Forum, October 2021

Listening to What is Shared: “From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf” as Documentary Co-creation


  • Dale Hudson

Much like RAQS Media Collective in New Delhi, CAMP in Mumbai moves between biennales and festivals into communities where people’s lives will likely never intersect with the art world.

Figure 1. One sailor asks another to “take the scene well” in a video to be shared with other sailors and with family, so that they can “see our situation.” Kutchi Vahan Pani Wala/From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (UAE/India/Yemen/Somalia/Qatar/Pakistan/Oman/Kuwait/Kenya/Iraq/Iran, 2009–2013; dir. Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran).

Founded by Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran, CAMP launched as an annotated, open-access archive of state and independent documentaries. makes material accessible to anyone with internet access, much like RAQS’ work on Sarai’s free-to-download readers of critical theory—the first aptly titled The Public Domain (2001).

On one level, these collectives embrace what Ravi Sundaram (Pirate Modernity: Delhi’s Media Urbanism, 2010) calls “pirate modernity”—media, software, and technologies, pirated by subaltern communities. Their informal dwellings and livelihoods operate according to a jugaado (“make-do”) logic by appropriating and recycling. They also claim domain over increasingly privatized urban environments in post-liberalization India.

On another level, these collectives are aware that visibility exposes communities to predatory foreign investment schemes and NGOs that have driven urban migration long before IMF-sanctioned liberalization. Adivasi (indigenous peoples called “Scheduled Tribes”), Dalits (lowest caste Hindus), and Muslims are disproportionately vulnerable, often migrating to other states within India or overseas to work.

Translating and interpreting subaltern perspectives is perhaps as undesirable as it is impossible. The politics of co-creation between internationally recognized artists and not-recognized artists makes the process even more complicated.

In the 1990s, Elizabeth and Iftikhar Dadi worked alongside Pakistani truck decoration artists—a metalworker, a painter, and an electrical worker. All were credited as co-creators. The Dadis learned that the art world largely diminished their co-creators to nameless artisans. More significantly, they realized their social position inhibited their co-creators from expressing themselves, a point made by Jamal Elias in On Wings of Diesel: Trucks, Identity and Culture in Pakistan (2011). Co-creation across social differences is invariably unequal and potentially inequitable.

For the Sharjah Biennale in 2009, Anand and Sukumaran co-created Wharfage from records of trade with Somalia, published as a book, and from radio transmissions of songs and conversations carried over phones and ship radio, compiled into a four-night performance called Radio Meena (“port radio”).

The performance made sailors’ voices audible to pedestrians in Sharjah’s Art District. It introduced Hindi and Urdu, spoken as “a common language,” by Gujarati sailors, Baloch and Pashtun loaders, Sikh truckers, Iranian shopkeepers, and Somali trading agents, into an increasingly gentrified neighborhood.

Figure 2. Mixed cargo being loaded onto a ship. Kutchi Vahan Pani Wala/From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (UAE/India/Yemen/Somalia/Qatar/Pakistan/Oman/Kuwait/Kenya/Iraq/Iran, 2009–2013; dir. Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran).

Wharfage addresses how urban landscapes develop according to use. Around Khor Dubai, the creek where small ships dock in Dubai, are shops and services frequented by sailors. By contrast, Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR)’s promenade offers shops for British, Israeli, and Russian tourists, as do parts of Sharjah’s Art Distract, attracting an upscale class of tourists and residents.

The documentary book and documentary performance re-contextualize content. Wharfage evokes Hal Foster’s concept of “an archival impulse” in arts, manifested in making “historical information, often lost or misplaced, physically present.” The work of art is constituted through “secondary manipulation,” similar to compilation films composed of found footage (“An Archival Impulse,” October 2004, 110: 3–22.).

In 2013, Anand and Sukumaran presented the feature-length From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf, compiled from their professionally-shot footage and mobile-phone videos created by merchant sailors in and between India, Iran, Iraq, Kenya, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, UAE, and Yemen, often at sea.

Many audiences assumed Anand and Sukumaran gave cameras to the sailors to document their lives for outsiders, demonstrating how co-creation across social differences can operate in different ways. Audiences expect it to involve either the exploitation of white-savior documentaries like Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski’s Born into Brothels (2004) or the deliberately intrusive antics of cinéma vérité like Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961).

Rather than middle-class filmmakers cajoling or tricking working-class sailors into revealing personal experiences for outsiders, Anand and Sukumaran co-create from what the sailors selected to share from an already existing archive of videos. The sailors shared their videos, created for themselves and their families rather than for foreign audiences. The videos make no effort to translate experiences into an art-world-ready format. The sailors share their experiences through videos through the lyrics and emotions of “filmi” (Bombay cinema) and Sufi devotional songs. From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf offers insights into co-creation across social differences. Audiences navigate through songs appropriated from the commercial film industry, then repurposed by sailors, and compiled by Anand and Sukumaran.

Figure 3. Still from a sailor’s video to the song “Teri Meri” (“Yours and Mine”) from the film Bodyguard (India, 2011; dir. Siddique), visualizing shared experiences and memories through fluid imagery. Kutchi Vahan Pani Wala/From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (UAE/India/Yemen/Somalia/Qatar/Pakistan/Oman/Kuwait/Kenya/Iraq/Iran, 2009–2013; dir. Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran).

Anand and Sukumaran intercut sailors’ videos with their own original footage, which simultaneously offers context for them and foregrounds the contrast of social differences between the co-creators. While their footage is mostly taken on dry land, the sailors’ videos are mostly taken on boats at sea or in port. The high production values of the filmmakers’ footage contrast with the sailors’ mobile phone videos. Aspect ratios and image resolution differ (evident in the figures for this article), marking the material conditions of each co-creator’s life.

The sailors communicated indirectly through emotions associated with their shared experience of being away from home, and through the shared memories activated by music and songs, both among the sailors and their families. The videos do not offer the voyeuristic reward of direct answers to questions posed by outsiders, who imagine they understand the sailors better than the sailors understand themselves. Instead, they offer scenes of cooking meals, feeding animals transported on the ship, watching dolphins swim alongside, singing and dancing to recorded music.

Figure 4. Children swimming around ships, docked at home, a comforting sight for sailors after months at sea. Kutchi Vahan Pani Wala/From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (UAE/India/Yemen/Somalia/Qatar/Pakistan/Oman/Kuwait/Kenya/Iraq/Iran, 2009–2013; dir. Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran).

The documentary is neither an exposé on informal trade that defies the World Trade Organization’s control, nor is it about the predicaments of migrant labor. It unwinds a complex system of interrelationships between formal and informal trade, between men who share a common experience of working long periods away from home, and the ships on which they navigate these environments. The film is composed from the different visual perspectives of Anand and Sukumaran and of anonymous sailors. There is no exposition, neither voiceover nor subtitles, to contain and explain. A few videos include sparse dialogue between sailors, who otherwise communicate through the shared emotions of songs. CAMP asks no more from co-creation than what they are willing to share.

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Dale Hudson is an associate professor at New York University Abu Dhabi, co-author with Patricia R. Zimmermann of Thinking through Digital Media: Transnational Environments and Locative Places (2015), author of Vampires, Race, and Transnational Hollywoods (2017), and co-editor with Alia Yunis of a special double issue of Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication on “Film and Visual Media in the Gulf: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives” (2021). His essays on documentary appear in Cinema Journal, Journal of Palestine Studies, Jump Cut, Media + Environment, Studies in Documentary Film, Studies in South Asian Film and Media, and elsewhere.

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