The Review/Feature/

How Do Art and Film Respond to Atrocity?

In light of the Muslim Ban and worldwide political upheaval, Rasha Salti considers film's potential for revolution

by Rasha Salti
Feb 3, 2017 @ 7:00am

This article was original published as a newsletter edition of The Review on May 8, 2016, penned by Rasha Salti, curator of the film programme Syria Self-Portraits: Chronicles of Tyranny, Chronicles of War at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

How do art and film respond to atrocity? Can they disarm the shield of indifference to galvanize empathy, solidarity and action? Does representation still have the ability to mediate or provoke in our contemporary global culture of visual saturation? Can art and film clear visibility through the fog of war?

The Third of May 1808, a painting by Francisco Goya, made in 1814.

Never before in the history of humanity has the reality of lived experience (ranging from the utterly mundane to the exceptional) been captured by cameras and disseminated worldwide. Thanks to the various platforms of the Internet, citizen journalism has invaded — and sometimes supplanted — the conventional realms of news. It even, at times, challenges fundamental precepts and codes of the profession. Think of how security cameras have pervaded public sites and intruded on private lives to an unprecedented extent.

Arguably, the exponential proliferation of still and moving images has relentlessly pushed against the boundaries of what is deemed provocative, untenable, unacceptable. Today, the global mainstream audience seems numbed with regards to the pain of others and the abominations of war. The filmed (and suspiciously, meticulously art directed) execution videos produced by ISIS are a morbidly glaring symptom of the internalized permissiveness of spectators. These videos enact, in real life, the plot motifs and dramaturgies of video games and war fictions, presented as the “most” horrible, the “most” evil.

The 2011 insurgencies in the Arab world have often been referred to as “Revolution 2.0” — a new regime of amateur, non-professional still and moving images. Collecting the entirety of these “documents” is not only daunting, but will surely raise challenging and unexplored questions about the very nature and practice of archiving.

A screenshot from the documentary Filming Revolution.

Film theorist (and filmmaker) Alisa Lebow’s project Filming Revolution, “a meta-documentary about documentary and independent filmmaking in Egypt since the revolution,” presents a brilliant, albeit modest, proposal for building an archive of Egyptian insurgency or revolution in the present, in real-time. The website’s mission is to bring together “the collective wisdom and creative strategies of media-makers in Egypt, before, during and after the revolution.” It invites visitors to “engage with Egyptian filmmakers, artists, activists and archivists, talking about their work and their ideas about how (and whether) to make films in the time of revolution.”

Filming the lived experience of the political event was an act of defiance against the blackout on all media staunchly imposed by autocratic regimes in power. The motivation was the same in Dakar during the M23 insurgency in 2012, in Lagos during the Occupy Lagos insurgency in the same year, in Istanbul with the Gezi Park insurgency in 2013 and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement uprising in 2014. Yet when it comes to documenting political revolution, what does the body of these still and moving images constitute? It could be a counter-archive of the real that resists framing, branding and spectacle by global media. Something that weaves the collective memory of a new body politic. Yet, what remains of their impact in the collective consciousness?

One of the defining features of modernity (and contemporaneity) is the representation and incarnation of war and violence, the ability of human beings to engage in acts of extreme cruelty, barbarity and inhumanity. It starts with Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808. Completed in 1814, Goya’s painting depicts the Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s military occupation during the Peninsula War. Regarded widely as groundbreaking and revolutionary in its composition and emotional charge, the painting created a powerful archetype for representing war. It is also regarded as a herald of modernity.

In 1938, Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, a book-length essay in which she defends her pacifist (and feminist) principles and argues for fundamental change in social values, education and culture towards the eradication of war. Woolf was compelled to write the essay after receiving a letter from a gentlemen who wanted to enlist her help in his ambition to prevent war. Woolf boldly argued that in addition to the rifts of social class, a wider gulf separated men and women, thus generating a “difficulty in communication.” Somehow, that difficulty could be overcome when looking at photographs.

Woolf writes: “This morning’s collection contains the photograph of what might be a man’s body, or a woman’s; it is so mutilated that it might, on the other hand, be the body of a pig. But those are certainly dead children, and that undoubtedly is the section of a house. A bomb has torn open the side: there is still a bird cage hanging in what was presumably the sitting room...”

She concludes to her epistolary interlocutor: “You Sir, call them ‘horror and disgust.’ We also call them horror and disgust... War, you say, is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped at whatever cost. And we echo your words. War is an abomination, a barbarity; war must be stopped.”

Sixty-five years after the publication of Woolf’s Three Guineas, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others begins with the question that Virginia Woolf also wrestled with, the possibility that war could ever be eradicated. Sontag’s book and essay has become a valuable reference on thinking about the iconography of war, its sites of dissemination and spectatorship in the so-called public sphere. For media studies, this piece is particularly compelling because Sontag revisited some of the arguments she defended in her earlier seminal work, On Photography, a collection of essays published in 1977.

The changes in Sontag’s perspective are concomitant to the changing position of photography at the time. In her conclusion, she circles back to the initial question: "could one be mobilized actively to oppose war by an image (or a group of images)?" The work she cites is Canadian artist Jeff Wall’s 1992 "Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986)," a staged studio photograph imagined by the artist. Writes Sontag:

"'We' – this 'we' is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through – don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elide the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right."

Between 1938 and 2003, even earlier and certainly since, the impact, role and meaning of representing war, conflict and violence has inspired countless texts and arguments among theorists and thinkers. In essence, these discussions interrogate a human being’s ability to experience empathy with others. (Our far-flung, foreign, or close-by neighbours.) Our capacity to motivate action is linked to the power of an image to mediate and provoke an emotion beyond words.

A photograph by Jeff Wall.

How can one parse truth from propaganda and reality from doctored images?

How can we feel empathy and impute a sense of responsibility to act?

Should the speculative “Revolution 2.0” archives also include videos recorded by police, internal security and soldiers of torture and abuse of insurgents?

When the private photographs of physical and sexual abuse, torture and torment of Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison inmates were “released” in 2004, Sontag published an essay in the New York Times Magazine titled “Regarding the Torture of Others.” In the piece, she notes a transformation in the relationship of photographing the horrors of war as “trophies,” as the executioners pose centre stage with their victims, triumphant. The U.S. army personnel involved in the scandal included men and women and the U.S. administration at the time argued that these were actions limited to “individuals.” Evidently they were the tip of the iceberg.

The Abu Ghraib photographs and videos were shared by those with little concern for their evidencing breach of basic ethics and code of conduct. In “Mobilizing Shame,” another essay that explores questions of brutality and war (published in The South Atlantic Quarterly, 2004), Thomas Keenan argues that the strategy of exposing human rights abuses with a camera no longer carries the same clout. His piece, written while observing a BBC report on Serbian soldiers destroying homes in Kosovo, explains that the presence of a camera has in some situations instigated perpetrators to perform abuse, destruction and killing more self-consciously. In short, they want to be filmed, broadcast and archived.

Today, a public indifference to violence is no longer confounded by shaming. Our matrix of camera-action-spectatorship needs to be re-examined. Virginia Woolf’s “we” in Three Guineas referred to women, an important but disenfranchised social group with practically no power to impart real change (despite making up half of society). Sontag’s “we” in Regarding the Pain of Others referred to the viewers of photographs and films who are privileged enough never to have experienced war first-hand.

With regard to the images made by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib, and in response to George Bush Jr., Sontag makes the bold claim: "These photographs are us." The "us" and "we" are the perpetrators, photographers and viewers. It’s both the political event and the social and cultural system in which they are embedded. This becomes even more slippery as contemporary representations of war and conflict are captured and disseminated by non-journalists, soldiers, militiamen, victims, insurgents, citizen journalists, and first-hand witnesses.

What should be the role of cinema?

When we consider everything in war, what images and narratives can any artist forge outside the prevailing mainstream and ‘alternative’ regime?

After witnessing the onslaught of al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists in Mali, director Abderrahmane Sissako felt the necessity and urgency to communicate the hardship and resistance that people endured under their rule. Sissako wove the stories of the people that he met in Mali and in refugee camps in Mauritania into a compelling fiction that carried all the force of real, lived experience. His film was titled Timbuktu as an homage to the historic, now beleaguered city.

Sissako cast professional actors and non-professionals and worked with a small crew in a relatively short amount of time. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, received critical acclaim, international awards and was released in cinemas worldwide. Timbuktu does not operate on mobilizing shame and I am not sure it would be appropriate to look for “strategies” in its fabrication, unless poetry is deemed a strategy. The film celebrates the humanity of the victims and gives them their dignity without ideological didacticism. At the same time, it reveals how the ragtag army of jihadists is nothing more than a group of bandits who use a religious dogma they barely understand as a cover to plunder the riches of others.

In the year of Timbuktu’s release, Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed’s Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait was also presented as a Cannes Film Festival’s official selection, out of competition. Co-directed with Wiam Bedirxan, the film was also received with resounding critical acclaim, awarded numerous times and was released worldwide. In his review of the film for the magazine BOMB, film critic Nicholas Elliot writes: “Silvered Water is more than a documentary about atrocity. It is that rare film that tries to encompass the world, leaping from birth to death in the space of an edit. Mournful music builds Silvered Water into a funeral march for Syria, but Syria is still being born. People like Bedirxan and Mohammed allow you to hope that the world is still being born.”

In Syria, Mohammed was well-known as a maverick, dissident filmmaker. His first feature, Stars in Broad Daylight was (and remains) banned in his home country. When he screened his second feature, Sacrifices, for the first time in Damascus in 2002, he clearly stated his political affiliation to the intellectuals in opposition to the Baath. Circumstances forced him into exile in Paris in 2011, where he found himself witnessing the devolution of the non-violent, grassroots insurgency into an armed conflict through media broadcast. He obsessively watched the videos posted on YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms.

Silvered Water is the English translation of Simav. This is Wiam Bedirxan’s native Kurdish name, a schoolteacher caught under siege in Homs who got hold of a video camera. She contacted Mohammed on Facebook, asking him if he were in her shoes, what would he film? A friendship and a collaboration was born where Simav’s footage was uploaded on a server through the underground network of insurgents and downloaded in Paris by the filmmaker.

Silvered Water begins with a montage of video footage posted on the web by everyday people. It’s an almost painterly composition that captures moments of elation, defiance and community as well as horror, abuse and killing. In appropriating from the everyday archival footage made by Syrians, Mohammed transformed these moving documents into cinema. He created a subjective portrait of a Syria and of himself. The montage leads to Simav’s footage, her chronicle of survival in Homs and their epistolary/cinematic collaboration.

A number of other artists and filmmakers have contended with the collective memory constituted from amateur videos posted on YouTube. To cite two well-known instances, director Brian De Palma’s Redacted (2007), a narrative fiction presented as documentary, reenacts scenes from videos recorded by US soldiers serving in Iraq.The film roused fury among conservative circles in the US, but was also acclaimed by critics and awarded the Silver Lion in Venice.

In Iraqi Short Films (2008), documentary filmmaker Mauro Andrizzi from Argentina compiled a montage of videos shot by soldiers, foreign workers and rebels in Iraq. Iraqi Short Films was also hailed by critics and traveled the international festival circuit extensively.

If the worldwide dissemination of the pain and torture of others fails to inspire empathy, or forge solidarity, art and film at least have the grace to safeguard the dignity of victims. These movies transgress the “us” and “them” binary, and dare to undertake political acts that diplomats, negotiators, experts and political leaders don’t have the courage or imagination to come near.

War is the work of political leaders; it is an abomination that no photograph or audio-visual footage will be able to abolish. Solace, mercy, recovery, healing, and justice are the work of artists, filmmakers, and poets alike.