When avant-garde filmmaker Leslie Thornton created There Was an Unseen Cloud Moving, Islamic culture was not yet defined by antiseptic, then turbulent images of unresolved Gulf Wars (or conveniently stigmatized as the face of terrorism) but rather, by the evocation of alien landscapes, life-altering adventures, mysticism, isolative awakening, and passionate rendezvous of films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca, and Pepe le Moko. It is these ephemeral notions of an exoticized otherness, fugue, and meditative search for enlightenment that undoubtedly also propelled the spirit of the film’s appropriately amorphous heroine and nineteenth century adventurer, Isabelle Wilhemina Eberhardt (who, in the film is portrayed by several actresses). Dubbed “Le Bonne Nomade” and “L’Amazone du Sable”, Eberhardt was the well-educated, illegitimate daughter of a Russian aristocratic mother, Nathalie Moerder and her children’s tutor, an anarchist, bohemian, and ex-Orthodox priest and Moslem convert named Alexandre Trophimovsky. Seeking in part to escape a turbulent home life, Eberhardt traveled to Algeria at the age of 20 on a quixotic quest for spiritual enlightenment where, after the untimely death of her mother, she continued to live in North Africa (due in part by her denial of inheritance as a result of her illegitimacy) as a Moslem man in order to move freely within Arabic tribes in Tunisia and Algeria, and in the process, author a series of articles and journals that collectively would be described as “one of the strangest human documents a woman has given to the world.”
Thornton creates a playful, tactile, and insightful experimental biography of the iconoclastic heroine through an impressionistic collage of found film, archival photographs, mixed media (film and video) reenactments, and textured annotations that serve as an appropriately abstract yet incisive and instinctually cohesive representation of Eberhardt’s equally strange and unorthodox, yet remarkable life. In one episode, the seeming alienness of the desert landscape is juxtaposed against archival footage of the lunar landing in order to subvert not only the notions of alterity, space, and time, but also to introduce the themes of terrestriality and immanence, as Eberhardt figuratively sheds her gender, culture, and identity by assuming the guise of a Moslem man named Si Mahmoud Essadi and, in essence, becomes extraterrestrial in her liberation from the body to become a figurative wandering spirit completely assimilated into the fibers of Arabic society, able to penetrate the secret brotherhoods of Islamic culture (such as the Sufi brotherhood of Qadriya) that a European woman could not. Moreover, through the fragmented superposition of grainy, defocused, concealed, high contrasted, or otherwise obscured images throughout the film, Thornton reflects not only Eberhardt’s existential state of acorporeality and elusive search for spiritual enlightenment, but also her cultural immersion within the haze of intoxicating, escapist rituals – and false transcendence – of alcohol consumption, drug use, and liberated sexuality. This recurring image of immersion would also subsequently underscore the poetic irony of Eberhardt’s untimely death in 1904 from a literal immersion – the fatal, flash flooding of the village of Aïn Sefra where Eberhardt had reunited with her husband, an Algerian officer named Slimane Ehnni, after a long separation. Ending with this tragic evocation of the harshness and atemporality of landscape, Eberhardt’s chronicle of cultural immersion in Islamic society becomes an equally inscrutable human document that, like the unseen cloud cast by a significant, yet little understood parallel civilization – remains visible, but unregistered, in the periphery of the occidental gaze.
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