IINTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL AMSTERDAM
NOV 17 TO NOV 27 2011
I attended IDFA and was able to view some 23 films in five days.
One of the issues highlighted for me at IDFA:
How to transpose active relations into the life of a film?
There are various ways in which an idea or notion of reality can be shaped and givensubstance in a documentary film.
Among the films that I viewed in Amsterdam one form of documentary film making in particular caught my attention.Films shot from within a process.This particular way of making a film attracted positive responses from audiences perhaps because by their nature these films demand a critical engagement and shape an interaction with the material that tends to be more passive than active.These films elicit a need to respond to what has been seen.
This particular group of films that interested me took their form and salient characteristic from being shot (or in the case of 5 Broken Cameras the significant defining material) by individuals strategically placed in a dynamic and changing situation.These were films shot from within an unfolding of relations and made possible by lightweight cameras and simple but powerful editing systems that enabled a lot of material to be shot using different systems and simply controlled.
Examples of the films situated within a matrix of relations were two from the Middle East, one from Iran (This is not a Film by Jafar Panahi which I will consider separately in another piece of writing) , and one from Europe, Fredrik Gerrten’sBig Boys Gone Bananas, a very strong example of a European film that is total process, embedded in a context that is filmed as it develops and plays out.
The two Middle Eastern films that interested me were located in Palestine.Five Broken Cameras (co directedby Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi) andMarcus Vetter’s Cinema Jenin both articulated a process that was part of a wider fateful working out of both individual and collective destiny.
Cinema Jenin was directed by Marcus Vetter who as well as directing played the lead role in the eponymous project of renovating an abandoned and dilapidated cinema in Jenin.Although credited with one director and one editor, Cinema Jenin has the feel of a collective project in which individuals such as Ishmael (a previous subject of Vetter’s work in Jenin) and other political and social groupings in Jenin, are core to filmic making and unfolding.Film maker Vetter takes on the lead role in the cinema project and locates himself at the heart of the complex interplay of the social and political relations in Jenin which shape and mould the process of both rebuilding the cinema and making the film.As film maker Vetter is committed to the actual project and plays a key part in the process that engages the resources and enters into the critical social and political relations that make a successful outcome possible.Marcus Vetter is in Jenin.And that ‘being in’ has the effect of engaging with dynamic relations that the camera not only captures but affects.There is a sense in which the camera itself becomes a player.The camerain the continuous action of filming creates a feedback loop. It becomes not just a point of reference, but also part of the questioning and decision making processes. Perhaps in itself the camera becomes an attitude/behaviour modifier at the individual level as an immediate source of image feedback. The knowledge that everyone is ‘in’ the Jenin movie is a fateful realisation, which turns the camera into a force that affects individuals so that different realities attain a certain visibility particularly in the political domain.During the editing of the film, Julliano one of those in the process, in the intensely political dialogue which is a defining element of relations in Jenin is shot dead, murdered outside the cinema.Was this part of the film or an event that we can bracket outside the film?I don’t know but I felt that the core questions that unfolded in the process of filming were central to what was happening in both in Cinema Jenin and 5 Broken Cameras.
Being in the situation and filming from within a process creates films that pull on emotive cognitive and intellectual responses of those within this unfolding. Participantsare confronted by themselves presented as image in film.They are accompanied by a constant mirror image which crystalises their movement through time.In the recoding of the unfolding of relations there is no hiding place either from the virtual audience of the self or from the wider projected world of viewers. The unfolding of relations in the movie creates situations of a completely different dynamic from the normal artificial and controlled interview situation typical of most docs, where the interviewees are easily able to present the facets of issues that suit their purposes.Seeing material from within process, even allowing for the controlling aspect of editing presents a more contradictory but more challenging picture for audiences to understand.Audience response indicates that this is a challenge to which audiences respond very positively.
Burnat’s 5 Broken Cameras, each of which is smashed or broken during his filming of the Israeli occupation, develop into more than just tools that record the terrible and unsettling events that he films.His camera, as an invariable presence recording the Israeli incursion, becomes part of the developing dialogue within the Palestinian community in Bil’in.The core dialogue in Bil’in and amongst the Palestinians is about how they can best resist the Israelis and what relations they should have with sympathetic Israelis.Burnat’s camera becomes part of the thinking about the situation. His camera is part of the process of understanding what is happening to the village and the effects of their response to events.Viewed by the villages Burnat’s footage becomes part of a feed back loop, feeding into the villagers understanding and evaluation of their actions as they oppose the Israelis, andeffecting modifications and planning about actions they have taken and will take in the future.The camera as thought.
Both Jenin and 5 Broken Cameras seem to be part of a re-evaluating by Palestinians of the means by which the Israelis can be opposed.Confrontation with the Israelis by force of arms is not the only means of fighting; in certain situations such as those in Bil’in it may be counter productive and other strategies using other tactics may be more effective. With the addition of filming as a feed back loop, opposition using techniques of civil disobedience and non violent protest become effective in affirming Palestinian self beliefand in achieving the goal of forcing Israel to look at itself and even to make concessions.The actuality recorded by Burnat is shocking; but the filmennobles the Palestinian cause and strategy of non violence and communicates it not just to the world wide audience but also to Israelis.
Filming to the extent that it is part of the thought processes in the Palestinian discourse becomes a conduit for reaching out to Israelis.Film as part of the way of thinking about what is happening, can work to legitimise intra-Israeli resistance to their own government and empower some Israelis to actively support Palestinian resistance.The act of filming in both 5 Cameras and Cinema Jenin,becomesreflection images that reach and penetrate into Israel.As a strategy it is controversial but as a development it proposes another type of path towards Palestinian self determination which has the possibility of breaking down the Israeli mind set from within: a Palestinian Trojan Horse.
From the point of view of the audience these two films, Jenin and 5 Broken Cameras demand a level of active engagement with the material. They are not shot from a notional point of neutrality. There’s no doubt about the point of view from which the film expresses itself. There is no doubt about the partisan nature of film making.Because this is completely transparent the audience know the grounds on which to base reservations or criticism and are also sensitised to bias and fabrication.They are put on the alert to evaluate what they are presented with.The are challenged to view the material with critical tools of appraisal.
The viewers are exposed in these films to self believed Palestinian utterances and discourses.The viewers are in a position where neutrality or even indifference in respect of the relations revealed is challenged.Relations of power, territoriality, hierarchy and politics and social concerns. 5 Broken Cameras (5BC) through the continuous filming of Burnat over 6 years, is part of the process of witnessing and resisting Israeli development of illegal West bank settlements, occupation. land theft and wall erection.The film and the film makers are part of the forces of opposition by the villagers of Bil’in to the mechanical forces of Israeli occupation.Burnat’s camera is not just a tool not only a means to record. Through the medium of the footage the audience also becomes part of the thinking about the process of resistance to what seems to be a superior physical force.
To deny what the Burnat’s camera films, as some will do, you have to think about the material in a specific manner.You have to believe either that 5 Broken Cameras is a perverse project, whose objective is distortion and fabrication. Or that it is an unwitting project, in which a naïve subject Burnat is exploited for his limited capacity to see and film only from one limited perspective.The beauty of the documentary film is that the evidence is in the film.However much these films may be edited, the integrity of the process in which they are enfolded remains.All viewers are equal in viewing and evaluating the relations with which they are presented.And it is this integrity to which viewers respond.