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“Le monde entier, c’est trop pour une image” (Ici et ailleurs, Jean-Luc Godard)
inema and its analogue, video, have often taken on the burden of representing war and its effects. Here I am interested in the ethics, limits, and strategies of this kind of visual “exposure” of militarism in environments where explanatory narratives often fail. To confront questions of history in “post civil-war” (is there yet a ‘post?’) Lebanese film and video is often to encounter images that try to represent layers, density, and thickness. The work of videomakers and filmmakers like Akram Zaatari, Ghassan Salhab, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Maher Abi Samra, Mohamed Soueid, or Lamia Joreige often takes the density of history-in-the-present as its central problematic. In different ways, nonfiction and fiction work by artists such as these has created a conceptual method of archaeology as personal memories are found buried in political and social events, urban space is excavated for the repressed histories it holds, and a kind of social amnesia about the civil war is challenged by exposing the ever-present strains of militarism within the body politic as well as outside its borders. Makers and critics alike have played with the tropes of visibility and invisibility that such work requires: latency, for example, in the work of Joreige and Hadjithomas, alert to the unconscious image-bank evoked in Freud’s theorization of dreams; ambivalence, in the factual and fictitious images that intersect in the work of Walid Raad and the Atlas Group; or the less-than-supernatural ghosts and vampires of Ghassan Salhab’s feature films like Beirut Phantom (1998) or The Last Man (2006) which seem to haunt or devour the present with the past.
Salhab’s (Posthumous) (2007), a documentary essay film made immediately after Israel’s 2006 aerial bombardment of Lebanon, suggests a different model of the image that both clarifies and obscures: the palimpsest. Here the video image is not something that clearly presents but something whose layers obscure even as they reveal, their transparency offering porosity and combination rather than density and substitution. The convention of the cinematic dissolve, where one image slowly replaces another in a moment that is subordinated to the non-porous, definitive shot either side of the edit, is here perverted: the extended duration of the superimposition becomes itself the logic of the shot as we are forced to contemplate, deduce, and interpret more than one image simultaneously. Such transparency toys with cinema’s binaries, creating a dense mise-en-scène even as it relies on editing to achieve it; combination trumps selection even as it creates a new discrete image.
To what end? Polyphony: voices that speak multiply and simultaneously (a polyphony of music, location noise, spoken poetry, and news commentary exists on the soundtrack, too) and that avow the ethical impossibility of simply or masterfully re-presenting the traumatic wounds of militarism. A travelling shot that leads us through broken streets slows down and the video sequence begins to eerily roll back in reverse; images of destruction are overlapped with faces, news channel logos, and military animations. In rejecting the ease of the many realist documentaries that followed the 2006 war, with their usually clear-cut narratives of events, Salhab’s film turns its attention to the act of filming and the nature of witnessing, repeatedly asking: in a moment where images were profuse and inescapable via television, cellphone, or the internet, and when Israel deliberately “left the lights on” (not immediate targeting electricity generation, as previous bombing campaigns had done) was it thus possible for Lebanese to witness their own death live on television? Was this overwhelming flow of images itself part of militarism’s own logic? Was to make more images simply to collude with the excess, to add to the mortal flood?
Perhaps the layered image was demanded much earlier by Jean-Luc Godard’s essay film about Lebanon, Palestine, and France, Ici et ailleurs (1976), with its suggestion (quoted above) that the whole word is just too much for a single image. Yet even there, Godard manages enormity and complexity with a frame comprised of pieces. The palimpsest in Salhab’s video, with its promise of seeing everything, including one’s own destruction, transforms the stuff of war into fields of view at once mutually apprehensible yet impossible to parse.