Fejos Postdoctoral Fellow: Christian Vium

We're proud to share the following trailer and blogpost from Christian Vium who in 2021 was awarded a Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship in Ethnographic Film to aid filming, "Tales of a Nomadic City."

The feature documentary

Juxtaposing rare archival footage with sensory recordings in vibrant cinemascope format, Tales of a Nomadic City is a kaleidoscopic urban fable unfolding the history of Nouakchott, the capital city of Mauritania. Christian Vium and co-director Med Lemine Rajel collaborate with local authors, film professionals, and residents to craft a poetic documentary about one of the least known cities on earth.

Tales of a Nomadic City is a feature-length hybrid documentary conceived as a ‘conversation’ between the city of Nouakchott and its inhabitants enacted through experimental scripting and reframing of archival material juxtaposed with material recorded over a 20-year period. It portrays people whose life trajectories embody the sociocultural transformations that have taken place since independence in 1958. Elaborating their stories, and privileging their points of view, a key concept in this cinematic assemblage is that the city itself narrates its story in a consistent, poetic voice-over, developed through a collaboratively written manuscript. The characters in the film dialogue with this narrative to open a polyvocal space of critical reflection around past, present, and future histories of Nouakchott. Through its experimental and collaborative form, Tales of a Nomadic City presents a cinematic aesthetic argument about the urban as an ‘archipelagic’ and ‘nomadic’ landscape. With an experimental assemblage approach that challenges linear and progressive models of history and filmic dramaturgy, the film explores history by fragmenting it into scenes and images that together form a new chronicle of urban history written from the margins. The film challenges occidental conformism by opposing the dominant historical continuum with jumps and fractures. Told in a radical poetic cinematic language, Tales of a Nomadic City invites audiences on an immersive journey into a kaleidoscopic city that has not been the topic of a feature film to this day.

Nouakchott is a city like no other, but its history remains largely untold. What makes Nouakchott unique is the fact that it is largely populated by former nomads, who ‘produce’ the city through a particular logic uncommon to that of the urban sedentary rationality. Nouakchott is a paradox: a nomadic city. To translate this complex city into a film, a new cinematographic language is necessary. Based on our long-standing collaboration with artists and residents of Nouakchott, we want to rewrite the history of the city together with its marginalized inhabitants: a singular cinematic experience that future generations may consult as a living archive of emotions and aspirations.

As part of the work, I have been an Associated Research Fellow at the Film Studies Center at Harvard University in 2023-2024, where I have been processing material from the project and presented it in workshops to colleagues, receiving crucial feedback.

The VR experience

In 2023, the project was selected for the prestigious CPH:LAB incubator in Copenhagen, where several additional components were developed, including an immersive VR-experience targeting local young audiences in Mauritania and Africa at large. The prototype was presented in March in Copenhagen at CPH:DOX International Documentary Film Festival 2024.

Tales of a Nomadic City (VR) is a 15 minute, first-person 360 VR experience directed by Danish anthropologist Christian Vium and Mauritanian film-maker Med Lemine Rajel. Sharing an encounter with Mohamed, a former nomad who now lives on the outskirts of Nouakchott (Mauritania), audiences are invited into one of the fastest growing cities in Africa. Visually, the experience is composed of layered collages of live film footage and rare archival film, creating an animated collapse of temporalities unfolding the extraordinary transformation of this little-known city through time.

In 1958, there were five hundred people in Nouakchott. Today, more than a million inhabit the rapidly growing city. In the same period, Mauritania experienced an unprecedented demographic transformation from an almost entirely nomadic society, into a sedentary nation-state. Juxtaposing contemporary everyday scenes, rare historical archives and an ambeosonic sound design, Tales of a Nomadic City (VR) reveals the layered and multifaceted history of Nouakchott, providing a remarkable portrait of urban transformation that will resonate with youth across the African continent and in the global South, where 90 per cent of projected global urbanization in the coming three decades is estimated to occur, according to recent projections by the UN. The urban population of Africa alone will grow to 1,6 billion putting increasing pressure on the rapidly expanding urban peripheries. Tales of a Nomadic City (VR) documents this theme through a collaborative approach.

Tales of a Nomadic City (VR) is developed with local citizens: youth, artists, poets, students, and scholars who bring to life authentic everyday experiences and personal stories through workshops. The VR experience is made available to local communities and international audiences, for educational and artistic purposes. In collaboration with local and international partners, Tales of a Nomadic City (VR) provides VR headsets to community centers and schools as well as museums, galleries, and cultural institutions. The VR experience is part of a generative digital platform assembling oral histories, vernacular archives, rare local archival film and photographs, a feature documentary about the city, as well as short documentary VR films accessible online via smartphones and tablets, inviting people to upload their personal stories, revisioning the history of the city for future generations.

Tales of a Nomadic City (VR) is mentored by acclaimed Egyptian documentarist and artist Jihan El-Tahri and produced by Khora VR with support from Wenner-Gren Foundation, The Velux Foundations, Danish Arts Foundation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, Danish Film Directors, DiD, Aarhus University. Local Partners include Université de Nouakchott, Conseil National de la Jeunesse, Region de Nouakchott, Institut Francais en Mauritanie, Mairie de Tevragh Zeina, Institut National des Arts, Art Gallé Nouakchott.

The exhibition 

As part of the process of analyzing and assembling material, I have made an exhibition which is currently on view at OBLONG in Copenhagen. The exhibition juxtaposes a palimpsest of material into a kaleidoscopic meditation on urbanization, history, and archives. Through a series of interrelated elements comprising a VR prototype (made with Mauritanian filmmaker Med Lemine Rajel), archival film, new film recordings, photographs, sound, physical objects, and printed publications, the exhibition offers an invitation to visit a unique, nomadic city.

Taking a cue from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s reflections on nomadology and the conflation of smooth and striated space (Mille Plateaux, 1980), Tales of a Nomadic City presents an organic mapping of a city in perpetual transformation. The exhibition assembles a compilation of fragments and traces that evoke the interstitial landscape between the nomadic and sedentary, between desert and city.

Concerned with what I call ‘vernacular aesthetics’, I explore the material qualities of private family photographs, rare and unseen archival film, newsprint, local photographic archives and obscure records and reports. By juxtaposing these disparate elements, a certain poetics of the everyday emerges, which pays tribute to ignored and marginalized aspects of life in Nouakchott.

The material presented here is largely produced based on workshops with residents of the city and other collaborative interventions. Tales of a Nomadic City aims to revision the history of Nouakchott and contribute to more democratic forms of knowledge production, archiving, and sharing.

The exhibition, which runs 14 March-20 April 2024 coincides with CPH:DOX Film Festival, where the VR component is developed as part of the CPH:LAB incubator 2023-2024. The exhibition is sponsored by Politiken Fonden, Aarhus University, The Velux Foundations, CPH:DOX, Ny Carlsbergfondet and The Danish Institute in Damascus.

The newsprint publication

I have made a 24-page newsprint publication providing a full overview of the entire project and its components.

More about this project:

“Tales of a Nomadic City” exhibition at OBLONG

The Film Studies Center at Harvard University

CPH:LAB, where the project ‘Tales of a Nomadic City’ is part of the 2023-2024 projects