Paradises of the earth: politics of solidarity

Nadir Bouhmouch, director of the groundbreaking documentary 'Paradises of the earth' talks about the inception of the project, and the urgency of telling North African stories.

Paradises of the earth documentary

A testimony to Morocco’s 2011 February 20th uprising, my first documentary film “My Makhzen and Me” began with a sequence which transported the viewer through a North Africa which had suddenly rebelled against dictatorship and social inequality. Naturally, this sequence began in Tunisia — the birthplace of our glorious revolutions. Little did I know that years later I would find myself filming “Paradises of the Earth” in Tunisia’s southern margins, the very places from which the 2011 revolutions began.

Paradises of the earth documentary

​Between then and now, many things have changed — and not just on the geopolitical level — but also on a personal, introspective level. Since then, I have taken time to reflect, to think, to find inspiration, and to learn. This long process of reflection and growth in political consciousness ran in parallel with the political and economic changes in our region, the ebbs and flows between revolution and counter-revolution.

This documentary has therefore come at an appropriate time, it is a way for me to revisit 2011. Whereas my first documentary focused on my individual interaction with popular revolt in the urban centre, this one explores a dialectical relationship between different people, from different places, and their collective interaction with the struggles on the margins. Whereas before I called for pity, now I call for solidarity. Whereas before I detached present from past, here I seek to express historical continuity as it is made by people and not individuals.

Paradises of the earth documentary

In many ways, the year 2017 for me has been a year for experimentation, a year where I try to apply the ideas which I have formed and the ideas which have inspired me over the last six years. This project is the second of three experiments I have conducted this year. One in which I am seeking ideological harmony between the modes of production I employ, the themes I choose to focus on, the filmic and artistic forms I use to express these themes, and the mediums of distribution and exhibition by which the final filmic product reaches its audience.

It is a North African production by excellence, refusing the usual absurd national labels

Like all experiments, this one has had its successes and shortcomings. It has successfully managed to involve some of the film’s subjects as producers, empowering those in front of the camera to have a say in how they are being portrayed. It has also been successful in making itself accessible, and independent of states, corporations and elitist film institutions. Another of its successes lies in its emphasis on internationalism and border-defying solidarity. This is not only true for its choice of subjects who come from all over the region, but also for its production team. It is a North African production by excellence, refusing the usual absurd national labels accorded to films and embracing a borderless and decolonial vision of North Africa. As for its shortcomings, I will write more about these later when they become more apparent, but what is certain for now is that we did not do enough to give more voice to women.

Paradises of the earth documentary

It seems up until now that I have spoken in more or less conceptual terms, so allow me to delve a little into the concrete and explain how exactly this project came to be. In many ways this film was a coincidence, an unintended project. When I boarded a plane to Tunisia last April, it was certainly not with the idea to make a documentary series about a solidarity caravan of North African activists. In reality, “Paradises of the Earth” began as another project, one that takes place thousands of kilometres away from Tunisia, in a southeastern Moroccan commune called Imider.

Paradises of the earth documentary

For now I can not say much more about Imider and the project we are working on there. What is important is to understand that my trip to Tunisia was an offshoot of that project. To put it more clearly, I went to Tunisia for two reasons. First, as an activist —  as a part of that caravan — showing solidarity with the people of Tunisia’s forgotten south. And second, because I was following one of the subjects (who happened to also be invited to take part of this caravan) from Imider: Omar Moujane — a friend, but also an almond farmer, an olive oil press worker, a sociology student and one of the Imider protest movement’s former political prisoners. Perhaps this may explain my emphasis on Omar as a character throughout the film.

However, after a week of documenting the caravan my perception towards the footage (as being a part of the Imider documentary) began to change. This was largely initiated through discussion with one of the caravan’s primary organisers, Hamza Hamouchene, a passionate comrade who has taught me much about the question of extractivism, and the linkages between neocolonialism and the environment. We eventually came to the conclusion that I had more material than I needed and a group of subjects which are in themselves extraordinary and deserving of their own story.

“We refuse to wait to tell our stories. We will tell them now.”

Thus was born “Paradises of the Earth,” whose title was inspired by the great Amazigh historian, Ibn Khaldoun who once described Gabes as a “paradise on earth.” It seemed to me afterwards that Gabes wasn’t the only paradise. North Africa is filled with paradises which have been victim of colonial violence, just like their inhabitants — Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth.”

We also decided to divide the film into a four-part web documentary series, a medium we thought would be more digestible and more accessible for today’s North African audiences who have long left the movie theaters. The choice of making it free and available for all to watch online, combined with the fact that it was shot with little funding, without ridiculous state permits, and with a lack of crew and equipment, is also a way of saying: “We refuse to wait to tell our stories. We will tell them now.”

This article was first published on Open Democracy

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