Aesthetics of Shock and Awe Versus the Cellphone/of Fiction Versus Documentary/the Means of Distribution/Humans We Filmed Still Detained
Shock and Awe Versus the Cellphone
A few years ago, before the last U.S. presidential election, I was among the invited guests to watch a special 4th of July show designed by Disney and projected onto the back of an official U.S. building in Paris. It was awe-inspiring, done with lasers that began by illuminating the lines of the building then--multiplying into a tight weave--representing the long road of the U.S. through its moral failings--especially slavery--to its new reincarnation under Obama. I couldn’t help thinking about the technological link between this aesthetic and the reliance of American foreign-policy on laser-guided drones, about the effects of which I had heard refugees from Pakistan express their despair for the “collateral damage” they caused and other unintended consequences…. To over-simplify, it could be said that films today tend to either work on the principle of shock-and-awe, the sublime display of power--like I was watching Disney project for the 4th of July--or approximate the cellphone--the means of video production that most residents of Western nations now carry with them at all times. By ”approximate the cellphone,” I intend to say they elicit from many audience members a sense that they too could make a film. The films that provoke this possibility may be brilliantly made but nevertheless seem only a few degrees removed from what technically is possible from the video camera on a cellphone. This is doubtlessly a form of empowerment but it would arguably be even more empowering if there was more of an awareness and engagement with how moving images are used in the production of daily life in contemporary societies.
Aesthetics of Fiction Vs Documentary
The work of the German filmmaker Harun Farocki (1944-2014) is particularly powerful in this sense, making us more aware of the “society of the spectacle” (a phrase coined by Guy Debord 1931- 1994) in which we live as it constantly evolves at a quickening pace. To my own opposition between shock and awe and the cellphone I want to draw attention to an opposition Farocki observed: fiction film constructs a picture while documentary film captures one. In fiction films, actors are costumed, put on make-up and repeat their actions for the camera crew that also rehearses its own actions. By contrast, the documentary camera operator is often playing catch-up--panning late, tardively adjusting focus--capturing a reality she cannot know beforehand. As Farocki points out, paradoxically documentary often strives to give the feeling of fiction films by trying to better anticipate or time the actions of the camera to the timing of its subject while, on the other hand, on occasion fiction film will aim for imitating the imperfections of documentary to give the feeling of capturing an action as it happened.
Our documentary film No Human Is Illegal is in many ways anomalous in regards to the two oppositions just mentioned. I and the film’s cinematographer Valentina Caniglia decided to shoot with anamorphic lenses and provide an especially wide picture (2.35, Cinemascope). We wanted to give space to the undocumented immigrants with whom we were speaking--both literally and figuratively. People seeking to find shelter in Europe are often associated with the overcrowded boats on which they frequently arrive. This brings with it a sense of there not being enough room for them. In fact, most of the areas of the island where we were filming, Lesvos--Greece’s third largest island--never saw a refugee. The problems faced by the immigrants as they arrive are largely on a level of political decision-making or a lack of it, not on the level of such impersonal forces as physical space. There is a rhetoric to how the refugees are represented with which we wanted to break. In respect to aspect ratio our documentary pushed towards the opposite poles of shock and awe on the one hand, rather than the cellphone, and towards the qualities that Farocki identifies with fiction films, i.e., carefully calibrated focus and framing and the use of cinemascope.
We made these choices because we felt they played against certain stereotypes of how undocumented immigrants are usually represented. I was also inspired to use a fixed camera for interviews by watching From The Other Side (De L’Aûtre Coté, 2002) by Chantal Akerman (1950 - 2015). The steadiness of a fixed camera subverts the association of documentary with a shakiness, fast zooms and focus that catches up. It could be said that documentary and fiction frequently share in different forms a passion for movement. Fiction films use dollies, cranes, et cetera while documentaries usually have the unintentional movement derived from the camera being handheld… the fixed camera restrains this movement. Consistent use of images made with a fixed camera transgresses both oppositions and has an uncanny effect--a sublime that is an alternative to shock and awe.
The Means of Distribution
Giselle Freud in her classic sociological study of the advent of photography, Photographie et Société (1974), writes about the disruption that photography caused in other older methods of portraiture that the rising bourgeoisie had employed to represent itself. Miniature portraits that artists would make on snuff boxes and other small items of daily use were one. Silhouettes were another. The arrival of photography quickly marginalized these. Its arrival coincided with the rise of this new class and the maturing power of the democratic tendencies of the French Revolution of 1789, encapsulated in the call for “ Déclaration des Droits de L'Homme et du Citoyen,” the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.”
Freund’s point is that changing economic and social conditions were as much a cause for the rise of photography as the technology. Today, of course, we are in the midst of another economic and social transformation and, simultaneously, the link between the citizen and human rights are being strained, and cinema, the art form that defined the last century, continues to go through tremendous changes. If we focus purely on the technological level these changes are both related to production--smaller cameras able to do much more without the need to purchase film--and on the level of distribution, i.e. the internet for streaming and downloads. However, as Freund does, I think it is important to examine these in terms of social and political change. I am preparing presently to make available older feature films of mine on YouTube for free. This sacrifices some revenue but it makes them immediately available to the largest worldwide audience. Some of the most important people to whom I want to make my films available do not subscribe to services that require a monthly subscription fee. I’ve been able to reach this audience with short films I’ve put on YouTube, for example, with Golden Dawn, NYC, my film about members of the Greek and Greek-American community in NY banding together to keep out representatives of the Greek fascist neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. Putting that film online had the depressing effect of making me and the people I interviewed the target of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. On the positive side it brought me into contact with a wide audience of people fighting against these fascists in places like Athens and Berlin and who have a passion for film. This broad worldwide audience of people who use exclusively freely accessible films and video is the one I aim to reach with these earlier films of mine. This worldwide audience is as important to the arrival of a new relation to film and media, I believe, as the bourgeoisie was to the arrival of photography according to Gisele Freund. Members of this new audience are also critical to any future conceptualization, reconceptualization and enforcement of “Les Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen.”
Humans We Filmed Still Detained
The refugees detained on Lesvos are still there--including young children--almost two years after we filmed. Inadequate food, contagious diseases, horrendous sanitary conditions, living in tents without heat… these appear to be a calculated way for the European Union to keep on the wall its declaration of human rights while at the same sending a message to people who would actually take it at its word that they should not do so: “Come here and you will be in hell indefinitely, held in a massively overcrowded camp surrounded by barb wire on this beautiful island.” Here is a short clip from a video call I had recently with Sham who is now in Italy. He appears in NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL. I first met him when he was detained in Camp Moria on Lesvos--he is one of only four people I know to have made it off the island other than by deportation (the other three were picked by the Pope to live in the Vatican when he visited the island):