Emergency cinema

The Arab uprisings heightened interest in the politics of new social media, and much attention was directed at platforms like Twitter (which is emphatically not to say that any of this can be reduced to a ‘Twitter revolution‘).  Swirling around these discussions, breaking the 140-character limit of a tweet, was an insistently visual thematic, though this too was often limited to cellphone videos uploaded to YouTube and other sites (and then retransmitted by mainstream news media).  But there are other ways in which film/video can function as witness.

The use of film as witness is usually traced back to the International Military Tribunals in Nuremberg after the Second World War: see in particular Lawrence Douglas‘s classic The Memory of Judgment: Making law and history in the trials of the Holocaust (Yale University Press, 2001) – you can also read an early version of the key essay, ‘Film as Witness: Screening “Nazi Concentration Camps” before the Nuremberg Tribunal,’ in The Yale Law Journal,  105 (2) (1995) or access the book version (so far as I can see, without the accompanying images) online from Yale here.

Douglas’s thoughtful essay is, in a sense, framed by a remark that appears mid-way through it.  When reporter Ed Murrow described Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945 he ended his broadcast by saying: ‘I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald.  I have reported what I saw and heard, and only part of it.  For most of it, I have not words.’  When the prosecutors at Nuremberg elected to show a film compiled by former Hollywood director Lt Col George C. Stevens from black-and-white footage shot by Allied troops when they liberated the camps – Nazi Concentration Camps – they claimed , as one of them put it, that the film ‘represents in a brief and unforgettable form an explanation of what the words “concentration camp” imply.’  A horror, then, that transcended words – or, as Walter Benjamin confessed in a different context, ‘I have nothing to say, only to show’.

‘This use of film in a juridical setting was unprecedented’, Douglas notes, but it also raises a crucial question – ‘What exactly did the tribunal see when the prosecutors screened Nazi Concentration Camps?’ – that cannot be answered from the trial transcripts. These simply record:

[The film was then shown]

COL. STOREY: That concludes the presentation.

[The Tribunal adjourned until 30 November at 1000 hours]

The question is vital because it invites another: if images took the place of words that could not be found, then how was the tribunal ‘to submit unprecedented horror to principled legal judgments’ that necessarily returned to the verbal and textual?  Douglas’s pursuit of the question is what gives his essay such a compelling narrative force.  He shows in detail how even the visual faltered in the face of such horror: how the camera was confused, confounded, embarrassed – in a word, unsteadied.   He describes, too, how the film incorporates witnesses viewing the atrocities as a moment in its own witnessing: ordinary Germans being forced to view the exhumation of corpses, GIs and generals filing past dead bodies and emaciated survivors.  What these scenes do not  – cannot – do, Douglas concludes, is adjudicate responsibility:

‘Though the film provides a picture of a crime scene so extreme that its horrors have unsteadied the camera’s idiom of representation, it does not translate its images into a conventional vocabulary of wrongdoing.  Instead, the very extremity of the atrocity captured on film challenge sone to locate terms capable of naming and condemning these crimes.  How, then, was the prosecution able to assimilate evidence of unprecedented atrocity into a legal category of criminality?’

This is film as retrospective, but the questions about witnessing are no less difficult to answer when we turn to film shot ‘in the moment’ (and sometimes as a hideously staged moment of the horror). Helen Lennon carries the story forward from the Second World War tribunals to the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda in ‘A witness to atrocity: film as evidence in International War Crimes Tribunals’ in Toby Haggith and Joanna Newman (eds), The Holocaust and the moving image: representations in film and television since 1933 (Wallflower Press, 2005).   She discusses the need to interrogate, even ‘cross-examine’ the visual testimony, but she concludes with two questions that loop back to Nuremberg:

‘It is necessary to confront the question of what is not shown at these trials, asking: In what ways are these moving images directing our attention toward certain violations, and away from others? What is the law refusing to see when ‘[the film was then shown]’ and ‘[the videotape played]’?

These are still sharp questions, but it is possible to use documentary film in ways that are not evidentiary (in the legal sense) and which deliberately avoid showing ‘the horror’ – and yet still offer a powerful, critical perspective.  I’ve been watching the work of a remarkable group of Syrian film-makers – Abou Naddara (very roughly: “Man with glasses” or, since this is also slang, something like “Goggles”) – who use film both to document and to mobilize events in Syria through what they call ‘emergency cinema‘.   The group publishes a short film on the web every Friday here (also on Vimeo) and they are, of course, also on Facebook here.  These aren’t conventional documentaries, and they certainly aren’t the YouTube uploads that I imagine most of us have become (too?) familiar with: fuzzy, jerky, grainy shots of the fighting or the shelling.

Cécile Boëx interviews the group over at Books & Ideas here.  They explain that they were already  ‘lying in wait’ for the revolution:

‘… we took up the position of a sniper, lying in ambush behind apparently harmless short films distributed anonymously on the Internet in 2010. We were hoping to reach our public right under the censors’ nose. And our hopes seemed to be coming true, because a few months after our website went live, we had already found the means to produce two series of short documentary films that also had to be made more or less clandestinely. In short, we were already lying in wait when the revolution erupted in March 2011. We were even preparing another skirmish, strengthened by the public support we were beginning to receive. The question was not, therefore, whether or not we should get involved in the revolution, but rather how to do so, and what was the best approach to take. After a month of trial and error, we made what was to be our first very short weekly film, entitled The Infiltrators, a disparaging expression used by Bachar al-Assad to refer to the anti-regime demonstrators. The film portrayed an elderly Damascan artisan letting loose against the Assad regime in a monologue that showed the personal, deep-rooted resilience of the Syrian revolt.’

As these remarks imply, their primary audience is inside Syria, and their involvement in the revolution is directed, in large measure, at reaching those who support the Assad regime.

Despite the sniper imagery, their presentations do not treat violence as spectacle – usually they avoid its direct representation altogether.  In the interview they connect this to the conditions under which they are forced to work, but they also insist that these burdens produce a paradoxical freedom:

‘Our project is basically part of the tradition of original documentary cinema, as shown by most of our very short films offering sequences from people’s lives or extracts from interviews, which we choose to film with closeness and empathy. However, we are working in a state of emergency and are subject to constraints that may or may not be justified, including access to film sites, safety of those filmed, social developments or the state of the Internet connection. We can also say that we take pleasure in working in an emergency situation because we feel an unprecedented sense of freedom. And that feeling of freedom carries us from one register to another by happily blurring the boundaries, including the one that separates documentaries and fiction. Besides, that confusion is a general characteristic of our films (Everything Is Under Control Mr. PresidentMy name is MayThe Mufti Wants to…End of Broadcast). We make aesthetic and political choices that portray the way in which our reference points have been turned upside down by the revolution. It also conveys our pledge to represent our people’s enthusiasm by ensuring they are not reduced to stereotyped characters, places or formats.’

So this isn’t ‘film as witness’ in the sense discussed by Douglas and Lennon, and it’s profoundly critical of the way in which the mainstream media now demand ever more scenes of violence that violate the Syrian people all over again.  Here is a pointed example (the screen isn’t blank, and the video takes only two minutes – do watch it).

‘When there’s talk of a ceasefire, for example, they tell us “send us images of shots being fired.”‘

When I watch these short films – some of them so short that they may be visual tweets, I suppose, but they are all carefully composed – I don’t see a parade of heroes or victims, or any of the usual cartoon characters, but a studied indictment of the ways in which the visual and the violent can otherwise lock together: an insight that will be no surprise to readers of Paul Virilio‘s War and cinema (1984; Verso trans. 1989) or to followers of David Campbell who, among many other important contributions, underscores the close relationship between the gun and the camera. (What else did you think ‘shooting’ meant?)

For more on the films (and the tradition from which they derive) see Nehme Jameli here, and for brief reports that situated the project within the wider cultural politics of resistance in Syria see Donatella Della Ratta at al Jazeera here and Amélie Rives at Near East Quarterly here.