Resembling an actual combat zone, the block of ten houses in Bogota’s Cartucho zone were once known as one of the most dangerous territories in the world.. Knifings, , rapes and shootings were common daily occurrences in this fatal place, populated not only by Columbians but by poverty stricken people from all over. Even a two euro debt could warrant a death threat. . Killing was not only a practical struggle of money, , but was often celebrated in unrestrained massacres, victims struck with dozens of knife wounds, their bodies ripped open.
Cartucho wasn’t always like this. A regular slum, where inhabitants once consumed pills and marijuana, it was completely transformed when crack, morphine, cocaine and other harder drugs began to be sold and consumed in crack houses that appeared on every corner. Marked by an increasing rise in crime, the slum became a merciless death zone. Local dealers accumulated more influence and power, as they moved to occupy the terrain. In this enclosed world, simply crossing a road between two rival drug selling positions could be a question of life or death. . Undercover police officers who infiltrated the gangs in this territory often disappeared and were never heard from again. Their bodies were most probably buried under cement.
What makes Andrés Cháves Sánchez’s documentary Cartucho specific, a decisive inclusion in the Marseilles FID Festival, known for valuing complex, sublime and even sometimes contradictory forms far from the mainstream, is the fact that he illustrates life in this state of limbo in all its multiple paradoxes and ambiguities. He also includes witness statements intercut with archival images of daily street life. Throughout the doc, Cháves incorporates short interviews, capturing skeptical, and at times, aggressive commentary from those standing around, who refused to participate or collaborate in these exchanges. Cháves continues to deliver other realties, for example Cartucho’s habitants as hard working people, who sift through almost 70% of the garbage of Bogota looking for food or other useful materials. One sombre interviewee points out the seriousness and dignity of their useful work for the town of Bogota.
What is quite surprising, in this context, are the dancing parties on the streets, expressing joy and fun. These images conclude Cháves’ wide panorama of a life lived in chaos. From the distance, they look like death dances in an abyss, performed by the stunned inhabitants, who have nothing to lose, expect or fear. “We are confronted with a paradox; that joy of life often unfolds in the most unexpected situations, where death is quite near. People who have always lived in a dysfunctional society and whose health has never been a priority, seem to find it much easier to celebrate life, enjoying the little moments of intensity. ”
An even more surprising aspect is the fact that young women from elite families show up on this death ground to have a good time. Plied with alcohol and drugs, they become easy victims for paying clients, drug addicts themselves, including lawyers, engineers and other high ranking participants, who lock themselves up with these women often for days on end.
Cartucho was even utilized by medical students, who would show up in the early hours asking for cadavers, making special requests such as, “with good legs” or “not killed by knife wounds”…. The pragmatic acceptance of this level of crime even from scientists mayappear astonishing at first. Again, it documents that Cartucho was, without a doubt, accepted as a useful working tool integrated into the functioning reality of Bogota. .
Nearly 50,000 people lost their lives here, not counting those who disappeared or were buried. Uniformed officers rarely offered protection to Cartucho’s residents, but rather used them as targets for some of their wilder killing sprees, even taking advantage of the helpless homeless in the streets.
Today the terrain has completely changed. The old Cartucho buildings were destroyed and replaced by the Third Millennium Park, an area of sterile, minimalist architecture lined with plants. Some of the displaced inhabitants linger in the area, declaring that they still sense a cold and frightening silence on the ground. The zone is nearly empty. Cháves documents the reconstructed area mostly at night. Many of the people today, who did not witnesses the old Cartucho, seem oblivious to the fact that they may be walking over the largest cemetery in Bogota, where hundreds of anonymous skeletons are still buried deep in the ground.
In 2011, Andrés Cháves Sánchez filmed an experimental short documentary about an abandoned ghost town (La Hortúa). Here he focused on a crumbling, neglected hospital, which was once one of the most important hospitals in Colombia. Today, it is occupied only by squatters, protesting its closure. Cháves discreetly follows their daily life, between haunted memories and the actual silence and solitude of the inhabitants.
A film in which we see real crimes committed without the intervention of the police might in itself be enough of a reason to catch our interest, but 20th Circuit Suspects has several other attention-grabbers: one of the crime victims is the filmmaker Hesam Eslami himself; the filmmaker becomes personally involved in the lives of the criminals; and the illicit events take place in Iran, a country not known for allowing the outside world to observe the underside of its society.
The main protagonist of the film is Eshan, the leader of a gang of young thieves, whose relationship with Eslam begins after the filmmaker catches him breaking into his car. Eslami follows Eshan and his gang over the course of 6 years, during which time Eshan has several run- ins with the police, serves jail time and, with fatherly help from a devoted NGO youth worker – and encouragement from Eslami — eventually is rehabilitated, marries and starts a family. Along the way Eslami and Eshan also become close friends.
Each part of this film journey raises thought-provoking issues, both through what the filmmaker shows and what he ignores.
The most controversial question is the extent to which filmmakers can remain neutral bystanders without an obligation to intervene in the events happening around them. In the film, Eslami fails to report to the police the crimes he is witnessing – mainly the gang breaking into cars in order to steal radios and car speakers, and the wanton vandalism of billboards and other property. Did Eslami act in an ethical way?
This is a familiar debating point often raised when journalists and filmmakers return from a battlefield or other violent venue with footage of the wounded and dying. In some cases, professional dedication is valued, as for example when Associated Press photographer Burhan Ozbilici kept on taking pictures while the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated in an Ankara art gallery in 2016. Even though Ozbilici arguably could have immediately stopped working and either run to assist the victim or summoned the police, he kept on taking pictures. Yet in this case the result was widespread recognition for his perseverance, with one of his photos actually winning him the Photo of the Year prize in the 2017 World Press Photo contest.
Eslami, in a press interview, when asked about his non-intervention in the crimes of the gang, argues that he didn’t think that he could have influenced the gang’s delinquent behavior at that stage and implies that he was not there to do the job of the police. It is certainly to Eslami’s credit that the relationship he builds with the gang has a positive effect, but one wonders what would have happened if things would have turned out differently and Eshan wasn’t able to turn his life around. Not only would Eslami not have been able to create a worthwhile film, but his inaction would have amounted to mere complicity.
Another intriguing aspect of the film, is the inside look it provides of a nation that is largely cut off from much of the rest of the world. That isolation was underscored when filmmaker Eslami, in remarks read to the audience at the international premiere of 20th Circuit Suspects at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto in April, pointed out that he was denied a visa to attend the festival. Yet paradoxically, one of the most striking aspects of the film is the familiarity of the scenery and lifestyles on display – the cars that are vandalized are the same cars that are in the streets of Paris and Los Angeles, the houses the hoodlums live in could just as easily be homes in lower middle-class parts of France or California, and the way the teenagers grease their hair and choose their hairstyles is similarly universal. In addition, the Iranian NGO depicted working with Eshan and other wayward youth, which is led by a very sympathetic youth worker, also seems comparable to social welfare institutions just about anywhere.
But at the same time, noticeably absent is any depiction of the Iranian justice system, the conditions of the prison cells or treatment by police, or any critical mention of the socio-economic conditions that may have led the delinquent youth astray. Eslami allows us to penetrate deeply into the heart of his subjects but his camera keeps a narrow focus. It’s a look at life in Iran indeed but ultimately through a tiny peephole.
The limitation of storytelling that is humanistic yet lacks criticism of the wider society is also apparent in the feature films that one sees coming out of Iran, including the works of Academy-Award winning director Asghar Farhadi, and consequently should come as no surprise.
Still, 20th Circuit Suspects is well worth seeing. Watching the main character Eshan literally grow in front of the camera during the 6 years of filming — from a cocky teenager to the maturity of a young man – is a remarkable viewing experience.
In Iran, Eslami’s steadfastness has paid off and earned him several awards in local film festivals. The film can also be expected to do well outside Iran – and one can only hope that the next time 20th Circuit Suspects is screened at a foreign festival, Eslami will be able to get a visa to attend.
The term “experimental documentary” indicates a certain hesitation, if not doubt, about the concept of reality. How can reality itself be captured and represented? What are the right structures, concepts and patterns to exhibit reality? The term “documentary” refers to a “real” event, which is examined. So in one sense, “experimental documentary” questions our traditionally accepted patterns of reality, presented in logical, homogenous and narrative structures, which are able to capture and represent a reality. In another sense, the experimental documentary can be seen as an illusion, a suggestion and, in the best of cases, a diminution, directed by simplified intentions.
How can documentaries deal with events that, for example, were never officially documented either in writing or with audiovisual aids? Is this the limit of true representation?
Experimental narratives. South African filmmaker Simon Gush defies such a limitation in his work Invasion. His film re-enacts eyewitness statements in a simple and understated fashion: Actors sit on a chair in an empty, uncomfortable room, and read the accounts of those who wish to remain anonymous. An image of a landscape surrounding an artificial lake is shown on-screen. The landscape itself is insignificant, and difficult to locate. The texts speak of a South African military attack against a water resort in Lesotho, the small, land-locked kingdom surrounded by South Africa on all sides. The lake in question is the result of a contract, signed 12 years prior, between representatives of both South Africa and Lesotho – and voted on in dubious circumstances. The population of Lesotho did not want to lose their water resource to a South African industry complex. Their peaceful resistance was answered with brutal armed attacks. In comparison with other “world news” events, however, this was considered marginal.
“How can documentaries deal with events that were never officially documented?”
Insisting on telling this specific story is in itself somewhat “experimental”, proving the limits of sensitivity in an international public that’s already overwhelmed by violence and daily atrocities. By insisting on a detail, marginality is brought into question.
Reconstructing reality. The experimental reconstruction of reality could be composed by just a set of sensations and dispersed details avoiding any forced suggestions. The focus may simply be reduced to nameless voices telling their stories, beyond the delivery of specific details such as times and places.
In The Separate System, British filmmaker Katie Davies demonstrates one example of this approach. Her camera only shows specific details – like the eyes of a speaker, their notes on paper, or simple house structures, parking spots and advertisements. An empty living space is established, and it is this emptiness that becomes the main focal point of the narrative. Davies offers a space to prisoners – most of them veterans – who struggle to find their way back into civilian society. Too many years were spent in an environment where violence was stimulated and constantly practiced. Ill prepared for any kind of job or working capacity and with few personal belongings, they find themselves isolated and often mistrusted. Confronted with such frustrating situations, the occurrence of a violent outbreak is often just a question of time for some of these individuals. As such, a return to prison might be regarded as a homecoming; at least inside the prison walls they have some sort of daily structure and obligations to meet.
Davies invites the prisoners to realise the final cut themselves. This, too, is an experimental act: giving away control over one’s own film and work. One of the prisoners describes his previous military experience as training to be a killing machine; another just remembers that the loss of personal belongings is, in itself, a destruction of identity, that’s “what people do to people”. Meanwhile, the industrial aspect of a prison should not be forgotten: Prisoners have to work, and they prefer to do so, for a ridiculous salary of £1.80 per day. Other veteran prisoners articulate their discomfort to speak about their “war experiences”. The difference between the battlefields and field camps on the one hand and “normality” and civilian life on the other is too harsh. Their wish to remain silent often leads to isolation.
Fabricated facts. Another issue is that experimental documentary may open up to the fabrication of realities. In Where there is fire, there is smoke, Volker Köster from Germany refers to recently broadcast images in the French news, of demonstrations – which erupted just a few days before the European football championship in France – against the new labour laws. Virtually every national and international media outlet showed the footage of a violent attack against a police car. Mainstream journalists routinely referred to the incident, and it was used as the basis of a statement by the police department, confirming that two policemen were violently taken out of their burning car, after an inflammable object was thrown inside. This “murderous attack”, as it was quickly dubbed, formed a key element for official statements to stay away from these protests.
“A GENRE OF Experimental documentary may open up to the fabrication of realities.”
However, another version of the event is offered by alternative news outlets and social media: A person who was in the group of attackers is seen giving a subtle sign to start the camera. He then guides the female officer away, and she seems in no way surprised by his gentile manner, after he has carefully knocked on the closed door of the police car in order to get them out. The male agent who was struck by the protesters’ sticks also receives a comforting shoulder pat from this person. Director Köster resumes the confrontation from different perspectives, giving no final conclusion; he simply provides key information about the political use of the “official” version.
Unfortunately, this most important work of analytical media criticism and reality decomposition is only found in the NRW section of Oberhausen’s festival, which is the section for regional German contributions (NRW is short for North Rhine-Westphalia, the home state of the festival). You will not find a political film of this calibre in the main sections of the festival programme.
The overwhelming exclusion of social and cultural realities in the previous Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen has recently met with criticism, which in turn seems to have been fruitful. The festival appears to have returned, partially, to its own historical traces: During the cold war, it was at times a political opening to East European and Baltic territories including Russia, and later an important showcase for politically engaged filmmakers worldwide.
However, the presence of art scene curators and the gallery system are currently dominating the festival throughout its film programmes.
In Syria there is no clear front line anymore, with the regime on one side and the rebels on the other. The maps of UN mediators are all colour coded: Yellow means Assad, red is for the rebels, green is for jihadists, blue for the Kurds. And further: here you’ll find the Kurdish forces that are fighting alongside the rebels, while over there are the ones that are in alliance with Assad. Rebels backed by the United States, or rebels backed by Turkey. The map I am examining now is not focused on defining geographical areas anymore; the colour coding divides the terrain group by group, commander by commander. Rather than a map, it looks like one of those paper sheets you might find in a stationary shop, for testing pens in different colours. And there are more criminals than armed groups.
Multiple battles. After the fall of Aleppo last December, fighters and activists who didn’t surrender moved to Idlib, a city some 59 kilometres to the southwest. Idlib is ruled by two militias: Ahrar al-Sham and Tahrir al-Sham, which is actually the latest denomination of the al-Nusra Front – which in turn is described as the Syrian Al-Qaeda. “We all expect the regime to focus on Idlib now. To raze it to the ground just like they did with Aleppo. But there is no need for it,” admits the logistician who sketched the map. “Most of the time, I have to watch my back for fellow rebels, rather than for the regime forces,” he says. “We will wipe out Idlib by ourselves.”
Since the start of Russia’s intervention in support of Assad in September 2015, jihadists have been in disarray, fragmented into countless militias. They all advocate, vaguely, the enforcement of Sharia law – but they don’t have any political vision anymore. Nor do they have a military strategy. Fighters move endlessly from one group to next, but not because of ideological differences. They relocate based on where they can get more guns, or where there might be fewer airstrikes. And it is only when my map is done that I realise there is one essential group missing. The very group that all the world is supposedly here for: the Islamic State.
“Whoever wins, nothing changes in Iraq.”
For jihadists, it’s already over. Assad may be back in power in Syria – but in neighbouring Iraq, the battle for Mosul is still going. This is despite the fact that ISIS leader al-Baghdadi already conceded defeat in February, urging his men to flee and scatter, or to blow themselves up in attacks on the enemy. Al-Baghdadi himself disappeared. “The Prophet, instead, has been always on the front line like any other fighter,” I’m told by a Tunisian who has just arrived. According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, there were approximately 2 000 new jihadists were crossing every month from Turkey into Syria until recently. Today, that number is closer to 50. Is it as you expected it, I ask the Tunisian. He looks at me. “It is what it is,” he says.
Foreign fighter from holiday paradise. Over the course of the last few months, ISIS has lost about 10 000 fighters. But most importantly, it lost the Libyan city of Sirte, and it is about to lose Mosul. It is expected that Raqqa, Syria will be next. If so, the three strongholds of ISIS will all be history. In 2014, at its height, the Islamic State had 11 million inhabitants. According to the latest estimates of the Rand Corporation, that number is now down to only 2,5 million. Jihadists are still crossing the border between Syria and Turkey, but in the opposite direction. They are coming back. But with an understanding of victory and defeat that sounds quite different from ours. Because what matters, they say, is not the daily news; it’s history. The direction of history. “Before 9/11 Islam didn’t exist for you,” I’m told by a fighter who is still in Syria – let’s call him Mohamad. “Now we hit the headlines every day, everywhere. Forget Raqqa,” he says, “think of Hamtramck. Hamtramck has a Muslim majority, and it is near Detroit. It is an American city.”
“In the beginning, no one thought that the Prophet would succeed,” he said. “He was pursued and harassed so much that he had to leave Mecca. And he triumphed in Medina. Defeat is not the loss of a city, should it even be a capital city, nor is it the death of a caliph, nor of a whole army: Defeat is only the loss of the will to fight.” “In the end,” Mohamad says, “where does al-Baghdadi come from? From the defeat of bin Laden.”
And Mohamed is from the Maldives. And this points to the real problem, which is that we assume we know the world. Especially now, with the internet: it’s all on Google, isn’t it? You just need to search. But even so, how many of us know that the Maldives are a Muslim country? A country ruled by Sharia law? And an Afghanistan-like Sharia law at that, complete with public flogging? It is the non-Arab country with the highest number per capita of foreign fighters. But who would ever imagine it?
Outside of the luxurious tourist resorts, the Maldives is a nation of violence and of heroin – and most of all, of poverty. They have only 350 000 inhabitants, and as much as 3,5 billion dollars of tourism revenues yearly; they could have been like Switzerland. But the Maldivian economy is owned by a network of well-connected businessmen. All the rest of the population are packed in the capital city of Male, typically in two-room houses with ten people each. A survey on street violence found 43 per cent of respondents feel unsafe even when at home. On Himandhoo, an island that only a few years ago was an al-Qaeda emirate, I was told by the young managers of the Chuck Café, who are trying to challenge the ban on music: We don’t stand with al-Qaeda, but the answers they provide are wrong answers to right questions. To questions of concern for all of us. To calls for change.
Western jihadists. Our attention is all on Western jihadists, who are often twenty-somethings with police records for drugs, theft, petty crimes: they turn to Islam looking for a second chance. For a sort of redemption. Looking for a role, an identity. A purpose. Rather than a radicalisation of Islam, in Europe we see an Islamisation of radicalism, said French sociologist Olivier Roy. But however interesting – and challenging – Western jihadists can be for us, they are still only a few hundred. And importantly, they are quite different from other jihadists. Because jihadists speak of a universal caliphate; but for now, they seem to be deeply influenced by national backgrounds. They immediately tore down the border fence between Syria and Iraq. In Syria, the only real choice remains the choice to support Assad or stand against him, and many Syrians are viewing jihadists as simply the lesser evil. In Iraq, however, there is a showdown between the Shia majority and the Sunnis who were once in power through Saddam. For jihadists, Syria and Iraq are the same country. But they are not the same war.
And it’s like that everywhere. Jihadists have different motivating forces. And different goals. If in the Maldives fighting in Syria means fighting for justice, in Tunisia young men leave for Libya as they were once leaving for Italy, for Europe: looking for a job. They don’t want the caliphate: they want a salary. Because they are hungry. In Tunisia unemployment is so high, and so chronic, that last October in Kasserine, in the South, there has been a mass suicide attempt. But how many of us heard of it? Read about it?
Search Amazon for a book on the Maldives. You’ll find only the Lonely Planet.
“For jihadists, Syria and Iraq are the same country. But they are not the same war.”
Second class lives. When it comes to Islamic fundamentalism, the only structural cause mentioned by analysts, if any, is the Sunni-Shia divide. In other words, the same ancestral hatred that we have seen so many other places: Just like with Serbs and Croats, Hutu and Tutsi. Arabs and Jews. It all started in 1979, we are told, with the revolution in Iran. The event turned the country into a major international player once again; a champion of the oppressed which was pressuring Saudi Arabia, a country devoted more to luxury than charity, to follow. That is, to back jihadists of all sorts. The rivalry for hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia matters, of course – but that’s just one part of the picture. Today, eight individual billionaires possess as much wealth as one half of the entire world population. And within the Arab section of the world, 60 per cent of the population is under 25 years old – with no job, no property, no freedom. And most critically, no hope. Nothing. Why should they give in to a second class life?
Many jihadists are disappointed; but disappointed by ISIS, not by jihad itself. The answer they found might have been wrong, yes, but the they are still an attempt at answering the right question. “We didn’t fail,” I was told in Iraq by an al-Qaeda deserter. “We just never really tried.”
“You are here to cover the ‘liberation’ of Mosul,” he told me. “But whoever wins, nothing changes in Iraq. No Iraqi even uses the word liberation anymore.” Despite all the money the United States has spent in order to rebuild the country, no one in Baghdad remembers who their own mayor is. Whatever your problem might be – a robbery, plumbing leaks – the authority in charge is not the municipality, or the police, but a specific clan or a certain militia. The recruitment requirements of the special forces deployed in Mosul are devastatingly telling: All fighters have brothers, sons, fathers killed by jihadists. “It was the only way to get motivated men,” a general explained to the New Yorker. Because at this point, that’s what is keeping Iraq united: blood. The thirst for revenge. Nothing more.
And that’s what undermines our war on extremists: Extremists are found on both sides of the frontline.
Educating women is a sensitive subject in Afghanistan. Attacks from insurgents opposing women education are common, but often the fundamental challenges lie within the families of the girls in question, and the communities to which they belong. The search for solutions to this predicament might seem futile, but American documentarian Beth Murphy’s film What Tomorrow Brings tells a different story. The film brings hope around what often seems a hopeless struggle, and makes you realize that the true danger is not necessarily the struggle itself, but rather the compassion fatigue that we give in to when facing difficult matters which we don’t perceive as our own.
It is exactly this compassion fatigue that director Murphy seeks to change. Filmed over a period of eight years, What Tomorrow Brings chronicles the daily life in the Zabuli Education Center, a school for girls in the district of Deh Sabz, near Kabul, Afghanistan. During the Q&A at the Movies That Matter Festival in The Hague, Murphy says: «I wanted the film to be a very intimate portrayal of teachers and students, both in their homes and at school». And that is exactly what the film has become.
Sisterhood. The school was founded by Razia Jan, an Afghan woman who lived in the United States for decades and decided to return to Afghanistan to help rebuild the country. Jan had the courage and tenacity to build a school for girls, against all local pressure to build one for boys. From the very beginning she needed the approval of the village elders – a group of men with low education who told her men should be educated because they are the backbone of Afghanistan. Jan refused to give up, and replied that if men are the backbone, women are the eyes of the country, and without them, all men are blind.
«The struggles are different, but the goals are the same,» says Jan, referring to the universal goal of every teacher to give her students the best chance in life. Yet the challenges that arise on the road to reach that goal can be very distinct. At the Zabuli Education Center, the water is checked every morning to make sure it is not poisoned, and the bags of the schoolgirls are examined at the entrance.
But if there is one word to define the atmosphere in the film, «sisterhood» is it. There is a bond between the girls, and between them and their teachers. And there is a certain feeling of «girl power» that transpires from this bond.
In many ways, the Center is much more than just a school. «For each one of these girls, school is some sort of heaven. At home they are always scolded or slapped by their brothers because they didn’t bring a glass of water, or their uncles are mad because they came in the room without covering their head. The message they always receive is that they are no good. And they come to school and we tell them they are the best and we are there to help them, and that makes all the difference, and makes them grow and find that strength to stand up for themselves,» says Jan.
«For each one of these girls, school is some sort of heaven.»
Patriarchal power. The girls do seem to live in two separate worlds simultaneously. By portraying their lives from different angles, the camera unavoidably bears witness to the all-prevailing power of men – and the objectifying double standards they apply in relationship to women.
Sometimes the male concerns seem ridiculous: One group of local men are worried that the windows of the new school are not placed high enough, and that the girls can be seen from the street. Other times, however, the dangers of their intrinsic power become painfully clear. When one schoolgirl’s father takes a 16-year-old for a second wife, he stops his daughter from going to school; in order to marry his child bride, he promised his new father-in-law his own daughter’s hand in marriage in return.
Throughout the film, it seems clear that this particular form of patriarchal power is determined by an unquestioned social order and not by the inner strength of these specific men. Instead of appearing powerful, each one of them seems more like an immature teenager, privileged and aware of his gender; stubborn and ready to lie to cover up his decisions when proven wrong.
Long-term development. What makes this film powerful is that it follows the development of the school and the life of the girls over a long enough period of time to uncover not only struggles, but to also be able to look back and realize that in the long term, small steps can become gigantic steps.
The school saw its first generation of graduates in December 2015 and it now welcomes 625 girls, giving them the chance to learn, build confidence, and connect to one another. More than that, the same fathers who were originally opposed to the education of their daughters are now proud of them and amazed at what the girls can achieve.
However, although things are surely changing, the future is still uncertain. Teaching girls in Afghanistan can certainly be seen as an act of courage. But still, the story of Razia Jan’s school is not about that. Rather, it is about how this courage brought hope and fundamental change, both in the lives of the girls and in the mentality of the community. Furthermore, What Tomorrow Brings tells the true story of what one woman’s determination, strength and resilience can create in the world, one step at a time.
The 2017 edition of the Swiss film festival “Visions du Réel” in Nyon was the last to be helmed by director Luciano Barisone. This edition of the festival has confirmed, once again, that one of its main objectives is to give marginalized, abandoned, and often helpless people a chance to be seen and respected. Disconnected individuals with restricted means of communication or social comfort, who find themselves neglected by the outside world, are offered an international platform from which to reaffirm their existence. This year, Ziad Kalthoum’s astonishing Taste of Cement won the award for best feature length documentary.
Intimate and grand. Ziad Kalthoum’s award-winning documentary Taste of Cement is an audio-visual masterpiece which neatly incorporates all of these conditions. Talal Khoury’s camera rests on silent, motionless, introverted, exhausted and hopeless faces of its subjects. He effortlessly shifts from meditative, detailed images to surprising panoramas from soaring perspectives; as is the case with the opening scene, where a narrow view of the structures of a quarry open up to an overwhelming view of Beirut city.
The soundtrack is a sublime composition of noise and silence. Often completely independent of the visuals, the sound mostly refers to a huge site where the construction of Beirut’s tallest skyscraper is underway.
On one hand, this building process symbolises resistance, and the will to return to normality and wealth. On the other hand it represents, in a metaphorical sense, the on-going destruction of the region. In one of the most impressive audio-visual scenes, Kalthoum combines the complex sounds and movements of the building work, undertaken in vertiginous heights, with the images of a missile tank speeding through and over a completely obliterated town somewhere in Syria. The reverberation of the heavy machinery of the workers, the blast of gunfire from the tanks, and the deafening industrial noise are all part of the same destructive process.
«We see exhausted bodies of the Syrian construction workers resting, scattered on the ground of the building site.»
Syrian workers. Occasionally, we hear the calm voice of a narrator who pronounces himself in nuanced allegorical and metaphorical comments. In the beginning of the film he talks about his first confrontation with the ocean and the expansion of his mind, even if only in the form of a simple painting that his father, a construction worker, had brought from the nearby town. Towards the end he returns to his first memory; by this point the painted wave of the ocean in the picture is crushing him down. The narrator’s voice also delivers the deeper, underlying story of Taste of Cement: “When war begins the builders have to leave for another country, where the war has just ended – waiting until war has finished sweeping through their homeland. Then they return to rebuild it.” This poignant setting of the tragedy of an endless war is the philosophical setting of Kalthoum’s work.
Most of the workers on the construction site are Syrian refugees, as the film establishes. This fact is relayed to us in an excellent use of the “show, don’t tell” technique , which helps underline the quality of documentary brilliance at play here. We see exhausted bodies of the Syrian construction workers resting, scattered on the ground of the building site in the evenings, surrounded by all sorts of equipment and dirt. A curfew is imposed on Syrian workers after 7PM. At the same time, racism towards refugees is spreading in Beirut as elsewhere. The political messages are seen and heard from TV screens or radios, or we see them as images on the small screens of their cell phones, which are often the only sources of light in the room. We see images of the destruction of two million Syrian homes, as many as 440,000 in Aleppo and 300,000 in the suburbs of Damascus alone. Kalthoum reflects this news on the pupils of the apparently emotionless viewer. In one of the most painful scenes of the film, civilians try to rescue bodies buried alive under rubble after a bombing – but even here, the camera view avoids voyeuristic images.
The power of memories. The film ends on a rotating camera shot. The camera itself is fixed on a moving car driving through Beirut. The image of the city is spinning endlessly, losing gravity and importance; a game of force that no one seems to dominate.
We learn that the father of the narrator was a builder too, but when he returned home from labouring with the cement, he faded out and died.
The faces of the builders on the highest floors, taking in the panoramic view of a seemingly flourishing and promising city and the surrounding ocean, seem hopeless as they are captured in Kalthoum’s camera. These construction workers are victims of their memories, or more precisely, of their forgotten memories. They do not remember a life before the war.
In our world of total mediatization there is nothing extraordinary about being photographed. But in some cases this is perceived quite differently. We know the deep mistrust and refusal in people of certain ancient cultures to having their pictures taken, an act often associated with mortification.
Meanwhile, in our own culture in the world of advanced observation systems, being watched isn’t at all a neutral condition: Being observed in the «wrong place» can easily lead to persecution, torture, and even death. There is at present a growing global tendency of current societies descending into dictatorships.
Within modern film culture, perhaps the most impressive work that combines the acts of spying and killing is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), in which the protagonist uses his film camera as a murder weapon.
«The observer finds himself in a god-like position, able to kill anyone at any time.»
Seeing and killing. The techno-philosophical basis concerning the relationship between seeing and killing was developed by French cultural theorist Paul Virilio. He combined the complexity of this relationship with two other major problems: The constant and growing speed in our technology systems leading to the loss of human capacities to interfere in the process, and the «information bomb» as a new deadly arrangement of disorientation.
Drone technology brings all these dimensions to their technical climax. Invisible to the observed victims, drones follow their targets over weeks and months, sometimes even years. These targets remain unidentified, nameless subjects to their viewers; they are only identified by a metadata analysis system, which classifies them as a potential threat.
The remarkable short film Fix Find Finish by Sylvain Cruiziat and Mila Zhluktenko was screened at the most recent edition of Switzerland’s «Visions du Réel» Festival. The film focuses on the strange and perverse relationship between observer and observed in the high-tech sector: The observer finds himself in an ambivalent position being, on the one hand, in a god-like position, able to kill anyone at any time; and on the other, depending on the order to act from higher up in the system.
What are the thoughts and feelings going through the minds of these observers? In the field, what soldiers try to avoid most is looking directly at their victims. Here, it is the primary aim. They penetrate the private spheres of their targets to a degree that has never before been possible. One of the agents revealed the extent of the forced voyeurism towards his victim when he had to watch him have sex on the roof of a building. Another voiceover testimony went on to admit that his infrared camera even allows him to see the shit coming out of his target’s body, and that he has witnessed this hundreds of times during his duties.
But what humanises the targets is seeing them behave as loving fathers, hugging their children or taking part in weddings and funerals.
«One of the agents revealed the extent of the forced voyeurism towards his victim when he had to watch him have sex on the roof of a building.»
Targets, not people. The strategy of detachment becomes a necessity. Another voiceover in the film makes this very clear: «Have you ever stepped on an anthill and not given it a second thought?» For the sake of the observer’s sanity, the targets can’t be viewed as real people.
Visually, Sylvain Cruiziat and Mila Zhluktenk underline this transformation into a filtered reality with their continuous drone perspectives. In some especially remarkable scenes, the shadows of the observed targets are captured more prominently than the people themselves. Furthermore, a set of verbal abbreviations serves the detachment process. For example, the killing order «Find, Fix, Finish» is just called «3F».
But reality comes back in the form of well-founded doubts – as in the case of one target who is only on the observation list because his son was killed in a previous CIA strike. Sometimes, people who simply happen to have had some – any – form of physical interaction with a high value target, for example during an official event, will themselves become targets.
The «information bomb» will make wrong decisions. Targets are not accurately defined and identified as people, but as objects chosen through patterns and behaviour. The mere number of these misattributed, innocent victims, the facts of which are often only revealed months later, is quite stunning.
What are the human consequences of all this knowledge about possible «mistakes»? It can be quite a grotesque final trace of humanity: «We waited for him to leave his son’s gravestone and then we got all the necessary clearances to finish him».
Find Fix Finish does use some fictional elements, as the film itself indicates. The overall dense cinematographic work pulls us effectively and immediately inside the hidden world of secret services. This is all carefully based on a set of literature, as quoted in the film’s credits, delivering both personal testimonies and technical details.
During winter time many people bring their trailers in Slab City, most of them co-called “snowbirds” in search of freedom and a cheap and warm place to spend the cold season. But in summer, when the temperatures reaches merciless levels, these people move to cooler places. A core community of inhabitants is left behind. For the permanent residents of Slab City, freedom is a byproduct of poverty and of not fitting in anywhere else. This film is a portrait of their struggle to maintain a sense of connection in a desolate place.
Generally, there is something romantic about the idea of living off the grid. But there is nothing romantic about living in Slab City. In fact the place is hardly a city, and more a community of improvised houses and caravans – and other than some picturesque views of the desert, Slab City doesn’t have much to offer.
«For the permanent residents of Slab City, freedom is a by-product of poverty and of not fitting in anywhere else.»
Standout characters. People depend on each other here, and scarcity is one of the things that make simple routines important and small gestures of kindness significant. One routine that brings people together is the 7 AM coffee that Rob Lane serves every day at his café. The coffee is unsophisticatedly served; just simple coffee made on a stove and poured into mugs, plastic bottles and improvised glasses. But it is “the best coffee in the neighbourhood” and it makes everyone gather at Rob’s improvised internet café to socialize and make use of the wireless network. These are the misfits among misfits, and they are also very human, vulnerable and in many ways relatable.
The film is centred on Rob Lane and his role in the community. Years past, he exchanged his truck for his current residence in Slab City. There is also the story of Donita, a middle-aged woman who found peace in Slab City after getting out of jail, and who likes to dance on Saturday nights. There is Zack, the troubled young man who loves dogs and who found guidance in Rob, but struggles to keep out of trouble. And there are others like them – and as you get to know their stories, they all feel strangely dear and familiar.
Unpredictable. But there is an emotional twist to this carefully constructed empathy that arises. Every time you feel for these people as a viewer, you sense that they are like you – but then, they’re not really. There is a volatile sense of the unpredictable in the air, something which is present but difficult to pinpoint, but which provides a sense that in this almost regular community things can escalate, and easily. One can never know what might trigger the shift; it can be the loud neighbours, or the meth addicts hanging around. It can be a misunderstanding or an impulse, but something can happen at any time.
«Rob and his co-citizens are good, or at the very least they want to be good.»
Still, Rob and the others indirectly reassure the viewer that there is nothing to worry about. There is something terribly bittersweet in their eagerness to be their best selves in front of the camera, and convince the viewer that life in Slab City is not that far removed from regular life patterns. Rob and his co-citizens are good, or at the very least they want to be good. They care and they have a sense of morality – or try their best, considering their circumstances.
Nevertheless, the sense of instinctive precaution in the viewer remains; not as an explicit and direct understanding, but more like an underlying theme that links everything in the film together. This precaution is also powered by the camera’s close-ups on details, such as the rotten teeth, the flies that are everywhere, the dust blown by the wind, and the tiny sparks of madness captured in people’s eyes. These are the details that put everything in perspective, and make one realize just how fragile the balance is between freedom and a vagrant life in Slab Cit. The ongoing process of creating this balance is the true essence of these people’s lives.
This balance is the community’s compass and provides everyone with a sense of normality. At its core, Desert Coffee is about a sense of normality in a “wild place”, and a portrait of how humanity, community and freedom can coexist with poverty and social outcasts. It is a portrait that challenges the standard notions of home and belonging, and our ideas of what these should look like. Because in Slab City these concepts take a form that look nothing like what we know, not even like something we might desire; yet they are very much present, created anew every day by people who never fit in anywhere until they found each other in this place.
Why this theme? Well, among other things, there is the current practice of keepings tabs on everyone – transparency, revelations and surveillance is order of the day. Keeping things secret is seen as suspicious. Simultaneously, this secrecy is giving too much power to many more or less authoritarian governments. For liberal democracies, the fight against secrets within politics and management is vital.
Ellen Krefting is an historian of ideas at the University in Oslo. She argues that the opposite of a transparent, open society is “the Kafka-like, hidden, faceless power.” Krefting is especially interested in the autocracy: Machiavelli’s Prince was a master of using secrecy as an efficient governing principle; and autocracy was, according to Thomas Hobbes, the sole form of governing which could guarantee the safety of the citizens and the best for the community. The ruler’s “divine (mysterious, unpredictable and undetectable) origin and ‘sensible state’ doctrine” were about his practical need for political space to manoeuvre, often beyond “both the law, moral and debate”.
Do I need to mention Assad? He is not alone in declaring a “state of emergency” – authoritarian regimes who elevate themselves above their own constitution. Powerful men and women of the State thus use the Tacitus’ secret of empire against subjects seen as ignorant and “driven by passions”, they do not understand what is best for the community.
The 18th century was a golden age for autocracies and strict censorship. Krefting refers to the authors of the period as “eager users of anonymity and masked games, polyphonic dialogues, subtle allegories, fables and other fictional universes”. In the UK, around 80 texts were published with the words “secret history” in their titles. These were texts that sought to reveal or de-mystify rulers with their “indefinite relationships between documented facts, unsubstantiated rumours, court gossip, sensational exaggerations and pure fiction”. Scandalous stories featuring named people. Now, some 300 years later, I suppose we can admit that the stories and secret associations of that period are still alive and well – although we are now talking about fake news and Trump.
In another chapter of the latest ARR, psychoanalyst and philosopher Torberg Foss writes about the relationship of psychoanalysis with secrets. Foss does not share Freud’s belief that the act of revealing pathological secrets is always liberating, but has a greater “respect for the significance of having secrets”. Secrets no longer need to be unearthed at any cost – patients are actually entitled to keep theirs. Secrets may add colour to life itself, and keep passion alive.
Foss hits the nail on the head as he writes: “Is having secrets a condition for being able to think?” In today’s social media society, you are supposed to share your every whim and thought with everyone. You are modern – and you follow the doxa (the doctrinal field. –Ed.), the practice of our time, it is the “done thing”. At the same time, however, this manner of expression could also mean “to let go of ‘oneself’”, says Foss – and reminds us that Maurice Blanchot once wrote “how frightening it can be to encounter people who say everything they think, and where a collective ‘I’ is obviously lacking”. Foss goes on to mention Orwell’s iconic 1984 in which “they created a new language, featuring a special trait which made hidden thoughts or languages impossible”.
For some, it is painful to engage in profound thinking, or in the words of psychotherapists: to be separated from the feeling of safety in the womb. Do you master the feeling of being alone in the company of others? Or do you recall the joyous game you did as a child – a “secret” thought activity?
Psychoanalysts often experience that victims of sexual assault mourn the loss of their secrets; they have lost their privacy and no sexual feelings remain, explains Foss. He adds that Georges Bataille used secrecy itself as a means to describe eroticism, along with the need for an “unbreakable, nocturnal core”. A free and developed person must be able to relate to something unknown, to mystery, what should remain shrouded, unspoken. As ARR are alluding to; that one needs to be able to let something sink into oneself, to be able to retain one’s innermost – to have an “I”. If nothing valuable is allowed to take hold inside you before you must report on it, we could say that you end up on the “pornographic” public surface – without a sensible and thoughtful inside.
If secrets are not supposed to be used as a means to rule society, the point is that the secrets of the individual are necessary to be able to maintain an inner, spiritual life. With “Share!” being the current mantra, intimacy and the familiar are being starved. Foss finally refers to Shakespeare’s King Lear: Lear wants to know how much his three daughters love him. When it is the turn of the youngest, Cordelia, she becomes silent. Silently she mumbles to herself: “I am sure my love is more ponderous than my tongue.”
He was shot whilst queuing for a taxi, carrying his grandchild in his arms. At close range, with a bullet to the back of his head. The name of this Burmese lawyer is U Ko Ni. He was shot on January 29th this year by the hitman Kyi Lin. Up until that day, he was the eminent lawyer for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar leader, and considered a reformer of the old constitution. According to Aung Zaw, the editor of the independent newspaper Irrawadi, the ringleaders remain at large. There has been no official statement from Suu Kyi about the event, according to the paper. The official statement from the Presidential office said that this had to be a political act and an attempt to destabilise the country. U Ko Ni had just been working on a new constitution in place of the current one – which was created by the military.
Let us rewind to a year ago, when Modern Times Review met U Ko Ni for a long conversation about the possibilities for the country’s new government under Suu Kyi. We visit him at his legal chambers in the centre of Yangon, and ask him about the laws – which, according to rumours, are not practiced despite their existence. “The majority of the government use the laws to cause trouble for people by penalising them, instead of developing people’s opportunities,” says U Ko Ni. “Instead, the laws ought to protect people’s rights.” He describes how the old constitution has enabled the military to retain its power. The military selects the most important ministerial posts, explains U Ko Ni. ”First of all, we need to alter the judicial system, and then we might be able to change the administrative system as well. Today, the administration is ruled by the Interior Minister, who is elected by the military, as opposed to by the President.”
The Interior Minister governs everything administrative, as well as the entire police force. In addition, the Minister for Defence and the minister for border issues are appointed by the head of the military. As Myanmar is formally a federal system of states, we ask U Ko Ni whether these regions consisting of different ethnic groups are independent. “In total, we have 14 governments, 14 parliaments and 14 different Courts of Law,” he says. “But, it is all for show – as the entire government is ruled by the Interior Ministry. So, unfortunately, what we have is quasi-federalism. Each state and ethnic group are able to elect their own leader, government and parliament, but they have no power in the central government. We should introduce a real democratic system with autonomy for each region’s politicians.”
During our stay in Myanmar, Modern Times Review kept hearing about the great discrepancies between who gets to enjoy the country’s natural resources and who does not. Some states have large deposits of the green gemstone jade, there are numerous gold mines and there are some particularly fertile agricultural lands. The Kachin state in the North, for instance, is rich in resources but its people remain impoverished. “No, this is not a fair system when it is ruled by the central government”, says U Ko Ni. “Resources such as these ought to be for the people.”
If you enjoy drawing cartoons of the leaders, you may get your Facebook account shut down by the military information department. I read this in Irrawadi, and therefore ask U Ko Ni to comment. “Yes, that law must be changed. Laws have to develop the possibilities for people to communicate, not to limit people.”
And this leads us to a sore point in Myanmar – its extensive corruption. National leader Suu Kyi is cautious about dealing with this is issue too quickly, in order to avoid upsetting the many powerful people who enjoy great advantages from their loot. U Ko Ni also emphasises that the current government must proceed slowly – it could be dangerous to upset the existing power structure too much. A small number of people are tremendously wealthy and enjoy a great deal of power. However, as U Ko Ni underlines: The military dictatorship have had to bow down to the people, who want changes – all the millions who, in 2015–16, dressed in red t-shirts to signal that they wanted democracy. But what if someone assassinates Suu Kyi before she is able to complete her democratic reform?
Just how dangerous is the reform work? Is life also at stake for the lawyer who is behind the constitutional rewriting, in which they removed the military’s 50-year-old power to rule? “Yes, we have to be careful,“ he confirms. “If we proceed too fast, dangerous conflicts of interests will occur. We need between five to ten years to change things – something which, of course, is a challenge for us.»
«The military are trying to hang on to power for as long as they can. In the past, they ruled using weapons, now they are trying using the old constitution. That is why I want to change it.»
I mention the leader of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, and hint at a possible connection – something U Ko Ni disagrees with: “The cultures of Pakistan and Myanmar are different from one another. The people of Myanmar are kind-hearted, our country has Buddhist traditions. People understand Suu Kyi’s situation; the people are there to protect her. Lady Aung San Suu Kyi is the hope of the nation – the people are behind our new great leader.” The lawyer goes on to describe her diplomatic abilities: “Suu Kyi grew up in military surroundings with her father, the general who led the country. She understands the way the military think. We only need to change the attitudes of a handful – the military is not just an evil, it is also a necessary institution in our country.“
It is more than likely that this power elite killed the man I shared this conversation with last year, because he was the foremost exponent for a change in the laws that provided them with such benefits. I recall what he stated about corruption: “Altogether, we have had three different laws against corruption: The old law as established by the British colonial rule, followed by another in 1948; and quite recently a new anti-corruption law which is not too bad. The problem is that none of these rules have actually been implemented in the last 40 years! That is the main problem of this country.”
We had to turn off the large fan in the room, because of the audio recording of our two cameras. It is sweltering, and U Ko Ni’s forehead is wet with perspiration, but we carry on. There was a lot of criticism of U Ko Ni’s party, National League for Democracy (NLD), during the election processes where Muslims were not accounted for in governing organisations. Besides, some Buddhist monks attacked Muslims. “I assume that these monks will see sense,“ replies U Ko Ni. “What we see here is a classic political divide and conquer tactic, as promoted by the old rulers.” But, how great is the freedom to think differently – or to promote the secular – in a nation dominated by Buddhism? “According to the constitution we have religious freedom. This is generally accepted by the rulers. However, in connection with the election, there were many lobbyists who were trying to stir up a hatred of the Muslims. Some simply did not want any changes, so they set Buddhists up against Muslims.” I ask him why there are so few Muslims in the NDL. “The situation for Muslims is not very good in this country. The NDL do not want to discriminate – but Muslim candidates are not really wanted, because including such candidates creates problems. I think Muslims will understand. For instance, in the urban Baberan area, where 70 per cent of the population is Muslim, they elected the only Buddhist candidate to represent them. This happened because those who are able to change the country are most likely to be Buddhist –which is why Muslims vote this way.”
What about the Muslim Rohingya-people? They originate mainly from Bangladesh, explains U Ko Ni. Without citizenship, they have no right to vote in an election; and their so-called White Cards, as issued by the immigration department are only temporary, “until a permanent card might potentially be granted, following a short period of examinations.”
The military. We are sitting on the first floor in the poor part of town. A steel door separates the dusty staircase and run-down building from the somewhat more distinguished office and waiting room. The conversation returns to the military, which is deeply entangled with the national business life: “In particular, the military officers who own a share of the Myanmar holding companies: They control almost all of the businesses. These people nurture their own strong and personal interests rather than the interests of the people.”
And how about those who should uphold the laws, for instance the police force? “We have to reform the police force. We do not need a central police department for the entire country, instead each local state ought to have their own.” Once again, the conversation turns to the subject of corruption: “A large number of people in this country are corrupt. This is because the wages of lower level positions in the state are too meagre to cover even basic necessities. Meanwhile, on the higher levels are middle classes and some middle managers who do earn well enough – but who abuse their power. Then we have ministers and their colleagues, who actively enable and allow this abuse of power, and who even pay money under the table. This is a big problem for us, and the situation requires reforms. Even if Suu Kyi appoint some ministers who are not involved in corruption, it will remain a problem further down the ranks.”
«On January 29th, as he arrived back from Indonesia, the murderer lay in wait, to rob U Ko Ni of his life.»
To U Ko Ni, the military is the main problem. They hold the owner interests of Myanmar’s key resources. But he remains optimistic: “The whole country supports Suu Kyi, so the military will probably understand and comply with reality.” However, he also points out, as we sit in his tiny, cramped office: “The military is trying to hang on to power for as long as they can. In the past, they ruled using weapons – now they are trying to do so using the old Constitution. That is why I now want to change it.“
This is what the burly idealist told me about the reforms; the man who wanted to rewrite the constitution. This was the man who travelled around speaking about the rights of the people. A couple of years ago, he was in Oslo, along with Suu Kyi. A visit organised by the Norwegian Burma Committee. On January 29th, he had just arrived back from Indonesia, when the murderer and his accomplices lay in wait to kill him.
That the elite whom he criticised were unhappy about his actions, is evident. That those higher up in the system, who passed this order, will ever be held accountable for his murder, seems very doubtful in Myanmar.