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David Thorpe

Alia Syed is primarily a filmmaker, but she is not a filmmaker whose activity takes place within the established conventions of cinema or television. Part of her practice is to confront the orthodoxies of filmmaking. In order to extend its possibilities, and create a new experience for the audience that makes the issues she is concerned with come alive as a poetic experience based on narrative but not constrained by the usual limitations of storytelling in film. Syed is a contemporary practitioner within a genre of experimental film that has subverted mainstream cinema throughout the past 40 years. New filmmakers like Alia Syed demand action on the part of their audience. Action in the form of thoughtful response that helps people find their place In what is truly reality, rather than the stage-managed exaggerations of mainstream film and television that provides an Increasingly diminishing account of what life is really about. In her films, Syed explores the role of language in intercultural exchange particularly as it occurs in the lives of those people whose personal and social boundaries have been changed by shifts in location brought about by the dispersion of peoples and cultures in the modern world.

Alia Syed's films articulate certain basic aspects of humanity that are explored and related through reference to storytelling, her own origins, and the process of filmmaking itself. She shoots her work on 16mm film, later transposing some elements onto DVD, and she regards the process of filmmaking (essentially that of Juxtaposing disparate Images together in a cohesive sequence) as synonymous with contemporary society's grouping of disparate cultures. Syed's films and film installations illuminate facets of her own life while at the same time being used as a device to explore wider truths about humanity. Her early film, Fatima's letter, 1994, was shot almost entirely at the Underground station at Whitechapel, East London, an area well known for its history of immigration to the UK. It takes the form of a letter written by a woman to her friend Fatima about the imagined pasts of other people she sees traveling on the Underground. Fatima's Letter explores the politics of identity on a personal and general level; examining through poetic expression the position of immigrants searching for meaning in their relocated lives, this theme is reflected structurally within the film forcing the viewer to locate their own meaning within the narrative. The film's soundtrack is spoken in Urdu accompanied by English subtitles that do not always coincide with the spoken text, a comment by Syed upon the gap between speaking and understanding as she considers the nature and role of language in intercultural communication.

Syed's most widely seen film to date is entitled Eating Grass. Made in 2003, Eating Grass is a half-hour film shot in London, Karachi, and Lahore. It encompasses five stories relating to the times of day for Muslim prayer. This colorful film moves from the pictorially realistic into the abstract as Syed utilizes rich color to enhance the kaleidoscopic form of the film's content in a celebration of sound and image. Its form is multilayered, as images are treated by Syed as text and words handled visually. The subject of the film, however, is essentially reflective, contemplating a condition that has been described as ‘placing the beauty of fleeting experience above all else.  Eating Grass is cyclical, the audience can enter the film at any point and this is part of its purpose, to illustrate the constancy of the cycle of prayer and contemplation within an environmental context that shifts continually from indoor to outdoor, from realism to abstraction and from Urdu to English. Like Fatima's Letter, Eating Grass fuses the universal with the personal, as Syed's concern with memory and identity conjoin to create a filmic statement within a circular narrative of the intertwined elements of sound and image, and written and spoken language.

Syed's latest work A Story Told is premiered at the Millais Gallery and it is the first time that Syed has taken the built environment of the gallery into account as essential to the structure of the work. Here, Alia Syed has created a world that is presented to its audience in an intricately entwined combination of 16mm film, DVD projection, and monitors. The work uses the overall form of a historic novel that Syed has developed, which is shown in the form of two related Installations that together establish a complete account of the story.

The main character, a woman, tells the tale of her doomed love affair as she sits in a cab writing a letter to her lover recounting the apparent impossibility of their relationship as they travel through time. Syed creates an environment in which the telling of the story is experienced by the audience as a sequence of images and sound that originate from projections of two huge close-ups of parts of her face and a third, projected black. In this part of the work, the story is reduced to its minimal components and includes a soundscape in which atmospheric sounds are entangled with voice speaking snatches of the story condensed into those short phrases from it that contain the pronouns 'I' and 'you'. In another part of the gallery, the film shows the scene in and from the cab using Syed's now established technique of moving from reality into abstraction and from the prosaic to the atmospheric. Two monitors stand in front of the film and present other close-ups of the artist's face, this time telling the complete story in the first person. But the 'I' and 'you' could be anyone, the characters In Syed's original story, Syed herself, or the viewer. Each element of the work, from what was originally four related films, is a separate excavation of an aspect of the lover's tale that, as it is revealed, actually fragments the process of the work's production so that finally the only way to experience it in its totality and appreciate Its full meaning is to experience the fragments as one installation. In the act of doing this Syed conflates once more the personal with the public as her content slips between the gaps of one form and another.

-David Thorpe