Reflection: (B)ordering – Insights from Films

Dr. Hyab Yohannes is a research associate with the UNESCO RILA team at the University of Glasgow. His work involves engaging in research activities, synthesising findings, and offering insights into theoretical, methodological, and policy-oriented questions. Currently, he is co-editing a Special Issue on decolonising knowledge production for the Journal of Language and Intercultural Communication and a Handbook of Cultures of Sustainable Peace for Multilingual Matters. Furthermore, he has recently signed a book contract with Routledge for his upcoming publication titled “The Coloniality of the Refugee”. Hyab is interested in (b)ordering (physical, onto-epistemic, spatio-temporal, juridico-political, etc.), (de)coloniality, and political theories.

I recently participated in an evening of films and discussions centered around the theme of the border zone, organised by the Advanced Research Centre at the University of Glasgow. In this blog post, I reflect on the concept of (b)ordering, drawing insights from three films screened during the event: a) Singing in the Wooden House, produced by Kirsten Adkins, b) Moonscape, produced by Mona Benyamin, and c) Haaf, produced by Julia Parker and Heather Andrews. These reflections are rather incomplete and do not represent the richness of the films screened. They are my thoughts after watching the films. 

Dr Kirsten Adkins, Dr Hyab Yohannes, and Dr Cairsti Russell in conversation

Singing in the Wooden House opens with a family tracing their story, visibly confused about themselves. To me, this marks the initial indication of the numerous and multifaceted borders depicted in the film. These borders represent epistemic limits, distinguishing the familiar and known from the unfamiliar, unknown, and incomprehensible. The only remaining traces of human existence seem to be memories discovered amidst the ruins. It suggests to me that a life dominated by memories is one confined to the past. The present is elusive, and the future remains uncertain. Temporal borders separate memory from imagination; forgetting becomes the defining line between them. Life is lived, bearing witness to its own memory and vulnerability, in exile – displaced and dispossessed.

With the changing borders of time, the borders of place have radically shifted, creating a clearly named, defined, and mapped borderzone. Nature appears wounded by this bordering.

Weaved amidst all of that are beautiful yet haunting music, dance, culture, and people. These poetic lines deeply resonated with my experience of tuning into music as a source of joy and resistance.

To sing is to bring something into existence. 
To sing is to long for something that’s gone.
To sing is to name something.
If it had been named, it’s real.

These lines remind me of Achille Mbembe’s assertion that ‘Music has the capacity to marry soul and matter’. Referring to African aesthetic, Mbembe explains

Music has always been a celebration of the ­ineradicability of life, in a long life-denying history. It is the genre that has historically expressed, in the most haunting way, our raging desire not only for existence, but more importantly for joy in existence.

The aesthetic moments of joy and resistance rebel against the violence of (b)ordering. This opens new possibilities for temporal dislocation and destitution of the geopolitical borders.

Image Credit: Kirsten Adkins, Singing in the Wooden House, 2024.

In a similarly yet different story, the film Moonscape explores hope, nostalgia, and despair through scenes from Arabic songs, cinematographic imagery about space, and email communications with Lunar embassy. It refers to laws that declare the moon as the heritage of all humankind and state that no sovereignty should reign over celestial bodies. Meanwhile, the earth and earthly bodies are seemingly mapped and delineated by borders, including the human body.

Moonscape then explores the possibility of finding refuge on the moon using a song. The song recounts the story of a man who claimed ownership of the moon and founded Lunar Embassy, drawing parallels with the director, a young Palestinian woman yearning to be free from perpetual occupation. It proceeds with visceral and haunting Email communication with the director whose conscious desire for a life of dignity and self-determination on earth is rejected, prompting her to inquire about galactic passports and nationalities. Through her inquiry to the Lunar Embassy, the director discovers that NASA has the legal right to land anywhere on the moon, including her home, if she were to buy one. She also found out that Palestinians and other people in the region, with some exceptions, face exclusive challenges to buy a place on the moon, primarily due to their language barrier. Their seemingly ‘unintelligible’ language appears to create a divide between those who can purchase a place on the moon and those who cannot. ይና-ጋብሲ ጋበግረን፣ ጋበግና የውልድ ፍድኒ።Does the wording and structure of the preceding sentence resemble a ‘border’ – an epistemic divide separating the known from the unknown, the communicable from the incommunicable? 

Dismissed from the moon, the director was left wondering: ‘What can I do’? Her only option, she describes, is to ‘live in eternal fear’ or ‘move back to Earth’ and, perhaps, become earth again. She then finds her next dream in the lyrics of the song:

I dream of visiting the land of my grandfathers… 
but between it and me… 
Are borders, soldiers, and walls.

Forbidden by these borders, she goes through a kind of exile into the abyss, unmarked space, unmapped place – an imaginary journey into a borderless ending. What lies between her ancestors and her is life. That is, life itself becomes a border, and perishability is the borderless, a place of reunion in death. Life produced as a border is a life lived in perpetual war that culminates in the perishability of life. War breaks life borders, destroys, and returns them to earth to become earth. In fact, over the last three or more months, this has been the journey of Palestinians perishing with their ‘kites’, ‘birds’, and poetic words.

However, there are also hopeful insights in the film animated by birds flying in the last sky from the shoulders of people who wish that they can fly to safety too. The dance, the movements of the bodies in pain as an act of liberating the body, offers a fascinating insight into the Palestinians’ joyful resistance. The film appears to envision home beyond the borders of time and space. The juxtaposition of the ephemerality of home with the hospitality of homelessness offers hope. It is an act of imagining a world beyond the juridical borders of the state and its necropolitical experimentation of life.

Image Credit: Mona Benyamin, Moonscape, 2020.

Lastly, Haaf highlights the traditional fishing method called Haaf Netting for salmon and sea trout in Solway Firth, covering both sides of the Scotland-England border. The film captures the challenges faced by the last Haaf netters as they strive to protect and sustain this unique fishing tradition. It begins with birds singing and a history of the migration of birds, people, ideas, languages, and skills. It narrates the migration of bird flocks, a wonderful view of mountain ranges and the sea, and a deep connection with nature. In addition to an irreducible relationship with nature, Haaf offers insights into how migration made possible the convergence and cross-pollination of new knowledge about making nets and fishing. This includes knowledge about where and when to fish, how to fish safely, and, importantly, how to stay connected with nature. The film captures the various struggles with the tides and sea depths in the process of fishing and the wisdom of mitigating these challenges.

Haaf portrays a unique form of eco-sociality revolving around ethics of sharing, caring, and appreciation for nature. The wisdom of eco-sociality was shared and carried in languages, names, and traditions. Nicknames, for example, reflected the activities of the day: how hard the fishers worked, what fish they liked, how they behaved, and how they lived their lives. Communities appeared to be in touch with their ancestral traditions and wisdom. The film reminded me of the epistemic erasure of wisdom as a form of knowledge. If we are to save the planet, we need to learn from these eco-social wisdoms of sharing, caring, and relating.

Unfortunately, the fishing grounds have become sites of competition and tension, with borders drawn both on land and at sea. As mentioned, Solway Firth marks the divide between Scotland and England. Ever-shifting shipping lines have been drawn in the waters. For generations, these arbitrary lines appear to have resulted in perpetual conflicts over resources and power. Moreover, fishing is declining due to pollution, with global warming inflicting its consequences as well. This has led to, for example, fish having to swim further in deeper waters to prey. As a result, the traditions that maintained human-nature connections are now dying out. The locals predict that the tradition will die in the next decade, and they appeal to the government to help them preserve their traditions and relationship with nature.

Image Credit: Julia Parks and Heather Andrews, HAAF, 2020.

Together, the three films speak to the core of racialised ‘human condition’, the differential humanity in which some lives are more qualified than others; some lives are liveable, others are merely perishable. (B)ordering, with its borders, orders, and borderzones, underpins this necropolitical reality.

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