CONFLICT “AT – HAND”: POST-WAR TRAUMA, BODY, AND MEMORY IN NEAR EASTERN CINEMA
“The film is a meditation on catastrophe, contextualised through the literary modes of religion and science fiction…” (1)
In identifying the conflict referencing the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf Wars– and in addition to the various engagements of the United States’ military engagement with Iraq, On That Day (Iranian Films for Peace, 2007) and Lessons of Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1992) utilize crucially different motives and tools in revealing to the viewer the conflicts “at-hand”– or, within the immediate environment of the film, and yet, in reference to the larger and boiling scheme of international war.
By constantly humanizing machines almost as an eerie quality, Lessons of Darkness references Western presence through almost a “post-apocalyptic” landscape– as human roles are set back into the landscape as props– meant to cue to the viewer a type of verbal context that is familiar yet constantly out of order (or at least seeming to be) and unclear. For example, the film may seem to be disorganized in contextual presentation, yet keen in organizing a type of abstracted language (the visuals of the landscape) which instead creates order in the film’s’ complex presentation of conflicts rather than incorporating snippets of brief verbal cues (not implied by an omniscient narrator (2)). On That Day allows the viewer to learn about the conflicts set within the film only through carefully paved, minimalist dialogue– which serves as both the vital organ and tensions of the plot within a focused, abandoned landscape: the few perimeters within the Iraqi and Iranian border. The irony of the conflicts in both films, however, is that while in Lessons of Darkness, Western presence is constantly critiqued through human behavior, response, and movement through the landscape– On That Day challenges Western presence as a question in conversation– the bordering guard who asks the Iraqi woman why she would visit such a place that is currently being bombed and occupied by the U.S. and the ongoing growth of their conversation as the film proceeds.
The viewer comes to consult and understand the conflicts of the Persian Gulf Wars regarding the race for international oil in Lessons of Darkness— through the language of landscape, nature, the way humans are juxtaposed alongside (or take advantage of, yet also resemble) machines, and various (perhaps even comical) technical cues (for example, in a simple instance, a brief focus-in on a man’s name tag working on the mines– which reveals a quintessential Western name, “Bob”) hinted throughout the film. On the other hand, it is through the negative space of the landscape that brings into focus the opposite motive in On That Day: a curious, minimalist, yet emotional conversation between a war guard and woman (coming from Iran as an Iraqi exile, yet coming back in hopes of being able to testify Saddam’s crimes against her family) that is animated through the tense control of space and subtle movement of the actors. Thus, it is through the passivity of actions we come to learn about the context of the Gulf Wars in On That Day, while it is through a “natural” and heavy testament of Western intervention [the Western acquisition of natural resources at the cost of local interests– in also commentating on the detachment of reality “at-hand” (camera lens) versus “on-ground” (acquisition) ] or the lifespan of using technology as machines in the language of war in Lessons of Darkness— especially when it comes to contextualizing and revealing to the viewer the tense and current status of conflicts within these films as an ongoing conversation.
The way conflict is directly factored into the narratives of these films is both vague and intense in presenting language as a form of in-betweenness. For example, in On That Day, it is through the curiosity of a conversation that allows the viewer to understand how conflict is factored into the film– a construction of words which speak on behalf of the universal struggles of oppressed civilians in Iran living in exile from Iraq. The conversation exists as the direct plot, that of which is complimented by a carefully-selected score, a wind-streamed set outdoors in the desert, and still (and yet) implied within a very specific scale of space that does not fluctuate in visual storytelling– as starkly as in Lessons of Darkness— for example, which uses the incomplete language of people as a form of paralysis, juxtaposed with the destruction of a landscape because of their very presence.
Through the actions of characters, such as the border guard searching through the woman’s suitcase, the language of in-betweenness is also metaphorized through a conversation that is not tangible yet directly imaginable, and highly referential– through actions which become distracting, and ironically intensify how sensitive the woman’s situation currently is because of the “unimportance” of behaviors brought into the plot. Most importantly, it is only because of the minimalist conversation that the viewer learns why the woman wants to enter an ongoingly threatened Iraq in the first place– and is ultimately challenged because her expression of struggles is only turned away by the circumstances of the war in the difficult conclusion of the short film.
In Lessons of Darkness, conflict is specifically factored into the film through jarring narrative (for the majority of the time, all-omniscient) dialogue superimposed atop highly complex imagery. By humanizing the characteristics of the landscape while paralleling it with the order of the jarring vocal narrative presented, the interaction of these elements dispel a type of confusion and “beautiful chaos” that factors conflict into the film’s narrative through the behavior of nature in a economically-determining war zone.
Frequently, it almost seems as if mechanical and industrial decay (or the search thereof) is equally rationed with the civilizational decay of the regional inhabitants of the Gulf wars, and thus, the role of being a visitor versus a direct occupant is crucially challenged. The greed of searching for oil becomes the conflict of irony as the western pilgrimage for oil is implied in a pilgrimage-originating land, and urban blueprints are constantly left decaying in the ruins of a resource-bleeding landscape (for example, a brief line of dialogue mentioning “…Even the oil wished to be water..”) in comparison to the humble panning over a “complete” Kuwaiti town in the beginning– when the voice of the contextualizing azaan echoing over the city was heard.
In both films, the language of in betweenness is further implied by the way formal aspects of the film shape the presentation of conflict. In both On That Day and Lessons of Darkness for example, the roleplay of dialogue versus the very resistance to dialogue conveys how the role of diegetic (naturally characteristic of the sounds sourced from the environment within the film) and nondiegetic (extraneous sound brought into the film) sound operates within a profilmic landscape as a form of landscape and memory. For example, the usage of an exaggerative film score in Lessons of Darkness purposely causes viewers to more intensely examine the interactions between the landscape, intensification of content, and sound as almost an operatic prelude of the lifespan of war– it is almost experimental in the way that sound is scored Lessons of Darkness in such a way that it elevates imagery as something that is otherly– a quality that is being-like and alive despite being nature and non-human. In On That Day, however, the musical score acts as something more subtle, simply to set as an underscore to the song of a sensitive conversation that is already taking place– which is the main focus and lens of the film to which the viewer is able to testify and understand the implications of personal conflict.
Through the positive and negative spaces of imagery, both films create a form of dialogue through the presentation of this very discourse– for example, while in Lessons of Darkness the interaction between positive and negative space is almost a crucial visual manifesto within itself, On That Day uses positive (the interaction of the characters) and negative space (the behavior of the environment) to bring attention to a conversation. However, in both films, the expansive countryside (and direct referential qualities of it) build up to types of endings which result in a time-consuming form of effortful nothingness– the productivity or goal of each film (Westerners route to oil in Lessons of Darkness, versus a woman’s persistence to enter Iraq in On That Day) ultimately leads to incoherent and unresolved endings which intensify the conflicts of the film as equally unresolved in the actual world.
Most importantly, in Lessons of Darkness, the sound and tracking creates a form of personal imposition and perspective as a third-voyeur of Kuwait’s oil mines, while the perspective of the camera in On That Day is specifically constructed to operate around a man and woman’s conversation as a conventional form of storytelling. The voyeuristic quality of perspective in Lessons of Darkness leaves the viewer to oversee a type of landscape that is almost viewed as a drone over a strange animal kingdom– one that is dead because an urban landscape cannot coexist with natural ruins in the midst of war. The expansive landscape, paramount depth, and spanning of the lens in itself is thus the movement of storytelling in Lessons of Darkness, whereas in On That Day, the progress of narrative is through conversation and intimacy. Additionally, it almost seems as if specific color palettes are meant to match each “tracking zone” in Lessons of Darkness rather than color operating as highly contrastive yet natural in On That Day. In this way, Herzog’s international position of the Gulf Wars is stripped by universality– implying, through technique and metaphors, that man’s conquest over resources and territory comes in cyclic phases, is animalistic, and is almost a type of religious testament as a repeating of crusader istic time, or the universal erosion of war and post-war progress in an abandoned, destroyed, and recklessly cared-for space: catastrophic scenes enlivened by the rhetoric of a score, and a type of eerie and foreign context that, once seeming terrestrial, introduces again to the viewer that the revealing of this very conflict is again revealing of a repetition of history in an ironic, extraneous, narrative tale. By interpreting imagery out of a documentary context, Herzog allows the viewer to naturally go through the phase of adjustments and analysis of a war period all over again, while Amini contextualizes the chaos of situation through interpersonal empathy in carefully selected construction and minimalism in the context of creating short films as a relatable and peaceful platform of of socio-cultural relevance and relatability (Iranian Short Films for Peace Movement).
(1) Prager, Brad (2010). “Landscape of the Mind: The Indifferent Earth in Werner Herzog’s Films”. In Harper, Graeme; Rayner, Jonathan. Cinema and landscape. Bristol/Chicago: Intellect. p. 97. ISBN 1-84150-309-6. OCLC 457149221.
(2) For example, referencing Warner Herzog’s brief incorporation of interviews of two different civilian women in the residential areas in the outskirts of the oil mines. Although their discussions seem out of place, their stories allow the viewer to understand the conflict of the Gulf Wars through oppression, and also, as Herzog immediately parallels the landscape (metaphorically) with their roles in the film– panning over emptied, white-washed valleys after interviewing the mother with a white hijab, while zooming into the ambiguity and blackness of smoke immediately after interviewing the speechless mother who wore a black hijab. Through these brief interviews, the viewer is also exposed to the type of cultures supporting these landscapes– women dominated by men, have gone through trauma, and in using their emotional persistence to nullify their suffering or wishes to testify for the consequences imposed on their children.