Here and Elsewhere

By George Clark

the-house-is-black-forugh-farrokhzad.jpgThe House Is Black, 1963

Radical Closure looked at work that relates to or emerged from “situations of closure resulting from wars and/or political territorial conflicts.” Assembled by Lebanese artist and curator Akram Zaatari’s thematic programme at the 52nd International Short Film Festival Oberhausen examined the “Middle East as a site of successive wars, excessive division and abundant stereotyping.” The critical programme sought to draw out themes from disparate collections of work from video art to documentaries, work from Syria to former Yugoslavia.

The difficulty of authenticity and constructing a history of the fluid and constantly shifting parameters of the Middle East were obliquely explored throughout the programme. Walid Ra’ad’s Hostage: the Bachar Tapes (Lebanon/USA, 2000) is a fascinating presentation of a series of fake tapes that insert a Lebanese man into the experience of five American hostages. Ra’ad challenges the idea of authenticity as well as the political bias of western media through creating a missing side to these accounts. This work was paired with Jean Eustache’s Une Sale histoire / Une sale histoire recontée par Jean-Noël Picq / A Dirty Story / A Dirty Story Told by Jean-Noël Picq (France, 1977). The film revolves around a tale of an obscure peephole in a nightclub that moves from being an addition to the building to being the entire purpose of the building. This reversal is further compounded by the repetition and mirroring within the film as the same story is told by two separate people, one appears to be documented, the other performed. The programme proposed a reading of history where “a false document is still considered a document.” AZ

khotwa-khotwa-oussama-mohammad-syria.jpgKhotwa, Khotwa, 1978

In an attempt to present an image of the Middle East neglected by standard media Zaatari presented works that looked at domestic and rural life. Hatice Güleryüz’s super8 portrait of school children The First Ones (Turkey, 2000), depicted the roots of nationalism as lines and children gather to sing the national anthem. Khotwa khotwa / Step by Step (Oussama Mohammad Syria, 1978) showed the effect of such indoctrination on traditional ways of life. This black and white documentary showed people caught between the land and the state. At one point a young man tells his brother that if he were to offend the state he wouldn’t hesitate to kill him.

Some of the most remarkable works alluded to and illuminated the conditions of life during conflict in intimate and oblique ways. The meandering narrative fragments of Mon ami Imad et le Taxi / My Friend Imad and the Taxi (Olga Nakkas, Hassen Zbib, Lebanon, 1985) come from an attempt to make a Wenders’ inspired study of modern life. What resulted is a unique portrait of Beirut in the ‘80s as we follow two protagonists who wander the war damaged city; an insider’s glimpse of a city under conflict. The pressure for artists in the Middle East to deal with the ‘issues’ as perceived from outside places artists in a peculiar predicament – where they can only see themselves filtered through the outside world. Takreem bil katel / Homage by Assassination (Palestine/USA, 1992) is a fascinating response to these problems. The film was made by the Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman while in North America. It’s a self-reflective study of the problem of distance and mediation, as Suleiman attempts to write a film that can deal with his distance from his homeland, with only images on the television and faxes from his loved ones for company.

mon-ami-imad-et-le-taxi-olha-nakkas-hassen-zbib.jpgMon ami Imad et le taxi, 1985

Two videos from Israel depicted the dehumanising effects of militarisation on modern life. Avi Mograbi’s Detail (Israel, 2004) documents a chilling encounter between a villager and an armoured vehicle. A woman pleads with the troops to help her ill father only to be responded to though the vehicle’s loudspeaker and aggressive manoeuvres. This glimpse of daily struggle is all the more disturbing for its seeming normalness. Kings of the Hill (Yael Bartana, Netherlands/Israel, 2003) depicts a social phenomenon in Israel, the nightly struggle of man and machine. It documents the nocturnal meetings where land drover bound men and families attempt to ascend banks and steep ravines. Presented as a strange ritual, the video exposes the social insecurity and one-upmanship that colours modern day Tel Aviv while also creating a modern Sisyphean myth of endless uphill struggle.

Finally, summation of the programme could be seen in The House is Black (Forough Farrokhzad, Iran, 1963), a poetic film shot amongst the dejected inhabitants of a closed community. It depicts a leper colony conditioned to despise itself. This founding work of Iranian cinema and the only completed film by renowned poet Forough Farrokhzad, is a crystalline reflection on an oppressed and abandoned community. The title comes when a child is asked to construct a sentence using the word ‘black’ and scrawls in chalk on the board “The house is black.” Here’s an instance of life radically removed from society, where even the home is cast in darkness. By bringing such works to light Radical Closure showed the populous and diverse cultures, artists and histories that make up the Middle East.

George Clark is a writer and curator. He currently works for the Independent Cinema Office.