The Wardrobe Man, or how to create a biography from an archive

In a small museum in rural western Denmark, Egyptian artist Bassem Yousri was introduced to the archive of the Kristian Vandet Jørgensen, aka the Wardrobe Man. It documents the personal belongings of this man’s unusually ascetic life, living in a wardrobe in that area between 1917 and 1956.

The meeting between artist and archive was mediated by two Danish artists, Karen Havskov Jensen and Klavs Weiss, who had established ET4U, an art space in Jutland, Denmark, in 1999. In 2012, they organized a seminar in which they invited artists to engage with archival material from various local museums around Jutland. Taking this material as their starting point, the artists were asked to produce visual artworks in conversation with it.  

I got paired with an archive that documents the life of the Wardrobe Man. The story as well as my itinerant perplexity during the research phase inspired me to work on a semi-documentary. It’s only a documentary in the sense of its concern with questioning the truth in relation to these documents.

Here, we present a conversation with Yousri about writing through the archive, exploring the space between truth and fiction, and making his 48-minute film The Wardrobe Man (2018), in which he sits in his wardrobe in Cairo with his friend (the film’s co-writer) Shady El Hosseiny to tell the story of his research.

Lina Attalah: Let’s start with your subject. What was it about the Wardrobe Man that drew you in?

Bassem Yousri: When I started, I knew nothing about him. I didn’t even know if the story had any significance. During the three-day research residency, the most pressing question on my mind was: Is this relevant or not? I mean, what does it mean to me? But the more I got into the research, the more I became fascinated with his experience. I was drawn to the way he lived his life in complete isolation from the institutional context that organizes our society, our relationship with government, and the idea that once you have an ID, you become part of that system. The idea that a human being would decide to live a quite primitive life, which is actually quite a normal thing to do.

One thing that fascinated me most about this man is that the Second World War was in full swing, several German battalions had built forts around him, and he had no clue that there was a war going on. I found this idea appealing, in terms of our relationship with our existence as humans. Maybe this is what drew me to Kristian Vandet Jørgensen and his story.

Perhaps the other angle which drew me in is that for the longest time I assumed he was crazy. But I found out that this was my own projection. I come from a reality that makes it so that anyone who lives on the street or who chooses to live on the street appears a bit abnormal. Or I’m speaking for myself. Our context makes it impossible for people to have the freedom to make such a decision.

Attalah: Tell us about the relationship you built with the location?

Yousri: My appreciation for the place grew because it’s very peaceful. The Danish countryside is rich with extensive green landscapes. There aren’t any valleys or mountains. It’s a very calm place, and that affected me somehow. I was constantly trying to understand my relationship with the place, and not just my relationship with the Wardrobe Man. What would compel a human being from Egypt, from Cairo, to go someplace that is the polar opposite of everything in their life?

Attalah: You’ve also talked about the idea of reverse ethnography. You’re not just going somewhere quite different from your context, but you’re also going against the usual direction of people from the Global North coming to the Global South to conduct research.  

Yousri: Right, that’s one of the things that drew me to the project. The founders of the art space, Klaus and Karen, they’re very open. I was excited about the idea of receiving an invitation from a European institution to dig into their own history. The impulse to go Europe to research Europeans may not have been my idea, but I was intrigued by the idea that films are often made about marginalized people in Egypt or the Arab region or whatever. The idea that there is a big body of films and research conducted on Egyptians and Arabs that is plagued with generalizations or labels that are attached to us as a homogenous group. This has always irritated me. I didn’t think of this as an opportunity for revenge or doing unto the Europeans as they’ve done unto us. It didn’t occur to me at all to go about it like that, as much as I was considering how I could approach my subject, and that I go about it the same way I would like people — even if they were conducting research on a marginalized person in Egypt — to go about it. To not deal with the person as if they were a representative of all Egyptians, but rather only of themselves.

Attalah: To build on what you’re saying about this idea of respecting the subject, and being aware of your position as an outsider — how concerned were you with the temporal and spatial context of the Wardrobe Man? Did you worry about not knowing anything about that place? How concerned were you with context?

Yousri: I was trying to be as honest as possible with the audience in the film I made. I was concerned about conveying this constant state of bewilderment, which does not leave me throughout the film. It didn’t leave me while I was telling Shady [El Hosseiny] the story. And so I wanted this feeling to be part of the experience.

I was quite concerned with this question of context, particularly because the context was such a foreign one to me. I’m a bit sensitive towards the idea of a person making a film or writing an article about someone else and trying not to project on the other how they see things as much as striving to contextualize what they’re seeing. It was important that I go to the place itself, and come into contact with it. I was very concerned about finding out as much as I could about his day-to-day life.

But it was hard to find much information. And perhaps I wasn’t so concerned with placing him within a certain political context as much as it came up by itself. Just talking about how he was so isolated that he didn’t know a war was going on was sufficient for the purpose of the film.

Attalah: Maybe abstracting things from their context can be a way of understanding them in a different light?

Yousri: That was the main objective of me and Shady telling the story while sitting inside the wardrobe. It’s an attempt to put myself in his shoes, and put the audience in his shoes. We all listen to the story while seeing things from a very claustrophobic position.  

Attalah: Your research process is quite prominent in the film and in our viewing experience. Is this new to your practice? Do you consider your current or previous work to be research-based? And not just desk research but the kind of research where you move from one place to another in search for something? And was this research previously part of the final product?

Yousri: Well actually no, it’s quite new. I’ve never really worked with archives before, nor can I can claim that my practice is research-based. Perhaps this is actually one of the things that drew me to this project. I like to get outside my comfort zone, and this was an opportunity to do so. I was terrified while working on it, and it’s safe to say that it’s been the most challenging project I’ve done so far. I left Denmark after the three-day research trip feeling genuinely confused and anxious. I really had no idea if I would be able to produce anything.

But I’ve always been into documentary work. I learned everything I know about working with video through making a two-part documentary, Still Recording/Keep Recording. This was back in 2008-2009 and I was just filming anything happening around me. Hangouts with my friends, random happenings in the street, etcetera… And I made a documentary using that footage. It wasn’t about anything in particular, just about life around me. How I see that the most mundane daily details connect to a larger social or political context.

Also, this project is completely different than any other I’ve worked on because I was dealing with archival material, so it was fun to figure out how I’d deal with it. It became a bit of a game. The easiest thing would have been to do a classic old-school documentary: to just show the archival material and say the research has revealed so and so, this guy was born in year X, went to sea in year Y, lived in the hut for Z number of years. But this film for me is about my relationship with the archive, and more generally our relationship with history. How do we narrate history? How do we research things that have happened in the past? How do we present “reality” or “the real”? What can we consider as “reality,” and what can we question and be critical about?

Attalah: I have a question regarding some of the stylistic elements from your practice that you brought into the film. I got the feeling that the accumulation which takes places in the wardrobe was an attempt to create some sort of an installation?

Kinda Hassan (interrupts): I disagree

Attalah: Why?

Hassan: A friend said of the film that it didn’t seem like a film to him. So I asked him, what is a film to you then? And why should films have to have a certain form anyway? In my discussion with him, I was of the view that this film needs to be seen from beginning to end, you can’t start watching it from the middle.

Yousri: Personally I don’t think it would work in a gallery setting, where you’d get people who’d watch for a minute then move on to something else.

Hassan: It could have worked as an installation if you had put all the images in the wardrobe and let viewers inside to interact with the story. But what I saw on the screen was a film.

Attalah: The film’s structure and how it’s built up could give you a feeling of walking around an exhibition with a narrative, one which is quite clear in terms of what it’s trying to say. I don’t mean an exhibition in the sense that you’d walk in in the middle or at the beginning or end, but in the sense that you’re moving from room to room, and from one place to another, from stage to stage, which isn’t inherently contradictory to it being a film either.

Yousri: It’s quite interesting to hear that. This link between the film and my other work … I feel the connection is quite strong, because I always like to tackle my subjects as lightly as I can. I like to inject a bit of humor, not in a contrived sense; I’m not trying to make comedy. I just try not to take myself too seriously. Perhaps that’s also a way of coming at things from as many different angles as possible. I get a bit annoyed when I feel an artist or someone who’s showing me something is manipulating me, which is why I find most films to be problematic. I like Hollywood movies; I enjoy watching them and am entertained. But I have a problem with that way of making films, because they usually try to manipulate audiences in some sense. Besides it’s also quite formulaic, the way they start, how they build up, how they end. And you don’t want to upset the audience — there has to be some big crisis which is resolved in the end, no matter what the film is about. I’m not really into that formula.

In terms of how the film is similar to my work structurally; usually when I work on an installation I have the general idea worked out before I start. I know how it will look. I may not have it worked out down to the smallest details, but at least I know what I want to achieve visually. My approach is also quite site-specific; I always consider the space where the work will be shown, and I build my way up with the gallery space as my starting point, bit by bit till the image is complete. This film was made the same way. I shot some footage without knowing how I would use it exactly. Then I got the idea of working with Shady on a script. I didn’t have a clear-cut plan from the beginning. I never write before working on films. I don’t have a written treatment, and will probably never resort to one in future.

Hassan (interrupts): I remember why our friend said it doesn’t qualify as a film. He said he didn’t get lost inside another world — he was not led into any sort of realm.  

Yousri: So he likes to be manipulated?

Hassan: I told him it’s not essential. Why do we have to construct a world and be led into it and feel certain things for it to qualify as a film?

Yousri: I guess I’ll never make a film your friend will appreciate.

Anyway, Shady helped me to write things down. I had no idea where we were going with it, but Shady helped me develop his character. He had some really important ideas, things that formed the heart of the scenes really.

I like to inject my work with a sense of playfulness. I want my work to get people to ask questions, and I’m not really interested in providing answers. I don’t want it to be self-contained as a completed piece of work. Did you see the RGB (1) exhibition at Mashrabia Gallery [in 2014]? It kind of encapsulates how I go about things. I knew I wanted to have a lot of paintings. I didn’t know exactly what I want the paintings to be about. I started working on them one by one, still not knowing. But I wanted to fill the walls from floor to ceiling with paintings. The concept will arise out of the paintings not being necessarily related to one another in terms of subject. But the work only came together in the gallery space. So for me it was a similar process with the film.

There’s something I forgot to address, and it’s an important point — was I trying to create an installation in the wardrobe? And is it related to me being an “installation artist”? I find it a bit funny because I decided to show things in the wardrobe that I had never shown to anyone before. I’m not trying to show them off as amazing pieces of art; this poetry I write or the drawings I made as a child. So the intention was not really show off things I’m proud of necessarily. It  actually came from a very fragile place for me. I didn’t think of it as an installation as much as it came from the spirit of the film, which is this investigative or probing sense. Any researcher has to visualize their process at some point, or do a mind map or something. So it came from that.

Attalah: So it’s a film, and it has entered the realm of filmmaking, including in terms of where it will be screened — in festivals or as part of screening programs, is it a short or a feature, etcetera… We talked a bit about the difficulties of labeling it, and how comfortable you are with that difficulty. But how has this added to you as someone who is primarily a visual artist?

Yousri: Honestly, my work has completely changed from my days as a student of classical realist oil painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts. I was kind of stuck there. Then I went to the US for my MA degree — it was a two-year program and my whole first year I was trying to get out of my old way of doing things. I kept trying to inflect my paintings with sarcasm. My work was too conservative. I had this constant feeling that this wasn’t really me, but I had no idea how to say the things I was trying to say. Then I decided to do those two films I told you about earlier. And I threw myself to the dogs, I’m not sure why but I was overcome with this desire to make a film. I wanted my paintings to speak. I started shooting, and I was a complete amateur. I used a small handycam. Then I gave editing a hand, mucked about with it until I could do some basic stuff. And it completely changed how I think. It’s actually what got me into making installations in the first place.

I stopped seeing art as objects, but more as attempts to create a context, so I was no longer interested in making paintings as standalone objects. So if I do paint, it will always be within a larger context, or if I work on an installation, I will try to tell a story with it, like how you build up a film. For example that show with all those statues [It’s not as easy as it may have seemed to be, 2012], you’ve got things going on on the walls and on the floor. Then some stuff hanging from the ceiling.

This is the first time I feel I’ve made an actual film. We wrote a script, there’s a documentary aspect. We recorded all the sound professionally, did the color correction, etcetera… I didn’t foresee this happening when I first started working on the project. It sort of came together organically while we were developing it, until I decided it was a film meant to be seen on the big screen. It’s not the type of film to be seen at a gallery, that people can watch for a couple of seconds then move on. I feel I’ve learned a lot in terms of what happens after you’ve made a film, what you do next.

So the experience of applying to festivals and trying to find a distributor was mostly unsuccessful. The duration of the film [48 minutes] — not that I would change it if I were to go back in time because I believe it’s the right length — but it can affect the chances of it getting screened. They’re significantly less when the film is neither a short or a feature. I understand these considerations better now.

Attalah: You were describing your installation work as having a “spectacular” element to it, in the sense that there’s a lot going on, but this isn’t particularly the case with The Wardrobe Man. And this got me thinking, did film as a medium enforce some form of humility or at least simplify how you represent things or point to things such as reality and history? Was there something about the medium which made you consciously less spectacular in how you presented the work?

Yousri: That’s interesting to consider, because cinema in and of itself is a spectacular experience. As soon as you trap people in a room, with a big screen, that in itself is much more spectacular than any installation. But to be honest I don’t strive to be spectacular in the other work for the sake of being spectacular. I always try to adapt the size of the work to the concept I’m trying to present. I try to engulf the viewer in this world or experience.

I like walking into huge installations in exhibitions. It’s not so much about making something spectacular for the sake of extravagance as much as I feel the work needs to be like that. Most of my installations are quite large in scale and part of their impact comes from the size.

Attalah: That’s kind of what I mean by spectacular, not in the sense of extravagant; if I were to use contrasts to demonstrate what I mean, it’s spectacular as opposed to gestures, for example.

Yousri: I was just trying to explain why I work in large scale, but I don’t really need to do that in cinema. But you’ve made me think about this, perhaps for the first time.

Attalah: Perhaps you’re trying to subvert the form in the same way you subvert the white cube of the gallery space.

Yousri: I do try.

Attalah: Let’s get Kinda here again because there’s something I’ve discussed with her that I want to bring up again: the choice of music, specifically Helm [“Dream,” a track previously composed (using a poem by Naguib Sorour) and performed by Tamer Abu Ghazaleh].

Yousri: I want to know what you think, because I got very contradictory responses.  

Attalah: I don’t approve, but Kinda does.

Hassan: I don’t fully approve. I get why it would be appealing to use it, particularly the instrumental version. And because there are two versions, and it is accessible, etcetera…. But if someone wasn’t familiar with the song, how would they receive it in relation to the film? I mean in terms of rhythm and emotion I can see how it could work, but because it has this separate existence and history within our consciousness as an audience… I specifically have a story with this song, and a very powerful and complicated relationship with it. So if you’re going to use something which already exists, something people know and are familiar with, there’s bound to be a play on associations. This is also because this song has such strong emotional weight. For me, I often felt while watching that there was a distance between the music and what I was seeing on the screen. So it’s a bit like overkill. But at the same time I thought to myself maybe this is me, what if someone doesn’t actually know the song at all. I can’t be sure of course, but I have a feeling it could very have worked perfectly well for me if I hadn’t been familiar with it to begin with.

Attalah: Kinda got me thinking when she said that maybe our problem with the music is because of our familiarity with it. But unlike Kinda, I don’t have a particularly strong relationship with the song. I mean she has some experiences with working with it, one of which involved a deeply personal work of her own. At some point while making her latest film there was a decision to be made regarding whether to use it. In the end, she made a conscious decision not to, and this had to do with the song being so strong it would overpower what she was trying to achieve visually, and with the sound, because it has such emotional depth. I’m familiar with the song, and I don’t have that complex relationship with it. But I was talking with Kinda about how I felt the interplay between what I was hearing and what I was seeing didn’t feel quite right.

Yousri: To be honest I didn’t really have any particular music in mind for the film. I chose “Dream” at the very outset. I had just gotten back from Denmark, and I had this footage I had shot. Sometimes music helps me get inspired. I can’t remember when this transpired exactly, but it’s very possible that the song “Dream” is what inspired me to narrate the story like it was a dream. On the other hand, I love “Dream” because of the lyrics, there’s this philosophical bent to it that touches upon our existence as humans, and this is one of the things that appealed to me the most about the story of the Wardrobe Man.

I saw me aboard a boat adrift on the wide sea

That’s sort of what it was like during the research trip in Denmark.

I also have a history with “Dream”, it’s an old favorite of mine. I like the version with Tamer’s voice and I also like the instrumental one. But I perceive the song very differently. I don’t like using background music, and I don’t like using it to induce certain feelings or to instruct the audience to feel a certain way. I don’t like it when films are like: here’s a sad song because this is a sad scene. Music for me is like dialogue. I think this is apparent in the film; whenever there’s music not much else is going on. I think this is something I’ll continue doing. It’s a conscious decision to not want the music to overpower the viewer, or ask them to feel a particular way during a particular scene. So the way I perceive the song has more to do with the philosophical aspect of the lyrics, which for me speaks to this experience of searching, and our general confusion with being human. There was a little bonus of it being “Dream,” and me narrating a dream.  

But just like you worked the song into your video depicting an experience of grief, I’m not using “Dream” as a sad song [but working with it in my own way]. That’s not at all what I was going for. I mean everyone has a right to interpret the song and then reinterpret it, but if I were to make an argument for my choice it would be that I reinterpreted the song in the context of what was going on.

Additionally it was important for me that the Arabic in the song reflect not just where I come from, but the idea of traveling between the wardrobe in Egypt and the events in Denmark. I also like that the music isn’t all oud and oriental instrumentation. That’s why Tamer is such a great choice for me; he achieves this intelligent balance between oriental instruments and a very contemporary feel. So it was a formal choice but it also had to do with the lyrics.

Perhaps another reason why I chose it is that there are two available versions. Tamer is my friend, and he wouldn’t give me a hard time over the rights to the song. This also made the decision to use it easier. I think in my future work I’ll give the score much more thought, so that I don’t resort to the easier option.

Hassan: There’s also my hunch — I’m pretty sure that an audience unfamiliar with “Dream” will have a very different reaction.

Yousri: All the audiences outside of Egypt were blown away with the music. There was a consensus in Denmark, in New York, Vienna. People were praising the music.

Hassan: Yeah, that’s what I would have thought.

Attalah: Do you want to tell us something about the colors of the wardrobe?

Yousri: Why the black and white?

Attalah: Yes

Yousri: So the dream for me is a very rich world. It resembles my own history, the way I narrate it to myself doesn’t have a logic to it. Sometimes it’s fragmented or doesn’t make sense, or it doesn’t like things fit together very well. So this is where the idea to narrate it as my unconscious mind was telling it came from. That’s why the wardrobe is a bit of a bizarre space. The bag out of which everything comes out. It’s where I deposit all my stuff. The more I thought about it, the more I felt like the wardrobe needed to enter the visual realm of the archive. So that’s where that decision came from.  

Attalah: So not the dream?

Yousri: No, the archive. The idea is that the dream that happens inside the wardrobe is telling a real story as if it’s a dream. It resembles the archive because it comes from the world of the archive.

The Wardrobe Man screens at Zaywa (Karim) on Monday, March 18, 2019, at 7 pm.


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