This text is a reflection on three works: two by Waël Noureddine and one by Bouchra Khalili. There is an obvious relationship between the first two of these films, which form a kind of disturbing diptych on Beirut. The much shorter third work is woven from oscillating images of a port city that the filmmaker chooses to present as anonymous, but which we as viewers venture to place at the other extreme of a Mediterranean torn apart by borders and pierced by resistances.
An underground connection runs beneath these three works: the image as a diaphanous mirror reflecting a supposed reality is now irremediably broken, either in its construction or in its intention. Reality is no longer there to be represented, and so it must be imagined: it must first be seen in images, in order to later emanate from them. And then, as in an act of exorcism, something shatters and the visions offered in these works become an actual fragment of reality, rather than representing it.
We are living at a time in which heterogeneous traditions and forms of experience radically question not only the concept of reality, but the very experience of the real. The result is not the evanescent reality of postmodernity—more solid in its relativism than objective reality—but an irruption from the unknown. What Bataille called a catastrophe for consciousness (1).
And it is here that the game of representation becomes sinister: “(…) representation, or more particularly the act of representing (and hence reducing) others, almost always involves violence of some sort to the subject of the representation, as well as a contrast between the violence of the act of representing something and the clam exterior of the representation itself, the image – verbal, visual or otherwise – of the subject. Whether you call it a spectacular, or an exotic image, or a scholarly representation, there is always this paradoxical contrast between the surface, which seems to be in control, and the process which produces it, which inevitably involves some degree of violence, decontextualization, miniaturization, etc. The action or process of representing implies control, it implies accumulation, it implies confinement, it implies a certain kind of estrangement or disorientation…” (2).
This underground tension is extreme in the case of Waël’s video-films, given that their point of departure is a city wounded by war – not just by the armed conflict, but also by other parallel wars that perhaps precede it and will certainly outlast it. The films drift through the scars of the city – in its architecture, in the people who inhabit it – and also through the scars in the social body, in its memory or the wish to forget, in its broken imaginaries, in its dreams and its narcotic drive. One of the films, July Trip, begins with a quote from Rainer W. Fassbinder: “We cannot make films about war”. In Waël’s films, the tension with that should be represented certainly becomes impossible. The representation shatters, and the film itself breaks into pieces, becomes war: 16mm film images collide with HD video, the screen constantly flips between different formats and textures, interrupted scenic shots, oscillations, repetitions, fragments of texts and poems, painful memories “it was from this building (a skyscraper in ruins) that militants flung others into the void,” fantasies of real suicide, the compulsive search for “metallic” and armed medicine. The point at which the precise daily ritual of waking up, getting up… quickly founders into the unpredictable “everyday day awakens, shave my beard, don’t brush my teeth, take some whisky, look through the windows. You only see victims”.
Waël’s video-films thus rebel against that calm surface of representation that Edward Said talked about. We could say that his camera does not capture reality, but rather blasts away at the spectacular master film of representation, that which aims to serve up a satellite, “objective” vision, that which, day by day, constructs the dominant imaginary that we end up calling reality through a process of autosuggestion.
It is then that “only the total refusal of reality reveals it to us in its reality, reveals it to us in its truth. Only the total refusal of the world speaks the truth of the world to us. But this radical gesture of refusal is no longer the modern gesture that would announce a new beginning after destruction and prepare the way for it. There is no absolute beginning because the tabula rasa offers us no absolute truth whatsoever. The total refusal of reality offers us only ‘a single’ truth about reality. This is our truth.”(3).
In a strange and meaningful coincidence, Bouchra Khalili’s “Vue Panoramique” also contains a reference to Fassbinder. This time, a dialogue from “Die Dritte Generation” provides a structural base for the video, guiding us through a series of hypnotic images: the swaying of a cabin suspended over an occupied sea, overpopulated by speculation, a giant screen that nobody will look at for more than a few seconds. Images of nothing for nobody, that invite us to look; a vortex of the void that remains in the wake of consumption. In the silence of this contemplation, in a slow twilight journey, we are plunged into sadness and tedium, into a state in which the bland and the spectacular drift into a single continuum. And at precisely that moment, we are offered the image as exorcism: “as long as films are sad, life isn’t”.
Representation thus takes on a very different nature, it cracks in its depths, not in its surface or construction, but in its purpose, its very nature: “film is a lie 25 times a second, and because it’s a lie, it’s also a truth.”
There lies the importance of constructing our own imaginaries, given that reality itself is at stake.
(1) Georges Bataille, L’Art, exercise de la cruauté (Art, an Exercise in Cruelty)
(2) Edward Said. In the Shadow of the West. An interview with Jonathan Crary and Phil Mariani…in “Power Politics and Culture”. Bloomsbury, London 2004
(3) Santiago López Petit, La movilización global.