The Eloquence of Odradek: Hussein Shariffe’s Exilic Film Objects
This essay’s tale of accidental archivism has points of origin across northeast Africa and the European continent. We start with one proximate to this current volume. At the Berlin Film Festival 2019, the Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art, Berlin, began a collaborative initiative to retrieve and recirculate the films of exile Sudanese artist-filmmaker, poet, and public intellectual Hussein Shariffe. Shariffe had first emerged as a fine artist during Sudan’s early decolonization years; he studied painting at London’s Slade School of Fine Art; shuttled back and forth until the late 1980s between London and Khartoum; moved in Sudan in circles close to government, including as head of the Department of State Cinema in the early 1970s; and worked during that period on his first documentary, The Throwing of Fire (1973). In 1989, a military coup ushered in a thirty-year dictatorship under Omar al-Bashir. A prominent critic of the new regime, Shariffe fled into exile in Cairo, eventually beginning work there on his last, unfinished film, Of Dust and Rubies: Letters from Abroad (ODAR: 2005).
ODAR subsists today only as a collection of silent rushes: cinematic refigurings of rhythms, images, and tropes from poems by exiled compatriots of Shariffe including Abdel Rahim Abu Zikra (“Departure in the Night”), Mahjoub Sharif (“The Traveler”), and Ali Adbel Ghayoum (“Whirlpools of the 20th Century”). Despite traumatic beginnings, this fragmentary film object contained the seeds of archival futures. In 2019, prompted by an approach from curator Heba Farid, Arsenal artistic director Stefanie Schulte Strathaus began a new collaboration with partners including Sudan Film Factory director Talal Afifi; Cimathèque Cairo co-founder and filmmaker Tamer el Said; and friends and family, including writer-translator Haytham el-Wardany and Shariffe’s daughter Eiman Hussein. A two-day workshop and public panel focused on ODAR at this early moment in the project. The participants presented first thoughts on the film’s traces of exilic pasts and unrealized futures at the Berlinale. The panel featured in an essay film by Tamer el-Said, Of Dust and Rubies: A Film on Suspension (2019); and in December 2020, the project went peripatetic, following Shariffe’s own transnational journeys, with a screening and discussion mini-series in London, and subsequently, an essay film presentation by student researchers Deem bin Jumayd, Niya Namfua, and Mai Nguyen first at the Arsenal’s September 2021 archive festival, Archival Assembly #1, later at the Eye Museum Amsterdam (May 2022) and the British Film Institute, London (January 2023).
The title of Bin Jumayd et al.’s essay—“Towards a Cinema of the Incomplete” (2021)—highlights a signal aspect of this project of traveling archival retrieval. The film scholar Janet Harbord sees in unfinished films a resistance to the totalizations of a fully achieved narrative or perfectly confected aesthetic form (Harbord 2016). Our work with Of Dust and Rubies adds an archival facet to Harbord’s account. Two years of screenings and discussion events on and around ODAR brought contributions to our expanding digital file store: an orderly/disorderly configuration of objects and images that amplified ODAR’s stories, building constellated perspectives on the experiences of migration, remigration, and exile that the film presents. Relocating Shariffe’s film to London in our 2020 mini-series brought contributions from the Slade archives, with gallery programs and early artworks revealing ODAR’s indebtedness both to his painting and to two visionary experimental features Tigers are Better Looking (1975)—Shariffe’s graduation film from the UK National Film and Television School; and The Dislocation of Amber (1975), a film whose blend of elements from western modernism with Arabic and African arts recalls Shariffe’s experimental practice at the 1960s Slade and London’s Gallery One. Researching these and other titles involved in turn reviewing materials from the family archive, as well as chance deposits by collaborators on the Arsenal project: photographs, scripts, poems, scholarly articles, scrapbooks, student records, assembling themselves like iron filings around the film-as-magnet, and loudly demanding, it seemed, inclusion in our conversations on Shariffe.
This, then, is our project’s accidental archive: a dust trail of ephemera growing in volume and density as we pursue our curatorial meanderings around Shariffe’s stations of exile and transient belonging. Calls for inclusion from such fugitive objects pose knotty challenges for archive work. What strategies allow us to hold and care for gifts accrued on our curatorial journeys? Our impulse is to document, and thus to name, order, and classify: here is a photograph, this is its object, its authorial origin, its place and time. But we risk here immobilizing in reified taxonomies objects born in the circulatory flows of migration, exile, archival retrieval, and transnational remediation in festivals and other public fora. How then to retain these objects’ vitality: their capacity to move both in the sense of spatial transit around migratory circuits, and affectively, working their magic on audiences transported by intertexts that multiply his film works’ affective charge?
Writings by scholars of the archive and cultural memory suggest a response. Beatrice von Bismarck advocates a post-humanist embrace of non-human subjects (not just Shariffe’s films, then, but photos, scrapbooks, post-it-notes, letters, bills of lading, audio cassettes, and the rest) as co-creators in the archive of knowledge, memory, and affect (von Bismarck 2022, 16). Ann Rigney recalls this volume’s title when she dubs such objects an “‘accidental archive’ comprising ‘yet-unarticulated traces’ of ‘potential … meaning’” (Rigney 2015, 14). Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer echo Rigney’s suggestion of an “articulation” by non-human speaking voices when they write of “testimonial objects” whose mute yet somehow audible stories bear their own “stamp of individuality, of voice, tone and modulation” (Hirsch and Spitzer 2006, 369) [Fig 2]. Eiman Hussein and Haytham el-Wardany write similarly of conversations in Hussein Shariffe’s archive across and between archival fragments. For Hussein, ODAR’s unfinished script “resonates” with the film images it was destined to accompany. A poetic duologue subsists, then, between text and image, despite the absence of the voiceover envisaged for the film’s final cut. For el-Wardany too, those same images—shot in, but making strange the landscapes of his Egyptian homeland—express an exilic camera’s “solidarity with other forms of life and other places” (Afifi et al. 2022, 12–13).
These comments point to elective affinities across and between archival fragments and their surrounding worlds. These metaphorical, visual, rhythmic, tonal, chromatic, poetic resonances disrupt archival epistemologies, questioning the status of unedited footage, shot lists, scribbled notes, and memos as inert empirical material functioning only to ratify historical narratives of filmmaking lives. Our project is allied instead to living archive projects where exhibition or live performance activate live connectivities between historical artefacts and present worlds (Arsenal 2014). The Berlinale 2019 panel on ODAR paved the way. While Hussein and el-Wardany excavated from the raw footage traces of an exile gaze transmuting national landscapes into territories of “unhoused” migrant belonging, Stefanie Schulte Strathaus linked the film’s mythic protagonists—mermaids and mermen, one played by a younger Talal Afifi—to Shariffe’s own image of the sea as an “organized intelligence network,” whose underground messages spread through the “glittering vaults … of many Atlantis” (Afifi et al. 2022, 12–14; Shariffe n.d.b).
The 2019 panel ended with a reading of Franz Kafka’s short story, “The Silence of the Sirens.” Kafka’s repurposing of Homer’s Odyssey had suggested for Schulte Strathaus the longevity of migrant stories as sites of production for mobile forms of archival knowledge. Our own quest for an approach to the migrating archive steals similarly from Kafka, this time however from a different story that melds its inferences of transit to questions of memory, language, and loss. In 1919, Kafka published Die Sorge des Hausvaters [The Cares of a Family Man]. The protagonist is Odradek, a creature that appears and disappears in a tenement staircase: an object with a life (it moves, it speaks), but that is also inanimate, “a flat, star-shaped spool for thread,” with a “crossbar” and a “rod,” wooden or metallic elements that lend to Odradek an interim existence between states of life and non-life (Kafka 1971, 469). Odradek’s origins are obscure: its name may be Germanic or Slavonic, but is perhaps neither; it comes and goes, occupying spaces of transit—the garret, the stairway, the entrance hall; it disappears repeatedly, before resurfacing, and posing to the family man the same enigmas: what is this object, what is its provenance, how does it combine such formal perfection with a lack of intelligible shape and certain origin?
Kafka’s creaturely experiments were surely palpable reference points for a film artist whose writing on his own techniques of constructivist film collage ranged effortlessly from notes on western modernism—Rhys, Yeats, De Chirico— to Sudanese literature and myth (Shariffe n.d.a). Kafka has been illuminating in our project as a speculative interlocutor most particularly in discussions of voice and archival address. Our efforts to retrieve, conserve, and restore artefacts from Shariffe’s film and document archive are entwined with a curatorial and publishing program traversing global destinations including London, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Khartoum. We have attempted in this context an archive practice that ranges across digital platforms, institutional sites, media forms, communities, and audiences. Shaping that practice is a poetics of the archive that considers films and other objects as speaking subjects with their own agency in conversations we attempt across spaces, times, collectivities, and forms. In other writing, we have drawn on film scholars including Francesco Casetti and Nanna Verhoeff to write in a more theoretical vein of Shariffe’s archive films as deictic ensembles whose position “here” in the archive is oriented towards as yet indeterminate positions beside or beyond themselves in space in time (Carter and Kent 2022; Casetti 1998; Verhoeff 2012). Kafka’s “The Cares of a Family Man” suggests a more poetic approach to deixis—the linguistic function that establishes the relational positionality of the enunciating subject—as a structuring force in archive practice. In the story, Kafka’s narrator attempts a dialogue with Odradek: “‘And where do you live?’ he asks: ‘No fixed abode,’ he says and laughs; but it is only the kind of laughter that has no lungs behind it. It sounds rather like the rustling of fallen leaves. And that is usually the end of the conversation” (Kafka 1971, 470).
A passage in the ODAR rushes speaks with special eloquence in Odradek’s language of fallen leaves. A book lands on a rocky desert hillside. The wind—a ubiquitous presence in this film—blows the book open, the camera panning slowly across rocky ground that catches the pages, if only momentarily, as they rise unsteadily into haphazard flight [Fig. 3]. The absent sound invites us, like Kafka’s family man (and in the spirit of photography critic Tina Campt), to “listen” to these images, revisiting Shariffe’s archive for clues to the experiences they narrate of exile and diaspora (Campt 2017). Scanning Shariffe’s films and writings, we find the same desert wind: in The Dislocation of Amber, for instance, where the wind is an audible voice narrating histories of violence; in Shariffe’s poem Sandstorm, the wind here a metaphor for a despot’s cruelties that “bleed the blackness into ash”; or scenes from ODAR where the wind has a softer presence, nudging folds of sand into mellow patterns, and recalling the strange comforts of solitude in desert landscapes.
The associative chain invoked by ODAR’s images of book, leaves and wind suggests an archive and historiographical practice that eschews epistemological hierarchies positioning ODAR, say, as “artist film,” “experimental cinema,” “haptic cinema,” and so on (though it is also all of these). Shariffe’s films call alongside this for a poetry of the archive that works associatively and intuitively across archival objects and their human interlocutors, fashioning what Shariffe himself might have called a constellation of “construction symbols”—a composite visual language, and local-global stories of Sudanese cosmopolitan modernism and decolonial film heritage (Shariffe n.d.a).
In 2022, we began work on an open access digital document and audiovisual archive designed to bring Shariffe’s films into conversation with extraordinary artefacts —photographs, scrapbooks, poems, critical writings—from his own transmedia practice. In transnational curatorial collaborations, we have continued to present our project as a resource for public conversations on exilic pasts and Sudanese futures. A last word on Odradek highlights that task’s necessity. In 1934, Walter Benjamin wrote of Odradek as “the form which things assume in oblivion” (Benjamin 1999 , 811). Hito Steyerl follows Benjamin in identifying such “modest and even abject objects” as memory vaults “in whose dark prism social relations [lie] congealed and in fragments.” Listening to Odradek involves a work of translation that Steyerl calls “political” in its capacity to mobilize congealed form, and reorganize relations across human and object worlds. Potentially created in this process are “global public spheres whose participants are linked … by mutual excitement and anxiety” (Steyerl 2006). At the time of writing, anxiety prevails. Since 15 April 2023, war has raged again across Sudan. If Steyerl’s shared futurity (her “mutual excitement”) is to subsist, then our own translational work on Shariffe’s films becomes yet more urgent. As we share in public fora Shariffe’s filmed stories of futures past, we hope to release what Eiman Hussein calls her father’s films’ “unhoused energies,” mobilizing resistance to military violence by revivifying the voice of an artist-filmmaker speaking in the quiet but infinitely eloquent language of Odradek’s falling leaves.
Warm thanks for inspiration and collaboration to Eiman Hussein, Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, Talal Afifi, Tamer el Said, Haytham el-Wardany, Samar Abdelrahman, Laurence Kent, David Somerset. For generous financial support, we thank the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and King’s College London.
Afifi, Talal, Eiman Hussein, Tamer el Said, Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, and Haytham el-Wardany. 2022. “Of Dust and Rubies—A Film on Suspension.” In Archives on Show: Revoicing, Shapeshifting, Displacing—A Curatorial Glossary, edited by Beatrice von Bismarck, 10–14. Berlin: Archive Books.
Arsenal—Institut für Film und Videokunst. 2014. Living Archive: Archive Work as Contemporary Artistic and Curatorial Practice. Berlin: bbooks.
Benjamin, Walter. 1999 . “Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of his Death.” Translated by Rodney Livingstone and others. In Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings Vol 2. 1927-1934, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, 794–818. Cambridge and London: Belknap.
von Bismarck, Beatrice. 2022. “Archives on Show: An Introduction.” In Archives on Show: Revoicing, Shapeshifting, Displacing—A Curatorial Glossary, edited by Beatrice von Bismarck, 15–120. Berlin: Archive Books.
Campt, Tina M. 2017. Listening to Images. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Carter, Erica, and Laurence Kent. 2022. “An Infinity of Tactics: Hussein Shariffe’s Archive in Motion.” L’Atalante. Revista de Estudios Cinematográficos 34: 115–36.
Casetti, Francesco. 1998. Inside the Gaze: The Fiction Film and its Spectator. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Harbord, Janet. 2016. Ex-Centric Cinema: Giorgio Agamben and Film Archaeology. New York/London/Oxford/New Delhi/Sydney: Bloomsbury.
Hirsch, Marianne, and Leo Spitzer. 2006. “Testimonial Objects: Memory, Gender, Transmission.” Poetics Today 20 (2): 353–83.
Kafka, Franz. 1971. “The Cares of a Family Man.” Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. In The Complete Stories, edited by Nahum Norbert Glatzer, 469–70. New York: Schocken.
Rigney, Ann. 2015. “Things and the Archive: Scott’s Materialist Legacy.” Scottish Literary Review 7 (2): 13–34.
Shariffe, Hussein. n.d.a. “The Dislocation of Amber: Treatment for Style and Perspective Projection.”
Shariffe, Hussein. n.d.b. “Water Kills.”
Steyerl, Hito. 2006. “The Language of Things.” transversal texts, June. Accessed May 24, 2023. https://transversal.at/transversal/0606/steyerl/en.
Verhoeff, Nanna. 2012. “Pointing Forward, Looking Back: Reflexivity and Deixis in Early Cinema and Contemporary Installation.” In A Companion to Early Cinema, edited by André Gaudreault, Nicolas Dulac, and Santiago Hidalgo, 568–86. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.