Mark Boulos’s films belong in museums, not in cinemas. He doesn’t really know how it happened, but after completing his degree in documentary direction at the National Film and Television School in the UK, he landed his first museum commission and started a career in the art world.
“In the cinematic world, it’s harder to stay independent,” he explained, speaking on the opening night of his first solo presentation in New York. “In the art world, I can really make the films I want to make.”
With All That Is Solid Melts into Air, a two-screen projection that opened at the Museum of Modern Art on March 19th, Boulos wanted to create an anti-documentary, “a film where fact and truth aren’t necessarily the same things, a film not based on evidence.”
Taking its name from Marx’s Communist Manifesto, an important source of artistic and philosophical inspiration for Boulos, the piece shows two very different worlds simultaneously. On the right screen, we are in the Niger Delta with a guerilla group that fights the exploitation of the land by large oil corporations. Men with machetes give heart-chilling speeches about capturing and killing “the white men” and invoke the spirit of Egbisu, the god of war, to make their skin bullet-proof.
Meanwhile, on the left screen, people move like ants at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, shouting and signaling to each other in mysterious coded languages. Boulos started filming there on the day the investment bank Bear Stearns collapsed, a symbolic event marking the beginning of the credit crisis. In Boulos’s own words, it shows “an abstract economy, even more metaphysical than the religious customs of the Niger Delta.”
In a way, he said, he was simply filming different gods.
All That Is Solid Melts into Air was released in 2008, and it mirrors Boulos’s diverse body of work. “Two things attracted me to this story,” the American artist explained, “the religious beliefs and their place in battle, and the injustice that these people are fighting against.”
Throughout his career, Boulos has sought to challenge the mainstream media representations of people. In this piece, the victims of the conflict are far from pitiful. “They are difficult heroes who make difficult and violent decisions,” he said. But unlike many news broadcasters who cover conflict, Boulos refuses to censor the violence that victims sometimes resort to. Instead, he shows that there is no right and wrong, no one entirely good or purely evil. “Life is not black and white.”
This idea of representing the unrepresented and inciting alternative ways of thinking about ideas and people might have started early in his career, when Boulos assisted the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris on the shoot of Mr. Death, which told the story of the Shoah through the eyes of a Holocaust denier. Boulos’s first film, made shortly after the events of 9/11, was the portrait of an ex-Mujahideen living in New York.
War and religion are very present in Boulos’s pieces, but so is the idea of oppression, with which undoubtedly comes his attraction to Marxism. His latest piece, No Permanent Address, portrays a group of Filipino revolutionaries who fight on the front lines for the New People’s Army. It’s a sculptural installation of three large screens arranged in a pyramid shape, which enables Boulos to experiment with rhythms in sound and video by alternating the screens’ contents: the same picture might be playing simultaneously or slightly off-beat.
The film, which Boulos describes as being about “the death and persistence of Communism,” explores how political ideology – in this case, a mix between Marxism, Leninism and Maoism – overlaps with love and Christianity. But even more overwhelming is the sense of hope, beauty, and idealism in a desperate situation – a notion that is close to Boulos’s heart and that he feels we all should reclaim, even in its impossibility.