Art and Politics in the Gulf and the Middle East
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.