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We are scandalously incapacitated before the camera

We are scandalously incapacitated before the camera; essay.
By Bilal Khbeiz | Jun 2005

Among the many differences that exist between the filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Elia Suleiman, I would like to investigate one in particular – a difference that ultimately depends on their respective geographic situations and on time itself. In the film Kill Bill, Tarantino is able to bring the actress Uma Thurman to life again before the film ends, proving that death is not the end of anything. Generally speaking, this is the concept of cinema. In this instance, Uma Thurman returns from the grave to "get even," and the viewers find this plausible provided they share some of the director’s superstitions and agree with the specific time limits, namely the film’s duration as printed on the poster.

Hence, Thurman is restored to life although the movie is far from over. In the cinema of Elia Suleiman, raising people from their graves never happens, and their deaths are never a reason to end the film. Why does the film end at all, as long as the plot hasn’t reached its conclusion? Here the person keen on vengeance never "gets even" with his enemy; the heroes never live happily and comfortably at the film’s conclusion, and the subject remains unresolved. Geography has its conditions. But the question here is which geography do we mean? This is what should be carefully investigated.

The intensity of the aforementioned difference is certainly not related to the vastness of the imagination. Nor is there any reason to assume that Tarantino's imagination is vaster than Suleiman's. We have no right to make such an assumption. What we discover, however, is how clearly the imagination differs in unalike places. What I propose to say here is that there exist categories for the capacity to imagine. For instance, consider how people imagine in a country like Lebanon, where today we live obsessed with the assassinations of writers, intellectuals, and people struggling to attain freedom. Our imagination will probably never run wild in the manner of Claude Lelouche, in Paris – or break loose the way it does in films by Oliver Stone or Tarantino. Our geographic situation governs the restriction of the imagination. But, by comparison, what films by Elia Suleiman and Abbas Kiorstami prove is connected to events that are closer to fantasy.

Suleiman envisions people enduring horrific struggles while tirelessly trying to stay in touch with contemporary life. These are real people, and what their stories reveal is part of their day-to-day existence. While visualizing all this, Suleiman proves to us that contemporary life is so fragile that a single explosion can incapacitate its nerves.

Fortunately for Tarantino, what happens seems only to happen in the film, since afterwards we finally see Uma Thurman sunbathing naked in the garden of her home, in the footage shot by a few paparazzi, all of which takes place after her death and resurrection in the movie. Yet the heroes of Suleiman’s films never sunbathe at all, and some of the heroes in the films of Israeli director Juliano Mer Khamis (Arna's Children) have meanwhile died, leaving us with only their images in the film. This type of film can never be repeated. To produce a film we need constant and profound occurrences from life, with new personalities. And what matters most is distinguishing between standing before the camera and the ability to act. The person standing before the camera can not really die, except when he is truly unaware of being subjected to the camera’s lens. The camera denies us our actions when we stand before it. We become actors: actors resembling the death of a fly-by-night dealer on the screen; actors trapped by the limits of their ability to capture something; actors incapable of surpassing their own limits, except when they deny themselves their every action. There is no way to stand before the camera without first declaring what happens before it neither a surprise nor a spontaneous act. Everything is painstakingly considered in advance.

In Lebanon, we created a revolution before the camera. But that was not enough. In the thousands, we revolted and demonstrated at the same time while the cameras filmed us. The Lebanese were also at the Martyr's Square, renamed Freedom Square after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, where they demonstrated and protested against the Syrian regime. While they stood shouting before the camera, they watched themselves on huge screens set up for that purpose. So the Lebanese people were the actors and audience in one. During the demonstrations they saw themselves reproduced on screens, and they believed they were changing history. But the camera makes its own judgments. No one can commit suicide and be alive – or die and walk at the same time. The Lebanese their shouted slogans, Lebanon should live, and they expressed their readiness to die for their homeland – and their readiness remained no more than readiness. But how could they die before the camera and declare their readiness to die at the same time? There were two options: either they organized a death scene or committed communal suicide before the camera, in an exulted state of joyful fulfillment. Here lies the reason why the cameras keeps them from carrying out their actual tasks and leaves them alive with the killers’ feelings of guilt – that is, unless they announce their readiness to die without really dying. Declaring their readiness to die, struggle and sacrifice, the Lebanese thought they were truly sacrificing, dying, and struggling. But the camera, which makes them actor and audience at the same time, refuses to let the dead die or the strugglers struggle unless this happens inadvertently. There is a reciprocal non-perception: either the camera comes to focus on them as corpses thrown on the cold floor, or it pans over them at precisely that moment when they fight or die, without them being aware of it. Here the relationship between action, change, and the camera resembles the relationship between a cat and a mouse. One part is always fleeing from the other. But it remains impossible to change one’s country or clothes before the camera in the first place, unless this happens like in the Marlon Brando film Viva Zapata. Only in films where the imagination exceeds its limits can we remove our clothes before the camera. This differs from Suleiman’s films, where those subdued by the camera’s eye are incapable of action and want only to be a document and an affidavit.

In Tarantino’s films, however, they want to be the proof of an unlimited imagination. Again, one has two options before the camera: to be either an affidavit which proves nothing, or an actor that fabricates what the eye sees. In Lebanon, imaginative fabrication has never reconciled itself with real-life facts. The best we could do so far was to stand before the camera without being actors. We watched ourselves as though we were in a dreamlike state. We watched ourselves struggle and die, but we never actually changed, struggled, or died. Now that the time for sleeping has ended, we have awakened to the bitter reality that we have been drowned in the lethargy of the camera. All that we have really managed to do is expose our clumsy dreams.


Bilal Khbeiz

* 1963 Kfarchouba, Lebanon. Lived in Beirut, Lebanon; since 2008 exiled in Los Angeles, USA.

(From the Arabic: Rosita Akl, edited by Karl Johnson)
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