The Long Journey Preceding Paradise

On The Sojourn and على مرمى حجر (A Stone’s Throw)

Jenny Wu

The Sojourn
Year 2023

على مرمى حجر (A Stone’s Throw)
Year 2023
Country CANADA

In The Divine Comedy (c. 1308–1321), the ancient Roman poet Virgil guides Dante on his journey through hell and purgatory, delivering the medieval pilgrim to paradise but stopping short of entering himself. Both Tiffany Sia’s The Sojourn and Razan AlSalah’s A Stone’s Throw feature a guide, a lone figure dislocated in time and space, reminiscent of Dante’s spiritual chaperon. Sia’s is the actor Shih Chun, who played an itinerant swordsman in King Hu’s martial arts epic Dragon Inn (1967). AlSalah’s is a twice-exiled Palestinian elder named Amine.

The Sojourn documents Sia’s attempt to visit the filming locations of Hu’s Dragon Inn. The reconnaissance mission takes the form of a road trip through the misty mountains of Taiwan; in the sixties, it was revolutionary for Hu to shoot a martial arts film outdoors rather than on a set, and for him to shoot in Taiwan instead of on the mainland, given he’d been born in Beijing. Sia’s camera captures close-ups of Shih Chun, now an octogenarian wearing bifocals and a baseball cap, as he speaks about the changes Taiwan’s landscape has undergone in the intervening decades. Giving directions from memory in the passenger seat of the film crew’s car, pointing through a rain-speckled windshield, Shih Chun becomes the voice of the landscape, as well as of the past.

A Stone’s Throw also documents a journey, this time to Zirku Island in the Persian Gulf, the site of an off-limits offshore oil refinery and labour camp owned by the United Arab Emirates. AlSalah’s journey is conducted via satellite imaging, with the aid of web-scraped data and the recollections of Amine, a Palestinian from the coastal city of Haifa, who has spent his adult life first exiled in Beirut, Lebanon, and then sent to work on Zirku Island. AlSalah’s camera follows a hunched Amine as he walks on a boardwalk towing grocery bags through dismal weather, struggling against the elements in stark contrast to the way the viewer, at other times, glides smoothly over digital landforms produced via satellite technology. As AlSalah delves into archival research, she traces the forking paths of Amine’s recollections, too. “This is the Haifa shore,” his voiceover explains in one shot, as the camera assesses a grainy black-and-white photograph in which a group of men are gathered around the Kirkuk–Haifa oil pipeline. According to Amine, the Palestinian labourers pictured there “contributed to destroying this pipeline in the thirties,” to obstruct the British and Zionist colonial project they knew was intent on displacing them.

At the start of The Sojourn, Shih Chun warns Sia’s crew, “Where the inn … was constructed, those landscapes have completely transformed. They’ve been turned into roads.” In other words, they should not hope to reencounter the lush mis-en-scène of Hu’s wuxia film. The actor’s point is restated indirectly when the film cuts to the galleries of Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, where the camera lingers on towering mountains rendered deftly in black ink, such as those in the Yuan Dynasty gentleman-scholar Wang Meng (1308-1385)’s handscroll Pine Cliffs and Waterfall. The monochrome artwork, like Dragon Inn’s lost landscape, depicts a place in the mind and memory rather than on earth. Nevertheless, Shih Chun’s countenance—and Amine’s voice—serve as intimate counterpoints to the bygone and obscured locales whose incomplete visual records mediate and frustrate the documentarians’ respective journeys.

Just as the lowest level of hell in The Divine Comedy is known for its abundance of ice, water in its liquid and particulate forms plays a key role in both of these films. Melancholic voices in A Stone’s Throw lament: “The sea roars. I wander silently … I am a stranger everywhere. Where are you, my dear land?” Although the anonymous speakers long for their land, AlSalah’s film can only offer footage of lashing waves. Viewers feel the vertiginous pull of the tides, recalling the seas that claim the lives of thousands of migrants annually. For Sia, mist is a metaphor for covert activist operations that negotiate visibility to resist the surveillance strategies of autocracies like mainland China, whose leaders are increasingly threatening Taiwan’s sovereignty. For both filmmakers, hell is a place on earth whose local identity has been overshadowed by the interests of various political regimes. The vices for which individuals are punished in Dante’s underworld—greed, violence, fraud—find systemic counterparts in these films, and in atrocities like settler colonialism, forced migration, and one-sided treaties.

Neither documentarian’s journey ends in paradise. Both are left open-ended, dissipating like mist and seafoam. Neither Sia nor AlSalah gets a satisfying glimpse of her subject, and what they find instead reinforces the distance between individuals today and the minor histories of previous generations. One senses, however, that Sia and AlSalah won’t leave their respective guides behind in contested terrain either. So long as the lands through which they travel remain under threat of encroachment, their histories under threat of erasure, both will continue, in the spirit of intergenerational reciprocity, the dialogue with their Virgils.

Jenny Wu is an art critic and educator based in New York, whose writing can be found in Art in America, Artforum, ArtReview, e-flux, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

This text was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to accompany the programme The Sojourn + على مرمى حج (A Stone’s Throw) at Close-Up Cinema, 27 April 2024.