Siege on film

Two new films about sieges in later modern war…. tragically not the contradiction in terms you might think.

The first is a documentary about Syria, For Samawhich won the prize for Best Documentary at Cannes this year (and has garnered a host of other awards, including the Special Jury Prize for International Feature Documentary at the Hot Docs Festival).

Here is G. Allen Johnson in the San Francisco Chronicle – and, given my work on the Assad regime’s systematic attacks on hospitals and medical care you will see why this is so important to me:

The civil war in Syria is horrific, is killing innocent civilians and is an ongoing humanitarian crisis. It could make you lose your faith in humanity, and who could blame any residents there if they did?

And yet, out of the ashes of conflict comes “For Sama,” a remarkable documentary  … about a doctor struggling to care for civilian war casualties in a makeshift hospital in the Syrian rebel stronghold of Aleppo, his journalist wife who documents it, and their infant daughter.

It is hard-hitting and graphic — some scenes cause you to look away. Yet it’s also loving and warm, a remarkable blend of reporting, cinema verite and essay not to be missed.

Waad Al-Khateab, who sent footage and reports from Aleppo to Channel 4 in London, also shot much personal footage. She and British filmmaker Edward Watts, who is credited with her as director, shaped the footage into the story of her family in the form of an essay. Her narration speaks to her daughter Sama — an explanation of why she and her husband Hamza stayed instead of taking her to safety.

“I need you to understand why your father and I made the choices we did,” Waad says.

The answer is they believe in freedom and humanity. Waad began covering the outbreak of civil war as a student in 2011. Hamza is a doctor who must save every life he can. “This is our path, this is our life,” he tells Waad.

The bulk of the film takes place in 2016, when constant bombing by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad— which include Russian aircraft — turn much of the city into rubble. The dead and wounded number in the thousands.

So there are intense, bloody scenes in the E.R., where lives are lost and saved. Meanwhile, Sama is being raised with the constant sound of exploding bombs. Waad does her best to comfort and raise her.

The family loses their beautiful home in the shelling, and eventually Hamza’s hospital is also destroyed (Assad’s forces specifically targeted places such as hospitals). Hamza and his team locate a building that would not be on Assad’s maps that would be suitable as a makeshift hospital — and home, as they will all live there — buttressed by thousands of sandbags as buffer against bombs.

Teo Bugbee in the New York Times adds:

“For Sama” provides a coherent account of a humanitarian crisis from the perspective of the wounded and displaced.

But just as crucially, and perhaps more compellingly, al-Kateab’s reflexive filmmaking provides an uncannily relatable example of the mundane experience of war. Profound bravery exists alongside profound ordinariness; friends still gather for dinner, they still tell their children bedtime stories, they still have to cook and clean and sleep.

The activists of this film, including al-Kateab herself, don’t speak in the language of philosophers or politicians. Their quotidian aspirations — to build a garden, to send their children safely to school — demonstrate the brutality of the government’s response, but they also invite viewers to picture themselves in the shoes of these modest political dissidents. Unselfconsciously, “For Sama” prompts audience members to ask themselves: How long would you defy tyranny if your world was coming down around you?

You can find a conversation with the film-makers here and (especially) here, and more reviews at the Intercept here and from the great Roger Ebert here.

The second film is Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell’s Gaza:

It’s hard to imagine anybody living a normal life in the Gaza Strip. Frequently labeled as the world’s largest open-air prison, it makes an appearance on news reports every time a confrontation erupts between Israel and Hamas. From TV sets thousands of miles away, this tiny piece of land has been reduced to an image of violence, chaos and destruction. So what do the people do when they’re not under siege?

The Gaza which is seldom seen is ordinary, everyday Gaza, a coastal strip which measures just twenty-five miles by six and which is home to an eclectic mix of almost two million people. Gaza cannot be understood in a purely political context or by analyzing tragic sound bites during conflict. It can only be understood by immersion, by living amongst its people and by recognizing and exploring its rich social diversity and cultural subtleties.

 

GAZA will introduce the audience to the surprising and the unexpected, the unfamiliar stories that portray its true face. It takes an atypical approach to finding out what makes this remarkable place tick as it introduces to the world extraordinary stories of everyday characters leading ordinary lives.

GAZA depicts a people plagued by conflict but not defined by it and as we journey through the physically broken and battered landscape, we let our cast of characters speak for themselves. Through them we gain a nuanced understanding of what life is really like for its citizens and by extension, grow and foster a rare familiarity and affinity with this truly unique place, as we build towards a tender portrait of a beleaguered humanity.

 

More here and here and (especially) here.

I’ve written about siege warfare in an extended series of posts (here, here, here and here). You can find my posts on Gaza by using the GUIDE tab (above), and I really recommend Ron Smith‘s excellent work on siege warfare in Gaza: Healthcare under siege: ‘Geopolitics of medical service provision in the Gaza Strip’, Social science and medicine 146 (2015) 332-40; ‘Isolation through humanitarianism: Subaltern geopolitics of the siege on Gaza’, Antipode 48 (2016) 750-759; ‘Israel’s permanent siege of Gaza’. Middle East Report 290 (2019) here

Combat Obscura

A new documentary on the war in Afghanistan, Combat Obscura, is available on iTunes.  From The Daily Beast:

The new Afghanistan war documentary Combat Obscura doesn’t introduce itself, explain itself, or end in a satisfying way.

It’s weird, funny, disturbing, brutal, and heartbreaking—and one of the best documentaries in years.

Combat Obscura is directed by Miles Lagoze, a former U.S. Marine Corps cameraman who spent much of 2011 in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan with a battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment based in North Carolina.

After getting out of the Marine Corps and spending a little time processing his experiences, Lagoze, now 29, enrolled in film school at Columbia University.

He just graduated. Combat Obscura is his first movie.

Lagoze came home from Afghanistan with all the footage the Marine Corps doesn’t want the public to see.

 

That last sentence needs elaboration.  Writing in the New York Times, Ben Keningsberg explains:

As a United States Marine in Afghanistan, Miles Lagoze, the director, worked as a videographer, documenting scenes of war for official release. (We see a clip of such material on CNN midway through the film.) Somehow, Lagoze kept his hands on unreleased footage he and others shot in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012, and made it the basis for this film.

The Beast describes Eric Schuman, the film’s editor, as the production’s ‘secret weapon’:

“I would watch through the footage Miles had shot and pull from it what I found most interesting and compelling and then organize that material by subject…  I would then try to arrange that material together into sequences that, when placed all together, told a thematic story about a deployment in Afghanistan. By the end, Miles and I came upon a structure that I hope conveys a loss of innocence and growing nihilism and apathy as the film goes on.”

I’ll leave the last word to J.D. Simkins in the Military Times (who praises the film’s accuracy and honesty):

The film’s true brilliance lies in its situational hysteria, a scene-by-scene unpredictability that serves as a microcosm of a war with no end — and no definitive outcome — in sight.

Like the forever war, a lack of closure looms ominously over the film, a sentiment echoed by many of the war’s actors. Lagoze is no different.

Those who claim to see everything from the sky

A new issue of Radical Philosophy (2.03) is online here.  Among the highlights is an extended interview with Trinh T. Minh-ha, ‘Forgetting Vietnam‘.  It spirals around her film of the same name (2015 but premiered at Tate Modern in December 2017, when the interview by Lucie Kim-Chi Mercier took place).

It’s wide ranging, as you’d expect, and includes these reflections on her decision to avoid the by now hegemonic images of the American war in Vietnam:

In the making of Forgetting Vietnam one of the commitments I kept in relation to war images was the following: most of the films made on the war in Vietnam show you the horrors of war mainly through what constitutes the sensational in cinema. So: explosions, bombings, killings, bodies, buildings and environment being burned, mutilated and blasted; violent, bloody scenes with wounds oozing open (blood as depicted in mainstream films is cheap), and then suffering that is strident – noisy, and loud. Such a depiction of war amply exploited on screen for spectacular effect is something that I do not want at all to have in my films. Showing brutality has its journalistic function, but violence for violence’s sake is how the media continue to desensitise human suffering and distress, as well as how the entertainment industry claims to serve a consumer society steeped in violent media.

And then you have the other kinds of films evolving from this war, of which you really have to ask: Whose interest does it serve? For most of the time what’s covertly at stake are American interests. Whether their politics is liberal or conservative, mainstream films made in the name of the war in Vietnam speak to one side of the war and contribute to sustaining American hegemony. So, sometimes during one of these films’ screenings, I would be sitting in the audience with other Vietnamese people, and they would look at me and say: Do you think it has anything to do with us? [Laughter]

With Forgetting Vietnam, viewers often wonder why there are no images of the war, but the war is all over, whether visible or otherwise. Its traces are everywhere, present in the environment, in people’s memory, in their speech and daily rituals.

This segues into a perceptive and provocative discussion of the meaning of ‘victory’:

In Forgetting Vietnam and especially in my last book Lovecidal, it is the victory mindset that I see regulating war, paradoxically bringing together the two warring sides. It is a mindset that divides the world into winners and losers. When you think about it, it is absurd to always want to be the winner and to always consider the other to be the loser. Heroism righteously trotted out to disavow suffering and distress partakes in such inanity. In today’s ‘new wars’ it might be more appropriate to say that the line between winning and losing has been so muddled that there is no longer a loser. Every war champion claims victory at all cost, and hence, battles are only fought between victor and victor.

For example, one of the most striking and puzzling moments for me during the 1991 Gulf War was when the Americans were declaring victory over Iraq. As television screens were filled with talk about the war coming to an end, thanks to the glorious results of Operation Desert Storm and the swift victory by American-led coalition forces, we, earnest spectators, were briefly shown images of Iraqi’s celebrating their own ‘victory’. This is what in Lovecidal I call the ‘Twin Victories’. Of course, for Western media reporters, it was mind-boggling to see such a celebration when Iraq had lost the war. Everyone said at the time that Saddam Hussein was deceiving his people. For me, it’s not the same concept of victory. Same word, similar striving, but not the same thing. The West is always probing and measuring the other in their terms, but it would be more relevant to ask seriously why Iraq claimed victory where the Western world only saw defeat. As with the Algerian or the Vietnam wars, the West may obtain military victory temporarily via a power from the sky, but nations of lesser means ultimately gain political victory via a power from the underground. These persist through elaborate subterranean structures built to fight those who claim to see everything from the sky.

That last sentence is haunting and, in the fullest sense of the word, profound.

Disappearing War

Out last month, but I’ve only just caught up with it, a collection of essays edited by Christina Hellmich and  Lisa PurseDisappearing War: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Cinema and Erasure in the Post-9/11 World (Edinburgh University Press):

The battles fought in the name of the “war on terror” have re-ignited questions about the changing nature of war, and the experience of war for those geographically distant from its real world consequences. What is missing from our highly mediated experience of war? What are the intentional and unintentional processes of erasure through which the distortion happens? What are their consequences?
Cinema is a key site at which questions about our highly mediated experience of war can be addressed or, more significantly, elided. Looking at a range of films that have provoked debate, from award-winning features like Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper, to documentaries like Kill List and Dirty Wars, as well as at the work of visual artists like Harun Farocki and Omer Fast, this book examines the practices of erasure in the cinematic representation of recent military interventions. Drawing on representations of war-related death, dying and bodily damage, this provocative collection addresses ‘what’s missing’ in existing scholarly responses to modern warfare; in film studies, as well as in politics and international relations.

Here’s the Contents list:

1. Introduction: Film and the epistemology of war, Christina Hellmich & Lisa Purse
2. Good Kill? U.S. soldiers and the killing of civilians in American film, Cora Sol Goldstein
3. ‘5000 feet is the best’: drone warfare, targets, and Paul Virilio’s ‘accident’, Agnieszka Piotrowska
4. Post-heroic war / the body at risk, Robert Burgoyne
5. Disappearing bodies: visualising the Maywand District murders, Thomas Gregory
6. The unknowable soldier: the face of Freddie Quell, James Harvey-Davitt
7. Visible dead bodies and the technologies of erasure in the war on terror, Jessica Auchter
8. Ambiguity, ambivalence and absence in Zero Dark Thirty, Lisa Purse
9. Invisible war: broadcast television documentary and Iraq, Janet Harris
10. Nine cinematic devices for staging (in)visible war and the (vanishing) colonial present, Shohini Chaudhuri
11. Afterword: Reflections on knowing war, Christina Hellmich

War in Black-and-White?

Peter Jackson‘s They Shall Not Grow Old receives its premiere tomorrow (16 October) as the Special Presentation at the BFI London Film Festival.  Four years ago the director of Lord of the Rings was approached by the Imperial War Museum in London, which gave him access to hundreds of hours of official footage of the First World War, together with later audio tapes from both the IWM and the BBC.  Working with the visual effects geniuses at Jackson’s WingNut Films in New Zealand to colorise, slow and re-animate the film clips, and calling in lip-readers to decode the silent footage, the result is a radically new, feature-length representation of the conflict.  He explained:

“[The men] saw a war in colour, they certainly didn’t see it in black and white.  I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more – rather than be seen only as Charlie Chaplin-type figures in the vintage archive film.”

You can find details of subsequent screenings – in 2D and 3D – here, and the film will also be televised on BBC1.

Jackson is right of course: those who served in the war didn’t see it in black and white (as often as not, in multiple shades of red and brown).  But In its press release the IWM notes:

The First World War proved to be a landmark in cinema history – the first time that the horrors of war could be caught on camera. Many hours of dramatic footage were filmed on the battlefields, capturing the realities of the conflict in remarkable and unprecedented detail. This footage provided the public at home with astonishing access to the frontline: The Battle of the Somme, a documentary film produced with the cooperation of the War Office, was seen by an estimated 20 million Britons in its first six weeks of release.

In other words, the British public did see the war in black and white.

I discussed The Battle of the Somme ten days ago in Leipzig, in order to draw a series of parallels and contrasts between visual representations of the First World War and military violence a hundred years later.  My starting-point was Samuel Hynes‘ observation in A war imagined that was in effect repeated by the IWM in its introduction to They Shall Not Grow Old:

‘[F]or the first time in history non-combatants at home could see the war. The invention of the half-tone block had made it possible to print photographs in newspapers, and so to bring realistic-looking images into every house in England….

‘Even more than the still photographs, though, it was the motion picture that made the war imaginable for the people at home.’

The Battle of the Somme was filmed by Geoffrey Malins – who had already made 26 short newsreel films on the Western Front – and John McDowell on behalf of the British Topical Committee for War Films.  It was no short film shown as a prelude to the main feature – it ran for 77 minutes – and went on general release in August 1916.

Here is Malins filming the preliminary bombardment of the ‘Big Push’ on 1 July 1916 (I’ve taken this from his own account, How I Filmed the War, which you can access from Project Gutenberg here):

(If you want a much more detailed, forensic account of the filming then you need Alastair Fraser, Andrew Robertshaw and Steve Roberts, Ghosts on the Somme: Filming the battle, June-July 1916 [2009]).

Malins and McDowell completed most of their filming in June and July, but they were restricted in what they could capture.  Luke McKernan explains:

’Their hand-cranked cameras had single 50mm lenses with poor depth of field, they had no telephoto lenses, the orthochromatic film stock was slow, making filming action in the distance or in poor light difficult. But there was also military control and official censorship, each preventing them from filming anything other than officially-sanctioned images.’

Producer Charles Urban decided that the centrepiece of the finished film would be a sequence showing infantry going over the top – but Malins had only filmed the attack from a distance while McDowell’s footage shot from elsewhere on the Front was unusable. So Malins returned to France to re-stage the attack at a British mortar training school near St Pol between 12 and 19 July: just 21 seconds of his footage were incorporated into the final version.

‘In this footage,’ Laura Clouting explained,

‘men go into action unencumbered by the weighty packs that real soldiers had to shoulder. With just a rifle in his hand, one man drops “dead” in front of barbed wire – and proceeds to cross his legs to get more comfortable on the ground. Most telling is the camera position. Had Malins or McDowell really been filming from this angle they would have been in considerable danger from German fire. But the audience had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the footage.’

That last sentence is crucial, and indeed the staged sequence has received disproportionate attention from critics; Nicholas Reeves, in a thoughtful and helpful survey [‘Cinema, spectatorship and propaganda: ‘Battle of the Somme’ (1916) and its contemporary audience’, Historical journal of film, radio and television 17 (1) (1997) 5-28], notes that ‘Like almost every so-called documentary film, Battle of the Somme does include faked or ‘improved’ sequences, but focusing attention on these few sequences at the expense of the authentic footage which constitutes the overwhelming majority of the film seriously misrepresents its character…’

Audiences were certainly captivated by the film:

The film provoked a lively public debate about the propriety of showing the dead and the wounded:

But for Hynes no less important was the very structure of the film and the modernist space within which it portrayed military violence:

Hynes’s conclusion:

‘In this film, war is not a matter of individual voluntary acts, but of masses of men and materials, moving randomly through a dead, ruined world towards no identifiable objective; it is aimless violence and passive suffering, without either a beginning or an end — not a crusade, but a terrible destiny. The Somme film changed the way civilians imagined the war’ (my emphasis).

But – to return to They Shall Not Grow Old – those who had direct experience of the war saw matters differently.  The Manchester Guardian‘s correspondent reported:

‘I accompanied a friend, a lettered man, who was slightly wounded in the “Big Push,” to see the official film of the Somme battle. “Well,” I said as we came out, “that’s like the real thing, isn’t it?” “Yes,” he answered slowly; “about as like as a silhouette is like a real person, or as a dream is like a waking experience. There is so much left out – the stupefying din, the stinks, the excitement, the fighting at close quarters. You see enough to appreciate General Sherman’s remark that war is hell, but the hell depicted is as mild to the real hell out there as Homer’s hell is to Dante’s.’

Or, as the brilliant Max Plowman put it (in a book originally published under a pseudonym):

Note:  I haven’t seen They Shall Not Grow Old yet, so I can’t comment on its representational geography – though, just like the Battle of the Somme, there were limitations on what the military permitted to be filmed and I doubt that all theatres of war or all contingents were represented – but there is of course quite another sense in which the war was not fought in black and white: see my commentary ‘All white on the Western Front?’ here.

Cinematic Corpographies

News from Eileen Rositzka of her new book, Cinematic Corpographies: Re-Mapping the War Film Through the Body.  We’ve been corresponding since she started work on the project at St Andrews (she’s now at the Free University of Berlin), and I’m thrilled to see it in print (and on my screen):

Writing on the relationship between war and cinema has largely been dominated by an emphasis on optics and weaponised vision. However, as this analysis of the Hollywood war film will show, a wider sensory field is powerfully evoked in this genre. Contouring war cinema as representing a somatic experience of space, the study applies a term recently developed by Derek Gregory within the theoretical framework of Critical Geography. What he calls “corpography” implies a constant re-mapping of landscape through the soldier’s body. These assumptions can be used as a connection between already established theories of cartographic film narration and ideas of (neo)phenomenological film experience, as they also entail the involvement of the spectator’s body in sensuously grasping what is staged as a mediated experience of war. While cinematic codes of war have long been oriented almost exclusively to the visual, the notion of corpography can help to reframe the concept of film genre in terms of expressive movement patterns and genre memory, avoiding reverting to the usual taxonomies of generic texts.

Contents include:

Measuring the Trenches: Corpographies of the First World War

From Above and From Within: Aerial Views and Corpographic Transformations in the WWII Combat Film

Dismembering War: Touch and fragmentation in Anthony Mann’s Men in War

Uncharting Territories: The Vietnam War’s Shattering of the Senses

Zero Dark Thirty: Corpographies of the War on Terror

Insurgent terrain

Just available from Gastón Gordillo: ‘Terrain as insurgent weapon: An affective geometry of warfare in the mountains of Afghanistan’, Political Geography (2018) [https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2018.03.001].

Gastón explains:

My argument…   is that the irreducibility of terrain can be best examined through the bodily experiences, affects, and agency of the human actors engaging it da lens I call an affective geometry. This is not the Euclidian or Cartesian geometry of mathematized grids, coordinates, and straight lines abstracted from bodies and affects. This is the qualitative, non-linear geometry conceptualized by Spinoza (1982), attentive to how bodies affect and are affected by other bodies in a multiplicity of ways, which range from negative ways that may diminish the body’s capacity to act to positive ways that may expand the body’s powers for action.

In analyzing how bodies are affected by and affect terrain, an affective geometry can be seen as a materialist phenomenology that conceives of human bodies in their subjective interiority and dispositions and also as mobile, self-propelling bodies that in sit- uations of combat dand as long as they remain able bodiesd walk, run, climb rocks, duck on the ground, fall in ditches, shoot, feel exhausted hiking a mountain, and feel pain if hit by gunfire.

 

Turning to the Korengal Valley, and drawing on the work of Sebastien Junger and Tim Hetherington (especially Restrepo: see here for a commentary that meshes with this post) Gastón shows how terrain was opaque, threatening, even penetrative to the US military – for all the ‘imperial verticality’ of its air power – and that the mountains (in all their ‘ambient thickness’) ‘confused them, tired them, and disrupted imperial phantasies of spatial mastery’, whereas their enemies, who weaponised the terrain far more effectively, were able to realise an ‘insurgent verticality’ though their knowledge of and, indeed, intimacy with the mountains.