Open City Documentary Festival

24th–30th
April 2024
across London

Huda Awan on Denim Sky

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Huda Awan writes on Rosalind Nashashibi’s latest film, Denim Sky (2022), which screens alongside Vivian’s Garden (2017) at this year’s festival. 

Days, stories, films — all must begin somewhere. Fitting, then, that Rosalind Nashashibi’s daringly ambivalent film Denim Sky (2022) marks its beginning with white text against a black background that reads ‘Part 1’, before the frame begins to flicker with red and yellow light, like rested eyes splitting open to greet a new day. The camera focuses upon two children in a bed of red sheets, a female figure (Nashashibi herself, who appears in the film) hunched over them. “Is it morning already?” the young girl, Pauline, asks. “Why are they filming us?” wonders the boy. “We’re starting the film this morning,” Nashashibi (referred to as ‘Rosie’ in the film) responds. The frame is momentarily flooded by the glare of the sun coming through a window, before the camera cuts to a slab of light from another window, off-camera, on the sloped wall beside it.

Denim Sky is arranged in three sections, which gives the feeling of structure to fragmentary and phantasmagorical images. Part 1 loosely follows six people (four adults, two children) who have gathered in a house. They take trips to the beach; they ride together in a van. The adults — two women, Rosie and Elena, and two men, Matthew and Liudvikas — gather around a coffee table inside. “We may as well talk about the story,” says Rosie. The story in question is Ursula K. Le Guin’s short novella, The Shobies’ Story, in which a group of people embark on a new kind of time travel that allows them to move through space faster than the speed of light, making non-linear space travel possible. “We’re born into linearity,” Rosie’s disembodied voice says. “As soon as you lose linearity, you lose the way in which you relate to other people.” You also lose a sense of narrative, and Denim Sky is, at least partly, concerned with finding and losing its own narrative threads.

“This story grew out of an idea I had been chewing on for years about the importance of story, of narrative,” Le Guin said of The Shobies’ Story. “… it seems that people who can see their life as a story, with a ‘plot’, or at least narrative continuity (possibly even a happy ending), get along ok, while people who lose that narrative sense are in a lot of trouble, maybe to the point of psychopathy.” Some way into Denim Sky’s second section, the original group of people introduced in Part 1 are joined by two new members, an elderly man and woman; they all sit in a cinema-like setting to watch a transmission delivered by a member of a fictional ‘Story Institute.’ The group’s mission is to embark on a journey into space and return to Earth to give an account of what happened. But, the representative on screen warns, the journey could be treacherous, even lethal to the crew’s physical health.

What makes Denim Sky so beguiling is its whimsical enactment of the pitfalls of narrative construction, its willing embrace of disruptions to its own attempts at story-telling. Towards the end of Part 2, Elena and Pauline walk out of a door together, but once Pauline shuts the door behind her, she turns around and realises that Elena has disappeared. “Elena!” she calls out, but Elena has absconded, fracturing the crew tasked with forging an account of itself. Elena returns later, in the final act of the film, having exchanged the hooded winter jacket she left in for a dressing gown. She walks through London’s National Gallery, and a conversation ensues. Elena speaks to Rosie on a phone as she ambles down the gallery’s halls, gazing at the paintings that surround her. Her hair is longer than it was before, tied back in a loosely pinned chignon. Time has passed — two years to be exact — and Rosie is curious about Elena’s departure. “I needed to change the associations,” says Elena, hinting at some past ill-feelings when the group had inhabited a more communal way of living. “It’s funny because now I’m back here … and its feels so light to be here and with you,” she says.

As any good story-teller knows, however, the problem with formulating a ‘coherent’ account of ‘what happened’ lies not in surviving ‘what happened’, but rather, in the near-impossible task of reconciling differing perspectives. “A lot has changed,” Rosie remarks on the phone to Elena; Rosie has a new romantic partner, and the two women have recently spent time together in his presence. “It was different,” she continues, “… We were being observed. I mean, it was nice, the three of us, but I saw us in a different way. I almost saw us through his eyes. I feel like we couldn’t really just be.”

The conversation is diplomatic as the two women share their feelings on what has passed between them, then and now, but a trace of tension undergirds the exchange. Nashashibi allows tension its space here, and in other moments of the film, too. In the end, ambiguity prevails over coherence. That it does, in this seemingly chimerical film, is a testament to the Denim Sky’s subtle wisdom.


Huda Awan is a writer based in London. Her work has appeared in The Baffler, LA Review of Books, Irish Times, VICE UK, Literary Hub, Tribune Magazine, The Quietus, and Review 31.