Beyond the Review: Sophia Hembeck on ‘To Remember, To Reclaim: Archives for Future Love’

We are honoured to publish this reflection as part of Take One Action’s ‘Beyond the Review‘ initiative, supported by the Year of Stories 2022 Community Stories Fund. In August 2022, we hosted a two-part workshop – delivered by by gal-dem’s First Person editor, film critic and author Katie Goh – that invited participants to explore the way personal writing and film criticism can meet. Born out of the workshops, these commissions invite a reflection on the connections between local struggles and global realities in the TOAFF22 programme, while showcasing the talent and insight of the authors and supporting the development of their own practice.

For this instalment, Sophia Hembeck has written a reflection on our shorts programme To Remember, To Reclaim: Archives for Future Love, screening online as part of #TOAFF22 between 21-30 October:

We leave a part of ourselves in the places we inhabit. Weaving, molding, writing, claiming, connecting, plowing, cutting, reassembling, narrating, attaching our bodies, our stories to the space around us. In the short film program To Remember, To Reclaim: Archives for Future Love, we see women inhabiting places like the dark waters of a Scottish Loch, a lonely hut in the Colombian desert, memories of a childhood now erased by war, memories of a colonial boarding school, and the hostile environment of immigration laws.

The word “to inhabit” derives from the Latin habitāre, to inhabit, from habēre, to have, or to hold: to be present in. It is the common thread that weaves through all of the short films. That and a sense of resilience, of staying present even when places start to be uninhabitable. Having broken up with someone two months ago, which has left me without a home all summer, sleeping on friends’ couches, it felt visceral to see these women inhabiting their places, their lives really.

When Caitlin McMullan in “First Step Swim” glides through the water, not every viewer might see right away that one of her legs end at her knee; the rest is missing. Her dark swimsuit is enmeshed with the dark surface of the lake, erasing the limits of her body, where it starts and ends, almost transforming herself into a part of the water, a hybrid, a movement, like a wave. It reminds me of my own cold water therapy I did for two weeks while I was staying at a friend’s house that was close to the beach. Every morning I would check the tide chart, put on my swimsuit, and walk into the cold water. Trusting that somehow it would wash away my heartbreak and that by simply being in the cold, in motion I would also be able to cross the tumultuous sea inside myself. There’s something majestic about a person swimming alone. McMullan’s aloneness, the fact that nobody else is seen, neither human nor animal, suggests that the Loch is hers. That she can make it (on) her own, by simply being.

In contrast to this privilege of having the right to roam, others have to fight for their right to simply exist in a place. In the fiction short film “For Love”, a queer Nigerian couple is facing the reality of the hostile law enforcement of the British Home Office. One of them without documentation hiding under a bed shaking with fear as immigration officers are raiding their flat is coming to a bitter realisation: “I am not doing this anymore!” she shouts at her lover after the officers have left. For three years she has lived in fear, hiding every time. “This isn’t life,” she says crying. As a remedy, a fantasy to hold on to, the couple decides to get married before reality strikes back again. They dress up, invite their friends, they sing, and dance in slow motion creating a memory of a commitment that would unfortunately not uphold in the face of the law. However, it does for them, and so when we see her leave walking towards the building of the Home Office, to surrender herself, we know at least they inhabit, they hold each other. The film ends with her lover waiting in front of the Home Office, till the lights go off; it feels endless and yet hopeful. And I wish that one day, someone would wait for me the same way.

The transformative power of love is also present in “Two-Spirit”, a documentary short about Georgina, a Trans woman living in an indigenous community in Columbia who is trying to get her house connected to the electric network. “I want to see in the dark,” she says. To have a presence. Seen at best as a strange appearance and at worst as an evil force by the other villagers, she only has love for her community and herself. She teaches me to be compassionate even when she recalls how villagers have burned down her hut in the past, even when faced with irrational violence.

That memories are also places we can inhabit are shown in the two films: “Born in Damascus” and “An Ode to a Time I Loved Bread”. Both deal with memory and the places that no longer exist. Trying to inhabit them again, to hold them by revisiting old films and photographs, re-telling stories with a sense of saying: I am here, I am still here.

And it is something that I want to hold onto, that I want to inhabit indefinitely. Now that my life as I knew it has become a memory as well.

It’s in the fast strokes of gliding through water, in the walk into the unknown at the British Home Office quarters, the revisiting of memories and re-telling of stories, and in that last image of Georgina’s hut at night: a single light bulb finally shining brightly.

– Still here. Still present.