film. Repeating the experiment elsewhere would be senseless, for it would be pure fabrication.

In the end, what now interests me in this film after finishing it, is the atmospheric energy (wind and light) and the social energy (of the street and the people) in which it was made The camera here records all the variations of the milieu in which it was plunged. That is, the shifts in energies within a city and its inhabitants. The camera does not serve the production of fixed and defined images of Tunisia. I rather see it as an instrument sensible to its environment, a bit like a meteorological instrument that would record and render sensible the smallest variations and tremblings of the place in which it finds itself.

Ismaïl Bahri lives and works in Paris. His work incorporates many cultural and aesthetic references, developing visual experiments that are both sensitive and precise. The results of these experiments take varying forms – drawings, videos, photographs, installations, and hybrids of these forms. The basic materials used in these works are manipulated and ultimately transformed, often through mechanically inspired gestures and procedures that are related, in one way or another, to cinema or photography. Ismaïl Bahri’s work has been presented among others at Jeu de Paume (Paris), Les églises (Chelles), Staatliche Kunsthalle (Karlsruhe), Kunst Im Tunnel (Düsseldorf).His films have been selected at international film festivals such as TIFF (Toronto), NYFF (New york), IFFR (Rotterdam), FID (Marseille). Ismaïl Bahri’s first solo exhibition took place at the Jeu de Paume (Paris) in 2017.