Selina Ershadi

Dec 15 2023

Thinking Out Loud

with Selina Ershadi

Selina Ershadi, TOL 1

Photo Credit

Selina Ershadi, چشم چشمه (film still), 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

Selina Ershadi
Dec 15 2023

This Thinking Out Loud is contributed by Tāmaki Makaurau-based artist, filmmaker and writer, Selina Ershadi. Ershadi’s lucid and poetic work has been included in recent exhibitions around Aotearoa: My throat/a shelter at The Physics Room, یکی بود یکی نبود | Tērā te Wā | Memory Spaces at Te Papa and Vital Machinery at Te Whare Toi o Heretaunga Hastings Art Gallery.

Here, Ershadi shares a series of diaristic reflections on her current preoccupations, influences and concerns. At once intimate and expansive in its scope, this text moves fluently across artworks, texts, people and places, demonstrating Ershadi’s deep care for language and listening—and offering voices and views through which we might find new ways of approaching and understanding the world we currently occupy.

My beautiful mouth knows only confusion —Enheduanna


Translating a poem with my mother from one tongue to the other. Our sessions are always punctuated with digressions and stories. Today: ‘There was a woman who walked into a butcher’s shop and ordered a kilo of language.’

As we try to get inside the feeling of each word, I think of Solmaz Sharif on (not) translating Forough Farrokhzad into English:

It is very/ private/to be in another’s/syntax.

After many failed attempts, I’ve finally started the fire.

Now sitting in front of it, listening to Bhanu Kapil on Tender Buttons in conversation about her book Incubation: A Space for Monsters. When the text went out of print, Bhanu considered the possibilities of a book’s impermanence.

I think of Anne Michaels out-of-print book Infinite Gradation, a meditation on making art in the wake of loss, weaving together the work and lives of Eva Hesse and Paul Celan (among others) with a personal account of grief.

Reflecting on the mutability of Eva Hesse’s latex works, made with the intention to disintegrate over time, Anne considers the eerie fact that they decompose at a human rate, ‘defying the expectation that art is meant to outlive us.’ She suggests that Eva’s real material was in fact memory, ‘which like latex, is corruptible.’

I consider what form this condition of impermanence and mutability might take with film. The breakdown of celluloid. Generation loss of VHS. Digital degradation.

Does the work need to physically last?

In early screenings of Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), the print burst into flames on multiple occasions mid screening. I wonder—did this moment of unexpected combustion inspire Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s own film Blue (2018)?


Alone at a bar with my coffee-stained copy of Moyra Davey’s Index Cards, revisiting her essay ‘Notes on Photography and Accident.’ Receiving treatment for optic neuritis in her left eye at the time of working on the essay, she writes about how her ophthalmologist would use technical language borrowed from photography to describe the darkened perceptions of her affected eye.

I think of my mother’s own deteriorating vision; the speckled, dim viewfinder of the Bolex camera; my fumbling with the focus and f-stops, barely seeing what I shot.

Although Moyra sets out with the intention to write about Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag and Janet Malcolm’s writings on photography, Roland Barthes and his notion of the punctum punctuates the text. That accident in the photograph which pricks, bruises, is poignant. A wound.

Tired. Will write tomorrow. Must remember: the eerie hotel in Otira gorge; fleeting attempts to film the mist shrouding the peaks; headlights in the fog; mountains barely visible in the grainy blue-black dusk; stars gently flickering as they slowly emerge; Alice Oswald conjuring Enheduanna, Sumerian high priestess of the Moon, the first recorded writer.

Immersed in the work of Basma al-Sharif by way of Sky Hopinka, who cites her as an influence. I’d seen one of her films two years ago via Another Screen’s online screening of films by Palestinian women filmmakers to raise donations for Gaza.

In a conversation with artist Nour Mobarak, Basma talks through the process of making her film Home Movies Gaza (2013). When she was finally able to return to Gaza after ten years of absence, her trip coincided with an escalation in violence against the occupied territory. With no clear intention to make a film, she began to record footage and audio of her time there to create a personal document of the experience. Upon reviewing what she’d recorded, it occurred to her that the footage didn’t capture the feeling she had of being there, prompting her to consider how she might manipulate the audio-visual material in order to create an alternate vision—one that gets inside feeling over two-dimensional representation.

As Basma and Nour discuss their shared interest in Hito Steyerl’s writing around the poor image, Basma considers how this process of degradation has the potential to take back power over the representation of a place that has been so heavily mediated through the lens of others.

I accompany my mother to her appointment at the eye clinic. She’s given me permission to film using the Bolex—in fact it was her suggestion.

The camera feels cumbersome and intrusive.

The medical photographer is fascinated by the Bolex, and tells me he has an 8mm camera and stacks of film in his fridge at home. I try to capture the live imaging of my mother’s retina. Everything happens too quickly. I didn’t factor in bringing a tripod. I can't focus. I can barely see through the viewfinder despite the aperture being as wide open as possible—f/1.8.


Between sleep and dreams, I watch Sky’s films late into the night.

Working with family and friends and from personal archives, Sky carefully considers what and who he points the camera towards. Often omitting figures from the frame or obfuscating the image through processes of layering and manipulation to startling effect.

Drawing on Édouard Glissant’s notion of the right to opacity, Sky’s decisions to withhold or obscure both bodies and voices not only serves to protect—honouring what cannot and should not be shared, explained and translated—but also transforms straight-forward documentation into poetry.

Walking through the park listening to Jorie Graham in conversation with David Naimon. I notice that a crowd has gathered by a paddock. A mother is licking the amniotic fluid off a calf born just minutes ago. We are all held inside the miraculous moment for almost an hour, many with their phones out, filming the baby’s attempts to stand on trembling legs.

I discover Mona Hatoum’s video Measures of Distance (1988) by way of Laura U. Marks’ book The Skin of Film, recommended to me by F, my friend and collaborator. Watching a poor quality version of the video on YouTube, I’m reminded of Chantal Akerman’s News From Home (1977)—a film that influenced my own epistolary film Hollywood Ave (2017).

A series of obscured, blurry, flesh-toned images shapeshift on the screen. They are overlaid with Arabic script handwritten on gridded paper. We hear the voices of women in conversation. Warm, tender and familiar. And yet also unfamiliar. They are speaking to each other in Arabic. Another voice emerges. This one is clearer, closer in proximity—both spatially and temporally. She assumes the voice of the mother, translating her letters into English. The contents and feeling of the words are full of longing, both offering some context as to why mother and daughter are separated, yet also withholding, as is often the case with such correspondence. The images gradually become clearer and we learn through the mother’s words that it is her own bare body and flesh, photographed by her daughter, that we are seeing.

I think of the stack of videotapes our family back in Tehran sent us years ago, disintegrating over the decades, and imagine these images of Mona’s mother’s body, imprinted on the magnetic tape as electrical currents move through it, slowly disappearing over time.

On the failed photograph of his mother, Hervé Guibert writes: ‘For this text is the despair of the image, and worse than a blurred or fogged image—a ghost image … '

Hervé’s text would not exist if the photograph had worked out as planned. I think of Jorie’s words: destructive and creative forces are inextricably linked.

Sky notes that his film Lore (2019) stems from Hollis Frampton's (nostalgia) (1971). I stream the film on Criterion. As I watch Hollis incinerate his photographs, I recall that I’ve read about this work before. I peruse Index Cards and find the reference to the film in the script for Moyra’s own film Fifty Minutes (2006): ‘Some of the struggles Frampton talks about in (nostalgia) are uncomfortably familiar to me from the days when I was just starting out. For instance, having an idea for a picture, but eventually feeling a kind of inertia about the whole thing, and after some time and effort, chalking it up to failure.’

In an audio interview I listen to, Hollis reflects on the embarrassment that these early photographs incited in him and his overwhelming urge to destroy them. This impulse to destroy work chalked up to perceived failure, as Moyra puts it, is all too familiar.

I think of Bhanu throwing her failed epic on Partition and its transgenerational effects on diasporic communities into the dark garden one winter, retrieving the notes in spring to write again from the eroded fragments. This perceived failure and its destruction would eventually be transformed into her book Schizophrene.

In making her film Deep Sleep (2014), Basma put herself under auto-hypnosis, shooting on Super8 across the ruins of three different locations: Gaza, Athens and Malta. When the rolls of film came back from the processing lab, they were unusable. A huge waste of money. From this failure, Basma pieced together the film.

Need to keep reminding myself: this is not about mastery but experimentation, process. How might failure, accident, be transformed.

Sky: ‘I want you to abandon this idea of having to know what is going on. Let it wash over you, relax, let go, you don’t have to know everything.’


An extraordinary day spent with Alanis Obomsawin at Artspace. I barely wrote notes. Called into presence by her voice, we spent our time together listening to Alanis tell stories.

This act of deep listening underpins Alanis’s approach to documentary filmmaking. Each of her films takes seed in this relational way. She begins the process without a camera or crew—just an audio recorder and time so that people feel at ease and feel heard. It is through this listening, this attention to the word, which she describes as sacred, where she finds the pulse of people's stories: ‘Sometimes each word, each line, is like a prayer, like a poem.’

Around the lunch table, Alanis recalls a tender moment during the gruelling process of making her landmark documentary Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993). In the midst of the escalation in the conflict between the brutal Canadian armed forces and Kanien’kéhaka protestors protecting their land, Alanis turned her camera away from the action and instead captured an intimate moment of a mother singing a lullaby to her child.

Alanis’s story reminds me why she began making films; so that Indigenous children could hear their own stories and see themselves on screen. Her first film, Christmas at Moose Factory (1971), is composed entirely of drawings by Cree children from a residential school where she lived for a period of time. During her stay at the school, Alanis nurtured relationships with the children through storytelling, and once she gained their trust, she invited them to share their own stories, which the children themselves give voice to in the film.

Captivated by her hands as she speaks, part of me wishes I had brought my Bolex to film them—knowing that this is at odds with the teachings Alanis is passing on to us.

My impulse to film calls to mind the various close-ups of hands in Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson (2016), a film that, like Alanis’s Kanehsatake, I’d encountered in the months leading up to making Amator (2019) and which I recently revisited after watching Trinh T. Mihn Ha’s Reassemblage (1982).

Described as a memoir, Cameraperson is composed of fragments Kirsten recorded over the 20 years she worked as a cinematographer on documentary films. Many of the shots capture the moments in between that don’t usually make it into a film: setting up the frame; candid asides; failures; the cinematographer's body making its presence known. Without narrating, Kirsten gently reveals the artifice of certain forms of documentary filmmaking, allowing the flow of images and the subjects themselves to raise her own ambivalences and questions around the ethics of wielding a camera.

There are instances in the film where she diverts the camera’s gaze away from faces, instead focusing on the speaker's hands—an approach she takes in order to protect people when sharing their experiences of trauma. I think of how Alanis described how intrusive a camera can be and how uncomfortable it can make people when one is pointed in their direction—one reason why she never begins with filming.

I hope to always remember Alanis’ words: you have to be ready to sacrifice what you want to do because the film should be in service of the people whose story it is telling.

After showing M. a fragment of the footage of my aunt's C-section, captured on VHS almost 30 years ago, she tells me I must watch Alanis’ Mother of Many Children (1977) which begins with a birth scene.

F. inserts the cassette into the tape recorder and presses play. Forough’s voice transmits in warped shards. A frisson sweeps through my body. F. takes it home so that they can digitise the recording, later sending me the files. I listen with my mother, so that she can translate. This is the first time she has heard the cassette, which has gathered dust in drawers and boxes for years.

And then the sun
And then the sun turned cold
And then the sun turned cold and the earth became barren

At the eye clinic. Just after dusk. It is almost completely empty. Most of the lights turned off. No camera this time. I leaf through Solmaz Sharif’s Customs while we wait for my mother to be seen by a doctor. Surprised to find that I am on the verge of tears as I read the last lines of her poem ‘Social Skills Training’:

History is a kind of study. History says we forgave the executioner. Before we mopped the blood we asked: Lord Judge, have I executed well? Studies suggest yes. What the fuck are you crying for, officer? the wire mother teaches me to say, while studies suggest Solmaz, have you thanked your executioner today?

Y. has been fascinated by the anatomy of the eye, in particular the lacrimal lake—the pool of tears. I too am compelled by the parallels between language used to describe the eye with that of landscape. Upon seeing the footage of my mother’s OCT scan, A. compared it to the seascape I captured on the same roll of film.

I see a snake writhing.

M. recently told me that tears exit the body through the punctum lacrimale, small openings in the lower eyelids. I contemplate the connection between these exit points of the body with Barthes’s punctum and wonder if the latter is not only that which pierces (the eye of) the beholder but also an exit point. What spills out of the photo-body?

In the bottom of my coffee cup: my mother sees an eye, or a whirlpool; my aunt sees a diamond ring; to me, it is undeniably an ouroboros!


E. underlines a line in my poem, writing in the margin—Etel Adnan! The words are in fact Forough’s, taken from the disintegrating recording of her poem ‘Earthly Verses’ that sent chills through me and my mother as we listened. Forough’s prophetic and apocalyptic vision was written 60 years ago, 20 years before Etel’s own apocalypse poem.

Apocalypse. From Greek apokalupsis, from apokaluptein ‘uncover, reveal’, from apo- ‘un-’ + kaluptein ‘to cover’. To un-cover.

I spend the night absorbed inside Etel’s The Arab Apocalypse. I’m struck by the uncanny resonance of the first line in ‘​​XXXVI’: ‘In the dark irritation of the eyes there is a snake hiding.’

I recall the experience of hearing Bhanu read from Etel’s The Spring Flowers Own in April for her Close Reading contribution to the Flow Chart Foundation series followed by reading from her own poem ‘Seven poems for Seven Flowers and Love in All Its Forms’:

I am trying to write about something that is private to my family. / Someone I love is gone. / I can’t write about this here, but I want to mark it. / To press it in this poem. / Just as the night eats every flower. / Just as memory resembles floral output or energy.

Cooking dinner, I half listen, half watch a conversation between Edward Said and Salman Rushdie. Said expands on the idea that repetition is crucial to Palestinian identity, explaining that Palestinians must repeat their story over and over again in order to keep it alive in the face of persistent erasure, ‘like Scheherezade’ he says.

I think of an interview with Derek Jarman on Blue, where he too invokes Scheherezade (more accurately translated into English as Shahrazad), the skilful narrator who tells stories each night to appease a murderous King, not only for her own survival but of all women under the oppressive regime. Weaving stories in an ever expanding web to see the sunrise once more.

Shahrazad’s framing story has long fascinated me, more so than the tales themselves. A new edition of Arabian Nights has been recently translated by Syrian poet Yasmine Seale, who is the first Arab speaking woman to translate the tales into English. In the introduction to the text, editor Paul Lemos Horta writes that Yasmine’s translation seeks to recover Shahrazad’s voice as central to the telling of the tales. A voice eroded over the many translations performed by “the dynasty of masculine English translators.” Among other motivations, this new translation also attempts to do away with the Orientalism imposed onto the shapeshifting story cycle by this long lineage of Western translators.

Another translation session with my mother. The words - written in the form of diaristic notes - are my own.

I think back to an essay H. shared with me by Etel Adnan - ‘To Write in a Foreign Language’: ‘Someone can stand up and ask me why didn’t I, on my own, learn Arabic? This is a question that sometimes haunts me.’ Like Etel, I am both a stranger and native to the land of the mother tongue.

Etel’s words call to mind Paul Celan, who, when asked why he continued to write in German after the war, replied, ‘only in the mother tongue can one speak one’s own truth … in a foreign tongue the poet lies.’

Early morning message from M. ‘Bhanu!’ After a moment of confusion, the penny drops and I open the podcast app on my phone: Bhanu in conversation with David. Cocooned in a bean bag dragged under a blossoming tree, I listen. A salve. I call to mind Alanis’s instruction to listen not only to the words spoken but the sound of the voice: this is how one should listen to Bhanu.

I latch onto her term ‘notebook genre’ which she uses to describe her work, though I detect some hesitation in her voice in labelling writing that resists categorisation. I think back to her conversation on Tender Buttons where she touches on a difficult period in her life, during her mid-30s, describing it as a non-time, a void time, a notebook time. Writing without the intention of a readership.

I find Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes, which arrived in the post some weeks ago now. It’s been buried under stacks of books arranged in piles around the living room as I’ve unpacked my library. I open the book from right to left, a habit from childhood. Beginning at the end.

Note 248: ‘This is a love letter to my mother.’

I think of Chantal, who considered her entire oeuvre a love letter to her mother Natalia, the only member of her family who survived the Holocaust. In Hemlock Forest (2016), Moyra writes that: ‘[her 2011 film] Les Goddesses was a love letter to my family.’ I read Hemlock Forest as a continuing love letter to Moyra’s kin, namely to her son, but also to Chantal, and perhaps through her, a love letter to Natalia. Amator was a love letter to my mother and to my family through my mother’s eyes, hands and tongue.

As I leaf through Ordinary Notes, I’m drawn to a page on which there is a reproduction of a photograph of Christina's mother and grandmother.

‘It is my mother’s hands in the photograph that constitute what Roland Barthes called the punctum—the detail, “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).”’

Reading the surrounding notes, Christina’s critique of Barthes, who she writes ‘constructs a universal taxonomy of the photograph … But there is no universal taxonomy,’ reveals to me my own uncritical reading of Camera Lucida.

Christina writes that many of the photographic examples in Barthes's study of photography are of Black people, taken from both colonial and personal archives. Quoting Jonathan Beller, ‘[w]ith respect to practices of looking, there is a deep-seated dialectic, if you will, between racism and photography,’ she goes on to elucidate that ‘Barthes’s survey of blackness is a gaze and not a look.’

Feeling regret over not having read her book earlier, I close this doc. and settle into the late morning sun to read—from the beginning—Christina’s notes.

About the Author

Selina Ershadi is an Iranian-born, Tāmaki Makaurau-based, artist working within a lineage of experimental film forms. She holds an MFA from Elam School of Fine Arts and a BA majoring in English Literature from the University of Auckland.

Commissioned and edited by Hanahiva Rose on behalf of the ArtNow Essay Editorial Advisory.

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