Interview with Artist and Filmmaker Shezad Dawood

Conceptual artist and filmmaker Shezad Dawood will premiere his latest short at the Marrakech Biennale at the end of February. Shot in Morocco’s Sidi Ifni, Towards the Possible Film examines histories of violence and future dystopias, played out across parallel universes. The 20 minute film follows two blue-skinned astronauts who emerge from the sea and are confronted by the desolate landscape’s local inhabitants, a group of post-apocalyptic cavemen, resulting in a tense stand-off and climactic act of violence. Aesthetica spoke to Dawood about Towards the Possible Film and his affinity with Morocco.

A: Could you talk a little about Towards the Possible Film. Was it commissioned specially for the event?
It wasn’t exactly commissioned for the Biennale. The film was co-commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella in the UK and the Delfina Foundation, and then with further support from various partners. It’s not quite to the scale of my feature film but for a short installation for gallery purposes it’s very ambitious. It’s premiering in Marrakech and going on to Art Dubai as the main video installation in a special non-commercial section at the fair. After, it’s also going to be part of my solo show at Parasol Unit in April,which also tours to Leeds Art Gallery in October. So it’s no rest for the wicked for the coming couple of months.

A: You say it was quite an ambitious project; could you talk me through the process of making the film?
Well, I think I should prefigure this by saying that when we were shooting last October, I suddenly realised that I’d first been to the location 11 years ago; I’d always wanted to go back and make a film there. Even though my film projects are normally a slow burn, I think even for me that’s the slowest ever- 11 years from the first glimmer to execution is slow even by my own slow-food standards! But it’s really benefitted from that. I’m already quite an advocate for a slow approach to context, I’m definitely against this default position of the contemporary global art world of just parachuting in and out of places without actually stopping to engage on a more profound level. Any site, even a site that at first glance you might deem easily read, is still full of all sorts of contradictions, nuances and underlying historical perspectives and narratives that only further probing can unearth.

One of the things that was particularly ambitious was that I wanted to challenge my own approach by staging a round-table conference ahead of shooting. Rather than the standard artistic practice of first making your work and then subjecting it to scrutiny, I wanted to up end that, so I worked with Omar Berrada at Dar al Ma’mûn (Marrakech) to convene a private roundtable of authors, anthropologists, critics. I presented the ideas and they responded. I found it very rewarding, putting the structure under the microscope. Let alone Towards the Possible Film‘s ambition in terms of scale and cost, I think the ambition in being open to the piece, and being more layered as a result, is one of the biggest successes of the work.

A: The setting seems important in Towards the Possible Film. Is there a psychogeographic element to the work?
I think there is. I think it is almost a schizophrenic or bipolar approach to site, because on one level I spent a lot of time really researching a very psychogeographic reading of place, but equally I was fascinated by the fantastical possibilities of it being almost a parallel dimension. Almost a dual paradigm of what I think constitutes the best science fiction, which both encompasses political pragmatism and speculative fantasy.

A: You were influenced by science fiction writer Robert Anton Wilson when making the film. Can you explain how?
I just quite like the way Wilson uses quantum mechanics as a fiction generator. In particular, I looked at his Schrodinger’s Cat trilogy, where quantum mechanics is used not only in an explicatory way but as an odd methodology to the cut ups. On a brass tacks level, there’s a short passage in Wilson’s trilogy which is almost a flash cut in a film script, where the narrative jumps to a section about blue-skinned astronauts who come out of the sea and are clubbed to death by Aryan cavemen. So that was the more bonkers starting point for Towards the Possible Film. The more considered starting point is the relationship to landscape and the choice of Sidi Ifni. The beach there has a wonderful otherworldly quality, but equally there’s the history of the Ifni Wars, which were fought between Spain, Morocco and the Western Sahara. I think it was only in the 1960s that Sidi Ifni got repatriated to Morocco- it was Spanish before that. And that becomes an interesting context. When I first went there 11 years ago it was pretty empty with high unemployment; when we went back to film in October it was booming. Interesting how site is always changing around us at this point in late capitalism.

A: There seems to be a connection between Towards the Possible Film and your feature film Piercing Brightness, in the layering of different narratives and perspectives on places in flux.
I think I have an attraction to less obvious sites of encounter or production. Site has always been important, but Towards the Possible Film doesn’t explicitly name or refer to the history of the Ifni Wars, so it’s more an implicit condition that interested me: what the film speaks to is implicit histories of violence and understandings of the functioning of violence. If Robert Anton Wilson is one of the springboards for the piece, the other is the maverick anthropologist Pierre Clastres. I was thinking about the specific history of Sidi Ifni and thinking how to turn that into a Symbolist allegory about foundational acts of violence. Clastres’ put forward a radical thesis- I love its contrariness- that what we think of as primitive tribes don’t engage in perpetual warfare because they’re primitive and ignorant, but actually as a very nuanced rejection of the formation of a state apparatus or bureaucracy. An act of resistance. Violence, rather than being the oppressive functioning of the state, becomes also and equally a mode of resistance to the state.

A: So is there any possible meeting point between your cave-people from the future and your aliens from the past, or do they just oscillate around each other without ever connecting?
SD: They oscillate around each other and then there’s one single act of violence, in which one of the cave-people/ post-apocalyptic hunter gatherers attacks and almost kills one of the astronauts. And that’s it.

A: Would you say it is dystopian?
SD: It’s wonderfully dystopian! It was kind of taking Clastres’ theory to its logical end- is the act of violence a resistance to the advanced technology and state formation that the astronauts bring, or is it a revenge for indigenous people against the coming of Columbus, because the astronauts come out of the sea. For me it was important to invert the axis, so that instead of coming from the sky the astronauts come out of the sea. I was thinking about quasi-scientific theories, not just of evolution, but also paleo-contact theory. If you think about paleo-contact theory, there’s the idea that maybe Krishna is a spaceman who just came to earth at one point, and maybe someone else came in the Renaissance. These mythic figures just come along and turbo-charge human civilisation at certain times when it needs a bit of a kickstart. So the resistance of the cavemen is not just to the state formation (represented by the astronauts) but to an interstellar state formation, like a dethroning of the gods. I like the idea that these cavemen reject the whole deus ex machina; if they’re future versions of ourselves, they’ve seen it done it, seen the fall of civilisation countless times, on the astronauts’ arrival they’re just saying “no thank you”.

A: That explanation of the film links very closely to the theme of the biennale, Where are we now? Was that a conscious decision or was it coincidence?
Oddly enough, me and Hicham (Khalidi, visual art curator of the 2014 Biennale) had been talking for a while: he’s very into paleo-camera theory and I’m into paleo-contact, so there was definitely a convergence of our interests. But he was already going this way with the Biennale, so there was a mixture of serendipity and our interests converging through a dialogue that we were having in the background.

A: You’ve mentioned your affinity for Morocco before. How did you come to be involved with the country’s art scene?
It was an accident really. I started spending time in Morocco 15 years ago; I’m always interested in new geographies, new temporalities, while wary of getting stuck in any particular place. For me, Morocco was an interesting alternative to my own routes in India and Pakistan, finding an alternative prism which was different because of being a French or Spanish colony, as opposed to India and Pakistan being very much a British colony. And I think through an initial chance meeting back in the day with Abdellah Karroum from Appartement 22, and I think a lot of the time it’s those personal connections, friendships and shared narratives that you build with particular people while you work that become as important as your own childhood biography. Morocco’s just become a very rich ground for me.

Marrakech Biennale, 26 February – 31 March, for more head to

Words: Cassandra Naji

1. SHEZAD DAWOOD, Towards the Possible Film, 2014, commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella and Delfina Foundation.