'Radical Closure' offers perspectives on conflict in Middle East

March 1, 2011

Produced by Eight Forty-Eight

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Protesters in the Middle East

A collection of work screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Thursday looks at conflict and closure in the Middle East through a variety of perspectives. Radical Closure screens as part of the series, Conversations at the Edge. It has also been released as a five DVD box set by Chicago’s Video Data Bank. Film Critic Jonathan Miller has this review.
 

Lebanese video artist Akram Zaatari assembled the work of 24 artists in the program Radical Closure. The videos look at the Middle East and were, in the curator’s words, “produced in response to situations of physical or ideological closure resulting from war and territorial conflicts.”

Given this statement, one could easily expect overtly polemical videos. There is much more than that to be found here. The works grapple with the image in politics and the politics in the image. For instance, several works by Turkish video artist Hatice Guleryuz focus on children. Intensive Care, from 2001, focuses on the face of a young boy, who is undergoing a circumcision. The procedure, explicitly documented, produces a visceral impact in the viewer that contrasts with the boy’s calm and beatific facial expression. In another work by Guleryuz, school children recite the national anthem. This is a complex moment with children taking pride in their mastery, indoctrination and nationalism.

A fitting companion to this work is I, Soldier, a piece by another Turkish video artist, Koken Ergun. The video records the events at a stadium on National Day for Youth and Sports, an annual event. An army officer recites an exhortatory poem that describes the identity of a soldier, as young troops parade and demonstrate their skills. The impassioned delivery by the officer, the stoic precision of the young men, and the fervently appreciative crowd mark a scene in which ideological formation takes form before our eyes. The festive atmosphere is shot through with ominous and fatal undertones.

These videos address the political question of how we become who we are in social contexts. Canadian artist Lisa Steele’s 1974 video “Birthday suit with scars and defects” poses the same question from a personal perspective. Steele, facing the camera, sheds her clothing and rigorously catalogues her scars in chronological order. Steele’s work invites oblique comparison to other instances, when bodies have been marked, scarred, or destroyed in historical conflicts.

Steele’s work approaches the fluid boundary of the personal and political from one direction. Lebanese video maker Mahmoud Hojeij comes at it from another in his 2006 work, We Will Win. Shot in a park in Paris, the artist and his Lebanese friend appear to have struck up a friendship with two young Israeli men. Together they attempt to create a playful stunt for the camera, a sort of leapfrog routine. But they can’t seem to coordinate properly for various amusing reasons. Despite the jocular camaraderie,whispered interjections from the two Lebanese men invoke the territorial conflict between Israel and Lebanon. And the game becomes more than just play.

Deadpan comedy is the hallmark of Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s 1991 film “Homage by Assasination.   Suleiman plays a Palestinian filmmaker writing a screenplay in New York, separated from events in the Middle East during the First Gulf War. In fact, Suleiman is confined to his apartment as if imprisoned. News of the conflict filters in from various sources. His detachment fills the rooms of his apartment with tension, and desire. Suleiman finds ingenious ways to convey the frustration and anxiety of being here when the action is there.  He is due to be a guest on a radio talk show — but when the phone rings, he cannot make a connection with the radio host. Standing at the stove, distracted, Suleiman seems not to notice a pot boiling over. That would be a simple everyday event except that it’s laden under the circumstances with metaphorical resonance.   The predicament he delineates in this featurette clearly manifests the agenda of the Radical Closure set. It condenses the dynamics of physical, ideological and territorial conflict into an artfully minimal serio-comedy.

Suleiman’s predicament seems to belong to another era, a distant time before floods of citizen image-makers could take to the streets with video cameras in their mobile phones as they are now able to do. With the unprecedented political events unfolding today in the Middle East, the works contained in the Radical Closure DVD set may be acquiring a new, privileged status: videograms from before the revolution.
 
For WBEZ, this is Jonathan Miller.