Culture

Real ghosts, reconstructed prison

BEIRUT: Raed Andoni was in Beirut recently to present a master class-style discussion of his 2017 film “Ghost Hunting.” The Palestinian writer-director was among the film professionals invited to discuss his work during the fourth edition of Talents Beirut. This mentoring and professional development platform for young filmmakers is the Middle East franchise of Berlinale Talents, which since 2003 has run parallel to the Berlin Film Festival.

Titled “Blurring reality and fiction,” Andoni closed the public program of Talents 2017. He was joined by film editor Gladys Joujou (who cut, vetted and ordered the film’s 120 hours of rushes) and Nicolas Becker, who collaborated with the director to devise the film’s discreet and nuanced sound design.

Rima Mismar, a seasoned film critic who now runs the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, moderated the discussion with a series of questions and clips of key scenes from the film.

Andoni’s feature-length documentary is in the middle of its theatrical run at Metropolis and the Talents discussion provided several intriguing insights into the creative and collaborative process beneath the work’s distinct cinematic language.

“Ghost Hunting” sets out to bare the emotional scars, and resilience, of political detainees. It’s something the filmmaker underwent himself when, at the age of 18, he spent a year in Moskobiyya, Jerusalem’s notorious Shin Bet detention center.

The film is at times difficult to classify. This is an increasingly common challenge these days, as conventional “fact-based” docs have been augmented (if not supplanted) by deliberately subjective approaches to the form that embrace narrative devices and production values formerly associated with fiction film alone.

At times “Ghost Hunting” resembles films that set out to document drama therapy programs among institutional detainees (Hank Rogerson’s 2005 “Shakespeare Behind Bars,” for example) but Andoni’s ambitions and accomplishments far surpass mere documentation.

Andoni’s feature reflects the current state of the art in documentary film. After its premiere earlier this year, in fact, the film won the Berlinale’s first-ever Glashuette Award for original documentary.

It is a powerful and intelligent cinematic experiment, one that deploys shards of live action performance and animation, fiction and non-fiction, to nest visceral stories of political incarceration.

The film turns the camera on a number of former detainees (some Moskobiyya veterans, others not), laborers and actors. After being vetted in a casting call, the cast and crew first reconstruct the center’s cells and interrogation rooms – vignettes of which are captured on film – then re-enact the experience of imprisonment.

“The morphology of the set design had to be based on sound,” Becker noted during the discussion, “because the detainees were unable to see where they were being held. [In designing the sound] I wanted to fold sound, to put things together that don’t belong.”

“None of the former detainees knows what the center looks like,” Andoni remarked in the session, “and we don’t really know if the sounds you hear are real or fantasy because detainees are under extreme physical and psychological pressure.”

Andoni said he wanted the filmmaking process to provoke the emotional extremes his actors experienced during detention. He was uncertain, he said, whether it would be more effective to import nonfiction into a fiction film or vice versa.

He went into the shoot carrying “some necessary theory,” as he put it. “The film must be more attached to character than story, for instance,” he recalled. “Also I wanted to have some ‘grey area’ scenes, when it’s unclear whether they’re fiction or nonfiction.”

While it layers fragments of documentation and re-enactment upon one another, it is clear that Andoni is using “fiction” as a directorial and narrative tool in a documentary.

“The fiction isn’t just fiction,” he remarked at one point. “It’s to help the [former detainees] find their deep memories.”

The first task of postproduction for Joujou was to assemble a straight-up documentary from the rushes. From this, the filmmakers decided that the film’s first sequences should reflect the three disparate elements that comprise it – animation, fiction and non-fiction.

“This,” Joujou said, “is how we brought the truth into the fiction.”

Like all the film’s animated sequences, the opening scene depicts the filmmaker’s personal experience of detention as a young man.

The second scene looks on as Andoni leads a bound and hooded figure into the wide interior space that will be transformed into the shooting location. The man’s hood is removed to reveal Moskobiyya veteran Muhammad Khattab. Along with Andoni, Khattab is one of the principal figures in the film. He provided input in set construction and coached the actors – particularly Ramzi Maqdissi the 30-something actor cast to portray Khattab in detention.

Once Khattab’s hood is removed, Andoni takes up a can of spray paint and sketches the general dimensions of the future set – a recreation of Moskobiyya’s cells and interrogation rooms, where the cast will re-enact the rigors of detention.

The third scene, which Mismar projected for the Metropolis audience, samples Andoni’s casting call. The call attracts ex-detainees, as well as laborers and actors in search of paid work and the director takes their details. The sequence concludes with Andoni’s interview with Maqdissi, who wants to play an interrogator.

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

“Sure,” he replies.

“Show me.”

They swap seats and Maqdisi asks him about his political affiliation.

“I belong to no party,” Andoni replies. The actor repeats the question a couple of times, then slams his fist on the desk, stomps over to his “prisoner,” yanks at his head and squeezes it in the crook of his arm.

“Cut!” Andoni gestures after a few seconds. The younger man releases the director apologetically as the irritated-looking Andoni resumes his original 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 what I do.”

“The first three scenes set the grammar of the film,” Andoni explains. “For me, [the casting] scene was very important. The fiction emerges from the reality.

“When we had the actual casting call, which took some days, we interviewed people we knew and people we didn’t,” he continued. “All, including [Maqdisi], were shocked when they walked into the location. I’d known him for years but during the interrogation scene it was as if I was meeting him for the first time.”

These opening sequences introduce the mutable conversation between fiction and nonfiction that Andoni orchestrates for the film’s players and audience. One of the cinematic strengths of this restless film is that it doesn’t content itself with pursuing a single narrative line.

“Each fiction scene has a corresponding doc scene, and vice versa,” Andoni further explained, “but we never repeat the same method twice because we don’t want the audience to get comfortable.”

“Ghost Hunting” is not a comfortable film but neither is it self-indulgently cruel. Ultimately it is less an exploration inhumanity than one of resilience in the face of cruelty. As such it is as emotionally uplifting as it is intellectually challenging.

“Ghost Hunting” is screening at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil. for more, see http://www.metropoliscinema.net/

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 29, 2017, on page 16.

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