Saturday, January 07, 2012

Remembering Tim Hetherington’s “Diary”

First published at BIKYAMASR

Artaud wrote that films are essentially narrative experiences that offer emotion through captions that verbalize a story but that should never attempt to translate written language into visual language, in which the action operates as “immediate intuition,” rejecting the notion of a purely visual cinema. To him, the “pure” or abstract cinema leads to a commonplace, depicting more or less adequately, psychological situations that would be in the place on the theater stage or in the pages of a book, but not on the screen where he says, “They exist only as a pale image of a world whose real existence and significance lie elsewhere.”
Nevertheless, films are always impure, editing and cuts – that is what it is, it makes it impossible to purify the art of cinema into a mere contemplation. Perhaps Badiou was right when he said that “A film operates through what it withdraws from the visible… It is of absolute importance that the flowers cinema displays be Mallarmean flowers, that they be absent from every bouquet”. Many films that we call experimental fall into this description perfectly and like many works of contemporary art, they do not want to offer us consolation or comfort, not even alienation; they want to shake us up, even if only momentarily.
But when the filmmaker dies in a situation similar to that depicted in his film, we are likely to change our minds and might turn to his films in order to find narrative answers about the world in which he lived, the kind of person he was or the work that he might have done had he continued to live.
Such was the case with Tim Hetherington’s film “Diary” (2010) that he himself described in the following terms: “Diary” is a highly personal and experimental film that expresses the subjective experience of my work, and was made as an attempt to locate myself after ten years of reporting. It’s a kaleidoscope of images that link our western reality to the seemingly distant worlds we see in the media.”
His film, unlike the documentaries we are used to, which act as vaults of worlds and experiences, is nothing but a telescope by which we are allowed to peer through only for a fraction of a second and then we are not permitted to keep anything. Tim Hetherington, the photo-journalist, was killed while covering the frontlines of Misrata on April 20 2011, in the course of the Libyan civil war, caught by mortar shells, a day after he tweeted: “In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.”
Hetherington was no stranger to the realities of war, having covered previously Africa and Afghanistan for several years, but yet the label “photo-journalist” and “covering” seems entirely inadequate to describe his work. The kind of masterful detachment and lack of commentary implicit in the practice of journalism today does not match the honest ambitions of Hetherington who is caught in his own film saying about zones of war and conflict that “I want to go there and understand”. The answer for what was this precisely what he wanted to understand is the reason why we turn to his personal film, and yet there is none to be found.
In an interview – that is more of a conversation – with Tyler Malone from Patrick McMullan’s PMc magazine, a month before his untimely death, he says: “I did a film recently called “Diary” which is like a 20 minute film. I took ten years of reporting and my personal life and mixed it into a stream-of-consciousness. It’s completely non-narrative. It’s really about simultaneous experience. In the same way that Joyce was into journeying – you know, Ulysses is a journey in one day – there are themes of journeying and dreaming and sleeping. “Diary” is like a dream. There’s no logic to it. Someone asked me: “How did you work out the governing principles?” Well, there aren’t any governing principles in a dream”.
How can dreams be translated into films? It this even possible without breaking the conventions of the filmical? Experimental films of course are always conceived as transgressions and dreams are always present in the topography of art because they constitute the most terminal and vivid experience of the imagination. Translation of dreams into experimental films are already commonplaces and one can immediately conjure up images of master pieces such as Maya Deren’s “The Very Eye Night of the Night” (1958) that is nothing but distant dreams.
However, in translating dreams, the filmmaker usually takes a vantage point from which he can give these dreams a universal imprint that will endow them with the dignity necessary to come out of the circle of mere self-portrait. From the detachment of the photo-journalist he pilgrimages into an artistic domain that is not necessarily that of film. In the interview with Malone, he puts it this way: “Ultimately all my work is a journey, but ultimately the journey leads back to myself – it’s starting to lead back to myself. Which is great, that’s life. I mean I hope that’s what it’s about. It’s both an uncovering the world and uncovering of yourself. But I’m being discursive as a way of expressing that…”
He goes on to say: “Immersion. Abandonment into subject matter. Exile, maybe. I mean Joyce wrote Ulysses when he was mostly in Trieste. He was completely immersed in the world. He was emotionally abandoned. There was no reason in it. In much the same way that, for me, doing the emotional projects I do now – it’s complete abandonment into the work. And an interest in other perceptions, in other ways of thinking and being”.
All of the above places Hetherington in contemporary art more than in the history of journalism and documentary film, even though he did shoot a documentary film, “Restrepo” (2010), about the Afghanistan war, co-directed with Sebastian Junger. Even there, Hetherington surprises by not attempting to offer a point of view with or against the war, and achieves the impossible: To humanize every single person involved, or in his words, from the interview with Malone: “And you know, I’m an image-maker, and I know when we talk about the war-machine, often we present it with images of Apache helicopters or missiles, but it’s not. The war-machine is: take a group of young men, train them together and put them on the side of a mountain, and they’re going to kill and be killed for each other. It’s something very human.”
The only documentary film that I know of, that succeeds in the same way, is Susan Sontag’s “Promised Lands” that she directed in 1973 in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War in Israel. The film manages not to take a position on the war and part of the movie is actually a confrontation between two different spokesmen, neither of which argues for a case either. Walking in between the burnt roads, tanks and bodies, coming closer to the war lines in Israel than anyone did before her, Sontag deploys the same traits that we are to find later in Hetherington’s work: This commitment to understanding, the vision of larger or alternative realities, and the inner desire to want to shake up, rather than merely offer support or consolation. The artist, the writer, the journalist, the filmmaker, they all convene in the same topography.
His work were not only silent photographs and footage from conflict but ranged across a variety of media such as multi-screen installations, fly-poster exhibitions and other devices. In this sense, it can be argued that “Diary” more than a documentary of his own work or a personal experimental film, functions as an installation, doing what Badiou said to be in a way, the essence of film: “After all, cinema is nothing but takes and editing. There’s nothing else”. That is precisely what we see in “Diary”, a dystopian world, images of war mixed with reception of images in Western media and life, the experience of comfort and above all, an incredibly restlessness – in the form of a masterful video-installation, all of it running in parallel.
In her book “Aesthetics and Modernity”, Agnes Heller writes: “To be sure, video art is difficult and, perhaps installation the most difficult among contemporary art forms. Along with the new media goes the temptation to realize all ideas and experiments with all conceptions. As far as I see, those installations I judge as significant (and I have not seen that many significant installations), use the interpretandum as a kind of quotation. Yet, strictly speaking, this is not a quotation because the interpretandum for the installation is not a work done in the medium of the installation. It has been pointed out several times that quotations play a significant role in contemporary art.”
What is Hetherington doing in this installation? What is he quoting? Is he perhaps anticipating something? There is no way we can answer this question, but we do know that the interpretandum to which Heller points is not an abstract concept in Hetherington, but rather, an exposure to risk, to war, to life, and to the very real and not abstract at all realities of human conflict. Was he heroic? Perhaps. Sandra Lehmann wrote yesterday in reference to Havel: “If heroism is to overcome, it can also dispense pathos and vanity. It needs no reward, not even that of great importance and meaning. Probably only heroism without reward is true heroism. It is a matter of the moment and of a far off future”. There is no story to be told in his film, just that – lack of pathos and vanity.
After Hetherington’s death, Tyler Malone published on PMc a postscript to the interview, with his reflections, and he concluded by saying: “He needed to tell stories. He didn’t merely snap photos in dangerous places –anyone fearless enough to face conflict could do that –but rather he told stories with his images. He was a writer, he just used a camera instead of a pen. And, though I admittedly didn’t know him well, I could never imagine him stopping of his own accord. Unfortunately, he was stopped, not of his own accord on Wednesday, April 20, 2011, when he was killed in Libya. He died doing what he loved, documenting truths, telling stories, navigating alternative realities. I don’t personally believe in an afterlife, but I do hope that Tim Hetherington is somewhere, elsewhere, still navigating alternate realities.”
When Hetherington shot his “Diary” in 2010, recording a decade of his photo-journalism work covering the most restless corners of the world, he was only offering us a pornographic tour through the naked limbs of contemporary history; little did he know then that after his death in April – murdered by mortal shell fires in Libya – we would see now through his diary how desperate he was to live. About him and his wonderful, mysterious and fascinating film could be said what Hannah Arendt wrote in 1965, after the death of her friend, the writer Randall Jarrell: “Randall, at any rate, had nothing to protect him against the world but his splendid laughter, and the immense naked courage behind it”.

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