The story of exile never starts at the beginning. In Christianity, Judaism and Islam, it was the literal annihilation of two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, that led to the forced departure of their only surviving family. Shepherded by two angels in disguise, Lot (the nephew of Abraham), his two daughters and his wife, were made to leave their town on foot while their homeland was devastated with clouds of fire and sulfur. During the journey, Lot’s wife Edith (also called Marah, Irit or Ado), turned back to look at her emblazoned Sodom. As punishment, God perpetually froze her into a formation of sodium and sediment.
Now austerely heralded as Pillar of Salt, peaking atop a cliff in what is now the Jordan Valley, this towering structure forms the crux of Parastoo Anoushahpour’s orbital, oneiric and myth-informed work of ecocinema, The Time That Separates Us.
Made in collaboration with Bayan Kiwan, Haneen Dajani, Dina Mimi and Firas Hamdanhe, the artist’s solo debut film investigates the archetypal feminine in monotheistic folklore, opening with prolonged footage of a burning horizon in the simultaneously contested and worshiped valley encased between Israel, Jordan and Palestine. Invested in the translations of exile and entrapment surrounding the Pillar of Salt (or the Site of Lot’s Wife), Anoushapour first scans a blurry view of the mountainous region. Employing a series of episodic vignettes—still photographs, guerilla footage, strobing imagery and documentation of phone texts, many of which are shared from her collaborators—she offers the viewer a multitude of geographic perspectives around this site.
Through the course of her film, the artist personifies the architectural physicality of historic ruins and holy sites. At varying points, a pair of hands constructs an assemblage, collaging photos with a scientific purview. An image of the Temple of Hercules—three, curved, gigantic fingers—stacks among this series. Related snippets of the desert landscape follow suit: blonde, arid, baked earth; bunches of verdant Apple of Sodom amid sparse vegetalia; and ubiquitously, across multiple photographs, fingers—of many, mostly male, tourists and tour guides, pointing to the novelty of rocks that most fascinates Anoushahpour’s project.
In a memorable sequence, visual replicas of the female form also emerge: over a photographic capture of red flowerbeds, the same hands place a large photo of a naked woman, posing with a strap-on (or a prosthetic penis) before the camera. She is wearing sunglasses, her skin glossy, her frame fierce and statuesque.
As a pair of hands stack smaller versions of the same nude continuously, one on top of the other, a voiceover narrates the film’s central story of exile. Here, too, loss of homeland begins at a narrative endpoint: what happened to the departed Lot and his daughters after they found refuge in a cave? After their home in Sodom had been destroyed permanently? After his wife—their mother—was punished into stagnation for eternity?
The Time That Separates Us is steadily absorbed by the perverse and the abject, conditions often relegated to women characters in theological lore. According to the Old Testament, Lot’s daughters, bearing the burden of duty to repopulate their newfound sanctuary, decided to intoxicate their father and have sex with him in order to have his offspring. Both daughters birthed a son each; while the eldest delivered Moab, the youngest gave birth to Bani Ammi. Respectively, both these offspring initiated lineages of the Ammonites (Moabites and Bani Ammon) as recorded in the Book of Genesis.
Traces of what was later deemed as “sodomy,” or deviant, condemned sexuality, pulsate through this film’s generations of feminized subjects like lifeblood. Anoushahpour’s photographic repetition of the phallic feminine itself conjures Edith’s punitive transformation. The artist conveys sapphic anatomy best when she delves into the sedimentary structures of land and its rocky terrain, marked by the phantasmagorical flora indigenous to the Jordan Valley.
One of the film’s more compelling transitions is that of a faraway shot of the Pillar of Salt, cutting into a feverish, monochromatic sequence, where a pair of hands meditatively pick apart the toxic and inedible Apple of Sodom. “A gigantic tree grew around Sodom, the apples of which turned into smoke and ashes when plucked with hands,” the narrator elaborates, scoring an unsettlingly flickering interlude, where strobing shots render the fruit, flowering at its top, being peeled by fingers with chipping nail paint. “When struck, it explodes with a puff, like a bladder.”
The sequence is reminiscent of the frenzied cinematography of vibrant cactuses in Coyolxauhqui (2017) by Colectivo Los Ingrávidos, a poetic video piece restaging flesh dismemberment of the Aztec moon goddess Coyolxauhqui by her brother Huitzilopochtli—dispersed across acres of land, casting a light on the state of femicides in contemporary Mexico. At its most hermetic, Anoushahpour’s piece appears to similarly lament a mythologized woman, violated and undead, crystallized by a male force and immersed in silt forever.
The film’s final moments emulate a shift in ecology from dry desert with its siroccos winds to dense waters, plunging us into a muted fluvial stupor. In a jarringly straightforward, documentarian turn, Anoushahpour records real-life moments of holy baptism of tourists in the Baptism Site or “Bethany beyond the Jordan” (Al-Maghtas), located north of the Dead Sea. Pilgrims en masse dressed in loose white garb enter the river where John the Baptist is said to have first lustrated Jesus. A man, overwhelmed with emotion, dips his body into the murky waters, at once trepidatious and exalted. Meanwhile, an army officer with a rifle strapped around his back patrols the holy site.
Departing from the work’s otherwise impressionistic wanderings over the land and its feminine phantoms, Anoushahpour’s choice to close her film with this footage is a curious one. The decision sits rather confidently when bookended with lyrically fleeting, silent shots—a woman, presumably kneeling in prayer by the Pillar of Salt, before walking away; a candid glimpse of a face with high cheekbones, melancholic and commanding, looking askance at the camera; a daintily seated, mustached figure, perched on a boulder in the cave that housed Lot’s daughters, cloth turbaned artfully over their head, draping around their hairy chest; their midriff and belly is bare, while ample hips and legs are curtained with soft, sheer fabric, reaching the ankles. Each image is timed at only a fraction of a second.