a new context for the communal production, appropriation and distribution of critical knowledge

Monday, February 19, 2007

A post-colonial post-card

The image above is the front of a postcard that I received in the mail a couple of weeks ago--presumably, even though I don't speak the language, I am on a mailing list of potential Arabic speakers due to my name ("Yahya" for those of you don't know).

When I received this post-card, I could not help but feel the weight of the interpellation over my shoulders. It does not only invite me to help "this country" but also myself. $10,000 bonus and an expedited US citizenship is the price that the US Army Inc. deemed appropriate for recruiting collaborators ("native informants") for the new imperial project of the US.

In this sense, this post-card immediately reminded me of Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) and its matter-of-fact description of the business of colonialism. But it also reminded me of Joseph Losey's Kafkaesque Mr. Klein (1976) in which, a Robert Klein, an art deal who ruthlessly profits from the situation of the Jews under the Nazi occupied France, one day receives a Jewish newsletter on mail. Fearing that he would be marked as a Jew in the eyes of the authorities, Mr. Klein himself goes to the authorities to complain that there must be a mistake, that there must be another Robert Klein. Of course, this naive attempt at refusing to be the addressee of the newsletter will only lead to his further entrapment in the subject position of the Jew.

This "Arabic Translators Needed" post-card replicates the same gesture of naming in a different context: the identification/marking of the subjects with an ethnicity through their name. Without doubt, there are differences... In one case, the destination is the concentration camps; in the other, it is the colonial outpost. In one case, the subject is summoned to be annihiliated; in the other, the subject is summoned to be deployed in the colonial administration of Iraq. Yet, in both cases, a set of subjects are summoned to come forth. And in this precise sense, it does not matter if the subject who receives the post-card is an Arabic speaker or not. Just as it did not matter for Mr. Klein that he is coming from an established old Catholic family. What matters is the institutional weight of the act of naming--which arrives sometimes in the form of a thin newsletter, sometimes in the form of a even thinner post-card, and sometimes in the form of a weightless email...

Monday, February 12, 2007

Where you get to depends on how you travel

[i found this film review quite fascinating and decided to post here with the author's permission.]

Half Moon – Bahman Ghobadi
(Iran 06) viewed RotterdamFilm festival 2 Feb 2007

Bahman Ghobadi is a filmmaker who is making films from within the people. He is not an outsider coming into a culture or a society and then making a movie about the people and their problems. Movies made by outsiders rarely amount to more than a series of superficial glosses impressions and images stitched together with themes derived from either character or issues (cf In this World – Winterbottom). Films made by incomer directors usually say more about the director’s concerns than the society. Ghobady is of the Kurds. Half Moon is about them and him and it’s a simply shot road movie in which every sequence is informed by understanding of the Kurdish situation. The shots in the film represent not just images and impressions but the complex matrix of the Kurdish people and their lives. It is a film not so much about issues or problems but rather about music as a condition of a people.

In Half Moon the bus carrying the musicians is a dynamic vehicle that opens up the relationship between a people and the historical and geographical vectors that contain and shape their destiny. In the West the road movie usually engages with character and forced situational encounters that typically resolve through violence. Perhaps this is because there is nowhere for us to go in the literal geographic sense; for us the psychic fulcrum of the journey tends to pivot on an inner vector such as identity quest. In Half Moon the travelling musicians have no doubts about who are. The questions posed by Ghobadi revolve about an overcoming, a refusal to permit the world to corrupt spirit. In Half Moon the old master musician charters a bus totake him and his sons from Iran to Iraq. They undertake a journey from one country that does not exist. Iranian Kurdistan, to get to another country that does not exist, Iraqi Kurdistan, in order to participate in a large Kurdish music festival. To make the journey they have to cross political religious cultural and social fault lines that deny the legitimacy of their people their journey and their music. The master musician has spent months ensuring that he has all the correct travel permits, passports that will be needed to negotiate the complex series of barriers that will impede their progress.

Ghobady’s film is a road movie that is actually on the road. Its strength is that in order to progress, the musicians have to engage in a continuous discoursewith the worlds through which they are travelling. In effect Half Moon is a discourse: with landscape; with social fabric of life; with the religious; with the geopolitical divisions of the land. The landscapes are overwhelming in the film, shimmering realities that suggest an absorption of individual subjectivities into their vastness. The land is a powerful presence: but it’s a presence not an image. The landscapes are not beautiful celluloid backcloths against which a story unfolds. They are, ‘in the story’, at the heart of the film’s discourse. Half Moon begins in the bright sun of Iranian Kurdistan and ends in the mountainous snow vistas of Turkey. In this final sequence, what remains of the little group of musicians tries to pass over the snow covered heights of Turko-Iraqi border. As the master musician ploughs through the snow we understand something about landscape: that it is of the earth and we are part of it. The snow is a harsh environment and in its whiteness spreads across the visual field effacing all referents other than itself. As it overpowers it becomes an embrace of death. A death that is in the end accepted and even welcomed: are turn to a primary union with the earth for which there is a longing and a belonging. And this is neither sentimental nor romantic: it is simply the consequence of the spirit taking certain decisions in particular circumstances. The landscapes are, ‘in the story’, at the heart of the film’s discourse. The landscapes are an evocation, a calling up of a history that is happening as the bus moves on its journey. The landscapes are crisscrossed and marked out by invisible hidden lines that represent clan religious social and political boundaries and borders. Each landscape has a menacing aspect and in their hidden folds they are guarded and policed by men with guns who enforce the integrity of these imaginary lines by force.

One motif running through the film is the search by the master musician for a female singer. The female voice is the soul of his music and without it his music is incomplete. The female singer whom he had arranged to sing with them is unable to accompany them because of events in the natural world - severe floods have disrupted the life in her village. For the master, the female and the male are conjoined when they come together to play and sing. In the moment of playing and performing they are in complete communion. But in the non Kurdish fundamentalist religious culture the female is absent: contained constrained and bound tightly about with the male injunction to be invisible. The female is missing from public life; where she should be, there is simply a hole, a not being there. The female in public is undermined in two ways. Through public censor and opprobrium herself confidence is destroyed, and lacking self belief through she is unable to find her voice. Should the female retain self belief and assert her right to sing in public she may be assailed from without by the sentinels of religious policing who suspicious of public performance by women and intolerant of musical interaction between men and women, forcibly intervene to prevent such occurrences. The reality of this culture is that woman are absent from many fields and Half Moon is a psychical discourse into the consequences of this suppression, not just for the musicians but for the culture.

The bus follows an ever more demented and circuitous passage across Iran Turkey and Turkmenistan in its attempts to find a way across the forbidden borderlands. As they crisscross the land they pass through the villages of the country, the musicians get off the bus for tea and to talk to the villagers. And it becomes apparent that in this land the only people you see are old men. Everyone you see is old and bent. The women (young and old) are absent; and the young men are not there. Some force has rounded them up like steers and taken them to another place. The country is full of absence. Where there should be people they are not there.

The bus on its tortuous route runs into check points and road blocks all manned by young men. It seems clear that all the young men have been appropriated by the state and given Kalashnikovs to intimidate and kill. There is a process of brutalisation in play in which guns have replaced musical instruments in the stream of life. The sounds in currency are the crack of the gun and the thud and ricochet of the bullet.

The integrity of Ghobady and his musicians make this a film of the affirmation of spirit. Half Moon is not vacuous feel good road movie; it is a film that affirms faith in spirit and vision. The music in the film is wonderful. In itself it is a force that asserts its right to have a central place in the world. It can meet oppression, death, meanness of spirit with a call to joy to which the organised forces of destruction have no means of resisting. The political regimes will come and go, religious fanaticism will rise and fall. Music like the landwill persevere.

Adrin Neatrour

Adrin Neatrour is a film maker, producer and editor living and working in New Castle. Information on some of his films, which have been shown in various different festivals throughout the world, can be obtained at http://www.crinklecut.co.uk/.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Purloined War

[An image of stylish Lebanese youths driving through a Beirut neighborhood devastated by Israeli bombing, taken by U.S. photographer Spencer Platt, won the World Press Photo of the Year award, the jury announced Friday. The image contrasts a group of friends against a background of the wreckage of a collapsed building. Tellingly, one woman grimaces as she uses her mobile phone to send a text message to a friend, while another, wearing sunglasses, covers her nose with a handkerchief. The award, which Platt took while working for photo agency Getty Images, is considered one of the most prestigious for photojournalists. The photo was taken on Aug. 15, the first day of a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, as thousands of Lebanese began returning to their homes. The chairman of the jury, Michele McNally of the New York Times, described the shot as ''a picture you can keep looking at...It has the complexity and contradiction of real life, amidst chaos. This photograph makes you look beyond the obvious."]

A captivating picture, indeed. The contrast is so striking, viewers can be excused for suspecting it is two different images superimposed. Actually, it would make a very nice illustration for the dictionary entry, 'class'. The driver-bys are positively irritating in their conspicious "otherwordliness". They remind me of a scene from L'Haine where the shiftless suburban kids yell out to the reporters exploring the neighborhood timidly from within their car, "Come out here, this ain't fucking safari!". That being said, there is more --in a sense "less"-- to this picture than the "contrasts and contradictions" of the Lebanese society; there is an element the picture hides despite fully exhibiting it...namely the war, or better put, the Israeli invasion. The picture obliterates this reality, all the while using it as a backdrop. In effect, a foreign armed aggression is displaced onto a domestic class conflict. There is no denying that class (understood here in the income/wealth sense) affects one's life chances; but it is unfortunate that this observation should come at the expense of the fact that just a couple days ago, at this very site, nothing was a bigger threat to life than Israeli bombing. The picture, however, makes you forget this reality; the background might very well be a scene of an earthquake. And I'm not ascribing the photographer any intentions here. For me, the picture succeeds for a reason presumably he never intended --that is, the Purloined Letter-like occlusion it creates in relation to the war. And in that regard, I think my aesthetics and politics part ways in the case of this picture.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Events in NYC, Toronto, Montreal, Oxford, London, and Cambridge!