Unfolding languages and cities: Georges Salameh in conversation with Rabab El Mouadden

Georges Salameh is a Greek-Lebanese filmmaker and visual artist. He studied Cinema in Paris at the University VIII St. Denis and since 1998 has created a series of videos, documentaries, experimental and essay films, and photographic installations. He has lived in many Mediterranean cities but is currently based in Athens. The recent book, HEAR YOU ATHENS (2021), is a correspondence between two friends who observed Athens during the period 1998-2006. In our discussion, he referred to the city as a lover. Since then, the city has changed as well as the way we experience and see it. In the following interview, Georges introduces us to his relationship with languages, the urban landscape, the crisis, and precarity through his own eyes, or even better through his lens.

Agios Panteleimon square, HEAR YOU ATHENS (2021)

Rabab El Mouadden: In your film Maesmak, which has a reference point one day in Rutba, a few weeks before the invasion of Iraq by the American forces, we observe parallel stories but also the use of many languages that unfold one after the other. What is the importance of language in your work?

Georges Salameh: This movie is essentially a first complete attempt to find a language that lingers between a documentary, an essay, a narrative — it is an alloy of many things. I realized that the film had Arabic, German, Russian, English, Italian, Persian, Greek – it had excerpts from many languages I understand. I said that it is a movie that will be read entirely differently depending on each person’s language. Most of the time, you do not get exactly the right feeling with the subtitles.

My greatest aspiration is still poetry. So I always put my visual craftsmanship at the service of this unattainable goal! Because of my numerous migrations, I have always avoided putting a national label on myself or my work. I’d give legs and brain, curiosity and reasoning to Athens – that’s my apprenticeship. Heart and kidney, love and refuge go to Sicily – that’s where my son is growing up. Hands and ears, artisanship, and a sense of listening go to Lebanon – that’s where my origins are. Tongue and eyes, language and gaze go to France – that’s where I got my education. If there’s a common denominator, it’s probably the Mediterranean; the dark blue sea. And if, as an artist, there is some general citizenship for me, it’s constantly a foreigner. Mine is a convoluted notion of nationality – but there’s an undocumented migrant in each one of us.

Farewell, HEAR YOU ATHENS (2021)

RE M: You have stayed in various cities before settling in Athens, and your status as a walker or self-exile concerns your work as an artist. Do you think that if this identity ceased to exist one day, how different would your work be?

GS: I do not identify myself as a self-exile. Everything I do has this meaning in it, but it does not define my whole identity. In general, I have the feeling that in all these years, I do not have something stable. Identity is in flux and a continuous configuration. The only thing I can identify with is the dark blue Mediterranean sea that unites all these places I have been to.

RE M: In a recent interview, you referred to the change that Athens has undergone since the years of the economic crisis of 2011. Here another quality of yours seems to be that of an urban geologist. Your images  capture the center of Athens, such as Victoria square or Egypt square, where the most degraded social groups live. What is the purpose of this mapping? In this context, it would be interesting for you to talk to me about the new book published very recently, ‘HEAR YOU ATHENS.’

GS: These are materials from the place where I lived. At that time, the war in Kosovo had just ended. I produced these images between 1998 and 2006. In other words, they have been taken long before the recent economic crisis. It is the first generation of large migration influx in Greece. Wars and the fall of the Soviet Union brought these people here. Somehow, when I was gathering the material, being myself uprooted by the civil war in Lebanon, I had in mind all these people who had come to Greece because they are like waves. I mention the word ‘wave’ because it always takes me to the Mediterranean sea. They are the waves that have never ended; they are in history from the beginning of humankind until today—one out of many migrations over the centuries.

Cafavy, HEAR YOU ATHENS (2021)

RE M: During this period, we have gone through a multidimensional crisis which had a great impact on Arts. Last year, we saw the #SupportArtWorkers movement as a response of artists to the adverse conditions they are going through. Recently the autonomous cultural space EMPROS was closed on the initiative of the state. How did you personally experience the pandemic crisis, and what do you think could be the ways to calm such a situation?

GS: I do not know when the crisis in Athens begins and ends. I lived in those years, in 1997-2005, a professional flourishing in Athens because at that time Greek cinema was also blooming. Athens had not yet entered the European currency. For me, the big crisis is that someone who is 20-25 years old today will never live the experience I had in Athens then. The ease of doing things, gaining experience, and feeling safe no longer exists.

To return to the issue of precarity, I have always been precarious. I was never looking for economic security. I knew that from the moment I chose to do this profession in Greece, there would be no career because there is no market for a job, whether cinema or any other form of art. You can get subsidies from the state or a few producers, but you are always in a precarious position. I saw it while working; it is not just an assumption or suspicion.

R EM: How do you view the future?

GS: In Athens?

RE M: Yes.

GS: Deciding to stay in Athens means that I would not have a career. This time it meant more than that—I had to fight very hard for anything I wanted to create in the future. But in the margins that I was all my life is also Athens. Athens is not in the center of the markets. It is not Berlin. However, the most exciting things happen in the margins, whether in the arts or the real economy.

Athens was fascinating then and is still exciting today. As a city, it weighs with the crises and the gentrifications. Once again, the city center will change, but I think it is there where you find a meaning for fighting for something because there are so many struggles that the new generation has to face. #SupportArtWorkers is an exciting and healthy situation because it rediscovers that you have to fight for some rights.The least you can do is support. They will fight for the same things you once fought. I gave you this example because you asked me, but there is so much more. From the aeolics to (natural) disasters, open fronts are infinite. You have to choose and focus somewhere to fight.

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