Interview With Art Basel Film Curator

BY Anna Brady / Jun 7 2017 / 14:00 PM

The curator of this year’s Art Basel Film programme, Cairo-based Maxa Zoller, has compiled a diverse and challenging line-up for 2017, featuring numerous topical films by Middle Eastern artists

Interview With Art Basel Film Curator
A scene from Eric Baudelaire's Also Known As Jihadi

Among the film's at Art Basel this year is Also Known As Jihadi (2017), the latest feature-length film by Baudelaire which was recently screened at the Whitney Biennial, which traces the journey of young Abdel Aziz from his hometown in France to Syria as he is radicalised by so-called Islamic state. The Short Film program, on 12 June, will include works by Egyptian artist Maha Maamoun (Dear Animal, 24', 2016) and French artist Kader Attia (Reflecting Memory, 48', 2016), which explore the idea of phantom pain, both metaphorically and as a medical phenomenon.

Here, Zoller speaks to Bazaar Art about the concept of phantom pain and changing mentalities through film.

HBA: Why the concentration on films focused on today’s political events, specifically terrorism? Do you think this is now a subject that is almost unavoidable as both a filmmaker and a curator?

MZ: You are right when you say that this year’s film programme is topical (I prefer this term to political, which is overused), but only one film deals with terrorism as a subject, Eric Baudelaire’s Also Known as Jihadi. I would like to think that my film choices are like echoes of the kind of subjects that artists are concerned with today; war, revolution, terrorism, racism etc. And although these are heavy topics, the films themselves are beautiful, intelligent and tender. As film curator of the cinema programme, I pick works that require and produce the kind of concentration and close attention that only the big cinema screen can accommodate.

HBA: What is the use of making films about these issues? Do you see them as a form of documentation or do you think they have the capacity to be a call to action, possibly change mentalities?

MZ: Yes, most definitely I believe that films can change mentalities! Film works cognitively and sensually on our bodies and on our subconscious. And, yes, film can produce action; Jane Gaines called our desire to imitate the screen ‘political mimesis’. From Eisenstein’s ‘cinema of attraction’ to Mosireen’s Tahrir Cinema, film has always informed, moved and activated its audiences, and this is thanks to the unique specificity of the medium.

HBA: What particularly interested you about Also Known As Jihadi? Why did you want to bring it to Basel?

MZ: I have been following Baudelaire’s work since 2011.The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenbou, Masado Adachi and 27 years without Images (sorry that’s a mouthful!) blew my mind in terms of the research. For me Also Known As Jihadi is the filmmaker’s opus magnum. I first saw it on my laptop screen after it had been submitted to Art Basel by Barbara Wien Galerie. In terms of form, the film is extremely condensed, almost ‘pure’, yet at the same time it has a multilayered structure which is connected to Masado Adachi ‘landscape theory’ and Japanese terrorism and leads us back to Baudelaire’s beginnings.

Maha Maamoun's Dear Animal

HBA: What is phantom pain?

MZ: A phantom pain is a nervous disorder in which the brain reacts to the removal of a body part by continuing to send pain signals. A so-called phantom limb continues to cause pain even after amputation. In his film Reflecting Memory, Kader Attia explores the phenomenon of the phantom pain in a wider sense through interviews with diverse figures such as surgeons, historians and a dancer. Attia uses the phantom limp phenomena as a metaphor for the kind of psychic pain that has been caused by social, political or historical trauma.

HB: Can you elaborate on the content of the short films by Maha Maamoun and Kader Attia?

MZ: Like Kader Attia, Maha Maamoun’s film also deals with trauma, although in alternative ways. Borrowing from Egyptian surrealism, Dear Animal weaves together a short story about a drug dealer who transforms into a strange animal - a cross between a goat and a zebra - and letters by an Egyptian filmmaker that are addressed to a certain “Dear Animal”. It has been fun curating this programme. For me the programme is like a ping-pong game of two diverging attitudes or views: Attia, who is more inclined toward the fact that trauma can be overcome, or sublimated and Maamoun who, in a very Egyptian way, stubbornly (and humorously) refuses any form of closure.

Art Basel runs from 15-18 June in Basel, Switzerland. For more information see