Bordering Strangeness Workshop: Using film to illuminate distance, strangeness and redemptive transgressions

Organised by Prof. Chris RumfordDr. Agnes Woolley and Elizabeth Alexander, PhD Researcher

Royal Holloway University of London

Sponsored by The Security and Sustainability Theme at Royal Holloway University of London


Sixteen academics, graduate students and practitioners from assorted disciplines gathered in London on April 2nd for ‘Bordering Strangeness’ – a highly interactive workshop on the use of film as text. Panelists selected short film clips, provided to attendees in advance, which engaged the theme of the workshop.


Bordering Strangeness was intended to draw out insights using a potentially fraught thematic, which it did. The workshop served to share some very valuable approaches to the use of film to illuminate ideas about borders and strangeness:  the importance of considering the positionality of audience(s) – their beliefs and imaginations;  how distance can emphasize uncertainty about where and what is ‘home’, asking ‘Who am I, where do I belong?’; how film can visualise borders between communities and ethnicities; and illuminating border transgressions as redemptive for, among others, a middle-class London architect and mothers searching the Chilean desert for their missing children’s remains.

In some cases, those insights came from works created by panelists. Artist Hala Georges, a PhD candidate, showed a clip from her work in progress, ‘Faces 2015,’ composed of communications from family members situated in her native Syria’s warscape. She presses ‘record’ anytime, day or night, when a relative or friend attempts to communicate with her. In this work, there is no emotional distance between Hala and her ‘subjects.’ But the distance between her position in London (safe) and that of her family (life in Damascus is unrecognizable) is jarringly apparent witnessed through the clip, which depicts a series of horizontal lines produced by the poor technical quality of the interface. They stand in for her sister’s face while leaving her voice and bewilderment at loss and change poignantly clear. Moved by the material, responses to George’s work included questions about what is the meaning of ‘home’?; how should we think about positionality?; does it relate to Political Theory’s ‘Theory of the Face’ which is connected to the suffering migrant?

Distance created by war was also at the heart of Professor Sue Clayton‘s clip. The footage was taken by a young Afghan man who had been granted asylum in the UK until he turned 18, and then was flown back to Afghanistan in handcuffs and left to his own devices to invent a new life there.  Clayton gave Hamedullah a camera because it seemed no one knew what happened to these young men once they returned:” if you are seen to be handcuffed and under guard [when deported], you must have done something wrong.”  The film she produced, Hamedullah: The Road Home is part of a planned series ‘Big Journeys: Untold Stories.’ It has won awards, and unexpectedly surfaced in legal proceedings providing the courts with some idea of what actually awaits these youthful deported. Like ‘Faces 2015,’ the clip questions what is ‘home’?  The status ‘deported’ became a part of Hamedullah’s identity “Everyone is strange to me in Kabul, and I to them.’


Other panelists presented clips from commercial films, and their approaches framed these films such that their surface narratives receded and the workshop themes were drawn out. .  Breaking and Entering was Anthony Minghella’s last feature film. Dr. Maria Ravisco pointed out the borders and distances created by ‘mise-en-scene’ and POV; between communities, ethnicities, but also the redemptive power of transgressing those borders.  Professor Rodanthi Tzanelli‘s presentation of several clips from Danny Boyle’s film Slumdog Millionaire suggested that Mumbai’s modernization and urbanization is told through this child’s story in two parts. The first is about the internalization of strangeness by governmentality and the second is about the assimilation of difference through tourism and the media industry.

Independent and international film made an impression on participants. Dr. Emma Cox‘s contribution of a clip from Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light draws oblique but utterly absorbing lateral connections between ways of seeing, remembering, taking the measure of, and ultimately, understanding the past; a  past in which absence (the disappeared) and presence (the still searching mothers) remain entangled.  Dr. Yosefa Loshitzky‘s clips from the French film Mauvais Foi   (Bad Faith) was approached as an opportunity to analyse the trope of ‘forbidden love,’ the cross-racial love story or union which very often is presented as the solution (or allegory) to the ‘immigration problem’.  Dr. Sean Carter presented a clip from the Elia Suleiman’s film Divine Intervention.  He addressed the way in which many films can be seen as normalising the dominant political architecture of international politics; a world composed of states with their sovereign domains and borders. Suleiman’s film consciously attempts to unsettle these idea of borders and bordering practices through the use of moments of both surrealism and humour (a red balloon with Arafat’s face on it) that effectively disarm the material power of state territorialities, at least in an imaginative sense. His observation of the critical understanding of the inevitability of the ways in which different audiences perceive the same content was particularly useful, reminding us all of our position as viewers with respect to borders, who is the stranger, and how much we can know.

At the close of the day, as each person talked about the new ideas and approaches they’d encountered during the workshop, the theme of illumination and light recurred. As Sue Clayton commented, this theme really was about shining a light on people whose lives are not normally seen.  Strangeness can be understood as a condition and estrangement as something that is produced.  You can read more about each panelist and the clips at the workshop website:


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