One of the must-see works of the Athenian half of documenta 14 is Tripoli Cancelled, the 95’ film by Naeem Mohaiemen, a writer and visual artist based in New York. Tripoli Cancelled is presented at EMST.
Inspired by the director’s father’s experience of being trapped in Greece’s Ellinikon Airport without a passport for nine days in 1977, the film follows a week in the life of a man who has been living in an airport for a decade, keeping himself sane through a daily routine of letters to his wife, fantasies of flying an aging jumbo jet, and reading a precious copy of the children’s book ‘Watership Down’ – filmed in the same Ellinikon airport, abandoned since 2001 and recently a site for Syrian refugees.
Tripoli Cancelled visualizes the haunting yet familiar feeling that the emptiness, decay, abandonment and isolation of both physical and mental spaces might awaken.
When asked about the process of creating the film for documenta 14 Naeem Mohaiemen emphasizes his valuable collaboration with the Athens-based crew he worked with.
Ex_posure discusses Tripoli Cancelled with the director Naeem Mohaiemen, the actor Vassilis Koukalanis, the producer Maria-Thalia Carras and the cinematographer Petros Nousias.
The work currently presented at EMST in Athens within the context of documenta 14 is the 95 min. digital video Tripoli Cancelled. Could you explain how does this work embrace and visualize documenta 14’s main concept which is Learning from Athens?
Maria-Thalia Carras: Learning from Athens is a contested title as it implies a subject, the visitor, and an object, Athens. Tripoli Canceled however is a Greek-Bangladeshi production featuring a Greek-Iranian actor which talks about displacement, being in permanent transit, suggesting the limitations of our freedom to move in or to any place. The Saarinen airport where it was filmed is also a space in limbo, its echoing chambers reflecting the endless bureaucracy that have kept it this way. It is a space which had a different value for all the production team. For Naeem it was the trigger of a memory of moving on while leaving his father behind (having misplaced his passport), for some of us it was the end of an era of travelling to and from Athens, for the younger members of the team it was a discovery of an Athenian Modernist landmark. Each of our stories created a palimpsest of experiences that added to the development of the film. There was no education to be had per se just an unfolding of stories and events and the forging through these of a new mutuality and understanding.
The one and only actor participating in Tripoli Cancelled is Vassilis Koukalanis; what do you feel he offered to the character he played and to the film’s final outcome?
Maria-Thalia Carras: Vassilis Koukalanis was central to the development of the film. Originally we were interested in casting a South-Asian person that resembled Naeem’s father who would walk through the airport; less acting rather than just passing through, a spectral figure within the architecture of the airport that Naeem could base his narrative on. The difficulties in sourcing such a person in Athens resulted in Vassilis Koukalanis (whose identity cannot be clearly placed) not only representing his father’s story but even more, becoming a figure that allowed Naeem through him to transgress clear cut nationalities, topographies and time distinctions creating a film that literally cuts through borders to talk about them. The result is that the film has two equal protagonists; a man, played brilliantly by Koukalanis, forlorn pushed to his limitations, and a building, his sole witness.
How did the the setting of the film, the abandoned Ellinikon International Airport, contribute to the film’s narrative?
Petros Nousias: As soon as we set foot for our first location scout, a dialogue started between Naeem, the airport and myself. It soon became evident that it wouldn’t be just the location for our script, but also a constant inspiration for new scenes that took what started as a short film and turned it into a feature-length one. I believe that as a filmmaker, once inside such a vast location with seemingly endless possibilities, it is very easy to lose track of your goals and difficult to maintain the structure of your story. Even though many times we had a child-like enthusiasm, Naeem’s discipline prevailed, otherwise we would be still there shooting!
Vassilis Koukalani: When I saw the abandoned airports in Elliniko memories came from all the years since childhood in which I was often forced to fly to or away from Athens or even passing through– Teheran to Heraklion, Heraklion to Germany. Two airports. That was the status of the international and domestic airfields, the Eastern and the Western airport, nobody ever got this right or understood to differentiate between them. When I found the deserted landscape in front of me and was asked to play and dramatically exist there I felt a little uncanny and helpless. Would it be possible to profile a man’s life in this overwhelming and desperate view? This dumped and emptied area, which was public property and is now neglected and sidelined, waiting for the calculations and computations of speculants to be turned into shopping malls or other paid entertainment. It is in a state of limbo just as it’s protagonist in Tripoli Cancelled was, just as the refugees who were at the domestic terminal, also cast aside, hidden away and waiting.
You are presenting two different works for documenta 14, Tripoli Cancelled in Athens and Two Meetings and a Funeral in Kassel; why did you make the decision not to show the same work in both places?
Naeem Mohaiemen: Adam (Szymczyk) and his team (I was working initially with Natasha Ginwala, Quinn Latimer, Paul B. Preciado, and Katerina Tselou, and later with the extended team) first initiated the Documenta 14 process of starting conversations with artists two years ago (and with Adam even longer, as he had curated a show of my work at Kunsthalle Basel, Prisoners of Shithik itihash, assisted by Fabian Schoneich in 2014. I initially proposed Two Meetings and a Funeral as a film on two meetings in two cities (Algiers and Lahore), paralleling the dual city proposition of Athens and Kassel. Part 1 of the film would show in Athens, and part 2 in Kassel.
Over time, and especially when I presented at the Documenta 14 “Parliament of Bodies” at Parko Eleftherias, it became clear that most audiences were not going to follow a structure of going to Athens, and then a few weeks later go to Kassel. They were going to work on their own timetable, not necessarily going to the cities one after the other and watching the film sequentially.
In parallel, we had been working since 2015 on what we thought was a quirky small film at Ellinikon, inspired by my father’s story. I had presented a talk about my father’s experience of being stuck at Ellinikon in 1977 at the launch of Documenta 14 South journal (edited by Quinn Latimer, inspired by magazine originally published by Marina Fokidis) at National Library of Greece in 2015. I illustrated the talk with some photos I had taken from outside the airport (along the perimeter, I was not able to go in). Afterward, Katerina Tselou introduced me to Maria-Thalia of Locus Athens, who said, “Do you want to try to go inside the airport?” So we started the process of seeking permission, and then in 2016 we started shooting this improvisational film, where we would write dialogue while on the shoot.
And as it started taking form, we saw that this could be the work for Athens – Tripoli Cancelled. When Adam and Natasha first saw the rushes from the shoot, they also said, Yes, this has to be the film for Athens, a memory of Ellinikon, from a residue of my father’s experience. So then we decided that the other film, Two Meetings and a Funeral, formerly two parts, now made into one film divided across three channels, was for Kassel.
Tripoli Cancelled was filmed with a crew based in Athens: Maria-Thalia Carras (producer), Petros Nousias (director of photography), Vassilis Koulukani (actor), Alexis Iosifdes (assistant director of photography), Sotiris Konstas (second assistant camera), Dimitris Parthimos (props, still photography), Theophilos Botonakis (sound recordist), Katerina Michaloutsou (makeup), Aggelos Mantzios (color grading), Kostas Filaktides (sound design), Sevastiana Konstaki (installation design).
Digital video, color, sound
Co-commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation and Art Jameel, Dubai
EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens