Here in the future
is the same war…
each moment of our bodies
becomes an instrument of death…
There are two kinds of terror here
The terror of annihilation
And the terror of remembering…which will we find more painful, more seductive?
— Canadian filmmaker Mike
Hoolboom, ‘Imitations of Life’ (2003)
Sometimes, a photograph you have seen, a video or film that you have watched, a book or a poem you read years ago — or in the recent past — can return in a surge, in response to an event in the present. Such as the never-ending sense of dejà vu for ordinary people on either side (in the present context, Palestine and Israel) consumed by violence and war. Susan Sontag had once remarked (the context then being other wars: Afghanistan, Iraq): “Who would we be if we could not sympathise with those who are not us or ours? Who would we be if we could not forget ourselves, at least some of the time? Who would we be if we could not learn? Forgive? Become something other than we are?”
Bob Dylan had sung: “A cock is crowing far away, and another soldier’s deep on prayer, some mother’s child has gone astray, she can’t find him anywhere. But I can hear another drum beating for the dead that rise… all I can see are dark eyes.”
Having experienced the Nazi “death camps”, Viktor Frankl had written in his memoir ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’: “You may… ask whether we really need to refer to ‘saints’. Wouldn’t it suffice just to refer to decent people? It is true that they form a minority. And yet I see therein the very challenge to join the minority. For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best. So, let us be alert — alert in a twofold sense: Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”
So, one revisits memorable artistic expressions of some ‘decent’ minority. To begin with, not long before the Hamas attack, and the counter-bombarding by Israel, I happened to have watched (what sheer coincidence!) the film ‘Abe’. Played by Abraham Solomon Ode, Abe is a 12-year-old boy in Brooklyn, born to a Palestinian Arab Muslim father and an Israeli Jewish mother (both professedly atheists), with a rare obsession for cooking. Tired of the never-ending dinner table political debates bordering on vitriol of his paternal and maternal grandparents, he cooks a ‘fusion’ meal to bring them together. He mixes flavours from both cultural traditions. However, peace, love and compassion do not serve well as ingredients in the internalised political turmoil on questions of ‘origin’, history, and identity.
Directed by Fernando Grostein Andrade, starring a very convincing Noah Schnapp in the lead role (and Seu Jorge as the sous chef from the Caribbean, heading an inter-racial kitchen), the film is replete with questions a young child might ask on the term ‘anti-Semitism’, which, explains his paternal grandfather (Arab Palestinian), “is the state department’s definition — if you criticise Israel, you are anti-Semitic. Semite refers to languages. Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, among others. That it is a family of Semitic languages.” His wife adds, “I am not a Semite; the Jews are anti-Semitic towards me.” The only true diverse (and accepting) space is Chico’s kitchen with immigrant cooks and flavours. Abe’s lavish meal — mixing the shawarma, hummus and challah, among others — revives inane quarrels over who ‘owns’ falafel. It takes Abe’s running away from home, and the resulting trauma, to get the elders to relish each dish.
Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s ‘Marriage of the Blessed’ (‘Arusi-e-Kuban’, 1989) has for its central character Haji, a photographer on the front, who has been released from a hospital after being treated for psychosis. The war has left him with images of bloodshed, which he is unable to forget, despite support from his fiancée Mehri, also a photographer. The (coloured) footage of the war, the UN films on children starving in Africa, and blood are memories/images that haunt him. The ‘real’ world that Haji lives in (in monochrome) is one of rampant savagery. Ultimately, Haji becomes the ‘photographed’/the subject, as he decides that the battlefront is perhaps his real place.
Then there was the beautiful short film, ‘Over the Wall’ by Israeli filmmaker Roy Zafrani, about the innocent ‘across the hole in the wall/border’(Israel-Palestine) friendship between an Israeli and a Palestinian boy (Nathan and Khaled, respectively) ending sadly.
Finally, I remember frames from ‘Reprocessing Reality: New Perspectives on Art and the Documentary’, a curatorial essay curated by Claudia Spinelli at the Chateau de Nyon in Switzerland that I was fortunate to see/hear back in April 2005. The immediate context then had been Iraq (besides the generic nature of violence) and the images we had consumed of the torture and abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, not to mention the carnage in India a few years prior. Mostly European (or based in Europe) documentary filmmakers, photographers and artistes had put together photographs, installation art, audio, archival film footage, on three floors of the old Château. The exhibition was, in fact, set against the context of the annual film festival of Nyon, Visions du Reel. It urged us to ask some questions: do violence and fragmentation of lives/existence reflect on art and the documentary? How do photographic (stills) images and the documentary film convey reality of the everyday? The most haunting was the ‘reality show’ by the Albanian artist Anri Sala. By simply putting on a microphone, you entered his intimate space, a world filled with a singular sound he had heard repeatedly for hours over years, overwhelming his cognitive space: that of a tomahawk. When you saw the screen with him, seated with orchestra around him, you voluntarily put on the microphone to hear this ‘music’ he recreated through his mouth. It remained in my ears long after I exited.
And then there was ‘Negative Incursion’, a photo-negative exhibition by Rula Halawani (an East Jerusalem-born Reuters correspondent). She writes how she was “shocked” and “frozen” post the March 28, 2002, Israeli occupation at Ramallah as the streets didn’t seem the way they were before, and realised that an old man she had seen walking past had just been shot dead. “I was filled with questions, without answers.” And so are we, till date.
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