The radical political movement which started in France in May 1968 — and rapidly moved to many countries across the globe — has ended in one of the most tragic twists in contemporary history; that is a well-known fact by now. In France, some of the leftist political activists who led the protests became right-wing officials, as was the case with several members of the Nicolas Sarkozy administration, for example. Meanwhile in Egypt, Khairat al-Shater, who took to the streets in fervent demonstrations calling for freedom in 1960s Alexandria, ended up as the authoritarian leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and is currently serving a life sentence in prison.
Yes, 1968 might have been a failure on the political front. But the truth is, it has also spurred a wealth of critical ideas, debates and revisions around the “production of subjectivity” that remain relevant to this day, and are still revisited and reproduced by scholars, intellectuals, writers and artists all over the world.
For years now I have been researching some of the questions raised by the movement, particularly those touching on film criticism and aesthetics; militant images; labor representations; the Global South as a site of struggle and possibility; and the notion of empathy in different contexts. In the following fragments, I share some of my reflections around these concepts, which might at first glance appear to be disjointed, but are in fact very much connected, on a multitude of levels.
Europe and the Global South: ‘Create two, three, many Vietnams’
In the wake of the wave of demonstrations that overtook Europe in the late 1960s and 1970s in solidarity with the students’ and workers’ movements and against the war in Vietnam, there was a direction among European thinkers, artists, filmmakers, and critics who were involved to travel the world, exploring — and sometimes partaking in — the revolutionary struggles of the peoples of the global South, in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. For example, German artist and filmmaker Harun Farocki traveled to Colombia and Venezuela, but “couldn’t find the revolution and the guerrilla movements” he was searching for as he later said; French critic Serge Daney went on a long tour through India, Morocco and Sub-Saharan Africa, while iconic filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard visited the Palestinian camps in Jordan in 1970.
These trips, coupled with ideas posed by Che Guevara’s famous words on the Vietnam war: “Create two, three, many Vietnams,” and the question Godard asks in the “Camera/Eye” segment of the 1967 film Far from Vietnam: “How could we not invade Vietnam again but let Vietnam invade us?” likely prompted Farocki to start formulating his own ethical, political and aesthetic questions about images, through images. This was most apparent in the two works he made about Vietnam: Inextinguishable Fire (1969) and Before Your Eyes, Vietnam (1982).
For instance, we find many questions that have to do with representation, contextualization and criticality: how not to produce images of superficial solidarity/sympathy with people from other places (Vietnam at the time) that end up serving as a form of neo-colonization; how to show respect for the subjects depicted in the images; how not to reproduce the violence and exploitation of images circulated by dominant media corporations and the culture industry, how to navigate the relationship between economy/production and war; how to problematize your own context (Germany, in Farocki’s case) when you make films about other contexts; and how to maintain a critical and self-reflective position from something you support or are/were a part of.
I find these questions to still be vital and necessary, particularly when looking at the films and pictures coming out of post-2011 Syria, and how different image-makers and media platforms deal with the current conditions over there. Many of the same concerns implicit in Farocki’s films are voiced in the work and statements of the Abounaddara film collective, for instance.
But there are other examples. The passionate enthusiasm of French philosopher Michel Foucault, one of 1968’s leading supporters for the Islamic Revolution in Iran — which he visited twice in 1978, in addition to interviewing Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris — came from an entirely different place.
In a very pragmatic way, Foucault decided to use Iran as a pretext for critiquing the modern Eurocentric discourse dominant in academia. He wrote a series of articles theorizing the Islamic movement in Iran without any deep study of the historical context of the country, the Middle East or Islam. He described the upheaval as part of what he called “political spirituality,” which he saw as a radical rupture against modern capitalism in Europe or modern communism in the Soviet Union and China.
It was a win-win situation: the revolutionaries get support and intellectual credit from an important international name, while he gets to create a critical discourse that would cement his position among his counterparts in European academia. The truth is, he was actually reinforcing Eurocentrism: taking part in the production of a new, epistemic colonization by legitimizing an embryonic authoritarian regime. It probably wasn’t until Khomeini safeguarded his power, Foucault was banned from traveling to Iran and one of his friends there was executed, that he realized the nature of his ideas around the Iranian Revolution: illusory.
One can easily find traces of Foucault’s attitude in the rhetoric of many nationalistic leftists, postcolonial thinkers and scholars, and even writers and artists today, both in the west and in the Arab world. Bypassing the rigorous study needed to formulate solid ideas in the current, convoluted political landscape, they end up supporting Islamists with the claim that they are resistant to the dominant Eurocentric version of modernity, or dictators like Bashar al-Assad for being “anti-imperialist.”
In the shadow of defeat: Three responses to 1967-68 in Egypt
In Egypt, the manifestations of the 1968 movement were totally different, and were colored by the aftermath of the 1967 defeat in the Six-Day War. Clashes between protesters and the police were back in the streets of Cairo for the first time since 1952: workers and students went out in demonstrations to protest the reduced sentences received by the air force leaders responsible for the defeat, while in November, in Mansoura and Alexandria, students protested the new education law.
Inevitably, this spirit of revolt made its way to the cultural and cinematic sector. Young filmmakers, cinephiles and critics influenced by leftist and progressive thought initiated the Cairo Film Club, most of whom also founded the New Cinema Group and wrote a manifesto against the dominant modes of cinematic production. The group co-produced two films with the General Cinema Foundation (A Song on the Passage [Ali Abdel Khaleq, 1972] and Shadows on the Other Side [Ghaleb Shaath, 1974]), and issued a supplement titled “Al-Ghadeboun” (The Angry Ones) in the popular state-owned art and entertainment magazine Al-Kawakeb. At the time, the state dominated all cultural activity and production: from the educational platforms (namely the High Film Institute) to all forms of equipment needed to make films (cameras, celluloid, etc.), and the group — as part of the political left and the opposition — had to maneuver around its control of film production and distribution.
The sound of battle
Yet after the 1967 defeat, some filmmakers were swept up in the state’s national discourse, as evident from how they responded to the crisis. One of them was filmmaker and scholar Dr. Madkour Thabet (1945–2013), who held leading positions in several governmental institutions throughout his career, including head of the National Film Center. In 1967, Thabet made a short film titled The Revolution of Machines — a buoyant reflection on the defeat — after which he was recruited to the Egyptian Armed Forces as a correspondent and soldier during the War of Attrition.
The film is almost seven minutes long, and was awarded a prize in the first and only edition of the Cinema of Youth festival, organized in Alexandria in 1968. It is almost dialogue-free, with only a voiceover near the end: “These machines are ours; these machines were constructed by us and they will be protected by us.”
The Revolution of Machines is often referred to as an experimental film. Thabet renders the drama of the Nasserist industrial project in an unusual visualization, through post-human, futuristic images of machines working without human labor, coupled with a memorable soundtrack. In the first segment, we see the rise of the industry: the music is lively and footage of the machines working in harmony is weaved with images of a spinning top. Then, suddenly, the camera shakes, the machines halt their activity and alarms go off, symbolizing the shock of the 1967 defeat. We come to the film’s third and final act: we hear the aforementioned voiceover, which represents the workers, then the music comes on again, this time in the form of military drums, as the machines resume working. We still don’t see any workers — perhaps because now they are soldiers, preparing for the battle of liberation.
It is a propagandistic manifestation of Nasser’s famous slogan: “No sound shall be heard above the sound of battle.” The film attempts to interweave images of war with images of production (to look real, it was shot in Egypt’s largest textile factory, in the Delta city of al-Mahalla). It is experimental, yes, in its choice to strip those images of workers and soldiers alike, but it is also devoid of self-reflection or criticism, particularly when compared to other works by Thabet’s contemporaries, such as Youssef Chahine.
I believe that the entirety of Chahine’s artistic project could be titled “Negotiations with Oedipus” — or Hamlet, who appears in many of Chahine’s films as an image of the former. To me, the politics and poetics of Chahine stem from a struggle against the subconscious as an oppressive power, as he dared to tackle psychoanalysis as an aesthetic form.
The negotiations clearly begin with the trauma of peasant misfits in the modern city (the protagonist, Qenawi, moves to Cairo to escape his oppressive family in Upper Egypt) as they embraced the newborn national progressive discourse of unionism in the avant-garde film Cairo Station (1958). He then made a series of state-produced films, such as The Land (1969), where he would surreptitiously defend the people’s freedom within the parameters allowed to him. But it wasn’t long before the conflict stirring within Chahine — a son of the national liberation generation — as a result of 1967 made it to the surface. In five years, he made three films reflecting on the defeat, pushing the limits of censorship to be able to call it just that: a defeat; not a conspiracy.
In The Choice (1970), he uncovers the hypocrisy of the bourgeois intelligentsia and examines the reasons behind the defeat through the story of a writer (struggling against the oppressive power of the subconscious, an Oedipus) who is jealous of his brother (a carefree man liberated from the oppressive power of the subconscious and the past; an anti-Oedipus) and eventually kills him. The Sparrow (1973) is an investigation of political and economic corruption as major causes of the defeat, but we also have all the usual suspects: a montage that interweaves images of Israeli aircrafts landing in the Sinai desert with a dream sequence where a young girl — symbolizing the early promise of Nasser’s national projects — is raped, while Baheya — the strong, wise mother who takes to the streets calling for war — symbolizes a brave, resistant Egypt. The third film, Return of the Prodigal Son (1976), is mostly a fetishization of the defeat that zooms in on the wounded masculinity of the father figure (Nasser/God) and his sons.
Then we come to Chahine’s next trilogy, where he begins to deconstruct Oedipus: his autobiographical films, which were far from an egoistic practice but rather an exercise to try and extract singular memory from the national narrative in Alexandria, Why? (1979) and examine conflict and reconciliation in An Egyptian Tale (1982), before reaching the culmination in Alexandria, Again and Forever (1989). The latter is a subversive detournement where Chahine radically inverts the oppressive subconscious he’d been grappling with so far into a playful landscape of love, dreams and desire. It sees Yahia, Chahine’s alter-ego (this time played by the filmmaker himself), question his own authority and authorship as a director, against a background where actors and other film professionals are engaged in a strike against the state on the Film Syndicate’s premises. I view the film as the ultimate resolution of Chahine’s project, as it raises a crucial question: How could the subject live their own identity with their own voice while they take part in building a communal democratic world?
The last stage in Chahine’s dramatic cycle is indisputably his weakest. His final film, Chaos (2007) — which, due to Chahine’s poor health, was mostly filmed by his then assistant director, Khaled Youssef — tells the story of a policeman who brutally harasses and tortures people as a result of multiple family issues he endured as a child. A full circle that takes us back to Oedipus and the oppressive subconscious.
The documentary as democratic space
From the 1970s up to the early 2000s, when the state had near-total domination over cinema, documentary filmmaker Atteyat al-Abnoudy was trying to find alternative ways of film production with the support of a developing civil society and several international institutions in an attempt to develop her own version of Third Cinema. The majority of her films were shot outside Cairo, and, in a way, they could be viewed as spaces for democracy all over Egypt, capturing the faces and voices of the less privileged from a feminist perspective. In some of them, such as Responsible Women (1994) and Girls Still Dream (1995), we see female NGO workers in medium interview shots, talking laws, statistics and field research results in their offices, juxtaposed with close-ups of laboring women who speak of their views of the world and recount the details of their daily lives as they work.
I believe that the essence of Abnoudy’s artistic project — basically describing Egypt with the use of a camera (she used 16mm until the 1990s) — was chiefly to make film a feminist, democratic medium, bringing the narratives of women to the forefront and capturing — in sound and image — how everyday products of labor and design (baking, weaving and pottery, for instance) and everyday practices (birth, marriage and death) could be interpreted as cultural artefacts. She also chronicled the socioeconomic transformations that followed Sadat’s open door policies, struggles for education and improved living conditions, as well as the experience of female candidates running for parliamentary elections in Days of Democracy (1996) and the journey of displaced Nubians to their homes for Eid in The Nubia Train (2002), two of her most significant films.
With the beginning of the 2000s, the medium itself had become democratic: digital cameras were everywhere, satellite TV channels were introduced, the advent of the internet made everything accessible, and cultural NGOS were launching independent film schools — people had the capacity to produce/reproduce their own images and sounds. Abnoudy’s purpose has been accomplished, it seems, and today we need to ask questions of a different nature, particularly around the reproduction of images.
I sometimes think of the path that artists, filmmakers, writers and critics from the 1968 generation in Egypt have taken. Many of those who survive have internalized the ideas they once rebelled against, becoming mouthpieces for the state, with no trace of the independent, critical position they struggled for years to build. The past few decades have turned them into the regressive cultural authorities they confronted in the 60s and 70s; they have become engineers of the people’s awareness, and they will stop at nothing to defend that authority. They control the art academies, the cultural sections in newspapers and magazines, TV programs, state-sponsored film festivals, consultancy jobs for mainstream production companies, and, of course, the Censorship Board. It is ironic, really: The supporters of 1968 are censoring the works of the supporters of January 25 — the revolution we’re still hungover from.
And so the question is: how do we find a different way? How can we — as artists and cultural workers and producers operating in the scope of contemporary, “independent” arts and culture platforms and funding structures — develop an awareness and a solid critique of the contexts we are working within? How can we keep a critical distance in order to maintain our ability to question our position?
Concerning Violence: Militant images and landscape theory
To me, 1968 marks the beginning of the domination of “text” over critical and cultural productions, unlike films/images, which were — together with the Global South — often used as mere pretext to serve “bigger ideas” (with the exception of some works by Godard, Farocki, and Chris Marker, which were taken seriously in certain contexts).
In political experimental filmmaking and in many militant films in Europe and elsewhere, authoritarian authorship was still common: it was the golden age of dogmatic texts, justifying a struggle or rallying support for a cause, superimposed as voiceover on montages of images that only acted as illustrative figures for the words. Rare examples — particularly in Third Cinema — managed to forego this pattern, such as The Battle of Chile trilogy by Patricio Guzman and the films of Djibril Diop Mambéty.
In film theory and film criticism, psychoanalysis was the dominant approach when it came to analyzing mainstream cinema (in Egypt, I believe, it still is), dealing with films as texts or structures made up of symbols and signs to be decoded. In academic fields such as sociology, anthropology or political science, film and literature were used to give a bit of “color” to dry academic discussions, just like one eats seasonal fruits to help digest a heavy meal they’d just consumed.
On the other hand, anti-colonial struggles in the Global South were commonly praised in white European critical discourse, while everything that followed — from dictatorships, uprisings, civil wars and waves of migration — was used to support theories in academic debates with no real effort devoted to understanding the complications of these southern contexts.
By the beginning of the 1980s, however, Gilles Deleuze had already achieved a radical critique of psychoanalysis in his two-volume book Anti Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1983), suggesting an alternative aesthetic and critical approach to develop a new reconsideration of images and films as products of a visual cinematic language, not texts nor pretext for other mediums. He proposed to analyze cinema in relation with movement and time as a form of thinking and production of concepts through images, sounds and the relationship between them, a notion he thoroughly explored in his cinema books: The Movement-Image (1986) and The Time-Image (1989). Simultaneously, Laura Mulvey, as well as bell hooks and other black feminist scholars, developed new critical discourses concerning the visual representation of women in films from a feminist perspective, assessing image, sound and text alike.
Since 1995, militant images have become an essential component of the Archive Fever trend in contemporary art practices. This is an indication that the struggles portrayed in such images are finished and fully integrated — that they have become part of the past, to be displayed as artefacts in museums and art institutions, as Boris Groys argues in his text “On Art Activism.” It also attests to the blocking of the public sphere and the historical defeat of national liberation projects and militant leftist movements in many places across the globe. So, as a form of aestheticization, lots of exhibitions and films have become spaces for nostalgia, mourning the time of political engagement, resistance, and guerrilla fighting through the reproduction of restored images from the archive that glorify these struggles against colonialism, fascism, capitalism, dictatorship and patriarchy, and highlight how closely they were connected to each other across the global South, Europe and Japan alike, from the 1960s to the early 1980s.
Upon examining such works, the question of archival appropriation is almost always raised. Restored militant images made by other artists are often juxtaposed against new images of the same sites, now vacant or teeming with people caught up in their everyday routine, oblivious to the struggle that once took place in the same spot, as is the case in Mohanad Yaqubi’s Off Frame AKA Revolution Until Victory (2015), for example. It is a clear lamentation of what once was.
Meanwhile, we rarely ever see works questioning such images of militant violence, attempting to contextualize and problematize them in order to raise the questions we need to be asking. How were these movements defeated? How can we deal with their residuals? How can we suggest a revival of the struggle; or maintain its continuity so we can produce our own militant images today?
In 1968 Tokyo, a 19-year-old named Norio Nagayama was so angry that he couldn’t find a sufficient outlet in any radical leftist groups, nor even the Yakuza organizations. Instead, he decided to become an independent killer. He stole a handgun from an American military base and murdered four people, two of whom he robbed before doing the deed. He was arrested in 1969, but refused to explain why he killed the victims.
Japanese writer and filmmaker Masao Adachi took an interest in Nagayama’s case, particularly after he found out that he came from an impoverished family in the countryside and had been living in a marginalized working class suburb in Tokyo at the time he committed the crimes.
In AKA Serial Killer, the 1969 film Adachi made about Nagayama, he chooses not to cast an actor in the role of the young man, nor does he collect archival material about him. He decides not to deal with him as a subject at all. Instead, he shoots the landscape within which he moved: the places where he lived, walked and worked, accompanying them with a voiceover that recounts Nagayama’s story in facts and figures. Long, layered tracking shots of the city’s urban environment rendered the alleys, roads and buildings Nagayama had frequented daily as structures of power and oppression, a psychoanalytical tool that simultaneously emphasizes his alienation and serves as the subconscious force that drove him to violence. The film marked the introduction of landscape theory (fukeiron in Japanese) as a political and aesthetic form that reflects the Lacanian-Althusserian apparatus dialectic, which was internationally popular among leftist groups in the 1960s.
In 2011, Franco-American artist and filmmaker Eric Baudelaire, who often cites Adachi as a major influence on his work, made a film about the Japanese director — who was himself involved with radical, armed leftist groups — using the landscape technique he devised. He named it The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years without Images.
In the film, Adachi is present as a subject, his voiceover narration superimposed on the landscapes of Japan and Lebanon. He tells the story of how he decided to substitute his camera for a gun, joining the Red Army then going to Lebanon to fight for Palestine — decisions fraught with danger and drama. He recalls years of disappearance, hijacking attempts and burnt images, and reflects on the relationship between filmmaking and guerrilla fighting. He then completes the journey by traveling back to his hometown with a new vision.
In 2017, Baudelaire made a new Anabasis, this time following the journey of Aziz, a French salafi jihadi, from his Parisian suburb across Algeria (which he describes as his home), Egypt and Turkey towards Aleppo, where he fought with the al-Nusra Front before returning to France, only to be arrested by French authorities.
Baudelaire’s AKA Jihadi can be viewed a reproduction of AKA Serial Killer in a contemporary context, as here, too, the subject is absent, and is only represented by his state records. The film weaves urban landscapes with document landscapes: wiretap transcripts, police interrogations and surveillance reports, raising multiple questions about the practice and aesthetics of landscape theory. When should the subject and their choices be present? When should they be absent and only represented? When can landscape theory be seen as a critique or a confirmation of sympathy?
Harun Farocki, meanwhile, further complicates this notion. He was interested in deconstructing images of the production processes of spaces and environments in new, liberal societies of control and libidinal economies, designed to enhance and encourage consumption. He depicted the design process of shopping malls in The Creators of Shopping Worlds (2001), work environments in New Product (2012), and virtual reality systems used in military training and therapy in Serious Games (2009).
In Parallel (2012), Farocki’s last video series, he investigates — and attempts to develop a critique of — 2-D, 3-D and virtual reality computational structures of video gaming systems, the mise en scène of which is inspired by various cinematic representations, in turn producing images that are even more dominant than those propagated by films, considering the ubiquitousness of video games since the 1990s.
Computer and PlayStation games, themselves a result of algorithmic representations, act as systems of production of subjectivity. They used 2-D and then 3-D animated images in which the subject was absent; represented only as a stock character. Today, we have reached more developed versions of augmented realities where the subject is activated, complete with their own matrix of nerves and desires in so-called interactive games and through the notion of navigation. We are entirely immersed in computational spaces where the virtual becomes actual and the abstract becomes tangible.
In this particular context, it is safe to assume that gun shooter games were a definitive influence on the terrorist that committed the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand earlier this year. Many factors led the young man to that moment: his white privilege, the rise of right wing groups around the world, the militarization of everyday urban life as a result of lax limitations on the right to buy and bear arms. But his choice to film the attack as a livestream, through the gaze of a first-person shooter game, using a GoPro camera mounted on his head as he listened to music — that was a clear reproduction of countless video game images. Fifty-one people died; many more were injured. As though they were abstracts in a computational space.
Like Aziz, the jihadi in Baudelaire’s film, the Christchurch terrorist had not completed his university education. Aziz had planned to perform a suicide mission in Syria, but changed his mind and went back to France. Here, however, the terrorist — a white, working class man — wrote a 74-page manifesto on white supremacy and the conspiracy of the grand displacement, before going on to commit an ideological crime, the majority of the victims of which were working class citizens just like himself.
Workers aren’t leaving the factory everywhere: On labor and modernity
In 1995, which marked the first centenary of cinema, Harun Farocki made the documentary short film Workers Leaving the Factory, in which he argues — via images and metaphors — that cinema can only happen when workers leave the factory and their lives as consumers begin: we can only observe them as a working class — a social identity — beyond the gates of the factory.
Looking back at the history of mainstream European and American cinema, one finds that scenes taking place within factories are indeed very rare. Godard addressed the issue in a 1972 interview, right after he’d made Tout Va Bien. Because filming is prohibited in Foucauldian inclusive disciplinary institutions like factories, museums, and airports, 80% of productive activity in France is effectively rendered invisible: “The exploiter doesn’t show the exploitation to the exploited,” he said.
Like any commercial cinema, Egyptian mainstream productions mostly aim for propaganda or entertainment. In director Kamal al-Sheikh’s Miramar (1969), a textile factory is a site of corruption, and as a result the censorship board would not grant the filmmakers a screening permit. Yet Egyptian films are filled with memorable scenes happening inside factories that managed to make it past the state: industrial accidents where workers are injured by machines, women leading men in manual labor workshops, children toiling in factories as a result of severe poverty, and so on and so forth.
In the 1940s and early 1950s, representations of workers inside the factory were encouraged to promote national capitalist industrialization projects, particularly among peasants in the countryside. There was an abundance of films where workers would quite rapidly and unrealistically become factory owners and entrepreneurs, such as The Worker (Ahmed Kamel Morsy, 1943) and Youssef Wahbi’s The Blacksmith’s Son (1944).
1952 witnessed the Free Officers’ coup d’etat, as well as the execution of two workers who took part in a peaceful strike on the premises of a spinning and weaving company in Kafr al-Dawwar. A new middle class began to emerge, and during the 1960s, it was the engineers who became the protagonists, protecting the lives and rights of their workers, who were always portrayed to be grateful (see Hossam Eddine Mostafa’s The Black Glasses ).
By the mid-1970s, and with the transformation to an open market economy, depictions of workers and factory settings naturally changed. In A Bathing Suit for Osta Mahmoud’s Daughter (Ibrahim al-Shaqanqeery, 1978), the protagonist is a workaholic who knows no meaning for his life beyond the machines in the factory where he works. The factory management forces him to take weekends off and go on workers’ retreats at the seaside, which angers him at first, before he begins to understand the wisdom of the new HR strategy, fit for the new economy: rest well so you can work more.
Meanwhile, in the 1980s, films such as The Black Tiger (Atef Salem, 1984) depicted Egyptian workers as honest, intelligent, hard-working men, who travel abroad in search of opportunity and end up as rich, successful businessmen as a result of their resourcefulness. It was the state’s way of lessening its burden; encouraging workers to go off chasing their dreams in the Gulf (or wherever), rather than expect the government to fulfil their basic needs at home.
From the late 1990s to this day, entrepreneurs, marketers, stock exchange agents and investors, businessmen and policemen — often corrupt — have become the dominating protagonists in Egyptian cinema. Workers have been relegated to secondary characters who are often seen being fired from their factory jobs and sent home in scenes that are meant to evoke pity (Bobbos  and Aziz’s Dream  are clear examples). The factories themselves have been deserted, creating perfect backdrops for gangster fights and other action scenes (see the opening scene of No Retreat, No Surrender [Ahmed El Gendy, 2010]).
I tried to find a reference for such images of workers/work within Farocki’s oeuvre to help me understand them in light of his insight about workers leaving the factory. The most suitable examples, I think, would be Images of the World and Inscription of War (1989) and Respite (2007). The abovementioned images produce an imagined reality in an attempt to sell the illusion of how good life is within the factory. In fact, most of those scenes were shot in real factories, to maximize their believability and to mask/suppress the histories of exploitation, sexual harassment, violence — even death, as a result of poor safety measures — witnessed within these spaces, as illustrated in Fikry al-Khouly’s novel, The Journey (1987) and in Hanan Hammad’s Industrial Sexuality (2016), for example. Although I am entirely aware of the different context, I couldn’t help but think of how, in Respite, we see images commissioned by the Nazis that show the smiling (albeit clearly frightened) faces of prisoners dancing and practicing sports at the Westerbork concentration camp in an attempt to mask/suppress the horrors taking place in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Meanwhile, the Algerian documentary A Roundabout in My Head (Hassan Farhani, 2015) — which was screened in Egypt a couple of times, both in Cairo and Alexandria — offers rather untraditional images of the workplace (a slaughterhouse in this case). In one of the film’s central moments, we see two entirely different images overlap: the image of hard manual labor as men pull cows out of their pens, and the image of leisure, as another worker watches a football match during a break. It is the contrast between these two images of work and rest that make this sequence so memorable, particularly that they both happen within the same space. I think such tension is the best gift that could ever be bestowed on a patient camera, enabling it to create the magic we know as cinema.
My point is, there are many varying experiences of modernity beyond the west. In Egypt, for instance — and probably other Arab countries — top-down modernization and industrialization projects began in the19th century and were cemented in the 20th century. Workers either chose to be part of these projects, or were impoverished peasants who were forced into labor. In all cases, they became modern subjects searching for a better quality of life, all at once attempting to resist and outmaneuver the oppressive power and violence of that modernization project, presided over by governments who — throughout modern history — were driven by a desire to increase consumption, maintain control and protect their own security, rather than encourage production as they would have the people believe.
Empathy or distance?
Farocki’s critique of identification and “forced sympathy,” on which he elaborates in his 2008 essay titled “Empathy” (published in Harun Farocki: Another Kind of Empathy , a compilation of the filmmaker’s essays edited by Antje Ehmann and Carles Guerra) is still valid. It echoes the continuous rethinking of the Brechtian concept of distancing effect — reflected in questions of the position of the camera/the position of the author — that Farocki has often grappled with in his work. What is the perfect distance the author should take to maintain an independent critical position for themselves and, at the same time, avoid producing pathetic images of subjects who may be in a less privileged position?
If representation — and especially visual representation in the context of cinema — is “an act of violence,” as Godard points out in The Image Book (2018), contemporary art and media are even more violent when they are accompanied by a facade of good intentions masking bourgeois feelings of guilt. This is often the case when a work simply acknowledges its maker’s privileged position (being a white artist from a colonizing nation or a specific social class), rather than produce or perform any kind of aesthetic intervention when addressing it. The other face of the same coin is work by black, indigenous or Arab artists which aims to excite empathy, playing on the same feelings of guilt.
In Farocki’s 2009 film, In Comparison, he observes/investigates — without voiceover — three different images of labor by focusing on the brick-making industry in three different contexts: Europe, India and Burkina Faso. He shot the film in 16mm, which he had not used for years, and I believe it was a choice driven by political, ethical and aesthetic reasons alike: an attempt to multiply the distance between him and his subjects, and to confirm his position as an observer who is not necessarily part of the context within which he’s filming.
In the European factories, we see almost no human labor, just bored gestures as the workers watch the machines perform every phase of the process in a fully automated system, achieving high surplus value. One can almost visualize this system built upon the weary bodies of the workers in India and Burkina Faso through decades of colonial violence.
Yet despite this power of juxtaposition, and how sensitively the film captures the communal atmosphere of labor in Burkina Faso particularly – filled with joyful colors, music and dance as men, women and children take part in building a school in the village of Gando, something is missing. We see no traces of the power dynamics at play between men and women on the site, for instance, nor of the dictatorship that ruled the country at the time, leaving the majority of its villages without their basic needs. Perhaps such nuance required filming at a closer distance? Or maybe it could only be achieved in a fiction film? But what does the boundary between documentary and fiction mean in a time where reality is defined by images and performativity?
Or, perhaps, the subtle but effective comparison of different images — built through a figurative meeting between Sergei Eisenstein (dialectical montage) and André Bazin (long, contemplative shots) in the film — is enough to allow viewers to explore those missing contexts and dynamics themselves, in the space where every image joins the next.
As for the question of “the perfect distance,” I do not think there’s a perfect answer to it. Naguib Mahfouz once said that “truth is a quest, not a destination.” I believe the practice of Harun Farocki, as a great artist, was in essence a lifelong, experimental research project — a voyage towards that perfect distance.
The discreet charm of the proletariat
I choose to conclude with an excerpt from Haytham El Wardany’s brilliant work, The Book of Sleep (2016), a feat unprecedented in the Arabic literature tradition. A fragmented literary research, the book deconstructs the notion of sleep as a passive state, addressing it in four questions: the question of history, the question of language, the question of identity and the question of production. I find this particular passage to be a very interesting critique of empathy, distance and the position of the artist confronting or producing images of the less privileged.
“Across the surface of numberless paintings and photographs they slumber, labourers and peasant women, workmen and street children. Laid low by exhaustion, laid out in their places of work or sleeping propped one against another on the pavement. The spectator observes them, some just beginning to be claimed by deep sleep, others simply letting their eyelids rest. In these paintings and photographs, the sleep of the proletariat always happens in and around the workplace, since the proletariat has no right to a place of its own: it lives in the space from which it takes its name, the place of work. Nor does it have the right to its own time. There is no night or day, only endless hours of work broken by snatched tumbles into exhausted sleep. What is it that so attracts the middle-class to the sleep of the working class? What in the sight of these bodies wearied to the point of sleep so excites them? Is it voyeurism? Cheap compassion? Perhaps the chance to exercise a self-appointed right of ownership? The sleep of the middle classes is always sheltered by walls and doors but the sanctity of working-class sleep is violated, spread out on the roadside for anyone who’d have it. The sleep of the working class which the middle classes document in their paintings and their photographs is addressed to these owners; it might excite their pity, in the best case prompt them to lend the workers a little sympathy — sometimes even rights — but by and large it does not speak to the sleepers. Workers have no right to sleep from an unwillingness to work, or out of idleness or discontent, nor even to sleep because they want to sleep. Their only right is to sleep wrecked by exhaustion and exertion; to remain a member of a mythic class which can not change its conditions. The working class labours even in sleep. It labours in the images of the middle classes, both itself and its struggle reduced to pathetic subjects. Sympathies are marshaled; the status quo maintained.”
–Excerpt from The Book of Sleep translated by Robin Moger.
This text is based on a talk with the title “Harun Farocki As Method” given by the author on November 29, 2018 in Berlin’s Silent Green Kulturquartier as part of the Harun Farocki Institute’s residency program.