Sketches – Reconstructing meaning of displacement | Guest post from Zuhair Mehrali

Recent graduate Zuhair talks us through his work Sketches; a 2-part project consisting of an experimental film and interactive accompaniment, which use oral histories and archive material to explore the theme of displacement.

The ethico-political narrative of the world presented by the media is a scattered montage of disarray: images of refugees out at sea, essays of political expression weaved through threads of tweets, viral videoclips of Trump, etc. Within this context, hearing my parents refer jokingly to each other as ‘immigrant’ and ‘refugee’ felt strange to me. I had always been aware of my dad being relocated to the UK from Kampala, Uganda – as a result of the Ugandan-Asian expulsion of 1972 by the dictator Idi Amin – and of my mum being born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. But I hadn’t considered these realities under the labels ‘refugee’ and ‘immigrant’.

“How can we empathise with refugees as people with their own subjectivities?”

Produced for my Major at Falmouth University, Sketches is a 2-part meditation on the extent to which we can construct meaning of histories that are not our own. More specifically, this project is an attempt to understand the historical ethico-political context; how could I build upon the understanding of my mum and dad as people before parents? How can we empathise with refugees as people with their own subjectivities?

The response is a collage of oral history and archive material juxtaposed with beautiful imagery of South Cornwall. As an exploration of East African Asian displacement in the 1970s, it depicts the construction of meaning within the film’s narrative through sketching. This creative decision was informed by John Berger’s notion that ‘a drawing is an autobiographical record of one’s discovery of an event – either seen, remembered or imagined.’ Sketches Studio is an interactive browser-based deconstruction of the film, allowing the audience to reconstruct the meaning.

Zuhair Mehrali - Sketches

Doing sketches in the film

Production notes

Making the film began with conducting and recording several phone interviews with my parents about their upbringing in, and migration from, East Africa. It’s worth mentioning that although I did initial fact-checking of their anecdotes (with the intention of repeating the interviews with corrections afterwards), this was quickly stopped in favour of using unedited interview footage, with all of the natural human error and sound interference that comes with spontaneous recollection over the phone. From this, the potential of an interactive component became clearer; as well as allowing for closer inspection of visual material referenced within the film, interaction could also allow one to validate claims made within the phone recordings against relevant online news sources.

After further primary research was conducted, secondary material was gathered. Archive video was provided by Penn Museum, and scans of the Uganda Argus newspaper (specifically issues printed in 1972) were provided by Carleton University’s MacOdrum Library. The latter feature prominently in Studio as newspaper clippings – visible depending on what is being referred to in my parents’ voice overs – that can be enlarged and read.

Sketches studio - primary sources

An example of primary sources used in Sketches Studio

Filming took place over three days in several locations in Cornwall, with cinematographer Oliver Cole and myself following a loose script that allowed for mostly ‘improvised’ shoots. This script was like a template; it was written to detail the form and purpose of different shots, with a view that these should be repeated at each location.

The film was then edited by Matthew Delaloye into chapters in which my parents simultaneously talk over the visual narrative, with each chapter having a rough theme or topic. They are then bookended by the sketches that were done on location. It is intended that the final cut blurs the lines between fiction and documentary, leaving Studio to serve as the tool for clarification.

Sketches Studio interface

The Sketches Studio interface

The interactive element Studio was built from scratch using HTML, CSS and JavaScript. The effect of automatically-scrolling transcripts and references depend on the active time-code of the film in the movie player panel. Each line in the transcripts has start and end time-codes assigned to it, so when the active time-code falls between these values, it becomes highlighted.

Historicity, media-manipulation and subjectivity

The theoretical inspiration for Sketches Studio retains themes of historicity, media-manipulation and subjectivity that have been discussed thus far. The thinking behind Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu – which proposes a new form of writing using parallel documents to ensure original sources of references made within a main body are never lost – was monumental in informing the conception of this in-browser experience.

Studio incorporates this idea of ever present sources with a twist; media relevant to the current scene in the film-player is shown within the ‘Reference Inspector’. Alongside this are synchronous transcripts – containing in-text ‘citations’ – of my parents’ voiceovers. Furthermore, a control panel allows the user to toggle channels of audio, allowing the them to observe in ‘real-time’ how the overall meaning of the film is manipulated by direct manipulation of the film itself.

There is still a lot of room for improvement in this system: cross-browser compatibility is far from smooth, and currently the only way to add/remove references is by hard-coding them into the database, so building a back-end would be ideal.

Were this to be done, perhaps the structure of Studio could be borrowed to create a framework or engine that could work with any film. I must place particular emphasis on the effect that the project had on my relationship with my parents: developing it with them was enlightening and humbling. Returning to my original confusion towards their ‘immigrant’ or ‘refugee’ status… The muddy media-influenced meaning I associated with these labels has, at this point, been reconstructed by a more personal one that remains somewhat inexpressible in writing, but is hopefully articulated by the finished project.

Watch Sketches here:

Deconstruct it in Sketches Studio here:

About the Author

Zuhair Mehrali is a recent graduate of Digital Media at Falmouth University. He is an artist specialising in experimental filmmaking, and also practices multidisciplinary design. He is particularly interested in praxis, the intrinsic relationship between theory and practice.