Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Bullet points: Ici et Ailleurs


It was in the middle of July 2014 – in the tumult of Operation Protective Edge – that I came across an article on an Indian news site. Mor Ostrovski, a 20-year old soldier in an IDF sniper unit, had uploaded to his instagram account an image of a target – the looming head of a very young Palestinian boy – dead centre in the crosshairs of his rifle. I saw this as an addendum to something I’d read a few days earlier – Instagram and Art Theory, which posited that the proliferation of photos on social media is not an aberration in the history of images but a continuum – through viral propagation – of existing modes of representation (selfies a bastardized form of self-portraits, food pictures a variation on still life and so on). Furthermore, the origins of these ‘original’, ‘classical’ modes were in themselves not really as respectable as we imagine them to be – for example, portraits developed partly because artists had to draw their royal patrons for subsistence. No image is therefore as innocent as it seems to be, no image too ignoble to be discarded without due thought. Social media had understandably exploded on poor Ostrovski but there was more to be spent on his image than mere outrage.

Now, on being asked to write something pertaining to Palestinian cinema, I was in a quandary: the only film on the conflict made by an insider (or a stakeholder) I’d seen was some four years back in a festival screening, little of which I remembered. My history lessons on the conflict were murky at best, so what was I to do with this assignment?

With the student protests of France in May ’68 a major filmmaker died, signing his penultimate film with a triumphant declaration: FIN DU CINEMA. The filmmaker reborn in the wake of this was no longer interested in placing himself in the history of the moving image, but in holding a photograph of Jane Fonda in Vietnam to task and questioning its implications. In 1970, this filmmaker, J-L Godard, and his young friend, J-P Gorin, went to Palestine to make a film on the resistance – Jusqu'à la victoire (Until Victory) – which never got released in its intended form.

“In 1970, this film was called Until Victory.
In 1974, this film is called Here and Elsewhere. Here. and Elsewhere.”

It is in this later film that I found something to chew on – an outsider’s perspective on strife; of what it means to be sitting thousands of miles away from Gaza and scrolling through the fine print of photos of its bombed remains on Facebook. Here. And elsewhere. Of being part of an image-saturated world and watching the subjects of the ‘sympathetic’ image, subjects without an equivalent access into our own ‘reality’. Elsewhere. And here.

It is in the image of a Palestinian fighter with his machine gun that we find a matching countershot to Ostrovski - a zoom-in that dynamizes the frame, ‘bringing us closer to the conflict’. The conflict here between these militarized images: Ostrovski’s instagram belonging to a lineage of ‘cool’ war and espionage iconography (action movies, video games), Godard’s/Gorin’s shot an appropriation of agit-prop third cinema documentaries. Seemingly different image-histories that share the same ideology – the construction of the image is in itself the argument for the respective 'political cause’. If one was to strip away the specific aesthetic of these images, the 'raw data' might be re-purposed for very different ends.

With the dissolution of the Dziga Vertov group and his subsequent encounter with Anne-Marie Mieville, Godard began to see the faultlines in his erstwhile project. Therefore he turned the raw images from his uncompleted Palestine film against themselves, with some new material filmed in France – in effect shifting the focus from the Palestinian struggle itself to the violent appropriation that ‘sympathetic’ outsiders unleash on it.

  • a hand adding four digit numbers on a calculator, 1917 + 1936 (and somewhere 1789), to try to arrive at 1970. Revolutionary maths that don’t add up because the references are all wrong.

  • a young Palestinian girl declaiming Israel in front of war ruins. Heroic gestures that date back to the public spectacles of the French Revolution.

  • five people holding photographs of the Palestinian resistance walk in a queue towards a camera, holding their photos up and leaving. Then they move sideways in a queue, simulating a montage.
And sound:
“A point in time when one sound takes power over the others. A point in time when this sound seeks, almost desperately, to keep this power.
How did that sound take power? It took power because, at one given time, it made itself represented by an image.”

How, then, does one think through these data-bytes of war? By juxtaposing relentlessly and constantly, one with the ‘other’, one with the ‘self’. If there is anything to be learnt at all from the work of Godard, it is that meaning can only be found in the abstract maelstrom of images and sounds that don’t add up. It is in not understanding fully – in struggling with meaning – that one grasps dialectics.

To return to Ostrovski, the real terror in his photo is the violent hierarchy in it: the blatant position of power than he wields over the boy, who’s unaware that he’s in imminent danger. To see, as a voyeur, is to exploit. The terrifying fact is that Ostrovski can jokingly think of shooting the kid and then magnanimously let him go, taking just a ‘cool’ photo as a record of his benevolence. To land as a Frenchman in Palestine and hold a movie camera is a luxury, as is flicking through photos of bombed-out Gaza on Facebook. We can just as well choose not to.

P.S.: I learnt while researching for this piece that the Ostrovski scandal actually happened in February 2013, a full year and a half before some enterprising Indian newspaper decided to recycle it as shocking news from the present warfront. Here. And elsewhere.

(written in September, 2014. Commissioned by, translated and published in bangla here.)