Eija-Liisa Ahtilla, Missä on missä? (Where Is Where?), 2009, stills from a black-and-white and color film, 55 minutes.


In her previous films, the Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila has progressively expanded her methods for weaving disparate narratives into a unified, if fractured, whole. Her latest movie, Missä on missä? (Where Is Where?, 2009), an ambitious and operatic tale, deftly draws on a batch of techniques familiar to Ahtila—split screen, digital effects, episodic storytelling—along with newer methods, to sketch an incisive, dreamlike expanse.

The film opens with a red, hand-drawn animation—a bird perches on a branch, a map of North America floats into view, and a clock spins out of control; when the cartoon curtain lifts, we find ourselves in a world at once similar to our own and uniquely different from it. The story that unfolds derives from a real incident that occurred during the Algerian War of Independence, when two young Algerian boys killed their French playmate. This history is seen through the eyes of “The Poet,” a present-day European woman; the two trajectories intersect when the boys’ narrative literally enters the present, via a story in a foreign language emanating from the walls in the Poet’s home. “The sentence splits me in two,” she exclaims, as time and space rupture. From here, Ahtila spins the threads into a narrative web, highlighting the existential and ethical question that is central to this work: What is our culpability—for war, for death, for things seemingly beyond our control?

The film’s four-channel split screen is initially unnerving, like looking through a security camera. But this device allows Ahtila to show multiple perspectives at once while infusing her sumptuous imagery and poetic language with unmistakable anxiety. Although the inciting incident transpired in the 1950s, it’s impossible not to see the event refracted through the prism of contemporary Western-Arab relations. When, near the end of the film, one of the young boys tells his baffled and surprisingly gentle interrogators that he killed his friend because Europeans were killing Arabs, one can’t help but map his turmoil onto that faced by contemporary Palestinian or Iraqi youth.

Through this mesmerizing filter, Ahtila takes up some of today’s most complex moral, political, and philosophical questions—no small task, to be sure. But she capably knits the film’s various divagations into a powerful and unabashedly lyric challenge to complacency and omniscient pretenses; there may be no answers, Ahtila suggests, but the questions must be asked.

An installation of Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Where Is Where? was recently on view at the Musée de Jeu de Paume in Paris. The film version of Where Is Where? screens at the Sundance Film Festival on January 17, 18, 20, and 24. For more information, click here.

Annie Buckley