Save and Burn in Singapore

By Vinita Ramani

Save and Burn, 2004

Montral-based film artist Julian Samuel's 2004 work Save and Burn, on democracy and libraries and the current destruction of archives in Palestine and Iraq, could not more timely

Vinita Ramani
: Broadly-speaking, The Library in Crisis dealt with bibliocide (a term used by Ian McLachlan) and the increasing digitisation of texts – in a sense, the ‘crises’ referred to in the title. Save and Burn has honed in on a more specific issue: the systematic preservation and destruction of knowledge/texts. What do you see as the trajectory from the first documentary to the second?

Julian Samuel: I didn't plan a trajectory but there is one which I'll tell you about... I write a documentary treatment after reading many books on a particular subject and then approach funders. After a few rejections I get a tiny budget on which to live and produce.

VR: So, do you see documentary films having some effect on our understanding of history and politics?

JS: Documentaries, on their own, accomplish nothing politically; they record symptoms. If they could change an understanding of reality, and how to act, then why haven’t they had any large-scale progressive effect on society? Despite the making of many critical documentaries, the economic right and the religious right are hitting us in coercive ways. Rent control and the Magna Carta all down the drain, and it’s all Michael Moore's fault.

VR: There's an intellectual density in both your recent documentaries that is quite different or lacking in the new wave of ‘activist’ films that have emerged of late, since 2000 and the WTO protests, in particular.

JS: Someone has to make dense documentaries – otherwise we’d all be making documentaries like The Corporation and Bowling for Columbine, which are visually fun, easy and comic, but analytically as deep as a fried Mars Bar. The directors offer no criticism of Caterpillar Corp and its support of Israel, for instance.

VR: While you hint at the great intellectual traditions of Asia and Africa, the documentary is very much focused on libraries in Europe or the ‘West’.

JS: Sadly, much is missing from Save and Burn. My excuse is that they didn't give me much money. It would have been useful to have included in-depth discussions from other parts of the world such as Africa, Asia, the Arctic and Antarctica. This would have filled in all the geobibliographic holes. And, it would have been great to shoot the books in grain-less 35mm. A visual exploration (in IMAX) of the 13th century wood printing blocks at The Temple of Haeinsa would have been enriching. However, I think that with Save and Burn I have provided classical linkages between the master races and the others: England and Ireland; Palestine and America; America and Iraq. I have not explored the role between libraries in the Mediterranean region and their impact on the development of this one-sided democracy in Europe. The documentary makes the links between empire and knowledge institutions apparent. The trajectory from Save and Burn is now a documentary on Atheism. Will George Soros please help me? I only want a millionth of his wealth.

save-and-burn-julian-samuel.jpgSave and Burn, 2004

VR: Alistair Black (Leeds Metropolitan University) and John Feather identify the specific relationship between libraries and the advent of modernity, in how the growth of the individual or ‘self’ was integral to the Enlightenment project. But Black identifies the controlling aspects of libraries as well: they are bureaucracies par excellence. This is a tension present throughout the film (freedom and control in relation to knowledge). Is this a specifically western experience?

JS: Modernity? What's that? Save and Burn slowly leads us to the following kind of question: Is western democracy falling apart in the eyes of everyone else? Western democracy – with its legal trade rules and legally sanctioned moral values in place – is transparently terrorizing resources out of vast areas of the world. Left documentary film-makers try to get answers from experts in order to produce an abridged yet broad version of history and politics. And, unfortunately, documentaries produce culturalists who know the world’s problems but who can only vote in a certain way; go to demonstrations; have political discussions at supper time, and buy samosas on solidarity nights. I won’t put you in a cultural studies coma by doing a Chomskian repetition of what’s wrong with the world, don’t worry.

VR: Save and Burn also touches upon contrasts/tensions in relation to perceptions of class and access to knowledge. Alistair Black is sceptical of the claim that the working classes benefited from libraries: he says they were rarely the constituency that used libraries. You juxtapose this with Irish author Declan Kiberd's resoundingly positive perception that libraries for the Irish were and are almost utopian spaces, following the 19th century reading room tradition, where issues in the community can be debated, read about, shared. What is the intention of these juxtapositions?

JS: It would appear that I have a sociological reflex-inducted during schooling.

VR: Nevertheless, the humour aside, you are suggesting something with these recurring discussions on freedom, democracy and access to knowledge.

JS: What’s the conclusion? Libraries actually produce a knowledge of how to practice democracy at home and export terror abroad; this is one obvious, preliminary conclusion. The current-day British Labour Party members all have a knowledge of social democracy because of the libraries they used – packed to the gills with English Marxism and even more flashy Euro-Marxism. Many of them were arrested for protesting during the last century.

At the center of the documentary are the comments on the catalogue. The library catalogue controls access to sections of knowledge. The techno-culturalist and historical discussion at the beginning of Save and Burn takes us to the destruction of the library catalogue in Palestine. Here, western democracy falls to bits. The Palestinians, as people everywhere, see through western democracy's terror-laden values.

VR: Save and Burn also reveals a strong relationship between history and libraries. Alarmingly, we can no longer speak of historiography if, as Tom Twiss (Govt. Information Librarian, Pittsburgh), Isam al Khafaji (ex-advisor to US forces in Iraq) and Erling Bergan collectively identify how Iraqi libraries and museums are being systematically burnt and destroyed, and books are not reaching Palestinian libraries. History is being altered by what is saved and what is burnt. What is the future then, from your perspective? How does one respond to these ‘cultural war crimes’, as Ross Shimmon points out?

JS: The future? Most documentary film-makers are non-experts who are in one way or another looking for answers to advance a general knowledge which will lead to criticism, action, Eden. Viewers should understand that film-makers put them in the precarious position of trusting these film-makers. The questions encompassed by Save and Burn are posed by a non-expert. I have tried to offer in-depth knowledge of libraries across many voices.

The conclusion of the documentary asks: Western democracies are encouraging Israel and other places (via innocent tax payers in Austin, Warlingham and Canberra) to do one illegal thing after the next. The mad search for weapons of mass hypnosis is like the search for God itself. Many people at the other end of American foreign policy see nothing ‘western’ nor ‘democratic’ but see hypocrisy personified in various heads of states. You should have heard the analysis the shoe-shine man in Cairo gave me about 9/11.

So what political models can ‘they’ out there look for? Can they make an economically competitive state via an investment in Islamic or non-western values? More questions for an expert. The idea of investing in western democratic values is exhausted, not simply because western democracy is so easy to see through but because democracy, give or take a Patriot Act or two, is structured fundamentally to supply a bit of democracy at home while fully financing dictators and their armies the world over.

This interview was conducted for the 18th Singapore International Film Festival ( Many thanks to the festival and venue curators and staff for permission to reprint this article.

Julian Samuel is a film-maker and writer; he lives in Montreal. His documentaries on Orientalism examine the historical and political relationship between the West, the Middle East and Asia. Recent works include The Library in Crisis and Save and Burn.

Vinita Ramani lives and works in Singapore.