Zineb Sedira’s “Dreams Have No Titles” is, at its heart, an exhibition about film; it is also about self-creation and the possibility of emancipation. It is a love letter to auteur cinema, as well as an homage to international revolutionary filmmaking. At the Hamburger Bahnhof—its first reconfiguration since debuting in the French pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale—the show (on view through June 30) features film, multimedia installations, and performance, all taking place across stagey tableaus lifted from a number of carefully chosen films. When I visited, one such tableau came to life, as a mismatched pair danced a faltering tango under the gaudy fairy lights of an empty bar.
Sedira’s work, which has its roots in photography and video, is shaped by her experience as a non-white migrant, as a person who doesn’t quite fit in. Born in Algeria in 1963—just a year after the country gained independence from France—she grew up in a working-class suburb of Paris. In 1986, she moved to London to study, settling in Brixton, at the time a countercultural hub for migrants, artists, and political activists. “Dreams Have No Titles” is an attempt to represent the multiplicity of this life—from south to north, colonized to colonizer—through the vernacular of film. Sedira does this quite literally, by restaging film backdrops: one room re-creates a tableau from Orson Welles’s slippery docudrama F for Fake (1973); another, a domestic interior from Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966), a narrative film (co-produced by Italy and Algeria) almost uncanny in its proximity to documentary. In these film selections, Sedira seems to imply that emancipation is always entangled with fabrication, with making things up.
That sense of fabrication, of continuous construction, is on full display in the exhibition space itself. Installed within the cavernous gallery, Sedira’s scenes appear small and provisional. Masking tape tacked in crosses on the floor conveys where actors, or cameras, should be, while storage boxes, studio lamps, and other film equipment signal that this is a working space, liable to change or disassembly at any point. Moving through the show, we become detectives looking for clues. In the middle of the gallery is a re-creation of Sedira’s Brixton living room, elsewhere depicted in a small maquette, which also provides one setting for the film that lends the exhibition its title, here projected cinema-size in the final room. Blending 16-millimeter movie clips, interviews with friends, and restaged movie scenes, the film tells the story of Sedira’s life through cinema, as someone who “took shelter in movies.” This reverberation, between biography and the films that have influenced her, creates a constant back-and-forth—and with it, an instability—between film and so-called real life.
For the colonized, non-white subject, possibilities for self-definition are always restricted in advance by an external power, which claims for itself an exclusive right to truth and self-expression. In “Dreams Have No Titles,” however, film becomes an expanded site of resistance and self-determination—echoing the ideals of Third Cinema, the influential Latin American film movement of the 1960s and ’70s that rejected personal expression in film in favor of the creation of revolutionary subjects, or “man-actor-accomplices,” in the words of its key theorists Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. The power of cinema, for Sedira, does not rest in its truthfulness, but rather in its ability to obscure dominant, pre-determined narratives and offer new ones. As with art more broadly, it is a site for trickery and fabrication, an opportunity to stay mobile, elude capture, and ceaselessly become.