Denise Ferreira da Silva finds in Kant the grammar of European whiteness.
In her essay, “Reading the Dead: A Black Feminist Poethical Reading of Global Capital,” Silva holds up the “onto-epistemological categories, namely, separability, determinacy, and sequentiality” (49) that scaffold and ballast the assumptions of global colonialism and capitalism.* These categories of pure reason divvy up the world into persons, non-persons, and frames of analysis that render it impossible to hear “organized protest against land expropriation” as anything other than “cultural difference” (39)
Silva powerfully combines Leibniz’s plenum and Glissant’s Relation with Hortense Spillers’ “articulation of the flesh as the ethical ground from which to critically consider conquest and slavery” (43) to rethink the categories and concepts of self and world. Zapatistas turn to the Dead and hear them cry out “For everyone, everything!” Silva sees the power of the plenum, an image of “difference without separability,” as an analytic tool against the dispossessions of global capitalism, colonialism, and enslavement.
I find a resonant refusal of categorization enacting a similar kind of political work in two films that diegetically refuse the category of film.
The first is Jafar Panahi’s 2015 release, Tehran Taxi, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Posing as a shared-taxi driver, the director captures a dizzying array of high-stake conversations and exchanges through his digital cameras (mounted on dashboard and ceiling). It is not an accident that the fragmented debates begin and end with dead. Two strangers, a man ardently in favor of the death penalty and a women ardently against it, begin our rollercoaster ride through Tehran. Following them, the discussions and situations include precarity of wives whose husbands die without leaving a verbal will, what do to if you are robbed and beaten, the incarceration of women who attempted to attend a male soccer game, and, finally, the horrible and unjust conditions of the prisons that led one of those prisoners (Ghoncheh Ghavami) to hunger strike.
The topics sound agonizing, and they are, but they also are treated with a casualness and lightness that births an affective space of reception and reflection. The urgency of resistance is there, but at one remove, not only because of the civility with which they are discussed, but also because of the filmed mediation of the taxi itself, a double-boxing of the camera’s frame (as I’ve written about a number of Kiarostami’s films) that mediates the mediation of spectatorship. A further mediating lens is offered through the director’s niece, Hana, who plays a schoolgirl tasked with making her own “distributable” film, namely, one that clears all the censorship criteria of the Iranian Film Council. Hana’s digital footage sometimes overlaps with Panahi’s and sometimes travels off in its own direction, but either way it can’t help but act as a commentary on what Panahi is doing, which is clearly to film without “making a film,” precisely because what he is filming does not conform to the IFC’s code and so is not distributable. Again, the light touch, the horror at one remove, when we watch the niece open her “happy kitty” school notebook and reel off the censorship rules one by one, in a voice that mimics her teacher’s authority and seriousness. As she recites the criteria for making a “distributable film,” her uncle drives and smiles, smiles and drives. At the end, when the director-driver has stepped out of his taxi to return a purse to an elderly passenger from earlier in the day, viewers watch policemen enter the taxi and try to find the “memory stick” for the cameras. As police do, the officers bash and throw things around in practiced disregard.
Then, viewers see a written statement explaining that here is the time and place for film credits, but since this is not a film, so there are no credits (but thanks to all who helped him).
Tehran Taxi is about the dispossession of a certain lived unrestriction (I’ll not say freedom) in a society of restriction, and the playful desire to skirt the edges of the rules.
The second non-film is Tru’o’ng Minh Quy’s 2019 release, The Treehouse. The conceit of this footage is that the narrator and arranger of images is an astronaut on Mars in 2045. The images come from footage shot on Earth, seemingly documentary interviews, but also historical images, and negative prints, perhaps signaling memory as much as history:
The images do not hold together as coherent sequences or stories, though viewers hear references to three of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, the Ruc, Kor and Hmong, and hear and see evidence of their forced relocation out of the forests and into housing blocks, out of their small living arrangements and into obligations of public school. At the very end of the film, which breaks off suddenly, viewers see only a black screen and hear a voice (subtitled for those of us who can’t understand Vietnamese):
“He decided not to complete the film.”
“Here on Mars nobody wanted to watch film anymore.”
“Cinema had become the joy of the past.”
The Treehouse is a recherché on earth’s saturated history of dispossession, a saturation that can only be escaped with a 56.4 million-kilometer journey to Mars.
These are films that refuse separability, determinacy, sequentiality. They return to flesh, the flesh of the Dead that feeds the composting soil of the plenum. “Everything, for everyone.” For then, for now, for always.
*Essay in Tiffany Lethabo King, Jenell Navarro, and Andrea Smith, editors, Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness (Duke, 2020).