PRINT March 2019


Rania Stephan, Les trois disparitions de Soad Hosni (The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni), 2011, digital video, color, sound, 70 minutes.

THRESHOLDS ARE VISIBLE but not often seen. A threshold is hardly ever singular: It can be a passageway, an obstacle, a boundary, or a sight line. A gate ajar may evidence trespass, a lintel suggests new terrains, and an open door stands for opportunity. Though often considered an inconsequential void “just before” or “right after,” a threshold is also a quiet witness that absorbs echoes of the events beyond.

Threshold, 2018, by Beirut-based artist Rania Stephan, draws our attention from those events to their scaffolding. The raw material of her ten-minute video is The Master of Time, a 1987 sci-fi film by Egyptian director Kamal El Sheikh. Latching on to one of the very few examples of this genre within the otherwise rich history of Egyptian cinema, Stephan scrupulously removed every scene from El Sheikh’s movie except those where a physical threshold is in active use. Containing almost no dialogue, Stephan’s video reveals the film’s plot through brief scenes of characters pacing briskly down long corridors, worried eyes peeping from behind half-closed doors, and people storming in and out of rooms, buildings, or gardens. The Master of Time tells the tale of the search for immortality by one Dr. Halim (Gamil Ratib); Threshold alludes to this supernatural premise via glimpses of bodies on stretchers being shuttled around for experiments or, more explicitly, flashes of a dramatically lit underground laboratory with hieroglyphic figures carved into its rocky walls. In the original script, the protagonist, Kamel (Nour El-Sherif), only learns of Dr. Halim’s fantastical venture halfway through the movie, when, on entering the former’s locked and guarded room, located in the same mansion as the laboratory, the latter mischievously says, “What would you say, Ustaaz Kamel, if you could live for . . . three hundred years?”

Dr. Halim pursues eternal life; through a kind of clarifying compression, Threshold enacts its own mastery of time. And in this achievement it recalls another essay on chronology comprising obsessively edited found footage: Christian Marclay’s twenty-four-hour-long video installation, The Clock, 2010. However, instead of proffering the illusion of continuous time, as Marclay does, Stephan fashions ruptures between shots meant to establish diegetic continuity. Watching Threshold is like trying to grab running water: Its dizzying array of staccato clips cannot be arrested for individual examination, but their sequence leaves behind a robust cumulative impression of the source film. A director’s tricks for visualizing coherent linear movement through time and space (such as juxtaposing shots from opposite sides of a door to denote an exit) are nullified and recast as potential continuity errors. Time passes faster than before, but it also congeals into a series of ever more transparent constructions.

Rania Stephan, RIOT: 3 Movements, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 17 minutes.

Stephan’s intervention is not merely an affective demonstration of the constructedness of time. Over the years, in addition to working on documentaries with such luminaries as the French-Moroccan filmmaker Simone Bitton, Stephan has undertaken her own inventive, playful exploration of the relationship between document and documentary. In Les trois disparitions de Soad Hosni (The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni, 2011), completed shortly after the irruption of the Egyptian Revolution, Stephan remixes scenes—without providing voice-over commentary—from films starring the beloved, titular “Cinderella of Arab cinema.” The work charts the transformation of Hosni’s on-screen persona to reflect on the rise and fall of Egyptian cinema. A more recent video, her RIOT: 3 Movements, 2017, reverses her heavy-duty use of editing as a compositional tool: Stephan erected a simple organizing frame around her own shaky handheld camera footage of the last night of Beirut’s 2015 anticorruption demonstrations, marking off its stirring beginning, euphoric climax, and violent suppression as its first, second, and third “movements.” Marveling at the episodic coherence of what she likens to a “subterranean movement,” Stephan acts as a Warburgian seismograph for the collective body: She notes and denotes the mass behavior of a society whipped into convulsions.

Though subtler in its engagement with political realities, Threshold is no less adept at capturing the spirit of the times. Its restless, elliptical commotion of characters exchanges momentum of plot for a creeping sense of stagnation and entrapment. A similar psychic mien has prevailed in Lebanon since the elections last May: While political parties endlessly bickered over their share of ministries, citizens worn down by the weekly proclamations of “imminent” cabinet formation celebrated the New Year in its absence. Still, as Stephan herself quizzically notes, even in these periods of suspended order, things continue to make sense together: “When you remove the fiction from fiction, you still understand the story.” Threshold is an invitation to rethink the moments we designate “transitional”; our stories may have already been inscribed on those pockets of time. 

Gökcan Demirkazik is a curator, writer, and editor based in Lebanon and Turkey.