"Radical Closure" at the PFA

Robert Avila December 7, 2006

Guts-and-glory war movies remain a perennial at the cineplex, but genuine cinematic responses to war are a different matter entirely. If the former have all the critical force of an army recruitment poster, the latter (as the broad range of approaches in the Radical Closure series make clear) open up serious possibilities for re-imagining the dehumanized landscape of violence even as physical options are closed down. This is the import of the film and video series curated by Lebanese video artist Akram Zaatari, originally presented as part of the 2006 Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, which continues through December 12 at UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive.

Co-sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, with an additional night’s programming devoted to “Military Culture” presented (on December 3) by San Francisco Cinematheque, Radical Closure brings together film and video work largely focused on the Middle East and responding to “situations of physical and/or ideological closure” resulting from war or other forms of political and territorial conflict. In doing so, it treats a number of sub-themes, including (in programs already screened) the pernicious bifurcation of the world into violent Middle Eastern actors and passive, or merely responsive, Western audiences (a theme represented in the opening night screening, introduced by Zaatari, of Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s “Ici et ailleurs,” their exploration in the early 1970s of Palestinian resistance and its reception in the West); the distinction between cinema as a tool of militarist propaganda versus a mode of critical insight with real descriptive power; concepts and problems of authenticity in the remaking of historical documents; and different approaches to conceptualizing war itself.

The remaining programs cover themes of the complex emotional and psychological effects of violence, the role of nationalist indoctrination in the perpetuation of war, and the reclamation of the personal voice in the narration of larger histories bounded by violence.

In “A Flood in Baath Country” (2003), the disastrous collapse of a dam, and the uncovering of an official report predicting collapses throughout the system of dams built up under President Hafez al-Assad and the Syrian state’s modernizing program of the 1960s, incites Syrian filmmaker Omar Amiralay to return critically to the scene (now Lake Assad) of his very first film, made in 1970, wherein these very modernizing schemes were enthusiastically embraced by the younger Amiralay. A desire to get at the structures under-girding the Baath Party state as a whole leads Amiralay to dwell on a schoolhouse in the nearby village of El Machi. For Amiralay, El Machi “is representative of a country that the Baath party has building over forty years without respite.” The results form an elucidating picture of internalized authoritarian control built from the nexus of nationalist mythology, militarism, and party ideology. The film runs Dec. 7 as part of the program entitled “Education as a Site of Indoctrination,” with three other short works