Survey by Qualaroo

Notes from the road: an epic and enchanting excursion through the films of Basim Magdy

Thoughts from film critic and broadcaster Tara Judah on a selection of short films by Basim Magdy to be screened in a special presentation at Arnolfini.

"Basim Magdy’s process of pickling film also pickles its audience; the images, uniquely and beautifully preserved, offer immersion above all else. The complex colour palettes and stunning superimpositions defy simple explanation, which puts us all in a bit of a comprehensive pickle. It’s not absurdism, exactly; swimming in vinegar if you want to is a worthwhile and invigorating pursuit. There are clues, though, in his other moving image works that offer a little in the way of clarity. The films, when viewed as a body of work, don’t so much construct meaning but offer a compass to help navigate heady, satirical, existential terrain.  

Walking through an abandoned construction site, armed with a flashlight, in the broad light of day, a man searches for something. The title of the film tells us he is looking for an ideological dimension to a physical place, My Father Looks for an Honest City (2010). It is the re-enactment of a philosophical stunt: the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope would carry a lamp in the daytime, claiming to be looking for an honest man. The existential search is both comic and jarring. While we enjoy the ludicrousness of the gesture, the film is sinister in tone and an uncanny sense of déjà vu creeps in. Magdy’s film collapses lessons of the past, paradoxes of the present and the impossibility of futurism into this one pointless action. To search is not necessarily to find.

Continuing his quest, Magdy launches a submarine in the hopes of communicating with the future in Crystal Ball (2013). Like the superfluous flashlight, the sound of a periscope reaching out into the abyss reminds us that temporal attempts bear no fruit. As we hear the sounds of emptiness, we see a series of incongruous images; buildings, animals, trees. Slowly, the periscope gives way to gusts of wind and, having traversed great oceans, we may raise our heads above water. But the respite is short-lived as the periscope resumes its search. Magdy’s is a fable of epic proportions: we need not fear the earth, but we might like to audit the insatiable depth and breadth of our own ambition, as it propels us towards inevitable ruin.  

Perhaps, then, it is Turtles All the Way Down (2009) that will comfort us. As pieces of our universe’s giant jigsaw begin to click into place, the bigger picture points to how little we can assemble alone. Why not send a telescope to the moon so that our lunar neighbours can watch us and learn from us? Unless, of course, even science can’t be trusted. Humans are not hailed by logic alone. One wonders, when the lesson is over, if we would be better off with the turtle theory – no need for existential contemplation if the world we live in is just a flat place supported by the back of a giant tortoise, standing on turtles, all the way down. The infinite image Magdy proposes is kaleidoscopic, a visual trope that he returns to time and again in subsequent works. The continuousness of its action is repeated by the functionless motions of fairground rides and toy wind spinners. Each work stands beautifully alone but together they offer an epic and enchanting excursion."


Tara Judah is an Australian critic, broadcaster and programmer based in the UK. Director at 20th Century Flicks video shop, Curator and Online Editor for Cinema Rediscovered and Trustee on the Board of Directors at Curzon Cinema & Arts, Tara is passionate about cinema-going, independent, archive, experimental, photochemical and repertory film. She is also a regular contributor to Monocle24’s Arts Review and The Cinema Show, Senses of Cinema and desistfilm. 

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Saturday 21 September 2019 to Sunday 22 September 2019, 21:00 to 01:00


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