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Alia Syed - Profile

By Amna Malik


Alia Syed's practice as a filmmaker tests the conventions of writing. Even though her films deploy a narrative structure they do so to unravel the very idea of beginnings and endings that is necessary to the act of making sense. Instead she uses repetition, circularity and the layering of word and image to explore the conditions under which the subject of language and desire is made present but also eludes our grasp.

Juxtaposing oblique camera angles with written and spoken words, she places the spectator in a position of negotiating and attempting to find points of correlation between two, some times three, registers of language: visual, graphic and aural. Each register offers a different form of narrative that transforms history, be it personal or collective, into myth.

Syed uses close-ups shots, framing and cut-aways to draw out the metonymic register of the image: its status as part of the world. Repetition, double exposures and time-lapse techniques expose the medium of film as a coded system of representation and particularly diegesis in mainstream cinema: shots of empty spaces connecting one scene to another that provide narrative coherence and maintain the illusion of realism.

Drawing on the 1970s and 1980s politics of feminist and Black filmmaking practices Syed's concern with experimentation is located in opposition to mainstream cinema's stereotyping of gender and cultural difference. Focusing on the language of film she deconstructs the authority of signs in a wider visual culture and uses a spoken narrative to encourage viewers otherwise alienated by avant-garde techniques to enter into the filmic space.

From Conflict to Contact

The relationship between space and identity has informed Syed's earliest films but since the mid 1980s she has moved away from a focus on power relations and representation of class and gender differences towards a concern with the trans-cultural. This shift is the result of the impact of globalisation on modernity and identity politics and is evident in a comparison between Unfolding 1987 and Eating Grass 2003.

Unfolding, set in a launderette, depicts the site of women's domestic labour in an earlier moment of capitalism in which social relations were determined by the industrialisation of labour power. By contrast the later film focuses on markets and streets as spaces of encounter: contact zones of symbolic and economic exchange, alluding to a service industry that has influenced social relations by transforming identity through a notion of citizenship marked by consumption.

Unfolding is influenced by an earlier generation of feminist filmmakers' concern to deconstruct the phallo-centric language of film and create a gendered vision. There are three levels of representation.

A realist subject matter frequently found in the work of 19th Century European painters and the first wave of feminist artists in the 1970s. Techniques of double exposure and repetition undermine the naturalism of the image. The overlapped forms introduce a gap that separates the signifier, the form of the image, from its signified, the object, person or action it is intended to convey, exposing the mimetic nature of the image. The third level is narrative: the mythical register of fairy tales creates a symbolic level of meaning placed over the first two.

In this early film they are brought together by Syed's ability to transform the visual field the camera lens becomes a concave glass mirror that resembles the speculum, a medical instrument used to examine the womb and used as a metaphor by Luce Irigaray. As her work has developed Syed has made more overt references to themes of cultural difference and her techniques have changed accordingly.

In Eating Grass these same strategies of avant-garde film processes and a spoken narrative are deployed to create a film-essay that is closer to the style of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil 1983, in its exploration of experimental ethnography. The viewer is taken on a metaphorical and actual journey to Karachi, Lahore, Delhi and London, as she moves from one country and culture to another a voice-over in English and Urdu imposes on her a self-reflexivity that offers a series of narratives of belonging.

In contrast to her earlier film Eating Grass is not shot at twenty-four frames per second but in time-lapse at one frame per second. It is then optically printed which alters this time-lapse again to resemble the conventions of filmic speed and more closely resemble a natural illusion of movement.

Consequently, objects in the foreground appear to be static whilst those in the distance are seen at a higher velocity conveying the impression of different moments of time occurring in one and the same moment. Capitalist time recorded by clock and calendar is brought into correspondence and collision with the Islamic times of prayer through the tracking of shadows that evoke the passage of the sun.

Both films are linked by the use of an averted gaze so that the camera moves restlessly between people, objects and things. In Unfolding it recodes film to destabilise the gendered power relations between centre and margin but in Eating Grass the conditions of the filmic gaze are developed through the influence of experimental black cinema.


Repetition is often evoked in structuralist film to reference sameness as a means of exposing the mechanical apparatus of film as part of an industrialised form of visual reproduction. In Syed's first film Durga 1986 a pregnant belly shot to appear like a silvery moon is edited to appear alongside the repeated action of a sheet falling through a stairwell.

This use of repetition is radically different and evokes a psychic condition of circularity directed by a concern with feminine time located in the flows of the maternal body. The silence of this film is almost eerie and contrasts with most of Syed's work. Instead of a narrative structure that is endlessly repeated to expose the circularity of meaning, a silent repetition of falling and moving through passageways is contrasted with the enclosed but swelling space of the maternal body.

Durga makes the psychic and sexual condition of the feminine present in the image and inaugurates a strand of Syed's work that is developed further in Swan 1994 and Watershed 1995. All three films place the camera in close-up and frontal relation to the object forcing attention on the repetition of gestures and actions to convey bodily rhythm and the gradual build up of sexual and dramatic tension.

Psychoanalysis interprets repetition through schizophrenia as an obsessive cataloguing of the external world to exert control, or through trauma as an inability to come to terms with the shock of past events that are obsessively re-enacted. In Syed's films it is also evocative of an empowered female sexuality that shifts from an exclusive concern with the female subject towards a concern with femininity and masculinity.

In Swan the formal play of black and white was shot to deliberately exaggerate the contrasts: an abrupt series of edits render the Swan's movements more violent than one would initially imagine. It also subtly decodes sexuality and race as it can be viewed as a fetishistic representation of the white male subject as object of black feminine desire, yet the close-up shots and dramatic edit also draws associations with the phallus and vulva.

Like this film Watershed uses repetition to evoke sexual pleasure. It shifts these dynamics once more in the deliberate confusion and bringing together of masculinity and femininity. In both films the materiality of celluloid exploits the warmth it gives to textures like skin as a kind of visual pleasure.

In Watershed we see a couple engaged in making love through close-up shots of the woman's body caressed by her lover. She arches her back and brings together her shoulders, touching herself as she straddles him, suggesting feminine pleasure in a manner that is similar to the Swan. The centrality of touch displaces sight as the defining aspect of female sexual desire and corresponds to ideas outlined by writers like Luce Irigaray.


Spoken language and the act of mark making are important elements in Syed's films and reveal the influence of feminist film-makers like Trin T.Min-ha and Lis Rhodes and black film-makers like Isaac Julien. Yet, unlike them Syed uses the aural seduction of the voice to render female desire present but invisible.

The spoken voice is countered with the fragmented body: a pregnant belly, a dancer's pair of hands, a row of feet walking across a station platform. It appears in different ways in all of Syed's films but those differences are most evident if we compare Fatima's Letter 1992 and Spoken Diary 1998.

The first of these films is deeply influenced by Lis Rhodes' Light Reading 1977 that uses the idea of a personal narrative to create confusion between fact and fiction, personal memory and historical document as a means of undermining patriarchy's silencing of women's experiences.

Syed draws on the film's techniques of optical printing, of using a voice-over against a dark screen to open the film and the notion of repetition to unravel collective history through a personal narrative. They are brought into alliance with experimental Black films like the Sankofa Film Collective's Territories 1984 and Black Audio and Film Collective's Handsworth Songs 1987.


The use of spoken Urdu and written English that are made to overlap in Fatima's Letter resemble Territories in which two voices: male and female echo and repeat a narrative of displacement and cultural relocation. This idea of giving voice to the subaltern in Syed's work, has many sources including Salman Rushdie's playful use of a vernacular Hindi but written in English in his epic postcolonial narratives.

In Fatima's Letter the voice speaking in Urdu significantly alters the semantics between the spoken and written words, they exist in a relationship of untranslatable difference to one another. Yet for those who are bi-lingual, there is a time-lapse between the written English and spoken Urdu that doesn't offer clarity, the in-between offers no solace.

In Spoken Diary the notion of translation is replaced with the act of inscription shot in colour, the surface of the screen, the glass of a car window and the pages of a diary coalesce. The disruption of meaning in the use of spoken Urdu in Fatima's Letter offers seductive rhythms of a female voice that in Spoken Diary this body is evident through song and dance.

The journey is tracked through different shots: the interior of a car driving through the rain, the sounds and sights of a dark London street, late at night, lit by shop windows, the headlights and noise of passing traffic with music blaring and the neon glare of lamp-posts.

Yet this is more personal than historical and shifts between overtly musical sounds not the implied rhythms of the train in the earlier film. The subject position of the migrant woman is now being given voice in all its complexities without having to bear the burden of representation.

Dr Amna Malik is a lecturer at the Slade School of Art. Her interests have centred on contemporary art and its engagement with debates over gendered identity and cultural differences.

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