Alexandra Cuesta Named John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow

Alexandra Cuesta, a filmmaker and recent guest of the Global Mobility Project at The Ohio State University, has been named a Guggenheim Fellow. Alexandra’s work combines experimental film and documentary practices to capture how people move through public spaces. Her work examines social structures, instances of displacement, and cultural diasporas. As a Guggenheim Fellow, she will continue to work on a project titled Desde Aquí (From Here). According to the Guggenheim website the project is:

…an experimental documentary that explores the life of the inhabitants of Susudel, a small community in the Andes mountains in southern Ecuador. The film addresses the complicated post-colonial legacy of land ownership, labor, and migrations, particular to the region, while simultaneously constructing a portrait of place, which permeates between the exterior landscape and the private/ intimate scape.

The New York Film Festival, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Viennale International Film Festival, Centre Pompidou, Palacio Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, FIDMarseille, Bienal de Cuenca, Habana Film Festival, and BFI Film Festival, London number among venues at which Alexandra’s work has been screened. Alexandra received her MFA in Film and Video from the California Institute of the Arts and her BFA in Photography from Savannah College of Art and Design.

On February 12, Alexandra visited OSU to show three short films and to join Prof. Vera Brunner-Sung of the Global Mobility Project and the Department of Theatre for a discussion on their subject matter. The three films screened were Despedida, Piensa En Mi, Recordando El Ayer. These films depict movement, moments of waiting, separation and life in two distinct places: Los Angeles (Despedida and Piensa En Mi) and Jackson Heights in New York City (Recordando El Ayer). After showing her short films, Alexandra reflected on making films in marginalized spaces populated mainly by migrants.

Alexandra and Prof. Brunner-Sung discuss the filmmaking process, global mobility and migration, and the significance of Alexandra’s work in the podcast below. Alexandra explains how art can avoid the pitfall of existing outside the migrant experience, a notion she has observed in some academic research. Alexandra says, “What the arts can do in this regard is to look at this subject from another perspective and that means to me a more emotional perspective.”

She then recalls a showing of her film Recordando El Ayer at a church in Jackson Heights, where many of the film’s subjects were able to watch the film and subsequently participate in a Q & A session. Through this rare opportunity she was able to see firsthand how, “Art, again, can provide these open conversations, dialogues, and discussions in a more human and direct way.”

Speaking from her perspective as a filmmaker and as immigrant originally from Ecuador, Alexandra creates films that convey the feeling of leaving home and assimilating into a new culture. Central to her work are identities and a sense of belonging. She wonders, “Can anyone belong to a place? Is this even possible in the world today?”

A Talk with Alexandra Cuesta Podcast:

Movable Memories

By Randall Rowe, PhD Student, Department of Slavic and Eastern European Languages and Cultures

 On Monday, March 19th the Global Mobility Project hosted two exciting events with South Korean artist Do-Ho Suh. There was a great turnout for his talk at the Knowlton School of Architecture, where he elaborated on his creative process. His work questions the concept of home and how a person transports home across time and space. Do-Ho has created fabric homes by measuring the dimensions of his former living spaces and then sewing together representations of these spaces. He has also engaged with his former homes in other ways. For example, he has used a technique called rubbing to create traced representations of these spaces. He wraps the subjects of his installments (his former homes) in white paper and carefully rubs the surfaces with a pencil to reveal the intricate designs and details of the living spaces. This very delicate and physical practice (measuring, sewing, rubbing, etc.) reinforces Do-Ho’s deep connection to the spaces. Consequently his memory of home becomes a portable manifestation of an abstract concept that may be carried with him in a suitcase everywhere he goes.

Do-Ho talked about how his fabric structures are developed from the memories of his former dwellings. They change meaning as they grow to include the various places he encounters in his work and life, he says. His presentation started with his original installation, Seoul Home, which debuted in Los Angeles at the L.A. Korean Culture Center (1991). His installation grew to incorporate his other former homes and began to move from exhibit space to exhibit space. Reflecting the transient nature of his work and the migration experience, Do-Ho’s Seoul Home became Seoul Home/L.A. Home/New York Home/Baltimore Home/London Home/Seattle Home… (1999).

Later in the day, we hosted a screening at the Wexner Center for the Arts of Fallen Star: Finding Home (2016), a film that was directed by our very own Prof. Vera Brunner-Sung and Valerie Stadler. This film documents the Fallen Star art installation (2012), which was a collaboration led by Do-Ho Suh at the Stuart Collection of the University California, San Diego. Fallen Star was an ambitious project that culminated in placing a small house, inspired by a cottage on the East coast of the U.S., on the 7th floor roof of a building in Southern California. Again, Do-Ho engages with the idea of home, but this time on a college campus where many arrive from other cities, states and countries. After the film, the audience was treated to a rare opportunity to ask questions of both the creator of the project and one of the directors of the films.

In our Q & A session, both Do-Ho and Prof. Brunner-Sung stressed the collaborative nature of their work. Fallen Star was made possible by the expertise of many people in a variety of fields. Do-Ho Suh envisioned the project, but conceded that he, alone was unable to execute such a large scale work. The Stuart Collection, together with local engineers and contractors constructed and raised the house, and the process was documented by Brunner-Sung and Stadler. The film not only shows the process of erecting the project, but also captures the process of change within those who helped carry out the project. A project of this scale was dismissed as too frivolous or nonsensical by skeptical observers, but the team stood by the mission. During a poignant moment in the film, the superintendent of the job, Don Franken, concludes that perhaps art can be difficult to understand because it is experienced by every person in a different way. This captures the transformative nature of Fallen Star and Do-Ho’s work in general. Those who view his art are invited to question otherwise stable and personal concepts such as home or belonging. Do-Ho’s work is particularly powerful, because it delicately reminds the viewer that one’s home is not always constant. In fact, it is often ever-changing, and every person uniquely relates to an idea of home.

Thank you to Do-Ho Suh for visiting us at The Ohio State University, and thank you to all who helped make both events happen. Thank you especially to our co-sponsors: Office of International AffairsAsian American Studies, Ohio State UniversityOSU Department of ArtKnowlton School of Architecture, and the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering!

What is the other side of hope?

By Randall Rowe, PhD Student, Department of Slavic and Eastern European Languages and Cultures

On January 19th, the Global Mobility project hosted a film screening at the Wexner Center for the Arts of The Other Side of Hope (dir. Aki Kaurismäki, 2017). This film depicts the experience of a Syrian refugee who has fled to Finland to apply for asylum. One of the protagonists, Khaled, has encountered carnage in his home city of Aleppo, was separated from his sister when fleeing across the Turkish border, and was assaulted by Polish neo-Nazis. Upon arriving in Finland via a shipping container, Khaled meets Wikström, a middle-aged man who has a recent windfall of cash from a successful poker game. Their first meeting occurs after Khaled has escaped a detention center (after being denied refuge and sentenced to deportation) and is apprehended and jumped by racist thugs of the “Finnish Liberation” movement. When Wikström encounters an injured Khaled outside of his restaurant, a fight between the two protagonists breaks out and comically ends rather quickly with Khaled working in Wikström’s restaurant. The unlikely gang of coworkers come to accept Khaled into their ranks, and they band together to help bring Khaled’s sister to Finland. After successfully arriving in Finland from Lithuania, Khaled’s sister seeks asylum at the police station just as Khaled had done. Indeed, many migrants leave their countries of origin with the hope that their situation will improve, but a migrant’s journey is often long and treacherous. The Other Side of Hope attempts to address the migration experience through Khaled’s story of uncertainty, disappointment, and – finally – reunion.

Khaled, in a somewhat typical situation for refugees, is subjected to long periods of waiting that often end in rejection. He seeks asylum through the official channels and is then assigned to a detention facility, where he waits for his fate to be handed to him by a court. Khaled flees the facility and ends up in Wikström’s restaurant because he is left with no other recourse after being denied asylum. The arrival of Khaled among the ranks of Wikström’s employees facilitates a change for the restaurant. Tired of waiting for customers to wander into the restaurant, Wikström and the others attempt (unsuccessfully) to change the menu and atmosphere in order to drum up business. It is as if both protagonists were waiting for one another to improve each other’s lives.

(Prof. Vera Brunner-Sung (left) and Prof. Johanna Sellman (right) discuss the film with the audience) 

After the film there was a lively Q & A session with Prof. Vera Brunner-Sung (Department of Theatre, the Global Mobility Project) and Prof. Johanna Sellman (Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures). One of the audience members remarked that the depiction of white Europeans in the film was mostly positive, with the exception of the militant nationalists and the apathetic bureaucrats of the court system. Prof. Brunner-Sung added to the conversation by asking if the film occupied a gray area between the tropes of the White Savior and White Helper. The Other Side of Hope seems to attempt to subvert the White Savior trope by omitting gratuitous scenes of victimization and by foregrounding Khaled’s self-determination.

The film, though tragic at times, is largely whimsical and funny. The editing, use of compact spaces, and the “cleanliness of the mise en scène,” in the words of Prof. Brunner-Sung, work together to communicate complex emotional aspects of the film to the viewer without language at all. Aki Kaurismäki moves the viewer from a comedy to a tragedy to a melodrama back to a comedy. Ultimately, this conveys instability to the viewer and creates a sense of exhaustion. By highlighting this chaos, Aki Kaurismäki attempts to communicate Khaled’s experience as a migrant seeking asylum.

The film also attempts to address questions about Finland’s “myth of homogeneity,” as pointed out by Prof. Sellman, and the wave of nationalism in Finland and around the globe. The police arrive at the restaurant for a routine inspection and the employees quickly hide Khaled in the bathroom. Instead of finding Khaled and inquiring about his national origins, the police officer asks a Finnish employee to produce his identification because the employee doesn’t “look Finnish” – an ironic moment that speaks to the ways that racism works to undermine the goals of law enforcement.

The film also depicts Finland’s linguistic heterogeneity, as well as the social functions that these languages can serve. The fluidity of language choice captures the negotiation of self that many refugees must go through when seeking asylum.

Indeed, much of this film reflects the reality of migrants’ lives. This is what makes the film grim viewing, in spite of its whimsy. Khaled has been forced to flee from his home in Aleppo, Syria because of violence. He loses contact with his sister because of violence and chaos at the Turkish border. He must secretly travel to Finland in a shipping container full of coal from Gdansk, Poland due to further threats of violence, and finally, it is violence that brings him to Wikström and his subsequent employment. The streak of violence in Khaled’s life does not end when he leaves Syria. Khaled’s experience, crafted brilliantly by Kaurismäki, raises the question: what is the other side of hope?

Film Screening: The Other Side of Hope

The Other Side of Hope
The Other Side of Hope, dir. Aki Kaurismäki, 2017
Screening Date: Friday, January 19, 7pm
Location: Wexner Center for the Arts
Cost: $8 general public, $6 Wexner Center members, students, senior citizens
The Other Side of Hope
Followed by a post-screening discussion with Vera Brunner-Sung (Theatre) and Johanna Sellman (Near Eastern Languages and Cultures)
The Other Side of Hope

 Finland’s master of deadpan comedy, Aki Kaurismäki (Lights in the Dusk, Le Havre), returns with The Other Side of Hope, the story of an unlikely friendship between a Syrian asylum seeker and an elderly Finnish restaurant owner. Worthy winner of the 2017 Berlin Silver Bear for Best Director, it’s a beautiful, timely film from one of the world’s leading auteurs. Khaled (Sherwan Haji) arrives at the port of Helsinki concealed in a coal container, fleeing war-torn Syria to seek asylum in Finland. Dazed and frustrated by the monolithic administration he encounters at the detention centre, he makes a break for it and heads out onto the streets. There he meets Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a former shirt salesman who has recently left his alcoholic wife for a new life as a bachelor restaurateur. Together, they help each other to navigate the adversities they face in these unfamiliar and often baffling new worlds. With hilarious sight gags, poker-faced one-liners and a toe-tapping rockabilly soundtrack, Kaurismäki’s latest balances his unparalleled wit with a pressing critique of the unforgiving bureaucracy that greets vulnerable asylum seekers in modern-day Europe. Humane and sincere, it’s proof of cinema’s power to tell stories that matter, with beauty and heart. (98 mins., DCP)
“A wry social-realist fable about the European refugee crisis, a funny and affecting appeal for decency in the face of suffering.” –A. O. Scott, New York Times

La Pirogue: the Myth of Europe and the Realities of the Journey

by Eleanor Paynter, PhD Student, Department of Comparative Studies

La Pirogue (dir. Moussa Touré, 2012), screened by Global Mobility at the Wexner Center for the Arts on March 1, is, in many ways, about a gamble: 31 people sail from Senegal to the Canary Islands in a fishing vessel not meant for the open sea. La Pirogue recounts migration as not only the traversing of physical space, but as an internal journey as well. We learn the different motivations and hopes of nearly each migrant on board and watch as they are threatened by discord and by the sea itself. At the same time, La

Pirogue reminds us of what Douglas Massey and other migration scholars enunciated in the early 1990s: that the movement of a single person across a border always involves a larger network. Although most of this story unfolds within the tight quarters of the pirogue, any attempt to map the narrative would result in a many-threaded web reaching far beyond the boat itself – or Senegal or Spain. Some on board hope to reach relatives in France; once settled, they plan to bring over their spouses and children. They are motivated by stories of musical and athletic stardom, economic success, medical treatment, and employment. The film poignantly loads the Goor Fitt (“man of courage”) with its 31 passengers, rations of rice, a back-up engine, and these narratives.



A stunning screenshot from the film. The solidarity of 31 Africans, fleeing to Spain in a canoe, is tested once they run into trouble.

One of the most striking lines in La Pirogue comes near the beginning of the film, as the wife of protagonist Baye Laye suggests that he not leave Senegal for Spain because “Europe is going through a crisis,” a reference to the 2008 economic crisis and its global effects. It’s compelling to consider the shift of context that has occurred between the making of La Pirogue, in 2012, and of Gianfranco Rosi’s Italian documentary Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) just four years later, shown by the Global Mobility Project in January. Over the last two years, of course, Europe has been said to be undergoing another crisis, one marked by the arrival of more than 1.3 million migrants in 2015 and several hundred thousand since.

Global Mobility Project team member Vera Brunner-Sung and Associate Professor in History Ousman Kobo

At the March 1 viewing, discussion of La Pirogue included comments to contextualize the narrative in light of Senegalese political and economic history, as well to put it in conversation with Fuocoammare. This discussion was led by Vera Brunner-Sung, Global Mobility faculty member and Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre, and Ousman Kobo, Assistant Professor in the History Department and scholar of West African history. Prof. Brunner-Sung drew our attention to the theme of “the losing bet,” introduced in the wrestling match of the first scene. Prof. Kobo suggested that the film is commenting not only on migration, but on religious tensions in Senegal; within the microcosmic society in the boat, passengers argue over rituals and rites involving Muslim prayers or the placement of a talisman.

The pairing of La Pirogue with Fuocoammare provoked conversation about narrative perspectives, and about hope. Rosi’s recent documentary portrays the arrival of asylum seekers to the Italian island of Lampedusa; although it does not focus on individual migrant narratives, it does emphasize their rescue and entrance into EU territory. Touré’s 2012 film instead depicts the intimate narrative of a group of migrants as they prepare for and set out towards Europe on a journey which not all survive.

This pairing and the discussion with Profs. Brunner-Sung and Kodo also reminded those of us in the audience that although Baye Laye’s story is fictional, it is based on the migration of thousands of young men in just such vessels over at least the last decade, and many of these journeys end in tragedy. A note at the end of the film states that at least 5,000 of the 30,000 migrants who attempted this voyage from West Africa prior to the making of this film did not survive. As Prof. Kodo remarked, “This is the reality of our time.”

Viewers left the theater quietly, many of us still taking it in.


Film Screening: The Pirogue

Director: Moussa Toure, Senegal/ France/Germany, 2012
Screening Date: Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Time: 7:00 pm
Location: Wexner Center for the Arts
Cost: $8 general public; $6 Wexner Center members,
students, senior citizens; $3 children under 12
Followed by Associate Professor in History Ousman Kobo and Global Mobility Project team member Vera Brunner-Sung.

A stunning screenshot from the film.  The solidarity of 31 Africans, fleeing to Spain in a canoe, is tested once they run into trouble.

Baye Laye is the captain of a fishing pirogue. Like many of his Senegalese compatriots, he sometimes dreams of new horizons, where he can earn a better living for his family. When he is offered to captain one of the many pirogues that head towards Europe via the Canary Islands, he reluctantly accepts the job, knowing full-well the dangers that lie ahead. Leading a group of 30 men who don’t all speak the same language, some of whom have never seen the sea, Baye Laye will confront many perils in order to reach the distant coasts of Europe.


Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) and “Practices of Reception”

by Eleanor Paynter, PhD Student, Department of Comparative Studies

An audience of OSU students, faculty, staff, and community members gathered at the Wexner on Tuesday, Jan. 24, for a viewing and discussion of the award-winning and Oscar-nominated Italian documentary Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea), directed by Gianfranco Rosi and released in 2016. Set on the island of Lampedusa, south of mainland Sicily, Fuocoammare follows two main narratives: the daily life of Samuele, an inquisitive Lampedusan boy who plays in the island’s rugged landscape; and the regular rescue of asylum seekers as the crowded boats in which they cross the Mediterranean approach Italian territory.

After the viewing, three panelists discussed the powerful juxtaposition of these two narratives: Vera Brunner-Sung, filmmaker and Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre at OSU, and member of the Global Mobility team; Peter Gatrell, historian at the University of Manchester and expert on displacement in the modern world; and Jonathan Mullins, an Italian Cultural Studies scholar and Visiting Assistant Professor of Italian at OSU. Their conversation covered issues ranging from the representation of what has become known as Europe’s refugee crisis, to the treatment for Samuele’s lazy eye, to an emphasis on the technology of what Mullins called “the practices of reception.” Rescue scenes are usually preceded, for example, by shots of the large equipment used to intercept SOS calls and visualize the location of arriving ships.

In connecting the two primary narratives, the panel raised the question of the documentary’s essential focus; Gatrell commented that Fuocoammare seemed, in the end, to be not about migration, but about the island itself. As Brunner-Sung discussed, the film uses long shots and slow camera movements to allow the viewer to engage with the physical space of Lampedusa; these techniques, said Mullins, also play with notions of near and far. How close is a boat? How distant is the crisis?

Yet, panelists agreed, the film is also troubling and prompts viewers to consider the representation of asylum seekers and refugees and the film’s seeming insistence on keeping Samuele’s story separate from that of the rescue narrative: this is not about an encounter. One of the challenges for any writer or filmmaker dealing with precarious subjects is the issue of representation: Does the depiction essentialize? Does it, at another extreme, anonymize? Gatrell noted that, other than rescue, the circumstances shaping the “crisis” occur, for the most part, off-screen.

I weigh in here as someone focused on contemporary migration to Italy in my own work, and as a viewer who found herself quite moved by the film’s oscillation between narratives about Samuele and about the arrival of asylum seekers. In this juxtaposition, I see Lampedusa itself emerging as a place of reckoning: Samuele tries to come to terms with his physical relationship to the island (a fisherman shouldn’t get seasick); border patrol agents and rescue workers transport hundreds of asylum seekers from sinking boats to coast guard vessels, to identification/detention centers known as CIE (Centri di identificazione e espulsione). For arriving asylum seekers, the island represents rescue and extreme precarity and, as such, appears as a space of trauma. Finally seated on a coast guard ship, many seem in shock; one asylum seeker pours water over her head.

Since Gatrell’s lecture on historicizing refugees and displacement and the public viewing of Fuocoammare, U.S. immigration and asylum policy has entered a global spotlight. In light of President Trump’s recent executive orders on border security and immigration, I find it difficult to reflect on this film without asking about its reception by a U.S. audience, and its relevance for a U.S. viewership. Is Lampedusa too far away for U.S. viewers to connect the urgency of Mediterranean migration with questions being asked about U.S. borders? The film’s Oscar nomination, in the documentary category, and its celebration by critics, makes it likely to reach a wide international audience in the coming months, including U.S. cinema-goers. How might a film such as this affect public responses to forced displacement and immigration policy? Can a film that emphasizes the mechanized routine of migrant reception at Italian shores provoke compassion in audiences outside Europe for the 65 million forcibly displaced people around the world, and for those in other countries who want to come to the U.S. for study, for work, for family, or for their own safety?


Film Screening: Fire at Sea

Director: Gianfranco Rosi, Italy, 2016
Screening Date: Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Time: 7:00 pm
Location: Wexner Center for the Arts
Cost: $8 general public; $6 Wexner Center members,
students, senior citizens; $3 children under 12
Followed by discussion with OSU Visiting Assistant Professor of Italian Jonathan Mullins and guest Peter Gatrell

Samuele Pucillo in “Fire at Sea,” a documentary by Gianfranco Rosi. Credit

Winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and nominated for a 2017 Academy Award for best documentary feature, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary observes Europe’s migrant crisis from the vantage point of a Mediterranean island where hundreds of thousands of refugees, fleeing war and poverty, have landed in recent decades. Rosi shows the harrowing work of rescue operations but devotes most of the film to the daily rhythms of Lampedusa, seen through the eyes of a doctor who treats casualties and performs autopsies, and a feisty but anxious pre-teen from a family of fishermen for whom it is simply a peripheral fact of life. With its emphasis on the quotidian, the film reclaims an ongoing tragedy from the abstract sensationalism of media headlines. (New York Film Festival copy)