Tackling postwar amnesia and erasure as cultural
production, "Massaker" makes aesthetic choices with political

Copyright (c) 2005 The Daily Star  
Friday, October 21, 2005
By Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
Daily Star staff
Massacre is – both in contents and aesthetically – a psycho-political study of perpetrators, who participated in the massacre of Sabra and Shatila, both on orders and on their own personal initiative. The film intertwines the mental dispositions of the killers with their political environment and broaches the phenomenon of collective violence through their accounts.

BEIRUT: These 99 minutes do not pass nicely. In Monika Borgmann, Lokman Slim and Hermann Theissen's documentary film "Massaker," six men from the Lebanese Forces, the disbanded Christian militia, talk about how they slaughtered some 1,000 to 3,000 Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, just south of Beirut, for three days in September 1982.

They talk about their preparatory training in Israel with the Israeli Army, their allegiance to Lebanese Forces' leader Bashir Gemayel and their response to his assassination just after he was elected Lebanon's president. The talk about how they moved into the camps, tossed grenades into houses and sprayed rooms with gunfire and killed at close range.

They talk about one man, a butcher, who exercised his preference for the tactility of killing with a knife instead of a gun. They talk about another who, mid-massacre, picked up a young girl by the waist, raped her, dropped her on the ground and shot her in the head, saying afterward to anyone who was interested, "I needed a f***." They talk about how they dumped dead bodies into a pit and tried to dispose of them with chemicals. As the minutes tick by, they talk and they talk and they talk.

Culling these 99 minutes from 60 hours of rushes, the filmmakers cut away the bulk of the massacre's details and specificities to leave a spare but legible language of violence at the core of the film. Borgmann and Slim also made a deliberate choice - what they call their "politically incorrect approach" - in portraying the massacre from the perspective of the perpetrators, not the victims. In doing so, they shredded all the filters and mediating frameworks that might otherwise make their subjects palatable.

"Massaker" is no story of survival or redemption, nor is it a clear- cut narrative of moral condemnation. Instead, it is an inquiry, more political than theoretical. What impulses drive a man to commit horrific acts of violence? What conditions transform those impulses from individual to collective actions?

"Massaker" made its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February, where it won the Fipresci prize. The film has since been shown in 15 different festivals in 15 different countries. In France and Greece, "Massaker" is getting a general theatrical release.

But so far the film has only been screened in Lebanon once - in the context of a week-long symposium on civil violence and collective memory that took place last month (the film was approved by the censors just six hours prior to its public showing).

It made for uncomfortable viewing not only for the claustrophobic closeness of the events themselves but also for the fact that, while elsewhere these six guys might be talking from behind bars or otherwise distanced from viewers, in Lebanon they are talking from, well, anywhere and everywhere. "In the film, six men are appearing and they are living between us," say Borgmann and Slim in a postscreening interview, "inside Lebanese society, leading today a normal life."

Thanks to the 1991 general amnesty law that followed the cessation of Lebanon's civil war, these six guys - and untold numbers like them from every social, political, economic, religious and sectarian notch on Lebanon's complicated cultural bandwidth - have been pardoned, their crimes forgotten without ever being acknowledged as such, as crimes.

Much has been made of high-ranking wartime militiamen who segued directly into postwar ministerial posts and remain in positions of political and economic power today. But what about the rest? Of the men in "Massaker," one may be your neighbor, another may make your manoushe in the morning, yet another may work at the gas station down the street. One of the more difficult, implicit and never fully articulated questions that "Massaker" raises is, so how are you going to live with that?

"This film is a kind of protestation against a whole political culture based on forgiveness and amnesty," explain Borgmann and Slim. "The Lebanese will not have the chance - each time a crime is committed - to have an international inquiry commission. This film is - among other things - an invitation to the Lebanese to assume their present and future as well as their long-lasting, violent past. In general, we believe that history cannot be ignored. The process of revisiting [one's] own history can be sometimes extremely painful, but no one can, in the end, avoid it."

Those intentions are admirable, but does the film bear them out?

In formal and aesthetic terms, "Massaker" is all over the place. Each scene is set in the rooms of random, anonymous apartments. Because the film was shot during the summer months and because, apparently, the filmmakers kept the windows closed from prying eyes, the six men who speak in the film disrobe as they do so. The camera avoids their faces and focuses on their bodies, so what you get as a viewer is an awful lot of profusely sweating flesh.

This emphasis on the body should convey a great deal of meaning, employing a visual language to underscore and undermine the film's verbal language all at once. But because the quality of filming is so poor, "Massaker" squanders the opportunity to match form to content in an impactful way.

It's not just that the film is, on the most practical levels, difficult to see and hear - Borgmann and Slim tweaked the sound and darkened the image in postproduction to prevent the possibility of anyone identifying the six subjects. Every shot seems accidentally, even amateurishly composed.

The camera jerks left and rotates 90 degrees, as if to frame the subjects, cheaply, as monstrous. It drifts to a bulky shoulder and spins around a character's foot for no reason at all. Technically speaking only the editing - tracing the massacre from start to finish and giving the film a rhythm that quickens in intensity and tightens like a vice - is masterful.

Also vexing is the way in which the filmmakers prompt their subjects with photographic evidence of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. One man flips through a stack of press pictures - gruesome shots of dead bodies piled in dirt - and crumples each one into a paper ball as he goes. How is one to read this? Does he destroy these images because there is no truth in them? Because they are inadequate containers for a horror too great to be referenced, much less represented? Because they don't conform to his memory? Because they haunt his memory? Because they upset him? Because they confuse him? How do these images, reproduced and repeated, relate to the trauma of Sabra and Shatila?

If a trauma is precisely that which cannot be absorbed into conscious thought and is therefore repressed, and if the filmmakers are using these pictures to trigger a return of the traumatic, then they are painting their subjects, the perpetrators, as victims, suggesting they too have been traumatized. The problem with that, notes art critic and historian Hal Foster, is that "a traumatic subject ... has absolute authority, for one cannot challenge the trauma of another; one can only believe it, even identify with it, or not."

Because Lebanon has pursued an official policy of postwar amnesia for over 15 years, artists, novelists and filmmakers have taken up the task of beating back historical erasure in the realm of cultural production.

"Massaker" may not be the most visually sophisticated piece of work to come down this pike. But it points to a serious problem. A film, even a documentary with a bent more activist that aesthetic, is an artwork. It may be seductive, convincing, provocative or not. But it cannot confer the status or legitimacy of official postwar reconciliation policies, however barren and suspect those may be. It cannot demand truthful confessions or mete out meaningful consequences.

The six men who talk and talk in "Massaker" do so without fear of prosecution. They are not on trial (even though one says that being filmed, he feels "as if" he were). They are off the hook. With perhaps one exception, they show no remorse.

"Massaker," in effect," provides these six men with a platform, a productive space, from which they make excuses for themselves and boast. For that is the thrust of their talk. It is the boasting of men who take advantage of the opportunity to freely assert their masculinity and virility, their chest-pounding status as men.

Does this humanize them to such an extent that viewers - neighbors, fellow citizens, victims' families - may learn to forgive them? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe the best "Massaker" can do is document such talk and hope an audience responds. Otherwise all viewers are left with is despair.

Copyright (c) 2005 The Daily Star
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Monika Borgmann was born in 1963 and studied Arab Philology and Political Sciences in Bonn and Damascus. Since 1999, she has been working as a freelance journalist for radio and press. In 2001, she co-founded the production company Umam Production.
Lokman Slim was born in 1962 in Lebanon and studied Philosophy in Paris. In 1990, he founded the Arab-language publishing house Dar al Jadid and co-founded Umam Production with Monika Borgmann in 2001.
Hermann Theissen was born in 1954 and studied Germanic Studies, Social Science, Theater, Film and Television Sciences. Since 1987, he has been a senior editor in the features department of Deutschlandfunk and has directed the television features Das war doch utopie fuer uns - Vom Berber zum Unternehmer (1986) and Eisenhuettenstadt - Eine sozialistische Stadt im Umbruch (1991).

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