Using a multidisciplinary approach that spans from installation and sculpture to video and animation, Meriem Bennani masters the art of storytelling. Meriem talks to Adriana Blidaru of Living Content about how cultural specificity functions in her work, and what it means for her to have the women in her family be the main characters in the videos she makes.
Meriem Bennani was born in 1988, in Rabat, Morocco. She lives and works in New York.
Living Content: Let me start by asking you: what cartoons did you grow up watching?
Meriem Bennani: I guess there were two main categories on Moroccan TV: Cartoon Network and anime from Japan. We had Dragon Ball-Z and this cartoon called Captain Majid, that had a huge influence on everyone… Most of the anime was dubbed in classical Arabic because Moroccan dubbing studios didn’t exist at the time. Now all the TV shows are dubbed in Darija (a Moroccan dialect).
LC: I was reading that soap operas also had some influence on your work. Were these also part of your cultural landscape growing up?
MB: Yeah, I definitely grew up with that. It was this one thing that was for all ages. Your grandma follows it, your four-year-old cousin follows it, you also follow it, everyone follows it! I think it’s common to a lot of countries. We had American soap operas, Latin American ones, and also Egyptian ones. Egypt was really prolific in producing TV and cinema. There were so many and honestly, I didn’t understand Egyptian but I would still watch them because the tension made it through. It worked on an abstract level: with the sound effects, the camera work and the way people were acting, it was almost enough to understand the story. I think that influenced my work a lot: using the mechanisms of soap opera. So many artists are obviously influenced by that because it’s such an efficient visual storytelling device.
LC: All these elements that we’re talking about now: the animations, the dramatic sound effects, applied on reality in your videos, create an interesting reverie-like effect. Can you tell me how you apply or conceptualize these effects? For instance, do they occur when you are filming? Or is it something that you play out in post-production?
MB: I think it depends on the scenes, but I always keep cartooning in mind. It’s not my only reference but it’s a strong one for sure. Because I studied animation, I had to study things like Preston Blair’s cartoon book: how things move, stretch, and their timing. The cartoon is there to emphasize something and to amplify reality. Cartooning has a lot to do with timing. The aesthetics and implications of movement is just another device for storytelling (other than editing, composition, sound, etc... ). It gives me more control over the fabrication of a story.
LC: Your exhibitions always include sculptural elements. Can you tell me more about this?
MB: I made two big scale environments where a video is shown on multiple channels and screens, and in both cases, I knew what the sculptures in the show will be like, based on the editing process. Firstly, I try to have a single channel version that works on its own, that doesn’t need a sculpture. But in some moments, when the film might feel too long to the viewer, I want to create an experience in the space, where you can take the time to walk around the sculptures without feeling that you’re missing anything. It’s a back and forth of moments when I know that an effect is not going to be achieved through the editing program, but it’s going to be achieved with projection mapping. For instance, if I want to emphasize someone’s expression, I have this 3d screen that is made of multiple overlapping circles. It’s like developing a set of tools, similarly to how painters develop their own technique of painting.
LC: Your work falls somewhere between documentary and fiction. Can you tell me a bit about the relationship that you establish with your subjects while you are filming them?
MB: It depends on the subject; whether it’s a family member or someone that is opening their house to me for the first time. So it really depends, but if I had to answer in one general way, I think it’s a very unstable relationship. There is a power dynamic at play that is very tumultuous and that has to do with the moment of filming I think. When I film I never ask people to do anything. For example, if I find a conversation interesting enough, I will subtly push it in that direction. I would obviously create certain situations that are going to bring up certain aspects of the personality that I’m interested in, or I will even put myself in an awkward situation because I also want to feel vulnerable in the process of filming. Negotiating these relationships is something that I’m working on more now.
LC: What kind of situations make you vulnerable?
MB: I guess by coming with a camera without projecting too much on people. If I already chose someone, it’s because I’m interested in them. Even if it’s a family member, I usually pick people that I don’t spend that much time with. When I’m holding a camera to their face, and we’re spending time together for the first time like this, they’re expecting me to explain what I want to see. But saying that I don’t want anything from them is very awkward. I know it sounds like nothing but it’s actually very awkward because these are people that are older than me and that I don’t usually have intimate, heart to heart moments with.
On the other hand, in my last project Siham & Hafida that I showed at The Kitchen recently, I ended up being at the centre of a conflict between two women - the two main characters of the film - who, I realized, didn’t like each other. I was trying to have them meet, so I became like a middle-woman in trying to organize this meeting and it ended up being extremely tensed. I also deserved it because I kind of knew that a conflict might exist between them, but that was the direction the film was headed.
So, yes, the relationship is complex both psychologically and emotionally. I always have to act on multiple levels: I have to be a human that they trust but then I can’t lose sight of my project: I need to get a story and enough material to tell this story. I’m shifting in and out of being a monster, you know what I mean? And the subjects I’m filming are too, because they’re in and out of being honest and building their own narrative by being performative for the camera.
LC: I can imagine it’s hard to capture this on film; it's a lot of performance involved just for the camera.
MB: For sure. It also depends on the age of the subject because a lot of women in my films are older, and because I’m much younger they don’t really take me seriously as an artist. Especially with family members, there’s always this very motherly and tender attitude that they have towards me. But when I filmed the younger woman for Siham & Hafida, who was my age, we had a completely different relationship. She completely understands what it means to be on camera. She controlled the whole shoot, she would only film what she wanted, she wouldn’t say things that she knew I wanted to hear (only off-camera). I couldn’t get anything from her. The only space I had for my intervention was post-production.
LC: It's such a generational thing. We’re so aware nowadays of how our images circulate and we are so good at crafting our own personas.
MB: Yeah, it’s because of social media. I think we are all very aware of the chain of production of video at this point, even without working in the field. She was very aware of her own image and she was obviously thinking about how my way of filming her fits into that portrait. I was creating this projection for her as much as she was creating this projection for me. And in a way, that was exciting, challenging and much more conflictual.
LC: It’s interesting to see how different generations of women intersect in your work. How do you consider these generation gaps? Is there something specific that you want to emphasize when filming, observing, and interviewing women in your family?
MB: The last film I made where I filmed women in my family, was very straightforward. It was like: ‘let’s hang out for one afternoon and talk about love’. It was amazing to see how all these women are extremely contemporary. I didn’t feel a generation gap in their way of talking about love and what they want from love. If anything, I don’t think it’s that much about highlighting a generational gap, it’s more about trying to understand my own femininity through the femininity of people who are older in my family. Usually, the women I choose to film have a kind of… how should I call it? Hyper-femininity. They’re kind of like monsters of femininity: they adopt an amplified version of classic femininity to such an extent that they almost reach a different spectrum, one that is queer. They are queer because they’re challenging this classic spectrum of gender. And the relationship to their bodies, and their presence altogether... they’re mythological to me! It’s so different from my way of being and my existence as a woman. I think there’s also a curiosity of seeing things from a closer perspective and understanding myself through them.
LC: Through the lens of a camera, specific contexts - such as Morocco - can easily be exoticized. In my opinion, your work exceeds and outshines this problem but I have to ask: do you think about exoticism at all when you’re filming? Do you have a set of strategies to avoid exoticism in your videos?
MB: I think that a lot of artists from the Middle East or from Non-Western places have it embedded in them that their work will only be valid if they exoticize themselves. I’m not mad at them for it, I’ve probably gone through that myself. It’s a stage you reach somehow as a non-western artist, it’s like a post-colonial residue. I hope that my work is not perceived as exotic but I’m sure certain people could see it as being exotic. I can’t control what people think. It all comes down to having a subject that you’re interested in for the right reasons, and by “the right reasons” I mean, to have a sincere, honest reason, not just trying to please this one part of the world. So, if you’re like: ‘oh I’m interested in these women, they’re performers, they have a conflict, they are dealing with challenges from different generations’, that’s in my eyes a narrative that works for everyone, and can be interesting to everyone if you make it interesting.
So, yes, it happens that the work is very culturally specific because it’s filmed in Morocco, but everything is culturally specific at first. The discourse is not necessarily about the city that the subjects are from or the type of music they perform (which is also very niche, it’s a specific Moroccan style). What’s interesting to me is first of all manufacturing storytelling; and storytelling is very universal, and second of all, understanding the dynamic between these women.
In terms of strategies, I guess you could say that one of my strategies to avoid exoticizing my subjects, is to not care about this directly. I think this is an issue that only comes up if it is self-conscious. Self-consciousness is always in relation to something; trying to understand where you position yourself. In this case, it would be in relation to the West, or in relation to Morocco. At this point, I think that every artist who comes from somewhere and works elsewhere, is in a constant identity crisis. I’ve had it forever and I’m used to it now, but I think it’s paralyzing to always make work from that crisis. It’s always going to be there anyway.