Stranger than Fiction: Manaf Halbouni on What If?

Manaf Halbouni speaks candidly about his recent new film work made in Huntly in Aberdeenshire, in response to Middle Eastern politics and the Syrians that have recently settled as new Scots

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf | 27 Jul 2017

What If? Manaf Halbouni’s work asks in its title, as it imagines an entirely different geopolitical structure. Recently an artist in residence in the Scottish rural market town Huntly, and commissioned by an organisation there, Deveron Projects, Halbouni worked as much as possible with the local population to produce his new work.

Shot on mobile phones and cast exclusively from the town’s inhabitants, the film crucially involved many recently settled Syrians, 'new Scots' as they’re called informally. In the trailer for the film, two of these formerly Syria-based and now Huntly locals are seen acting out some of the script’s speculative fiction. On whether this presented a particular challenge, Halbouni considers it as not so different from the usual challenges of filmmaking, “especially if it’s a short one and you only have three months to do everything: training, filming, editing.”

Positing a reversal of Middle East and West, Halbouni makes the Arabian States and Turkey the large industrial states in his new map of the world. The project started in 2015, when Halbouni began to imagine a 'fictive timeline' in which the industrial revolution of 1845 came to the Middle East rather than Western Countries. “I worked on this fictive timeline and invented many characters for this play, and developed new stories out of this timeline.

"For Deveron Projects my aim was to make a short film out of the people around there because they told me about the new Scots who had settled around Aberdeenshire from Syria. I thought about explaining a little about the problems of the Middle East. As we know it now, the Middle East was created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. I wanted to play this meeting from these two British and French representatives in a different way. I thought about an Arabian and Turkish guy meeting in Scotland to talk about how they’re going to divide Europe into pieces and how they will push Scotland into a big revolution against London, because London in my fictive story is supporting the revolution in Germany.”

On why he chose Scotland and London as the central relationship in his newly imagined global scheme, Halbouni is straightforward about his reasoning: “Because of Brexit. From my point of view, I see that Scotland has been betrayed twice. First at the referendum [then later during] Brexit. The Scots have been promised something they never [received].” He then draws a parallel to the people of the new Arab nations after the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. “By fighting against the Turkish they were promised liberty and did not get it.” Instead, Western European political actors divided the Middle East.

Halbouni also made the conscious decision to locate the responsibilities for filming with the people of the town. “The film we made is actually a play where we invited people from all around Huntly to film it with their mobile phones, and I used all these mobile footages and my good friend Oscar HR [a video artist] edited them all together.” For Halbouni, this was an essential decision as mobile phone film clips represent for him “the medium of our time. Almost everyone has one or at least a digital camera.” Going on, he describes, “When something happens around the world, the first [footage that emerges] are short mobile video clips or photos.” Furthermore, he thinks of using this medium as “an experiment to see how people would film” the possibilities of what might be used to make a film.

Using this fictional narrative and timeline was Halbouni’s strategy to challenge the propagated or conventional sense of events in the Middle East. Though there might have been an awareness of the Syrian situation in Huntly and “a lot of people were talking about it, nobody really knew the real problems or how the people are [really living] over there.” People would often mention ISIS, war and fighting. “I wanted to transport another image, and introduce people and how they are, and actually [communicate] that they’re humans and not different from people in Europe, even in their behaviour. I can’t remember during the 24 years in Damascus that life was so different than living in Europe, except for the weather actually. Human behaviour is actually always everywhere the same.”

For the film, Halbouni has deliberately chosen a room with large windows. In this way, while the Syrian actors perform, in the background the town of Huntly is seen bustling by. “You can see the real life outside, people walking and the market, and actually that’s very funny. You have this weird conversation with these two dudes in Arabic, and they’re talking about how they [will] split Europe and destroy the German revolution, and support the Scottish. At the same time, you can see the real life outside. Even in the first part of this project, I was drawing on normal maps of Europe, changing names of cities and drawing troops’ movements. So I had my fictive story over a real story, or something that happened in reality.”

This idea of the reality and fiction of the situation is further complicated, as Halbouni uses his newly constructed vision of  Europe and the Middle East as a means of giving a new sense of the cause-and-effect and temporality of what is happening in Syria. “Not a lot of people know about the Sykes-Picot Agreement, or about other agreements that happened in Africa with Germany and France and Britain. I think it’s important to show the people, or let the people think about it that these problems aren’t new. I also wanted to transport them a little bit, imagine the feeling that you’ve been colonised and your country has been split into many smaller countries. Probably people cannot understand these feelings, but it’s worth trying to explain a part of history in a funny or fictive timeline story like this.”

Thinking more about the miscommunication of mass media, Halbouni is clear, “I don’t have to tell [you] how the media works”. Going on a little further, for him, when it comes to large media outlets, “They only cover what sells.” For this reason he uses his work to recontextualise the usual big headers: “ISIS or Syria or Israel.” Instead, as he proposes: “It’s talking about history and problems that have existed for more than 100 years, and a lot of them [are] because of colonial history.”

What If? by Manaf Halbouni, 29 Jul, 2.30pm, Royal Scottish Academy, part of Edinburgh Art Festival