When Signs Come Home to Roost: Dan Geva’s Description of a Memory

By Catherine Lupton

description-of-a-memory-dan-geva-2.jpgDescription of a Memory, 2006

What does it mean to remember a film? The magnet in that question is remember: the ready seduction of memory, for ourselves alone and for the wider culture we inhabit. But always undergirding that attraction are the lightning fork paths of meaning-making by which we arrive at memory, paths traversed so quickly to arrive at what we remember, that they themselves remain invisible, unconsidered.

In 1960, at the invitation of the Dutch film producer Wim Van Leer, Chris Marker travelled to the then teenage state of Israel to film Description of a Struggle. With a reputation already established for A Sunday in Peking (1956) and Letter from Siberia (1958), both incisive personal essay-films despatched from countries and regions in a state of dynamic transition, Marker seized on the paradoxes of Israel’s existence as a nation via a surrealist conjunction and interrogation of audiovisual signs. The chance meeting of owls and oscilloscopes, camels and road signs, delivery trolleys and Olympic sports, wrecked tanks and diminutive ice cream cones, on an unseen canvas painted intently by a teenage girl who will never be Anne Frank. These signs collide in the paradox that Israel is there at all, conjured onto the map out of hope and belief. That as a modern nation, it has earned the right to prosperity, and to what the commentary calls the vanity, blindness and egotism of nations; yet because of the circumstances of its creation, out of the ravages of persecution and injustice, it has a greater responsibility than other nations not to pursue this inheritance. That it promotes the utopian example of sanctified minorities – the kibbutzim and the ultra-orthodox Jewish communities – as an alibi for steadily accommodating itself to the exact opposite of their values: capitalism, consumerism and materialism; and for remaining aspect blind to the fate of the Arab population, that other significant minority within its borders.

Marker brings to his filmed and photographed encounter with Israel the keen x-ray eye of the well-travelled outsider, who notices what the native citizen would prefer not to, or simply takes for granted. Yet Marker himself remained the outsider: arriving, recording the material for his film, leaving and never coming back. His signs grasp a moment of history in the making, but Israel’s history moves on, and the signs become progressively unstuck. Although in later films like A Grin Without a Cat (1977/1988), Sunless (1982) and The Last Bolshevik (1993), Marker would become an adept at revisiting and reworking images of the past, opening them up to fresh questions compelled by the ever-shifting terrain of the present, his journey to Israel for Description of a Struggle would remain sidelined, unexamined. Eventually, under pressure from events spinning Israel’s history too far out of kilter with the representation he had proffered, Marker would seek to silence the film altogether: withdrawing his consent for public screenings in the wake of the seizure of the Occupied Territories during the 1967 Six-Day War.

description-of-a-struggle-chris-marker.jpgDescription of a Struggle, 1961

Piqued by memories of this film about his homeland, and nagged by the insider’s awareness of an even more paradoxical history than Chris Marker was able to perceive and describe, Israeli filmmaker Dan Geva’s Description of a Memory (2006) examines the contemporary state of Israel, now nearing 60, through the flipsides of Marker’s signs. Presented as ‘thirteen filmed memories following Description of a Struggle by Chris Marker’, the joy and reward of Geva’s film (to which Marker has given his blessing and support), is that he honours thoroughly the spirit of essayism in which the original film was conceived. The film essay, among its other achievements, opens up to scrutiny the very processes of thought and meaning-making through audiovisual images, and in so doing delineates the boundary of its own limitations and fallibility.

As Marker makes clear in Description of a Struggle the to-and-fro of meaning between still photographs and moving images, or highlights the creative hunch which prompts him to match a certain sound with a certain image (the Olympic crowds cheering the young delivery boy Ali on his wheeled trolley in the sloping streets of Haifa); so Geva is meticulous in making images appear selected , crafted and reflected upon, never letting them pass for obvious. A constant refrain in the film are the ‘insignificant details’ that Geva picks out of highlighted shots: punctum hooks like crooked fingers, simple sandals and furry collars that on the surface say nothing about their subject, yet constantly prompt us to look closely, beneath the obvious meaning, for what Walter Benjamin called the optical unconscious of the photographic image. When citing stills and footage from Marker’s film, Geva employs both a good quality print and one with the telltale magenta tinge of colour degradation; he runs sequences backwards and flips certain images back to front. His contemporary footage of Israel, meanwhile, is shot with a wide-angle lens, but always roving too close to its subject for comfort, so that the edges and foreground of the image are bent around and distorted. Travelling through ranks of soldiers taking their oath of loyalty at the Wailing Wall, the lens sucks their rifles forward into the picture plane while their faces disappear off the edge: an apt allegory for a nation which, the commentary says, readily sacrifices its youth to kill and be killed.

description-of-a-memory-dan-geva.jpgDescription of a Memory, 2006

Through these formal tactics Geva at every turn puts Marker’s signs under scrutiny and back to work within the painful complexities of Israel’s contemporary existence. He ponders the kind of questions that Marker’s filmmaking has schooled us to ask, about the histories that lie occluded and repressed behind iconic images and official versions of truth, but in circumstances where Marker himself didn’t know, couldn’t see, how to ask them. Against the imagined Olympic dreams of Marker’s delicate Ali, coasting through Haifa, Geva poses the savage hopelessness of his own Ali, another young delivery boy with a cart, this time filmed in Jerusalem, who winds up a suicide bomber. Geva also discovers through local enquiries (he himself comes from Haifa) a man who claims to remember the original Ali being hit over the head by an English policeman and suffering brain damage as a result. Description of a Struggle remains a key to Israel’s history and memory – Geva using stills or sequences from the film as a prompt when trying to track down the original subjects, or get them to remember things – but as an accretion of fixed signs, it is always inadequate to encompass how that history and memory shift, blur, and take unexpected detours.

The more Geva ponders Marker’s signs, the more slippery and enigmatic they become. Subjects confront his own camera with frank unspeaking stares, ‘not there for appearances alone.’ To offer a way of a kind through the impossibility, Geva turns firstly to his own personal history, and finally to his founding memory of Marker’s film. The ‘second memory’ of Description of a Memory opens with home movie footage of Geva as a child with Ami Yonati, his friend from birth. In the penultimate memory, the adult Dan and Ami part ways. Ami has become a Zionist settler in the Gaza strip, and Geva films his gutted house prior to demolition after the family are evicted. There is no rancour expressed within the film, Geva voices the fundamental rift between them simply and eloquently in the elsewhere of the soundtrack. Where Ami saw the sacred redemption of land and the fulfilment of a promise for a holy kingdom, Dan saw the shame of persecution and wished instead for a humble civil state.

Description of a Memory opens with the final image of Marker’s film, the young girl painting at an easel who is recruited to function as a sign of Israel itself. We are invited by the original to look at her until the process of signification itself comes to a halt, and we recognise that she is simply there, ‘like a cygnet, like a cipher, like a sign.’ Seeking a conclusion, there is a sleight of thought at work in Marker’s commentary here, asking us to suspend all the work of questioning, understanding and meaning-making that the entire film has undertaken, and just to take the girl’s (and Israel’s) existence on trust. Geva, discreetly, is not satisfied with this. He goes in search of the girl, and in the final memory finds that she who was recruited by Marker to stand for Israel and its future has chosen to make her life outside it, in England. Against the contrived stasis of Marker’s sign, Geva and Illana Richardson (for that is her name) mobilise footage of the living woman now, and her photographed memories of the life she has made for herself. Marker’s iconic photographs of Illana are qualified and made relative to the internal narrative of her own family album. While a Marker aficionado might seize on and revere those images of her at her easel in 1960, for Illana this is only one moment in her life’s story, and possibly far from the most important one. Instead, we are offered another photograph of the young woman who once stood for Israel, and asked to see not the sign, but the living human being. Geva’s film wisely stops well short of resolving Israel’s history into anything more tractable, but offers as its grace a means by which the signs of that history may at least be kept alive, mobile and newly provoking.

Catherine Lupton teaches Film Studies at Roehampton University and is the author of Chris Marker: Memories of the Future (Reaktion, 2005). She is currently publishing on essay film and researching images of the whole world in photography and film.