Basim Magdy Explores the Farthest Reaches of our Dreamlike Haze in "Waking Life"

in 44th International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Tara Judah

When we awake from a dream, the images aren’t always clear in our minds. Sometimes what stays with us is only tonal; a feeling about what we think has transpired. There might also be images, sounds, colours, words, but they don’t always fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and, oftentimes, they cross-pollinate. Whatever hybrid form of reality and fiction these dreamlike hazes give us, they are an experience in “Waking Life” that can inspire and terrify. The films that belong to this realm are abstractions, evocations and, sometimes, exercises in beautiful meaninglessness. Watching IFFR’s Short Special on Egyptian artist Basim Magdy was like unlocking the trap door of one’s own subconscious and letting a kaleidoscope of dreamlike treasures flutter off the screen into the auditorium.

With their often absurdly long titles – an attempt to explain the works a little –  Magdy’s short films are ambitious adventures. “My Father Looks for an Honest City” (2010) features Magdy’s father walking around an abandoned construction site with a flashlight in hand. On one level it is a re-enactment of the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope’s ‘philosophical stunt’. On another, it is a film that invites the viewer on a journey with a man who is walking with a flashlight, shining it haphazardly, in the broad light of day. Set against the sounds of a thunderstorm, the landscape becomes foreboding and the man’s presence unsettling. The abandoned structures, stray dogs and presumed heat of the sun, make us wonder if his might be a slow, measured search for evidence in the wake of an apocalypse. Magdy’s father is calm but as the sheet and fork lighting of our imagination continues to strike his slowed actions become increasingly sinister in tone. A close up of his face reveals puzzlement until he faces the camera directly: a gaze of ambiguity. The storm may not arrive, but we have weathered it all the same.

In his two shortest titled works, “Crystal Ball” (2013) and “The Dent” (2014), Magdy wonders about the future and examines the problems of the past. The experience in “Crystal Ball” is like déjà vu. The sound of a periscope searching in the darkness reminds us that seeing into the future is a claustrophobic journey. We cannot travel through time and space without some restriction on our freedoms. The disparity between the images of a city preparing for the Olympics and the words that appear onscreen, in “The Dent”, are only occasionally in sync. Snippets of a text including gems like, “capitalism wants to stay” and “everyone partied and no one cared” appear at the bottom of the screen as if they were interjections from a third party. Reading them can offer a confused experience of the film – separation of the synapses – but ignoring them has its own pitfalls – allowing excavation to be a solely aesthetic is an act of de-politicisation. Magdy knows his audience will float through some passages of this 19-minute short, allowing the reference of a circus and the images of elephants to bring a mixed bag of connotations to the table. The inference is occasionally positive but the gut feeling is overwhelmingly negative.  

These, the more light-hearted “13 Essential Rules for Understanding the World” (2011) and “Time Laughs Back at You Like a Sunken Ship” (2012), plus some other films and artworks not included in the session at Rotterdam are available to stream online, via Magdy’s website. However, what makes seeing these films in the context of the festival special is threefold: 1) Basim Magdy was in conversation after each of his films screened, 2) there were two incredible slide shows accompanying the shorts – here we were able to see Magdy’s vision of “pickled” films and how creative interjection can alter the meaning of an image – and 3) because the dreamlike haze that we experience in “Waking Life” is a journey that is best embarked upon in a contained space (the auditorium). The problem with a kaleidoscope is that its multifaceted beauty can be overwhelming. But if you have a dedicated catchment then, once all the works have screened, you will find those butterflies, settled.

Tara Judah