When it debuted at the Venice Biennale in 2019, Larissa Sansour’s latest short film In Vitro (co-directed with Søren Lind) was accompanied by an art installation, A Monument to Lost Time; together, they are referred to as Heirloom. As with Sansour’s previous projects, the sculpture ties directly into the film itself. It’s a large orb that appears throughout the thirty-minute film, painted in Black 2.0, a shade of black so dark it does not reflect light. It was originally displayed in a concrete room, with floors inlaid with Palestinian patterned tile. The orb appears intermittently throughout the film as an unspoken object, undescribed, obtuse; unknowable, even. It breaks up the dialogue between two women that forms the bulk of the film’s thirty minutes, drawing away our attention; in scenes cut into the conversation itself, the orb is occasionally confronted by one of the women, who stares at it, reaches out to touch it. This is all very much what we expect from Sansour: she has spent much of the last two decades moving between genres and bending medium to her will. Her forays into science fiction began with A Space Exodus (2008), a play on the classic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was the first of her science fiction trilogy, followed by Nation Estate (2012) and In the Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain (2015). Lauded as Arabfuturism, the films explore questions of history and memory, using science fiction to re-situate questions common to Palestinian communities. How do we document the past as we edge into an unclear future? What sorts of “solutions” will we be forced to face and how much will we lose? Who loses what when different decisions are made?
In Vitro is the most blunt of Sansour’s science fiction work to date: her characters say exactly what they mean, when they mean it. In Vitro’s conversation is between characters in an underground concrete bunker, several decades after an eco-disaster has made Bethlehem uninhabitable. One of the two women has come to visit the other, an older woman of some hinted-at stature within this underground society. Played by Hiam Abbas, she sits upright in a hospital bed. The conversation that ensues between her and the younger woman, played by Maisa Abd Elhadi, has the beats of one that’s happened before between these two people. It feels familiar in their mouths. In other ways, however, it seems like a conversation that happens only as a generation seeks to shift pre-existing discourse. The two women reference the disaster that drove them, the people of Bethlehem, underground: it affected other parts of the world, but had a particular impact on Bethlehem, a place that has a particular charge to it. We see brief flashbacks of what happened: a black liquid rushing through empty streets, as well as the older woman rushing to evacuate her young daughter.
The disaster is never the sole focus of the film. It’s a framing device. As the black orb ebbs in and out of the film, I wondered if it was connected to the disaster: was this what remained of the disaster? Or is it meant to distract, to signify something that draws light out of the room? I then wondered if it is a symbol for the occupation of Palestine. A common motif in Palestinian visual culture are keys, keys to homes that were left behind in 1948 and the doors they never opened again, as their owners and their descendants remain displaced. It’s a careful move, and almost an indictment of some existing discourse around Palestine if Sansour is letting go of a visual language to discuss the nakba of 1948. The orb is an attempt to update how we talk about Palestine, to update what we focus our energies on, and to recognize discourse needs to change as the generations do. If the orb represents catastrophe, not a specific one, but catastrophe generally, where is the occupation? Sansour is making another statement here, even though she doesn’t escape from the problem of the occupation being both setting and subject of so much of our art.
In In Vitro, the occupation is embedded and structural. The conversation between In Vitro’s two characters itself is another jab at how the discourse around memory-making can suck all of the oxygen out of the room. The younger woman laments that her own sense of memory has been corrupted by the previous generation’s insistence on remembering the environmental catastrophe; she does not know what is real and what has been cloned into her DNA. In many ways, this conversation is the same one this generation of high-profile visual artists has yet to engage in. We’re stuck in this moment of pride and resistance, especially those of us who belong to the Palestinian population that has spent a generation or two in diaspora. But I also fear that the prospect of a free and independent Palestine is vanishing and the reality of Palestinian futures indeed relies on these conversations about memory; the question is whether or not artists seeking to portray Palestine realize how important this is, as caught up as they can be in political symbols of resistance. But in In Vitro, Sansour isn’t simply an advocate for memory, but is a critic of the conversations around memory. In Vitro is faulting a generation—embodied in Hiam Abbas’s character—for assuming culture needed to be laced with so much trauma. I hazard a guess that Sansour does not hold the opinion herself that trauma is unnecessary or that memory can constitute a form of gaslighting, but rather, that the answer is somewhere in the middle, that it depends on perspectives as well as the stakes. This is especially so given her approach to presenting the two generations: the conversation is seen in a two-panel split screen. As their faces both stare out at us from the split screen, the meaning of the film’s title presses down upon us.