Art Review

Art and Politics in the Gulf and the Middle East
July, 2007
Joreige & Hadjithomas Two filmmakers address the harsh realities of violence in the Middle East through the use of fiction and the telling detail


LAST SUMMER, AS ANYONE WITH A PASSING INTEREST IN CURRENT  affairs and access to the media should recall, lsraeli forces invaded  South Lebanon in a disastrously miscalculated campaign to dislodge  Hezbollah from the region. As usual the conflict was interpreted  abroad according to longstanding narratives of lsraeli aggression; or in  the US, as ‘the War on Terror’. In the Arab world the invasion reinforced  convictions of imperialist victimisation, while in Lebanon it shattered  widely held fictions of hard-earned stability and security.

On 4 May of this year filmmakers and artists Joana Hadjithomas  and Khalil Joreige, who have been married since 1991 and have  collaborated since 1994, began shooting a feature with Rabih MrouP,  an actor with whom they work frequently, and Catherine Deneuve.  The resulting movie will document the difficult process of securing  permission from Hezbollah, UNlFlL (the UN’s long-term military,  humanitarian and peacekeeping force in Lebanon) and the lsraeli and  Lebanese armies to film in the South, and will follow Deneuve and  Mroue as they travel to his ruined village near the lsraeli border.

As implied by the film’s title, Je veux voir [I want to see],  Hadjithomas and Joreige aim to create tensions between the  preexisting ideas through which events in Lebanon are interpreted and  the immediacy of the personal experience Deneuve seeks. In addition  the script involves a parallel fictional story, in which Deneuve functions  as a ‘star’, establishing a dichotomy between her roles as private citizen  and film icon that is intended to mirror the divide between private  experience and public analysis in Lebanon.

As the artists explained in a conversation in New York this  April, the inspiration for their piece was Jean-Luc Godard’s comment  in his 2004 film Notre musique that since 1948 the Palestinians have  been ‘a documentary’, defined by their conflict with Israel and unable  to develop other concepts of individual and national identity. Jews,  by contrast, have been the stuff of fiction, free to create diverse  understandings of self and community. What, Hadjithomas and  Joreige wondered, would be necessary to reintroduce fiction to South  Lebanon after last summer’s war? Or taken more broadly, for Arabs  to interpret their experiences free of defining narratives. “We see big  things in the Arab world,” Hadjithomas explained. “How can one be  an individual separate from this myth of Arab unity and shared fate?  These are open-ended questions; however, the film’s use of fiction to  explore a region characterised for most by the hard fact of conflict, and  its presentation of Lebanon from the perspective of an outsider like  Deneuve, are attempts to create possible answers.

Hadjithomas and Joreige have mixed fact and fiction with  similar intent before. Their series Latent Images (1998-2007) relies on the conceit of a photographer, Abdallah Farah, who lacked the equipment to develop his photographs during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90). He meticulously catalogued each image in a notebook. As exhibited, the piece opposes images of 35mm film cartridges with printed texts ‘taken’ from Farah’s inventory, which reduce imagery to simple descriptions such as ‘Mother in bed. She doesn’t look at me’ or ‘A workman on a crane opposite the building’. It remains to the viewer to imagine the image, a process which renders them personal, individual and resistant to categorisation according to preexisting concepts.

Concentrating on anecdotal details and eschewing broad symbolic meaning also allows Hadjithomas and Joreige’s work to bear deep and broad meaning. Take for example their 52-minute documentary Khiam (~oOO), about the eponymous detention centre maintained by the Israelis and their allies, the South Lebanon Army, from 1985 until May 2000. In the film, six former prisoners, three men and three women, introduce themselves by stating their names, hometowns and dates of imprisonment, and then describe conditions in the camp with disarminq frankness. Food is scarce and tasteless. Cellmates defecate and wash their faces in a single pail. All are flogged with barbed wire and often confined to cells with a floorspace of 100 x 80 cm. Lacking a mirror, one woman tries to see her teeth in a cup of tea, but they have turned yellow and do not stand out.

The film focuses tightly on each individual, showing no more than his or her face, torso, and upper thighs. Each sits in the same wooden armchair. The absence of other visual details and the reliance on individual experience to evoke the camb create an intimacy and immediacy which establishes empathy in the viewer.

During the last half ofthe film, the ex-prisoners describe hoarding scraps to fashion necessities and decorative objects. These include needles from twisted wire, pencils from aluminium cheese wrappers, beads made by rubbing olive pits against walls and chess pieces crocheted from threads. Some were used; others were exchanged as gifts among prisoners; but as Soha Bechara, one of the women, explains, in creating such things she strove to assert her humanity against inhuman treatment.

In the final sequences of the movie the camera moves slowly over those items the inmates retained at their release. Small and clumsy, they are often decorated with Lebanese flags, hearts, the dove of peace or, in one case, the word ‘love’in English. As the images appear, they accrue meaning according to the experiences related in the film. Concepts such as friendship, patriotism, resistance and community are infused with a visceral understanding of lived misery, defiance and pride. The specific informs the general, not, as usual in the Arab World, the other way round.