Les États généraux du film documentaire 2016 Battle of Images

Battle of Images

Workshop 2

Death on our screens

After Al-Qaeda who did it occasionally, Daesh has repeatedly filmed assassinations in its first years of domination. Some were fake. Most were not. Daesh had its killers accompanied by filmers. An odd couple. Cinema has almost always filmed death in fiction, like a fiction, as if it were necessary that death not be “real”, as if there were a constant obligation to ward off the threat of death. Spectators learned early on in the history of film that the “dead” (for example in The Assassination of the Duke of Guise, 1908) were only play-acting during the take, and that they could get up for a second take... Shown on the screen, death was not believed to be “real”. Why? Because there are spectators, then others who will see the same thing; because there is another screening, another after that, etc. By repetitive necessity, film brings back the filmed dead as many times as there are screenings; it thus strips the filmed dead of the character of a “real” death which would take place once and for all.
The propaganda films produced during both world wars could not avoid filming the “real dead”, not just extras, but once the killing had taken place; and often the cameramen pushed the corpses out of the frame. Photos and rarer shots of corpses and tortured bodies were used during the colonial wars for the colonialists’ propaganda. The point was not to produce fear but to communicate the idea that, death for death, justice had been dealt. The system of cinema re-appropriates and reproduces the major fiction of religions: that there is always life, be it after death. “Resurrection” had become mechanical.
The little “clips” of Daesh are difficult to watch. It is necessary to allow oneself to drift towards a certain perversion of one’s own desire-to-see in order to desire to put up with these atrocious images. This is what Saint Augustine called the “concupiscence of the eyes”. But to view and to film are two quite different things. Filming is first of all recording what one sees, it then means looking at what has been recorded. The mechanical logic of the camera and film technique were not perfected to record the inanimate. The movement of filmed tape carries within it an equivalence between life and movement. Putting an end to life is also provoking a kind of freeze frame. I suppose, and we will question this point, that cinema has a kind of antipathy to filming the passage from life to death, even if film is, according to Cocteau, “death at work”. For it is true that cinema films the wearing down of bodies and things, the destructions and ravages, but it has always preferred a “false” death to the real thing. Corpses are usually fake in film, made up to look like the real thing; the bullets cause some blood-coloured liquid to run but do not kill, etc.
With Daesh another world is beginning. And it is beginning with bloody sacrifices which are not simulated. It is troubling to note that at the same time, over the past few years, corpses have invaded television and computer screens: all catastrophes, natural or not, have been filmed with millions of tiny digital cameras and cellphones, and these images have been disseminated.
Death has always been a major preoccupation in the minds of speaking beings, but never through so many images. There is thus a new familiarity between the image and death, and the filmers of Daesh play with it in the same way as Hollywood action films, using special effects, sound and lights in the greatest artificiality. The image has been enrolled to serve the death impulse.
How can we understand that the primordial cinematic gesture — shooting images and recording them — works in the service of putting to death the filmed bodies? The entire cinematographic apparatus was conceived to film the living. The Lumière cinematograph was hailed at its birth as a surpassing of death: filmed bodies die but their images survive. Filming others amounts to not killing them, to introducing them into the chain of humanity of which cinema is a link. A new alliance has been tied between death and cinema, and this alliance, for me as if counter-natural, means the end of all hope for the spectator. Those who are shot, who explode, whose throats are cut, disappear with no return: of what their life will have been is visible only their death. To the violence of a lethal execution is added the violence of the shooting and of the worldwide communication of these images of death. Kill/record/show. It is necessary that death circulate in images in order to spread images of corpses left without a shroud around the world. Death glorifies itself when it’s filmed. It is truly a question of imposing the reign of the greatest terror.

Jean-Louis Comolli

The videos of Daesh propel us into a new era of propaganda: they tap into the more or less voyeuristic habits of contemporary television viewers; they adopt the browsing modes used by net surfers on social networks; they wink at American blockbusters, etc. That is why Daesh propaganda will not fail to question the cinematic and audiovisual works which provide its formal sources in return. It is probably too early to make a judgement, and I do not propose to make bets on the films which will be able to take the full measure of this so singular connection between reality and fiction in the videos produced by the “Islamic State”. I do wish to point out three global characteristics of these videos which closely parallel those of our “civilisation of the image”, and that cinema will have to confront if it wishes to preserve its own power to denounce. The first of these is technical, and it deals with the multiplying numbers of media formats, inseparable from a quantitatively unprecedented flow of images and sounds made possible by the tools of the Net. From this point of view, the reticular development of propaganda images is echoed in the diffracted expansion of Daesh soldiers on the ground. Similarly, it is not exaggerated to say that the facility of certain urban conquests can also evoke the fluidity of internet navigation, in terms of the feeling induced.
The second characteristic is almost ontological, in the sense that it questions the modalities of recording the Real with digital means, while generating what Jacques Rancière calls a “de-hierarchisation of the types of image”: “of what is public and what is private, of art and the circulation of information and messages”. (1) The negative side of this “de-hierarchisation” is simple to state: it resides in a permanent confusion concerning the source of images, which is not without relation to the reasoned nihilism maintained by Daesh. If for the movement’s leaders the image must have maximum efficacy, it is simultaneously necessary that this image leave nothing behind, that nothing resist it, and above all no fragment of reality that could interfere with the transmission of a propaganda message. Hence the flattening of levels of meaning apparent in certain montages. For example, some ”Islamic State” videos shamelessly use amateur images of the 2011 Arab uprisings, pretending that the cries of “Allahu Akbar” sometimes heard in the first Syrian demonstrations were in reality precursory signs of the coming of the caliph.
A third characteristic of the methods of filming used by the Islamic State concerns its aesthetics, and there again, it joins one of the symptomatic characteristics of our time: what Sylvie Lindeperg calls a contemporary “aesthetics of overflow, or of hyper-visibility”. (2) If a sensation of fright is provoked by Daesh’s videos, it is because they raise this visibility to a degree never before attained at this level of distribution: the beheadings, mass assassinations, representations of prisoners burned alive, etc. are not only filmed by the organisation’s cameramen, but they are collected by numerous fetishists of horror who store them in their computers, finding in them a morbid “stimulation” for lives become moribund. As if the observation made by Ivan Illich in his Medical Nemesis published in 1975 were being updated before our eyes: “It is necessary for people who live in an anaesthetised society to take ever more powerful stimulants to have the impression they are alive.” (3) This aesthetics of the all-visible also feeds the illusion of an immersion in the action. How? Essentially by offering multiple points of view on the same action. The diversity of viewpoints can also give the privilege of an enhanced vision of a scene of destruction, like that of the archaeological site of Nimrud in March 2015. This striking sequence concludes with a series of three static shots of the instant at which the jihadists blow up the totality of the Assyrian city: a visual shock amplified by an image that becomes almost abstract as the dust raised by the explosion suddenly takes over the entire frame. Hypervisibility seems then to turn into its contrary, even if the image tending towards abstraction literally confronts us with an appalling reality: there is nothing to see at Nimrud quite simply because there is nothing left on the site.

Dork Zabunyan
Excerpt from “L’État de propagande et le cinéma qui vient”, Trafic, 94, summer 2015.

1. J. Rancière, La Méthode de l’égalité, interview with L. Jeanpierre and D. Zabunyan, Bayard, 2012, p. 247.
2. See S. Lindeperg, La Voie des images, Verdier, 2013, p. 18.
3. Quoted by P. Ardenne, in his book Extrême – Esthétique de la limite dépassée, Flammarion, 2006, p. 21.

Nowhere does the Koran forbid images. As emphasised by the great historian of Islamic art, Oleg Grabar, Islam is not iconoclastic; it is aniconic in the sense that although during certain periods of its history, primarily Sunni movements avoided pictorial representations of divine creation, they did not violently destroy images. It is largely today that the impression that Muslims reject images is gaining ground. This is due to the barbarism of Daesh (Islamic State), which is not directed exclusively at humans, but also at the roots of its own Arabo-Islamic culture, as illustrated by the destruction of the pre-Islamic Arab city of Hatra or the Sumerian city of Nineveh.
This barbarism, however, has nothing to do with the culture of Islam. If Muslims have at times distanced themselves from figurative representation, it has been for reasons other than a prohibition prescribed by the Holy Book. The first generations of believers, for instance, took great pains not to be found guilty of idolatry. After all, in the year 630, did not the Prophet Muhammad himself destroy all statues and idols in the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam′s holiest of sites?
Moreover, Muslims also wanted to distinguish themselves from Christianity, which at the time was still dominant in most of the conquered regions, such as Syria and Egypt, and which itself debated the issue of imagery for a long time before Saint John of Damascus finally won the war of the icons. As a Father of the Early Church, a man who was highly knowledgeable about Islam and a minister of a caliph, John of Damascus was himself probably trying to draw a distinction between Christianity and Islam and even Judaism, which is why he allowed the Church to make the visual its principal means of communication.
The search for alternatives to figurative representation in Sunni Islam certainly does not indicate that Muslims did not create images. After experimenting with plant – and above all floral – motifs as a way of representing paradise, examples of which include the magnificent frescoes and mosaics in the grand Umayyad mosque in Damascus, the exploratory move towards even greater abstraction in the form of more complex geometric patterns began.
And so, a very specific art and culture was born in the Dar al-Islam, the house of Islam. On the one hand, this development gave coherence – and a sense of belonging – to one single civilisation across Islam’s vast territories. On the other, it is evidence of the fact that Islam was indeed open to other cultures such as the Byzantine, Persian and Indian. Evidence of this can be found in the architectural treasures of Granada, Fez, Kairouan, Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus, Samara and also Herat or Agra, to name but a few.
Islamic art and culture also flourished in media other than architecture. Decorative ceramic or metal objects of rare delicacy contributed to its development, as did science and calligraphy and, above all, the greats of Arab and Persian literature and poetry. Magnificently illustrated works such as the collection of fables of Kalila and Dimna, the maqamat of al-Hariri and the Arabian Nights, confirm that a reluctance to use figural representation was certainly far from being the norm.
Following the Crusades, Islamic art was a major source of inspiration for European art. In turn, the arrival of Western colonisers in the nineteenth century and their introduction of modern figurative painting triggered a shift in attitudes towards imagery across the Islamic world. Arab artists now began experimenting and contributing to the modernist discourse by negotiating their identity through their encounter with the West. From the portraits that emerged from Ottoman Beirut to Egyptian surrealism of the 1930s, works of art bore witness to the various interpretations of multiple modernities. At the same time, a cinematic tradition was emerging, especially in the case of Egyptian cinema and “Hollywood on the Nile”, which the Arabs simply adored. Visual arts played a key role in forging national discourse and, at the same time, contributed to the emergence of a pan-Arab cultural identity.
Today, satellite television channels and Web 2.0 are flooding not only the Islamic world but also the entire planet with visual information. Vacuous trite imagery is drowning out words and telling us nothing of the profound realities of the Arabo-Muslim world. What is worse, the media are spreading the atrocious images produced by the jihadists. That said, the Arabo-Islamic world is also producing a multitude of profound images, where the act of creation is, as Gilles Deleuze puts it, an act of resistance to death and, by extension, to cultural death. It is moreover an act of resistance to the reductionist images of selective current events and to the destructive, nightmarish propaganda spread by Al-Qaeda, Daesh, Boko Haram and their ilk.

Asiem El Difraoui
Excerpt from “L’image, contre-récit de l’islam” by Asiem El Difraoui and Antonia Blau, published in the opinions pages of Libération, 16 August 2015.

Translated from the French by Aingeal Flanagan for Qantara.de

The legitimate attention paid to the violence and effectiveness of the audiovisual programmes communicated by Islamic State propagandists can only make it an imperative necessity to think out what cinema does and can do in its relationship to violence and death. Filming is an ever more mundane and globalised gesture. In the last few decades, the multiplication of screens and the generalisation of digitisation have caused a transformation in the relation of any spectacle to its spectators. Giving form to images in order to give its chance to thought, in other words transforming our ways of looking in order to create new narratives, bring forth the possible, this is what must remain the business of cinema. The questioning here is double as it involves reflecting at once on the choice of visual forms concerning the violence exercised and suffered, and on the practice of the particular violence of cinematic acts. These are two political questions: one concerns the images of terror and the worst, the other concerns cinematographic action from the angle of terrorism in revolutionary gestures.
In the propaganda transmitted by the murderers, true technicians of the staging of horror, the strategies of professionalised communication all derive from the same televisual model. Henceforth, the controlling impulse driving iconic and narrative communication is none other than that of the passions of hatred, themselves constructed on murderous idealisations. It is too often forgotten that there is only terror at the cost of the ideal and there is only an ideal at the cost of terror. The war between so-called irreconcilable cultures is rolling out in the double conviction held by both sides that each is the bearer of the truth and the meaning of human history. It is up to filmmakers to analyse these images to revoke any fascination or fright. Behind these crimes, let us not forget, as Serge Daney reminds us, that there is a long history of “faceless” peoples. And Jean-Louis Comolli has always argued the necessity to respect the dignity of the bodies one is fighting. That is why I propose to take a step aside to consider the political engagement involved in cinematographic creation. These questions are absolutely not new, they have had a violent history throughout the twentieth century. They are raised today in terms redistributed by the new technologies and social networks. Daesh is one case among others which will disappear to be replaced by new strategies against which it will again be necessary for the world of thought and creation to find answers, invent forms of liberty. Castoriadis had already designated the planetary nature of barbary which cannot be attributed to only one side.
From the sixties, the Middle-East has haunted the thinkers of cinema for powerful reasons: criticism of colonialism, support for the struggles for independence, the battle carried out against the media imperialism of the USA... To reign by fear, cultivate terror, manipulate people with pleasure, this is an old tactic, which I shall call phobocracy. Daesh has its masters and I do not think that Daesh surpasses its masters. Serge Daney formulated with unquestionable acuity the specular rule of the industries of spectacle which exercise from east to west the visual dictatorship of the worst. He wrote, when Bagdad was being bombed: “Iconic terrorism: to the absence of the face of the other henceforth responds the exhibition of our own, disfigured.” The Islamic State is the integrated and savagely logical partner of neo-liberalism. It is carrying out an imperialist and media war.
What face can cinema as a free gesture recompose? I propose to take up the problem from the time when Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville produced Ici et Ailleurs, from the moment when Masao Adachi committed his camera with the Japanese Red Army alongside Palestinian guerilla fighters. Today, the filmmaker Éric Baudelaire takes up the mantle of Masao Adachi, thinking with him and filming without him in Beirut the protagonists of the Syrian war. There, in the complex intermingling of documentary and fiction, another face of the Middle-East, disoriented, painful and violent, displays itself for a cinema that, without avoiding the worst, addresses the spectator in the dignity of a sharing. Our face is then neither disfigured nor even represented, but it is the possibility for all of us of another narrative that is reconfigured.

Marie José Mondzain

Speakers in the morning:
- Asiem El Difraoui, political scientist and filmmaker
- Dork Zabunyan, film lecturer at Université Paris 8

Speakers in the afternoon:
- Jean-Louis Comolli, filmmaker and film critic
- Marie José Mondzain, philosopher

Each of the speakers will use videos and film excerpts as part of their talk.
Each talk will be followed by a discussion with the audience.