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In Vitro: Narrative Essay

By Tamara Al-Qaisi-Coleman
“This film is a surrealist dream, the way it plays with time and memory. Trauma stays in the body, always there tucked between your stomach and your ribs.”

On: In Vitro

Post-apocalyptic dreams—what does the end look like to a people whose existence is constantly denied? When their bodies litter the streets, and their culture is taken, morphed into that of those who steal and wear it like a second skin. In Vitro explores generational trauma, secondary memory, and navigating underground civilization when the world stops spinning. 

“The past never was, it only is.” 

We watch black liquid flow like angry waves through the streets of Palestine, buildings go up in flames. This is the end of the world and the oppressed have already made their homes underground. Forced into exile beneath the earth, as if they were being buried alive, for generations to grow like the “rats” their colonizers claimed them to be long before this. This film is one that has stuck with me and will probably stay there for a bit. I watch it again and again, always finding something new I missed before. Every part of it is well executed and leaves you wanting for just another minute, just another glimpse into this world. Hiam Abbass and Maisa Ebd Elhadi give equally beautiful performances, I could listen to them talk for hours. I replay moments of their conversations because of how real they feel, how genuine, how human.

“This place was always charged.” 

We follow a daughter and her mother through their conversations of the end, of their lives, of what it means to be here, to be human, to survive. How doomsday is a different day for someone somewhere else and the world will hear about them all until the last day has driven them below or killed them. 

“Each morning I wake to this rumbling, the sound of the underground,” are the first words spoken in the film, grounding us in place, but also setting the tone for what’s to come.

Through a split screen we devour the carefully crafted scenes, cut with images of the black sphere in the hallway, the open door that haunts the daughter, and the echo of her mother’s holter monitor that replicates her faint heartbeats. The murmur of bedrock that torments these scenes, this space that Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind created in these shots of black and white. 

“We will be archives for someone else to make sense of.” 

We understand the protagonist’s memories as both her own and not hers whatsoever. Flashes of a girl in her childhood home, in the field with the olive trees, reliving the memories of her mother and other women before her. Of a life she never knew on the surface, of places she’s never been and yet can see and feel in her mind as clear as the rocks around her now. 

“I was raised on nostalgia, the past spoon-fed to me. My memories, replaced by those of others. They appear personal and intimate to me.” 

The center of this film is a conversation. In reading this that may seem lackluster. 

What is a film if not collected images with narrative? 

When did we need a constant series of action-packed violence to keep our attention? When did a question not hold an infinite amount of time and art for us to think? What do we remember in life most? 

The pictures given to us by our posterior parietal cortex of being with loved ones? Or our conversations with them? They play constantly, even when they’re gone.

You remember the last words you said to a loved one before they passed, long after their face has faded from your mind. 

Sansour and Lind are utilizing the storytelling tradition within Palestinian and Arab culture to give us a film that is both dystopian and not.We sense that there is something that is keeping these characters together in a society of sorts, but there is no government structure, no corporate control, no religious stronghold, or technological power that holds them hostage, that we can discern. All of the major types of post-apocalyptic narratives don’t fit into this film’s movement. Instead, it explores the ‘what happened,’ the ‘how it happened,’ and every other question through a scale of musical dialogue and reproductions of the days before. It’s a story about a mother and her daughter just as much as it’s about the end of days. 

This film is a surrealist dream, the way it plays with time and memory. Trauma stays in the body, always there tucked between your stomach and your ribs. 

Playing your organs like an accordion, until it runs up and down your spine in chills. In flashes, where you find yourself in the same stance as you were then. Your body mirroring terror in how you placed your foot or held up your hand. It stays until you’re pregnant, then it clings to the amniotic sac giving the child’s forming body the same fear, the same trauma, the human condition it’ll be cursed with. 

“I know it’s conflicting to be engineered from the remains of those we left behind. You were born, but you are still strapped in the womb.”

Even being a replication, in her genetic mutation, our protagonist cannot escape memories and the haunting of her ancestors. You can’t genetically alter trauma, it settles in the embryo from two places. The DNA that forms it and the gestation in the mother’s womb. Our pain comes from our mothers and that will keep humanity’s form until we no longer need to come from the depths of a woman’s framework. Until we can no longer see bits of ourselves in our parents and trace our habits to theirs. 

“You have never known anything but absence.” “You were born into purgatory.” 

It’s only after these lines are uttered that we understand the history before these women. Of how their kin lived and fought for their present, not able to plan for a future, unable to plan for them and the rot that consumed the world. It’s in these moments that Lind and Sansour play with the cinematography, the spiral staircase on one half of the screen, and the girl walking down the stairs in the other. Mirrored together with our mainstay as she reaches for them, tries to grasp these moments, and wonders if they’ll ever be hers. 

“Entire nations are built on fairy tales. Facts alone are too sterile for a cohesive understanding.” 

What will happen will also become a myth to someone in another time. Here we enter another evolution in their conversation. How their myths of the exodus before this one have been reduced to iconography and stories. This will continue, a never ending-loop of every tragedy that’s ever happened will remain. Will serve as a reminder of our mortality, our defiance, our perseverance, like rats in sewers, that survive even when so many try to eradicate them. Our leader comes from the bones of a lost generation. Replicated in the images of them in their deaths and it is here that we see the crux of their mother-daughter bond. Our nameless main character is a test tube child. The longest living lab-rat, a miracle of under-ground science and she looks for validation in her mother. 

“Perhaps a loss of memories is essential to starting over.” 

“Forgetting makes you vulnerable to mistakes you already made once.” 

Unlike trauma, memories plague the mind. Knowing the decisions 

you’ve made before helps you learn. Helps you move forward, as 

reminders. Settle in the back of your head where the headaches 

pang. Only flashes, only moments, they trigger trauma signals. 

Feed your body’s remembering with voices and dreams.


About the Reviewer: Tamara Al-Qaisi-Coleman (she/her) is a bi-racial Muslim writer, historian, poet, and artist. She is a 2021 Desert Nights: Rising Stars Writers Conference Fellow. A 2021 Brooklyn Poets Fellow, a Rad(ical) Poetry Fellow, and a poet for the Houston Grand Opera & MFAH’s event “The Art of Intimacy.” Her work can be found in (Fiction) Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, (Poetry) Boundless 2021: The Anthology of the Rio Grande River Valley International Poetry Festival, and others

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