ISOLATED EXPERIMENTS - MAGGIE KAMAL
A biweekly series where we focus on short works by fresh voices in experimental moving images. Sign up for our mailing list via our contact page to get email updates about new films as we post them.
This week, we are featuring "The Immigrants" an 1.5 minute video made by artist Maggie Kamal.
MFW: Since the film's main photographic subject is the Immigrants Monument in Battery Park, I'm curious to know, what is the particular feeling this sculpture elicits in you that drew you to film it the way you did?
MK: This is a funny story, but it all started in New Orleans, when I found myself lost for like an hour photographing the “Monument to the Immigrant” which is a statue by sculptor Franco Alessandrini, dedicated to the courageous immigrants who left their homeland seeking freedom.
It was 2018, and the United States, was living in a time of extreme xenophobia and high tension targeted towards the most vulnerable؛ those seeking refuge. This was taking place while we witness one of the world’s worst forced displacement of migrants in modern history - the world’s largest refugee crisis.
During the first week of my MFA program we were given an assignment to go shoot something that gives each one of us a strong sense of place. My first notion was, "what the hell does that even mean!?" But my second was THE IMMIGRANTS statue down in Battery Park by sculptor Luis Sanguino -the statue featured in my film- which I came to years ago in in my very early years in New York to discover its history and how it once served as the leading point of immigrants coming into New York City.
I sat there for hours, watching the people, tourists of all kinds pass through the monument, pose with it, children climbing on top of its head. The statue is captivating, it demands your attention.
As a sea of people passed by going about their day, hopping on the ferry to go visit the Statue of Liberty, coming back with their little touristy gift bags, I couldn’t help but feel that we have all failed to keep that promise to learn from our mistakes and do better. I stared at the monument with its human face at the center, which seemed to be piercing through me, as if in judgment. The statue that was once built to honor the immigrants arriving to New York now stood there judging us for turning our back to this promise.
MFW: I had to look up the New Orleans statue--it's very different from the New York one! It looks a lot more like the kind of hopeful immigrant characterization you might see in a Hollywood film, whereas the one in your film is more expressionistic, more of the struggle and pain of displacement can be read on it. Do you see this dichotomy reflected in US attitudes about our immigrant history and our current refugee crises?
You are absolutely right about the statue in New Orleans and behind it runs the Mississippi River, in a very cute photogenic way, just nice to look at. But the immigrant statue in battery park depicts people from different ethnicities in a way that shows the displacement and suffering they undergo; and you have the statue's bronze hand sticking out to point in all purposefulness to the inscription that reads “Dedicated to people of all nations.”! But in reality, like I was saying-during the time I shot this piece, the refugees crisis was at its worst, the UN refugees report estimated that with every minute in 2018, 25 people were forced to flee their homes.
Mind you, as terrible as the situation was, we were also witnessing an extreme increase in xenophobia within the United States, and harsher conservative wing policies directed against those who are most vulnerable, the refugees. I definitely shot the film with all of that in mind, with mixture of anger and sadness for the helpless situation that it is.
MFW: Are the various feet we see stepping on and off the statue during the film meant to be seen as belonging to immigrants from various walks of life? What was the intent behind showing only feet?
MK: I knew that the feet would spark different feelings to different people, which happens all the time. For me I wanted to give the feeling of the discarded immigrants as we see only their feet while they pose with the inscription that holds the promise to welcome the people of all nations! Yet it carries that false feeling of upholding this promise, as you see people walk all over the sign to pose with the inscription for a picture and nothing more.
MFW: Can you talk a little about the battle-like sound effects and music that punctuate the photo-posing?
MK: I wanted to accentuate the feelings of dismay that can be felt by looking at the statue, the same way I tried to do with framing the shots. The choice of the war-like sounds came intuitively I think because for years I have worked with refugees, mainly Syrians which constituted most of the displaced refugees at the time. So the imagery of the horrors they had to escape was very present in my mind I would say.
MFW: These kinds of horrors connected with the tourist photo-posing makes one imagine something like a postcard from a battlefield. Since this statue is installed at a popular tourist site, the parallel you draw between tourism and immigration is inescapable---considering that many countries which are economically or politically unstable for its local residents double as tourist getaways for wealthy Americans, how might moving image arts be a medium uniquely suited to exploring this disparity?
MK: I am glad you drew this conclusion from the film, which is quite interesting really since a previous longer version had a shot where you see a bunch of touristy gift bags carried by a sea of tourists -who had just got off the famous statue of liberty cruise. So I shot this film with a lot of judgment and anger directed towards the United States’ handling of the situation, especially when you take into consideration the history of Battery Park, where the statue stands. However, when I was editing, I liked the piece to be more universal, especially with the rise of xenophobia across the world, not just within the US. And the disparity that you mention is very real, and unfortunately it does not apply just to developing countries but sadly here too in the United States. Just by walking down Fifth Ave, or downtown LA you could easily see the richest and poorest of America. Yet in our overwhelming, information inundated fast paced everyday life we are not necessarily able to stop to take it all in and really observe all these cultural hypocrisies in the rhetoric we are asked to believe. And it is my belief that the screen can be a power to focus us and evoke our minds in a way that can potentially help us reach a better understanding and a more compassionate awareness of those less fortunate.
Maggie Kamal is an Egyptian American filmmaker based in NYC. Maggie’s short films toured film festivals in North America and were curated by art galleries such as ZAZ10TS. Her short film “Koshary” won Best Director and Best Actress at the Impro Film Festival in 2019.
Maggie was awarded the Ostrovsky Family Fund grant for her thesis screenplay “Microbus” which later won the special judges award at City Visions, the annual international showcase of new thesis films from the City College of New York MFA Program in Film. Microbus had its US premiere at the Academy Award qualifying Cinequest Film Festival and is scheduled to have its Canada premiere at Canadian Screen Award qualifying The Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival. Microbus was also officially selected at the 21st Anchorage International Film Festival and continues to circulate the festival circuit.