Culture

Film: What’s missing from this picture?

BEIRUT: Marie Voignier’s 2010 video “Hearing the shape of a drum” commences with a shot of a photojournalist taking a picture of the artist as she films him. The 17-minute video documents the goings-on around the 2009 trial of Josef Fritzl. Fritzl had been arrested for keeping his daughter Elizabeth imprisoned in his basement for 24 years, during which time he raped her repeatedly, conceiving seven children.

Anticipating the media circus the ghoul’s trial would attract, the Austrian judiciary conducted its hearings “in camera” (in judge’s chambers). In the days it took officials to organize daily briefings for the ravenous press, television journalists had to find something to do.

“I came to film the journalists at work,” Voignier told The Daily Star, “to see if they had anything in common with artists, in our way of filming, or in the means of production.

“They couldn’t report on the trial because nothing was public, so instead they reported on the presence of the international press. Everyone was filming each other because the subject was us. It was absurd. The place was supposed to be restricted access for journalists only. ... The policemen who were guarding the press area [never] bothered to ask, because my camera was my press card.”

“Drum” is one of three films that comprise Voignier’s exhibition “International Tourism,” now up in upstairs gallery of Beirut Art Center.

Here Voignier uses film as a tool to interrogate the workings of contemporary narrative. Showing on a TV-sized screen, the show’s smallest, “Drum” takes up the media’s inadvertently comic efforts to stoke public outrage at the Fritzl case – despite the want of facts.

Projected on the second-largest screen, Voignier’s 14-minute “Standing Still,” 2013, is the monologue of a French big game hunter.

Over 25 years, wealthy Westerners wanting to live the dream of the “great white hunter,” have paid him to lead them through stretches of west-central Africa – Chad, Cameroon, the Central African Republic – to kill exotic animals.

His recollections of his time in the bush are keyed to a coffee-table book replete with photos of well-off “hunters” he’s known and slain beasts he’s helped take down.

At no point does Voignier’s camera look up from the hunter’s hands leafing through pages or the photos of hunters and animals he’s known – many of which spur an anecdote or two from him.

“He was very proud of [his work as a hunting guide], so he showed me this [coffee-table book],” Voignier recalled. “I filmed his presentation. It was never meant to be a film, but the trophy pictures [of killed animals] remained in my head. Two months after the shoot I went back over the rushes and decided, ‘OK, maybe there’s something here.’”

Projected on the gallery’s main screen, the show’s principal work is Voignier’s 48-minute 2014 work “International Tourism.” It documents a 2012 research trip Voignier undertook as part of a tourist junket through urban North Korea.

Sequences of foreign tourists being led through state museums (culminating at the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities) and shown around public monuments, where tourists sometimes challenged their guides’ state-sanctioned narratives, are interspersed among banal vistas of traffic cops and the light stream of cars and trucks they manage.

All three films channel their narratives through various media – the international press corps, a French hunter’s coffee table book, the institutions the North Korean state has erected depict its history – suggesting “International Tourism” is less interested in events or figures than their mediation. “Maybe not ‘mediation,’” Voignier averred, “but the construction of the presentation, pictures, narratives and, in a way, how that [reflects upon] cinema.”

“International Tourism” interrogates “how ... cinema’s means of representation is used for another purpose, for propaganda.”

“Drum,” she said, examines “how journalists use cinematographic ways to build a narrative, to build a story. Maybe these are the points connecting media, art and propaganda.”

When making “Standing Still,” Voignier was intrigued by the antique genre of dead wildlife photography in the hunter’s coffee-table book. It “has very strangely not evolved at all since the 19th century,” she said.

“With colonialism long-passed, it remains a way to represent power. It’s not moved by history, which is completely at odds with the story of North Korea, which is completely inhabited by history. “There’s a kind of double narrative between what the pictures are telling and the hunter’s own narrative of these really high-class, rich and powerful people who are being completely lost – abandoning lovers, being killed by elephants, eaten by crocodiles.”

Absence is a feature that unifies these three films. In “Drum” and “Standing Still,” the perpetrators – an incestuous serial rapist, the face of a big game hunter-cum-narrator – are missing from the frame.

The eponymous work “International Tourism” is not silent, yet the tour guides’ state-sanctioned narrative has been excised. The filmmaker said she’d decided to ditch the entire recorded soundtrack, then selectively replace it with the help of a Foley (sound effects) artist.

“When you’re in the tourist group you don’t decide anything – how long you’ll stay, where you stand. I needed to make them something more than tourist images, to put something from me into it. I couldn’t stage it again, so I redid the sound.

“When you change the sound – to change or not change the feeling of the spaces, to make them calm or make them busy – you change the way the eye is traveling over the picture. You can decide how the audience sees the picture.

“The atrocity museum [sequence] is like the climax of the visit – for the guide, for the group – because it’s a point where you can’t hide. The guides know that this is the moment where they may be attacked. So tension was really there.

“It’s also interesting how they deal with the absence of images in the museum, which is something that historians have to deal with every day – the absence of proof. So they do that with paintings of American soldiers, South Korean soldiers committing torture and atrocities.”

“International Tourism” is up at BAC until Oct. 7. See www.beirutartcenter.org.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 06, 2018, on page 16.

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