Art, Film, and Politics

Directors' Dialogue

September 11, 2001
A man walks through the rubble after the first tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, Sept. 11, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

Six filmmakers from the Mediterranean basin whose films were presented at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—Ghassan Salhab from Lebanon; Hiam Abbas, a Palestinian who lives in France; Yamina Bachir from Algeria; Amos Gitai from Israel; and Serge Lalou and Malik Chibane from France—agreed at the invitation of Le Monde to discuss together the impact on their art of Sept. 11, terrorism in Algeria, and the Israeli-Palestinian war.

Did the attacks of Sept. 11, which were singularly spectacular in nature, constitute a significant event for you, as people involved with images?

Ghassan Salhab:
For me, it has changed absolutely nothing, but I can see that things have changed for other people; and so, necessarily, I cannot help but take it into account. I’m not saying that what happened was something commonplace, but I have the impression that people have overplayed the decisive nature of that event....At the most, people are able to talk about the way they saw that event, or more precisely, about the way it was shown to us—and that’s a very broad subject, because we would have to broach the question of the relationship of the media with images.

Serge Lalou: I am somewhat of the same opinion, but for a different reason: Personally, today, I still do not know what Sept. 11 really was. The event is still too close to us. I hope and expect that filmmakers will take a look at the event in a way that will allow us to understand it. For the time being, all we’ve had are on-the-spot glimpses, like the film about the New York firemen....In reality, a lot of things have not been said, and people have not yet really talked about it.

Hiam Abbas: As a filmmaker, I cannot see what we can do with an event like that, other than exploit its spectacular nature in one way or another. As a Palestinian, however, I can see all too well what the immediate effects have been on the conflict in the Middle East and the price we are paying for it.

Yamina Bachir: Without wishing to minimize the horror of that crime, perhaps we should emphasize that all of us here come from the Middle East or the Maghreb—regions where violence reigns. I come from Algeria, a country that has been immersed in terror for the last 10 years; where 300 people had their throats slit in one night. In this sense, Sept. 11 is something I am already familiar with. The difference was both the unprecedented nature of the means employed for the attacks and the fact that the victims were Americans. But, in the face of terror against civilians, a victim is a victim, and to attempt to make the Sept. 11 attacks into some sort of paradigm seems somewhat distasteful to me.

Serge Lalou: Paradoxically, it is precisely takeover of the event that prevents us, for the present, from thinking it through and putting it into perspective.

Yamina Bachir: At the very least, we can note the very clear intent of making terror visible. It is no longer an anonymous terror, faceless and abstract. This terror makes use of the visible to strengthen its impact.

Ghassan Salhab: But it seems to me that this is not the case in your country.

Yamina Bachir: Yes, it is; to the extent that any mass murder—putting a bomb on a bus or in a market square—is spectacular in its essence. Furthermore, the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) people call in journalists and have their own cameramen film these operations. Here we are touching upon a troubling question, the ambivalence of terrorists who claim Islam as their authority with respect to images. On one hand, they condemn images and destroy them, and on the other, they do not hesitate to make use of images. On one hand, you have the destruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan—which was filmed, no less—on the other, you have the video cassettes of Bin Laden.

Ghassan Salhab: Very simply, those people are very aware of the kind of world they are living in and what they have to do to give their cause the maximum impact, precisely by turning the cynicism of Western imagery against itself....There is nothing troubling in this; it’s pure propaganda. The depiction of Osama bin Laden in the cassettes we have seen of him is no more and no less than a staging of the prophet in his cave. And who mainly broadcasts these cassettes? The Al-Jazeera network,...which for the first time in the history of television in the region, has brought together all the television viewers of the Arab countries.

Amos Gitai: The problem is that the television networks generally convey to us authoritarian points of view about the world. The serial we are watching at this very moment in the Middle East turns human lives into bargaining chips. The victims of each side serve the cause of one side and then the other. It’s a serial that works very well because the good guys and the bad guys reverse their roles each day, and people have the impression that this formula can go on forever. Television writes hermetic and two-sided screenplays, in which we the people of the Middle East are reduced to mere extras. Here’s where films have a part to play, by subverting this advance scripting of reality by television, which is always based on the primary impact of emotion. Film can and must break out of this kind of caricaturing by showing the complexity of reality, by building bridges between differing points of view and also by allowing for subversion and self-criticism.

Ghassan Salhab: Yes, except that in the West, for quite a long time now, artistic subversion has become an integral part of the system. Hollywood is the best example of this. I think that is not the case in our regions, where political commitment still involves risk. As a Lebanese, for example, I am putting myself in danger by speaking with you today.

Amos Gitai: I am well aware of that, and I am all the more impressed by your gesture. When [filmmakers] Youssef Chahine and Yousri Nasrallah in Egypt included my film Kippur in their list of favorite films, that brought them a lot of grief. It is once again this tragedy of two-sided thinking. I have no illusions about the impact of such gestures on the actual situation, but I do believe that they are symbolically very important in order to show that no conflict is final. The only thing that is final is death.

But death itself can be made into a value or a fetish. Isn’t this what is happening with the Palestinian “martyrs” and the use that is made of their filmed images post-mortem?

Ghassan Salhab: Unfortunately, death has become almost a commonplace reality in our countries. These images have an impact in our countries that is totally different from the impact in the West. In southern Lebanon we are used to seeing lots of posters of young people who have sacrificed themselves for the cause.

Serge Lalou: It goes a bit further than that, I believe. The martyr cult is not just an individual matter, but it is part of a cultural history and a collective consciousness, both of which are very strong. The use of these images, the manner in which they radiate into the society that produces them, is anything but innocuous.

Ghassan Salhab: It must be clarified...that this is a phenomenon that comes out of the Shiite culture and has a very particular and limited history. And today it has spread on account of the despair connected with the political situation. But also, on the part of those who make use of these images, it comes from this cynical intent to indoctrinate, which we talked about earlier. Unquestionably there is a conspicuous culture of death in the Arab world, but I think that the phenomenon of suicide attacks would not exist without the political context.

Yamina Bachir: I think that the political and historical context is such that the kids who are sacrificing themselves, and who are not conscious of being cannon fodder, find that it is a way for them to say that they exist, even at the cost of their own lives. The image that remains of them becomes the witness to this.

Serge Lalou: We are in agreement, I believe, on the horrifying character of these acts. But what I have observed in the families of the Iranian martyrs, for example, leads me to believe that there, too, is something sublime. I have the impression that the problematic images we are talking about have the purpose of conveying something of this sublime aspect, this light that becomes connected with the martyr. I will stop here, because perhaps I do not have the cultural means to understand, and also because, as a producer and filmmaker, death is precisely the limit that determines what we can film and what we can’t.

No less fundamental a question is the image of the other. What place is given to this image in Israeli and Palestinian society respectively, or more broadly in Arab society?

Hiam Abbass: I can answer that question very simply from my personal experience. I am Palestinian; I was born in Nazareth, and I lived in Israel up to age 18. Still, most of the Israelis I have met have always told me that I do not look like an Arab. Why? Simply because of the difficulty they have in picturing the other outside the usual clichés?

However, for a long time now, as the work of Amos Gitai in particular attests, there has been a genuine Palestinian presence in Israeli films. But is the opposite true?

Ghassan Salhab: We have to tell it like it is—Arab films in general portray Israelis as stupid and mean, if they picture them at all, which is not often. This inability to have any picture of the world that is at least somewhat complex is, for me, one of the major tragedies of the Arab world. Movies are a good example of this, because in order to make a character exist in a film, you must necessarily personify and humanize that character. And if you humanize an enemy, there is a real chance that he will become a little less your enemy and more akin to yourself.

Malik Chibane: I am the son of Algerian parents. I live in what is euphemistically called the outskirts, and I can tell you that France still refuses to squarely face its own history, particularly the war in Algeria. After 40 years of living in France, only now has this community begun to exist in the movies. And yet, while people may like Samy Nacéri at the wheel of his taxicab, or Jamel Debouze in the film Astérix et Clépâtre, 20 percent of the French people still vote for the far right. In a country at peace, and one that is relatively prosperous!...For me, this is a serious social and cultural failure.

Amos Gitai: What is happening today in France is the result of the tragic decline of political awareness in the West. That is why art has become a museum piece in France, rather than a source of political commitment and a force of social protest. Filmmakers, in the image of Rossellini and Fassbinder, should remain faithful to that vocation, because without it, they will disappear along with their art.