“Nothing is poorer than a truth expressed as it was thought.” — Walter Benjamin

The Unintended Archive

Impressions upon seeing Alia Syed’s Points of Departure (2014) and Kamal Aljafari’s Recollection (2015) on one long Spring day in London

May 1, 2017

Still from Recollection (Kamal Aljafari, 2015)

Two films in one day, two archive dives yielding nothing but absence, yet yielding, in both cases and completely coincidentally, to the filmmakers’ will to be seen in the unseen. The archive is never a full load, it never fully returns the embrace, never adequately enlivens at the touch of a curious hand. It coyly withholds while holding out the promise of full satisfaction. There is only so much it will present, especially to unexpected suitors. When Alia Syed, a Pakistani-Scottish-British filmmaker, is offered a chance to make any film she wants drawing from the BBC Scotland archive, it is the archive that is surprised, not the artist. The artist knows she’s unlikely to find herself or her likeness amongst the thousands of hours of footage. She searches, dutifully, but will not find. The archive, however, is simply unprepared. It never imagined this moment, never had any image of her in its head. There are films aplenty, and even some about South Asian immigrants to Scotland, but they were never meant for her to see. They were meant for the people, the eternal hosts, the owners of the image. Who, it turns out, always had a very limited imagination, that did not figure on her active presence. She looks, she sees, she is profoundly unmoved. She nonetheless, in an indirect move of resistance, a deflection of sorts, decides to use other images, images of destabilization, slum clearances, homelessness, as well as images of weaving, spinning, cloth making, a trade that has no connection to her past save for a beloved lace tablecloth that she could not throw away as she clears her father’s house, a cloth bought and borne of Scotland, yet so much a part of her father’s house that she could not bear to part with it. So weaving and cloth, wending and wharfing, incessant machinations of industrial lace-making: the fullest extent to which the archive can be shaped to her needs. It gives in but without bending. By the end of this battle of wills, one intentional, the other institutional, in the last moments of the film, this filmmaker forces the archive to offer up the signs of its repressed images; she finds a little mixed race boy at the edge of a frame. A single shot of half a boy, a ghost who haunts the entire archive, insistent yet semi-obscured. He can only be a weak stand-in for all that the archive misses and misrepresents, meekly hovering at the edge of the frame, tentatively yet stubbornly announcing his presence, and this demi-world vision is enough to undermine the entire promise of the archive.

Kamal Aljafari takes an altogether different approach to the archive in his film Recollection.  Aljafari also mines the archive, though not one that has been purposely or publically collected. His archive is a wealth of fiction films made by Israeli directors, shot in his hometown of Jaffa. It turns out Jaffa was a favorite setting for Israeli films, so there’s no shortage of imagery. Jaffa provided the perfect backdrop to Israeli drama, giving them the aura of an historical presence in the land they had only recently settled. For the Israelis the problem was getting rid of traces of Arab life, still vibrant if muted in the city. For Aljafari, the problem was to recoup the traces that could never be fully erased and which press insistently at the corners and margins of the frame. He spots his aunt’s house, the local café, a family friend’s car. He scours these images in search of home, the very home the Israelis have tried with their fictions, as well as with their ideology, laws, and wrecking balls, so hard to destroy.

Like most fiction films, these Israeli films foreground their characters, yet the bodies of those actors interfered with Aljafari’s view. It’s as if he had to figure out a way to crane his vision to see past the action, around and behind the main event, as it were. He does this by digitally removing those in the path of his forensic sight. Using fairly basic technological tools—AfterEffects, mostly—Aljafari deftly disappears the Israelis, leaving mostly buildings and roads but also the occasional Palestinian, spotted from afar on a balcony, or in a doorway.

Against all odds, he even finds his uncle in one scene, looking literally lost, as he wanders haplessly across the frame. One wonders how his presence was justified within the film’s narrative, as (not unlike Syed’s little boy) he lurks eerily in view. With the Israeli’s disappeared, Aljafari reclaims the spaces of his childhood and young adulthood, his memories veritably reconstituted amidst the wreckage. He stages a cinematic return to a territory otherwise occupied, a reconnaissance tour of that which was never supposed to be seen.

In perhaps the most deft reversal ever effected in cinema, the digital intervention that up until now has been understood as the biggest threat to documentary authenticity, suddenly becomes its greatest ally, transforming otherwise fiction films into the indexical referent of documented Palestinian existence. Despite all odds, it allows Aljafari to exclaim “we are here!”, thus revealing the fiction of Israeli ‘history’ in that land and affirming the documentary truth that Israelis have gone to such lengths to deny.

The films were not screened together nor did I set out to see them both on that one single day. But the double viewing prompted me to consider the effects of the unintended archive, when the archive itself is subjected to treatment for which it had never been intended and the results transform the promise it holds out: exposing historical omissions, reversing wilful erasures and in the process, transforming historical fictions into stubborn and ineradicable fact.

Note: For a brilliant review of Recollection that makes a similar yet distinct argument, see Adania Shibli’s 8 April 2017 review in Ibraaz.


A Tale of Two Films

November 19, 2015

What the Fields Remember (Subasri Krishnan, 2015)

Last week I watched two films, one on Thursday, the second on Friday. On Thursday I went to see Spectre, as all self-respecting queer feminist film scholars who specialise in documentary must. For reasons that continue to elude me, Bond seems to be one of the only exceptions, not just for me but for many I know, to a general disdain for testosterone-fuelled, generally racist, sexist and homophobic action films. Why does Bond get a pass when virtually none others do, I really can’t say. Perhaps it has something to do with the tinge of camp that lingers around the edges of his too immaculate, too suave, too impossibly genteel persona. And perhaps too because Bond, unlike some other action heroes, seems to be changing (ever so glacially, but changing nonetheless) with the times. By now he’s only about a decade or two behind the times, no longer the Neanderthal he once was with regard to gender and sexual relations at least.

Be that as it may, I saw the latest Bond film, and enjoyed it more or less, with the sense that perhaps the formula was wearing slightly thin, but more importantly, that I might be getting a tad too old to weather the bursts of adrenaline and vexed attention required in the viewing. I was already exhausted after the nail biting, vertiginously shot, helicopter scene, staged beautifully over the Zócalo in Mexico City. I wanted to check my phone to see how much more of it I’d have to survive, but I didn’t dare disturb my neighbors who seemed to watch with wrapped attention (and a handy flask of whiskey in their grip). Besides, I knew we couldn’t be more than 10 minutes in.

Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015)

The next night found me in virtually the opposite environment, swapping plush, reclining, stadium seats for rigid chairs with built-in desks, and a 30’ screen with sensurround for a dim data projector and two studio speakers. The film I went to see, in a SOAS classroom, was an understated, meditative documentary about the barely remembered “Nellie Massacres” that occurred in Assam, India, roughly 30 years ago, a xenophobic mob killing spree lasting only 6 hours, that ended with up to 10,000 dead. What the Fields Remember (Subasri Krishnan, 2015) was having its third small screening in London, having just been completed this Autumn. There are no serious prospects for distribution deals outside of India and no expectation of major audiences, let alone direct political effect.

I don’t honestly think two films could be more different. Where one is pervasive, saturating screens globally, the other will barely ever get seen. Where one wears its multi-million dollar budget on its screen, the other is clearly made on a shoe-string. Where one cuts long before you’ve even fully registered the shot, the other lingers as if painstakingly extracting information, with the patience of a prospector from the mute earth.

The film reminded me of some of the more thoughtful documentaries I’ve seen, films like Susana de Sousa Dias’ film 48 (2009), which privileges affect over content in its treatment of the audio interviews of political prisoners in Portugal, counter-intuitively yet effectively making their testimonies that much more powerful, or Rithy Panh’s S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), where survivor and jailers are framed together yet never levelled into an equivalency, due precisely to the heightened sensibility of the filmmaker in relation to the subject. It also harkened me back to some of the more aggressive, perpetrator-led films of late (The Act of Killing immediately comes to mind), if only because it so clearly eschews any such sensationalist strategies, despite the fact that there are similarities to be drawn, most notably that the killers have never been called to account and remain not only at large, but in power.

What the Fields Remember is a film that knows how to listen, to observe, that insistently yet respectfully seeks to draw out its subject, without compromising dignity or playing on emotions. Choosing her characters carefully and never privileging words over images for too long, Krishnan subtly suggests that there are many ways tell a story, and the most interesting are not necessarily conveyed linearly through narrative. The filmmaker was present at the small screening, and was so refreshingly thoughtful and articulate about her new work, that I could have listened to her forever.

I found it intriguing that a film about so gruesome a topic could soothe my soul, after the assault of the previous night’s action-packed adventure film with the inevitably happy ending. What that says about me, perhaps is better left aside for the moment. Granted, What the Fields Remember is not only grim in its recollection of history, but in its resonances in the anti-Muslim sentiments of contemporary India, and yet, what I found reassuring was its approach. Intelligent filmmaking, with a sensibility that privileges subtle undertones rather than garish overtones, that is politically insightful, attentive to detail and the particularities of the event and the context, while always striving to be formally inventive, this is what I long for, and this (not the subject matter, I can safely say) is what relieved my harried sensibilities from the night before. I much prefer to be jarred by history than by flashy stunts, explosions, and special effects, it turns out. Good to know.

Keywords: Spectre, James Bond, Political Documentary, Subasri Krishnan, What the Fields Remember, Susana de Sousa Dias, 48, Rithy Panh, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, Act of Killing


A Syrian Love Story for his mates back in Hull

October 8, 2015

Footage openly criticizing Assad, from A Syrian Love Story (Sean McAllister, 2015)

Trigger Warning: this is a rant. I had not meant for my first blog post to reveal my more lacerating tendencies, but there you go. The screening of a much-lauded film in England about Syria that I felt compelled, or rather practically propelled, to see, prompted this admittedly provocative response. And for the record, I am about as fond of trigger warnings, as I am of the film about to be discussed.

Two things tempered my experience of watching A Syrian Love Story (Sean McAllister, 2015), both related to the filmmaker’s presence at the Bertha DocHouse screening I attended in London. The first was by way of introduction. The filmmaker wanted to thank his producer for all the work she had done on the project, having forgotten to do so in the initial screening of the film at the cinema that week. He self deprecatingly acknowledged that he was so busy pandering to the members of the audience affiliated with the BBC and the BFI that he simply forgot to mention her. He then introduced her solely by first name and described her as more his secretary than his producer. Following this inauspicious beginning, he proudly announced that he would have bought her flowers, but he’s from Hull and “boys from Hull” don’t buy women flowers. Not only had he endlessly gendered her contribution in typically derogatory ways (is this really how one treats one’s producer and if so, what does that say about the filmmaker himself?) but he further managed to denigrate it as if really all she had done was make his appointments and his coffee.

The second inauspicious remark was made in the Q+A after the film, where the filmmaker insisted proudly that no matter where he makes his films, Japan, Yemen, Syria, his primary audience is always the same: his mates back in Hull who don’t travel the world like he does. This may not sound like a damning indictment to all readers, but it smacks of precisely the islander provincialism that would allow for a film to be made about one of the most complex and intractable political and humanitarian crises unfolding today, in a way that very nearly bypasses those complexities in favour of a familiar generic mould that could console an ignorant viewer in Hull. Transform the tragedy of a failed revolution turned bloody civil war, into a personal tragedy of love, worn thin by the inchoate tensions of an indecipherable external world pressing in on an otherwise “normal” [read: “just like us”] household. The assumption is that the politics of the situation are beyond the grasp of the simple publicans of McAllister’s hometown, but that love and difficult relationships are something we can all understand.

Further, we learn early in the film that McAllister is a filmmaker in search of a subject and when he finds a suitably dramatic scenario (loving husband bringing up a family while wife is unjustly imprisoned by a despotic regime) he recklessly homes in on their personal lives, probing their inner emotions, soliciting responses to leading questions, captures incriminating footage (of the family openly criticising the Assad regime, for instance), endangering their lives to the point of forcing their flight from the country, and then in effect, contributing to the ruination of a delicate yet viable relationship. The style of interviewing consists of, in essence, dogging the family members in English, a language most can barely speak, to simply repeat (mimic) the words he provides them with in the first place, thus confirming his place as voice-giver to these otherwise inarticulate subjects. He plays therapist to a family in crisis, with none of the training nor the emotional maturity to do so. A boy from Hull, who can’t even bring himself to respect his own producer properly, grants himself the powerful position of peace-maker and arbiter of a family drama that so far exceeds the limits of his emotional intelligence as to be an act of aggression in and of itself.

Here we have the worst of the filmmaker-adventurer, who blithely and with all of the entitlement of a (former) imperialist culture, takes and exacerbates a family crisis all for the exalted goal of enlightening his ignorant friends back home. The worst part about it is that everyone, from his commissioning editor at Channel four, to the powerful decision makers on BBC1 who made the unprecedented decision to broadcast it there, not to mention the 4 stars given it by Mark Kermode in the Guardian, are contributing to the filmmaker’s own self-congratulatory belief that his film is indeed a great masterpiece fusing art (tragic love story, a la Romeo and Juliette) with geo-politics in a way the great and good, if somewhat naïve and unworldly, people of England can understand.

The problem isn’t with the great people of England per se, who may or may not need to pandering to such a degree, but with the condescension of the filmmakers and commissioning editors, who would prefer to distil a complicated and intractable situation down to a story of star-crossed lovers, doomed by external circumstances beyond their control. Was it even external circumstances beyond their control that forced the family to flee Syria in one night, with only a flimsy suitcase and no proper papers? Well, in a sense, yes.  If McAllister hadn’t gotten caught with the footage of the family still in his camera, they might have been able to stay in their home and had time to come to grips with their situation. Yet, given the risks this family had already undertaken as vocal critics of the regime even before the uprising and ensuing war, it is inconceivable to me that a filmmaker could add to the danger they already faced. Made that much further unimaginable by the fact that his continued filming was evidence of his implacable pursuit of his story—the unfolding drama, in part catalysed by his negligence and misplaced priorities—had to find its conclusion. Tragic or happy, it had to be resolved one way or the other and he would track them down wherever they might be (Lebanon, France, Turkey) I order to get the footage that would complete his story. More than once the subjects of the film question him as to why he is still there, filming them.

I have devoted my life to the documentary. I have made films and have studied others’ films. I write about, think about, and watch documentary during more of my waking hours than I can account for. Yet sometimes, when faced with films like this one, I hate the form. Documentary, thankfully, is so much more than this type of ambulance-chasing story-telling factory, needing human fodder to churn out gripping content in order to fill meaningless (if self-important) television programming hours. It can and often does do justice to the intricacies of history, to poetry, to life in general. It is the filmic form best suited for critique, defamiliarization, intellectual and ideological transformation. But when documentary goes for ratings, it generally does play to the simplistic formulas that palliate the fear of the other, transforming it into an anodyne reflection of ourselves—a reassuring message that no matter how different people may seem, we’re all the same in the end. Whether we are or are not all the same in the end, our circumstances are wildly different, as is our mode of expression. Imagine if Amer and Raghda, the couple at the heart of the film, could have expressed themselves in their native tongue, how much less naïve and basic they would have seemed. Yet that complexity had to be disallowed, in order for McAllister to tell a simple tale.

This is not an indictment of documentary per se. It is an indictment of the career documentarist who doggedly pursues people as if they are merely material for a story he can then, in effect, tell back at his local, over a pint. If you intend to point your camera at people, be sure that it is their lives, more than your career or your mates back home, that you are concerned with. Moreover, it strikes me that if there is any responsibility associated with the documentary filmmaker, it is precisely not to reduce their subjects to objects—mere matter for their message. There are so many ways to resist the formulaic and the simplistic, yet if opportunism is driving the filmmaker forward, as in this case, they are unlikely to make the effort to see what is actually there, preferring instead to shape the material into well-worn, familiar patterns.

Keywords: Documentary film, Documentary ethics, Sean McAllister, A Syrian Love Story