The joys of Ghost Hunting

BEIRUT: While casting “Ghost Hunting” (Istiyad Ashbah), Palestinian filmmaker Raed Andoni interviewed many Palestinian men – some former detainees, others laborers in need of work. A couple of these interviews survived postproduction. Ramzi Maqdisi, a working actor in his early 30s, takes a seat, answers a few questions and says he wants to play an interrogator.

“You think you can be an interrogator?” Andoni asks.

“Sure,” he replies.

“Show me.”

The two swap chairs and Maqdisi asks the film director to what political party he belongs. “I belong to no party,” Andoni replies. The actor repeats the question a couple of times, then stomps around the desk, yanks at the filmmaker’s head and starts squeezing it in the crook of his arm.

“Cut!” Andoni shouts after a few seconds of this. The younger man releases the director apologetically as the irritated-looking Andoni resumes his seat.

“I’ll offer you a prisoner’s role,” he snaps. “Do you want it?”

“I’m an actor,” he shrugs in resignation. “That’s my life.”

It’s unclear whether this exchange early on in “Ghost Hunting” actually documents a casting interview, or whether it’s a fictive flourish. In any case, it proves central to Andoni’s 2017 feature, which mingles re-enactment and personal testimonial, former prisoners and hired actors, live action and animation. In the process, the film captures a face of detention that’s quite unlike past cinematic depictions of Israeli occupation.

“Ghost Hunting” had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival last month, screening in the Forum section, where it won the festival’s first Glashuette Original Documentary Award.

Andoni’s work had its Arab world premiere in Beirut, the closing film of Ayyam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya, the city’s biennial festival of Arabic-language film.

“Ghost Hunting” seems to center on the efforts of the filmmaker (and onetime detainee) and several other former prisoners to rebuild Moskobiyya – a notorious Shin Bet interrogation center – and re-enact the treatment they underwent there.

Andoni’s film promises to be a gut-wrenching experience. The opening credits roll to the accompaniment of cell doors slamming shut. In one of its first live-action sequences, the film recreates a prisoner’s introduction to the facility.

Andoni leads the hooded, handcuffed man into a cavernous room and carefully sits him in a chair. Pulling off the man’s hood, the filmmaker takes up a tin of spray paint and starts mapping the layout of Moskobiyya’s interrogation room.

The filmmaker’s recollections are confirmed and elaborated by the now-unbound man, Mohammad “Abu Atta” Khattab, who doubles as Moskobiyya consultant and acting coach. A veteran detainee, he spent 19 days in Moskobiyya, seven straight without sleep, in a room like the one he helps Andoni rebuild.

The first half of the film follows the cast and crew as they reconstruct the cells and interrogation chambers of the Shin Bet facility – including the petty irritations and personal conflicts that usually mark such labor.

Interspersed with scenes showing the spatial reconstruction are episodes of Khattab’s advice to various actors – sometimes former detainees, frequently Maqdisi, who “plays” Abu Atta and remains a central figure throughout the film – as they are interrogated or left shackled and hooded in various states of isolation and physical discomfort.

These sequences often have a violent edge. After Khattab describes how his interrogators sometimes denied him access to the toilet, Maqdisi recreates the scene for the camera.

When urine finally stops running from the chair where the actor’s been handcuffed, a guard shouts, “He who does it must clean it!”

Maqdisi’s Abu Atta is pulled off the chair and thrown to the ground, where the guards use him to mop up the urine. “Don’t forget to laugh!” Khattab shouts. Still being pulled back and forth through his own piss, Maqdisi obliges.

Another Moskobiyya veteran is overcome by memories of how his brother committed suicide while they were both detained at the same time.

“The worst thing is that they asked if I wanted to share a cell with him to keep him safe,” he recalls, pausing. “I said no.”

Later he remembers Ghassan, a sharp-tongued prisoner with an obscure sense of humor. One day while the Shin Bet guards were beating the two of them senseless, Ghassan looked up at one of his interrogators and said, “When I get out of here, I’m going to find your mother and give her a manicure.”

The guards weren’t amused.

Interspersed among these violent recreations are quiet interludes during which Khattab, Maqdisi and Andoni (shown in profile, eyes shut) sit in the makeup artist’s chair, having powder caressed onto their faces with a brush.

As the tension of the rehearsals builds, the film’s turning point seems to come when Rabih, the film’s assistant director, approaches Andoni, yanks him out of the makeup chair, binds and gags him, roughs him up and bags him.

In film, prisoners’ tales tend to conform to certain conventions. The warden and his guards must be cruel, and the crueler the regime running the detention center (Nazi, say, or Soviet) the more demented its screws.

Prisoners, as a rule, must be brutalized to the breaking point – that way the heroic protagonist who rises up from among the detainees can restore their humanity.

Andoni and his collaborators abjure these narrative tropes of confinement. At the moment that the film seems to be moving from rehearsals to hard-core re-enactment, the filmmaker takes his work in a completely different direction. One animated motif – showing a prisoner’s narrow line of vision while sitting with a hood on his head – is abruptly diverted into fantasy.

One actor, who’s been playing one of Abu Atta’s interrogators, leaves the set to prepare for his wedding. The cast members say so long with a song.

Andoni stages a visitors’ day, providing an opportunity for Lina, a former detainee and the film’s sole substantial female figure, to enter and lend a female voice to the matter of solitary confinement.

The most substantial re-enactment of the film’s second half revolves around Abu Atta’s tricking a guard to light his cigarette, then refusing to give up his name when he’s caught.

The most surprising feature of “Ghost Hunting,” and one of its great strengths as cinema, is that its principal object isn’t to document regime brutality at all. Here, the treatment that Khattab underwent, which “Abu Atta” replays for the camera, is the path Andoni must follow to uncover the humanity of those who survive detention.

The film ends with a final confrontation between Abu Atta and his guard. It ends with laughter, re-enacted.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 28, 2017, on page 14.




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