Alef

2015

Alef is a video shot in a single location, with the same lighting and subject throughout. Shot over two months, the actor is learning the Farsi language, and relating what he learns every day over the span of the project. To bring the time into the video, I used the actor’s growing hair. He starts bald, and finishes with a huge beard. 

The video is about struggling to learn new language. We learn a new language because we need to communicate with someone new, or because of immigration to another country. In this sense, Alef is also about the struggles and contradictions of immigrant identities. The actor himself is a Brazilian immigrant to the United States, learning Farsi after marrying into an Iranian family.

Alef is the first letter in Farsi alphabet. Each shoot has a structure which begins with counting numbers in Farsi, itself showing the passage of time. After that, the actor recites a few letters in the Farsi alphabet, and proceeds to make words with those letters. Finally, the actor speaks a few sentences in Farsi. At the beginning they are very simple sentences, as the actor is actually a beginner, but then moves on to make statements about Iranian culture in comparative perspective, like “I love Iranian hot tea but American tea is cold”. Tea in itself is a metaphor for the culture here. 

As the learner advances, he moves on to reading Iranian poetry, which is another important aspect of Iranian culture. The subject reads Hafez1, a classic Persian poet that is commonly found in bookshelves of Iranian homes. But understanding his poems can be hard even for Iranians, because of its classic language. This part of the video shows the challenge for a nonnative Iranian to understand that part of the culture. While in most of Alef the actor is serious, taciturn, and without movement, he starts to show more comfort as he learns the language. In one of the last scenes, he comfortably sings “winter is over2”, a Marxist song for leftist groups during the Islamic revolution, but also an anthem for the 2009 green movement.

The background is a Keffiyeh, a square of cloth worn a headdress mostly by Arab men. It has a structural plaid pattern that I use it to create a visual boundary in the video. Much like the Keffiyeh, the counting of numbers also provides a structure and serves as a bookend, as the video ends with the actor still counting up. The actor is limited by these structures, which is shown by his constrained facial expression. While he gets more comfortable with the language as the video progresses, he is serious to the end, limited by the structures imposed on him.