Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Eran Riklis' Lemon Tree and Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers

The rule of law (or perceived rule of the perceived law) functions as a framework in both Eran Riklis' 2008 Lemon Tree and in Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 Battle of Algiers. While on the surface Battle of Algiers appears to be a so called 'even' portrayal of the events in the Algerian capital prior to independence, it serves to expose several elements that are later applied in occupied Palestine to legitimize the occupation, elements which are largely ignored and even perpetuated by Lemon Tree. The first, legitimization of violence, exemplified by the Colonel Matheiu character in Battle of Algiers ("We've requested a carte blanche, but that's very difficult to obtain. Therefore, it's necessary to find an excuse to legitimize our intervention and make it possible. It's necessary to create this for ourselves, this excuse."[1]) is further expanded upon and criticized in Eyal Weizman's essay dealing with the concept of "lawfare" where he explains the ways in which modern International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is used to justify violence[2]. As opposed to its use in Battle of Algiers, where the concept was presented as a perverse military tactic, in Lemon Tree it is presented as a catalyst of violence instead of what it really is, that is, the justification thereof. While still taking a negative role in the overall plot of the film, the justification (possible security threat of the lemon tree orchard) of the violence (cutting down the lemon trees) is presented as the catalyst for said violence (it is what sparks Hiam Abbass's character, Salma to go on her legal battle). As such, it displaces the justification of violence to the role of plot device, instead of an actual issue to be dealt with, thus diffusing its importance and avoiding the larger meaning thereof. This can be regarded as another instance of Israeli cinema's tendency to "mirror and reassert cultural and political concepts that stand in the way of any sustainable solution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict."[3]

The other concept explored and exposed in Battle of Algeirs is the (illusion of the) rule of law. The Colonel Matheiu character is again employed in a way that exposes the illusion of law in a military situation when he asks if they should question suspects "like the courts, taking a few months" (and promptly reminded by a reporter that "the law's often inconvenient"[4]). Lemon Tree on the other hand, takes the matter of the law literally, and gives us the illusion of justice as presented first in the regional and then Supreme Court, with Salma appealing the military's decision. While operating within a legal system would present an image of justice, the film is ignorant to the politics behind the court's decision and we can only infer the influence the defense minster character (Doron Tavory) would have had over this decision. Thus, Salma's experience with the judicial system not only displaces responsibility of Navon's actions to an impersonal bureaucracy, much in the same way that the one way mirror system would have done at the Allenby Bridge terminal[5] but also displaces Salma's struggle from that of a Palestinian woman fighting for her orchard with the Israeli occupier, to simply that of a woman fighting for her orchard, avoiding and subverting it from a "concrete reality"[6].

As such, Lemon Tree functions as an Israeli film that earnestly tries to bridge the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but ultimately (and most likely unintentionally) does little more than dramatize and displace it to an escapist emotional nether-realm to be consumed by an audience willing to face said issue but not willing to have to deal with it.

[1] The Battle of Algiers. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966, (00'58'16")

[2] Weizman, Eyal. “Lawfare in Gaza: Legislative Attack.” Open Democracy (March 2009). (Accessed 24 November 2009).

[3] Naaman, Dorit. “Elusive Frontiers: Borders in Israeli and Palestinian Cinemas.” Third Text, Vol. 20, Issue 3/4, May/July, 2006. 511.

[4] The Battle of Algiers., 1966, (1'30'23")

[5] Weizman, Eyal. “Checkpoints: The Split Sovereign and the One-Way Mirror.” Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation. London; New York: Verso, 2007. 139-159.

[6] Naaman, 2006, 513

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention

Suleiman's Divine Intervention uses the concept of Foucault's "effective history" to transform the "historian's history" that the nationalistic nation-state uses to assert its validity into a different form of time which challenges it. Suleiman does this using both the narrative and the form of Divine Intervention.

As he explains in the interview, by discovering nonlinear cinema and using this mode of narration to advance his story, he is expressing his resentment to the "usual mode of representation" that he associates with the "falsity in the way that … many films are constructed"[1]. He describes this usual mode of representation in which many films are constructed as "films that on the surface looked harmless, but in fact were proposing a hidden political platform, an equivalency"[2]. In order to avoid conforming to this mode of representation, he breaks down linearity with both his non-linear structure (often different parts of the story are not presented in the chronological order that they would have happened) but also in the melding of reality and dream-imagery. While the story advances, some scenes (like the scene where E.S. arranges post-it notes on his wall with descriptions of the other scenes in the film) imply not only that some scenes in the film might be part of a fiction defined by another part of the film, but also that their linearity is constantly changing as E.S. rearranges the notes on his wall. In this sense, this is a quite literal visual illustration of Foucault's transformation of history into a totally different form of time.

Regarding the discourse around nation states and nationalism, Suleiman uses both the withholding of information (like the identity of Manal Khader's character and her relationship to E.S.) and the overabundance of thereof to the point of fantasy (as in the Palestinian ninja sequence and tank explosion) to illustrate his point. When discussing the concept and importance of silence in his film, Suleiman points out that he uses it not only for politics ("silence is very political – what it conveys depends on how you use it"[3]) but also for providing his opinion on the matter and its causes ("silence shows a breakdown of communication"[4]) and allowing the viewer to express their own ("Silence allows space for the spectator", "it allows the potentiality for the spectator to participate, to co-produce the image"[5]). As such, he not only provides an alternative to the discourse on nation-states/nationalism, but he also leaves the possibility for the viewer to add their own opinion to the discourse. Essentially the lack of information/silence is Suleiman's way of telling us that not saying/refraining from saying something can very well function as a political tool, and that the viewer should question lack of information in the same way they would the presence thereof. Further, the "breakdown of communication" shows that what is communicated in one way is not necessarily the way that it appears and might in fact function in a different way than it would seem. Often breakdown of communication is used, in Divine Intervention to express the banality of the situation (such as the tourist asking for directions and the blind prisoner providing them) which in turns shows the banality of the discourse itself. Finally, the silence that allows the spectator to participate, in addition to involving them in the decision making process of meaning, opens the door for the existence of this possibility to begin with. It essentially puts the spectator in a position where they are able not only to question what is on the screen, but further draw their own conclusions and form their own opinion on the matter (as opposed to blindly 'assimilating' opinions expressed in the film, if not straight out accepting them).

Finally, the form of Divine Intervention allows Suleiman to express his view of the Palestine that transcends a mere geopolitical entity or a nationalistic idea[6]. The fantastic imagery gives way to an abstraction of idea through form that is all encompassing. Suleiman's Palestine is in essence the entirety of the Palestinian people, their wishes, dreams, aspirations, fantasies, culture, art, hearts, souls and ninjas. It is, quite simply put, an abstract but real, an imagined but remembered, a state but not a state, a reality but also a dream, a 'Palestine'.

[1] "The Occupation (and Life) through an Absurdist Lens” The Journal of Palestine Studies. Vol. 23 No. 2 (Winter, 2003), pp. 66

[2] Ibid., 67

[3] Ibid., 68

[4] Ibid., 68

[5] Ibid., 69

[6] Ibid., 73

Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now

The importance in constructing a narrative around the contested identity of the suicide bomber lies primarily in the need to contextualize the phenomena within the historical continuum of a people's struggle for self-determination. That is, the very existence of suicide bombing in the larger context of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination is in itself a reason for constructing a narrative not only because it allows for better understanding of said struggle, but because in most cases it is used to discredit it.[1] This narrative, as presented in Paradise Now, is heavily linked to the main character's (Sayeed) melancholy following his father's collaboration with the occupier. While this does not by itself constitute a political act (in fact it removes the act of the suicide bombing entirely from the political realm) it serves to "suggest that there is no master narrative of suicide bombing" and that the melancholia that caused it is ultimately linked to the political realm because it is one of the "emotional precipitators" caused by status occupation.[2] Indeed, without the "imaginative and empathizing" process set forth by Paradise Now or its dialogue and contemplative manner of "condemnation that passes through understanding"[3], the viewer cannot determine the degree of their own complicity and involvement in the matter. [4]

But providing this kind of narrative for suicide bombings is not enough to achieve this effect on the viewer. Gana's call for the collapse of the spectacle, which in this context means the failure to present suicide bombings in a manner that is "pandering … to audiences’ unwitting lust for melodramas, intrigues, kinesthetic thrills, and technically sophisticated stunts, dazzles, or visual gags"[5] is what ultimately "uncoercively persuades viewers to suspend their judgment and begin [the process] of self-reflexivity, which might ultimately lead them to the discovery of complicity".[6] Gana provides two examples for this from Paradise Now, namely the breakdown of the camera while filming the farewell speech and the mention of the martyr video rental business. These two examples serve to demonstrate the collapse of the visual medium (film) with which the spectacle (of violence and terrorism), is linked, and by extension, the collapse of the spectacle itself.[7]

While Gana's essay brings up valid points both in terms of the spectacle and the contextualizing of suicide resistance in the historical continuum of narrative nationhood, it commits the fallacy of conforming to this same spectacle itself. For instance, the large portion of statistics regarding the Palestinian death toll from the intifada, through the 2002 Jenin massacre and all the way up to 2004 when Paradise Now was being filmed, which specifically breaks down the list of stats to children, women and elderly casualties, heavily dramatizes the issue only to diffuse it later by stating that Abu-Assad does not opt for this kind of dramatization.[8] Similarly, by referring to violations of human rights, mention of the International Court at the Hague, the European Region of Humanist International, the UN humanitarian fact sheet, the statistics about demolitions and the "facts on the ground"[9] it engages in the very illusion of mimetic realism that it later claims Paradise Now breaks down. In this sense, I am inclined to agree with the text's overall thesis, but at the same time am taking into account the fact that this thesis might not operate within the context from which it presents itself to be operating from, and is in some way hindered by the very elements which it criticizes. As such, it is essential to be able to consider Gana's work in a manner similar to the one that Paradise Now should be considered, that is, one that challenges perception while constituting politics.

[1] Nouri, Gana. “Reel Violence: Paradise Now and the Collapse of the Spectacle.” Comparative Studies of Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle-East, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2008, 25.

[2] Ibid., 34

[3] Ibid., 26

[4] Ibid., 37

[5] Ibid., 20

[6] Ibid., 37

[7] Ibid., 36

[8] Ibid., 29

[9] Ibid., 28-29