Celebrating the late, great German media artist, critic, editor and curator; plus, notes on East Timor’s first ever feature film.
The late Harun Farocki was famously dubbed the “the best-known unknown filmmaker in Germany.” Recently, his passing was commemorated by the Goethe-Institut New Zealand (in conjunction with the Adam Art Gallery and Simon Denny’s brilliant exhibition, The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom) with a mini retrospective of his films. Seeing them for the first time, it was hard not to be struck by their rigour and prescience; that his 1969 film could easily have been commenting on 2014, or his 2012 work would still be relevant in 2040.
Inextinguishable Fire (1969) looks at napalm and its use in Vietnam by the Americans to burn countless Vietnamese. The tone alternates between blunt and wry, as Farocki re-creates a Dow chemical factory to look at the way in which such weapons are manufactured by “workers, students, and engineers.” The film opens with a visceral image, in which Farocki himself stubs out a cigarette on his arm, noting that napalm is considerably hotter than that. He said he had to do it that way. “If we show you a person with napalm burns, we will hurt your feelings. If we hurt your feelings, you’ll feel as if we tried napalm out on you, at your expense.” He then presents the Dow workers as working on minutiae, their disconnection from the actual weapons they’re constructing an easy way for them to rationalise what they’re doing. Evil simply becomes displaced by jargon—Farocki’s analysis of language as reducing and limiting one’s engagement with ‘reality’ is notable here—or in other words, ‘discourse’ is used to hide exactly what was going on. In the context of contemporary warfare, in which drones are operated by people well outside the combat zone, in which weapons and battles are described via bureaucratised jargon, it’s hard not to see a parallel. And, given Farocki’s confrontation of Germany’s past in some of his other work, and the “I’m just following orders,” type of approach, it’s evident that Inextinguishable Fire is commenting on the wilful ignorance of citizens to what is being done in their name. Farocki exhorts us to keep our eyes open, to ensure violence isn’t simply a bureaucratic exercise carried out in our name far, far away.
The use of language in warfare forms the basis of the brilliant series Serious Games (I-IV, 2009-2010). Farocki looks at computer games used by U.S. soldiers training for the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and the games used by soldiers who are struggling to cope with PTSD. The first is a technically complex game simulating what it would be like driving in Afghanistan, and Farocki depicts the absolute fidelity the computer game attempts to have towards ensuring the sun position and shadows are correct, and ensuring the road and landscapes match what the soldiers would encounter. He presents the notion of reality as something that can be created through an artificial process, and simulation becoming as real as the ‘real’. Baudrillard’s analysis of the Gulf War as only existing for the audience through simulacra, mediated constructed images which displace the reality of warfare, seems an apt comparison.
Farocki also makes a telling point in depicting the soldiers’ intended enemies and the weapons themselves. They are created by clicking through certain Muslim stereotypes (you can change the colour of their clothing!) and placing them on the battlefield to attack the soldiers. The complexity of war combatants is instead reduced down to something that can be chosen by scrolling through stereotypes. Farocki shows how the enemy is often fought through such signs and symbols, a semiotic battleground that makes it easier to ‘sell’ the real battle. You can see it with how ISIS’ atrocities are currently being presented in Western media—and it’s important to note that these images were used by our current government to justify any sort of intervention in Syria and Iraq—through very specific symbols only, jump-suited Western aid workers in the desert and bearded clerics. ISIS’ predominant victims—mostly Muslims—are just too confusing and muddy in terms of icon simplicity, and are rarely used to make the same point. But therein lies the problem Farocki suggests. The reason why America and its allies struggled in Iraq and Afghanistan is because the reality (assuming it’s definable) is far more complex than the enemy as a grab-bag of clicked-through Muslim computer game characters. When you reduce the ‘enemy’ and your potential allies to such crude icons, then you don’t really have a clue how to deal with what’s to come, or have a clue to deal with the complexity of war, its aftermath, and its innocent victims.
The war games move to a live game in the Mojave Desert, in which an Afghan village is recreated and populated by dark skinned actors. The soldiers then have to react to a sudden attack, the violence disconcertingly random and hard to follow. But it’s all part of a script, again, in which ‘reality’ is constructed via stereotypical narratives and characters. Reality once again, reduced to a few words on a script page. Farocki describes the city as being modelled as a computer game (not an actual city itself). The third film in Serious Games is an account of trauma—again explored via computer games—in which a soldier recounts a particularly traumatic experience to a psychologist. He is struggling to say what he wants to say, as he is pressed by the psychologist, breaking down as he describes a gunfight he was involved in. It feels raw and real, and you’re drawn into the psychological purging by the soldier, until Farocki once again reveals it all to be a script. The soldier is applauded at the end, he smiles, and advises the psychologist that he probably was a little too profligate in his use of numbers on the ‘anxiety index’ (the soldier has to call out a number out of a 100 as to how anxious he is feeling). Farocki presents simulation as feeling real, while the irrational, the difficult to explain (PTSD) for purposes of ‘treatment’, becomes something that can apparently be reduced down to a number.
The fourth film highlights the un-reality of the game for the traumatised soldiers. Farocki wryly points out that it doesn’t have the same rigour to ‘reality’ that the training games have. In fact, there aren’t even shadows. All four though show the collusion of the visual image to assisting in warfare, the way specific reductionist symbols dehumanise opponents, the way in which the complexity of human experience is co-opted by visual and narrative arts to sell warfare.
Farocki’s Parallel (I-IV, 2012-2014) series is a little bit more playful. It charts the development in computer graphics over the last 30 years, and the changing depiction of trees, the sky, water, etc. The initial graphics are crude, 2-D, cave-painting like (Farocki draws parallels to the development of human painting) to art that is now seemingly more real than ‘reality’. Farocki explores the notion of boundaries in computer games, and follows a computer programmer creating this ‘reality’ via series of lines and clicks (in effect, rules), and the resulting effect it has on ordering our understanding of this world. The Parallel films have a similar thematic resonance to them, reduction of experience down to symbols. Farocki suggests that it is simply impossible to depict the world accurately through language, and we rely on perceived realism (which instead is simply constructed) to our detriment.
Farocki’s films have a fascinating rigour and pace to them. His visual intelligence also is notable. But most of all, it is his incredibly potent and profound discussions artistically, politically, and philosophically, touching on representation and its effect on our understanding of contemporary society, signs and symbols, and the way in which they are constructed and reduce their subjects, amongst many other considerations, which suggest the film world has lost a real master this year.
* * *
It’s interesting to note the foundational films of so-called national cinemas. New Zealand’s 1970s films (though of course, cinema had been around much longer than that) had the stereotypical Kiwi Man Alone concept, men like Bruno Lawrence and Sam Neill struggling to fit in with the country around them. Australia’s 1970s output confronted race and history, its treatment of indigenous populations coupled with a focus on the interior of the country, rather than the urban coast. Timor-Leste’s first film Beatriz’s War was released last year to great support in its home country. Directed by Luigi Acquisto and Bety Reis, it’s a troubling look at split identity, the effect of the Indonesian invasion and occupation (1975-1999) on Timor-Leste’s inhabitants, and the difficulty of reconciliation following independence.
The narrative is initially an episodic account of the Indonesian occupation and the effect it primarily has on the titular Beatriz (played by co-writer Irim Tolentino). She is separated from her young husband Tomas during the Kraras Massacre, and is forced to live in limbo with a young child, lack of knowledge about Tomas’s whereabouts, and dealing with being a prisoner of the Indonesians. Independence comes, and Tomas returns. Ostensibly. Taking its cue from the sensational Martin Guerre case in 16th Century France, the narrative shifts from a relatively steady account of national horrors into something much more nuanced and complicated. Is the returned Tomas the real Tomas, and what exactly is Beatriz’s love for the returned Tomas based on—the past, or the future?
The Guerre story has been told before in film: first, Daniel Vigne’s Gérard Depardieu vehicle, and then in the 1993 American version Sommersby, which set the events during the U.S. Civil War and the Reconstruction. The narratives mix the uncertainty of war with ‘impersonation’ as a way to start again, in order to question the supposed trust people place in newfound peace. (Another notable example is Don Draper in Mad Men.) The foundation of a country becomes one built on slippery identities. Key strands to the narrative are collusion by some Timorese with the Indonesians (Tomas’s sister), foreign interference (Australia’s support for Indonesia, let alone its theft of Timor-Leste’s natural resources post-independence), and the straight-out brutality of the Indonesian occupation. Ultimately though, the narrative, through Beatriz’s story, challenges the idea that independence from Indonesia is going to be a straightforward process, the uncertainty of knowing who your neighbour is, let alone your lover, suggests that freedom does not necessarily lead to stability. And, even if he or she is the person you once knew, the trauma and effects of the Indonesian occupation meant that everybody will have changed. Crucially, the film looks at the tension in paying due respect to the past whilst also preventing it from becoming a millstone in order to deal with the future.
Beatriz’s War isn’t technically the slickest, and the acting can be a little awkward. But its striking visual motifs and narrative ambiguity create a haunting tone. And when one considers its role as the first film from Timor-Leste (and its relative proximity to the events in question), as well as the problems it foresees for the fledgling nation (and which have occurred), there’s a particular sense of rawness to the film and its establishment of Timor-Leste on the cinematic screen.