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Bearing Witness from the Eye of a Hurricane

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Documenting tragedy and life after October 7

Documenting tragedy and life after October 7

Whether one thinks about October 7, about the ongoing war, or about the global rise in antisemitism, it’s hard not to feel in the middle of a hurricane, as Eden Golan so bravely and beautifully sang. But what does it mean to be in the middle of this tragic hurricane? And how can we bear witness to it all? 

For answers to these complicated questions, we turn to two experts from Tel Aviv University’s (TAU’s) international MFA Degree in Documentary Cinema. In the coming academic year, they will be teaching new courses touching on the relationship between documentary filmmaking and conflict. Notably, the MFA’s courses are continually updated based on the most pressing issues of our time.

Tami Liberman

Tami Liberman, a lecturer in the English-speaking documentary cinema MFA program, leads a workshop called “Ethnographic Film in Past and Present Conflicts.”

What role can documentary filmmaking play during a time of war and conflict?

In the ethnographic film workshop taught in our program, film is discussed from an anthropological perspective, as a medium that excels in providing experiential knowledge rather than analytical knowledge. Meaning, it can allow us to sense the experience of another person, at times even from the other side of a conflict we take part in.

Film can restore humanity or be a reminder of humanism in times when people are most aggressively dehumanized. Moreover, it’s a great platform for the promotion of critical thinking.

Can a documentary film made during a time of conflict ever truly be objective? Why or why not?

Objectivity is a complex and problematized expectation from documentary film at any time. I feel that the central issue in times of conflict is that of ethics: how do we get our information? In what kind of predicament are we finding our protagonists and how does that affect their consent? And when documenting a violent conflict, what can and cannot be shown on screen, and how do we document suffering?

What’s a lesson we can learn from a previous documentary about conflict or war? 

In the 2019 film Midnight Traveler, which is a self-documentation of a family’s escape from Afghanistan and their experience as asylum seekers in Europe, there is a moment that the young daughter of the family suddenly disappears. 

Her father, Hassan Fazili, the director of the film, describes in a monologue accompanied by a sombre shot of the moon in a dark sky, the harrowing moments of searching.

He describes how, when he was looking through the bushes, a flash of thought rushed through his mind: “What a scene you’re in. This will be the best scene in the film. Maybe you should turn on the camera.” 

Another glimpse of a thought follows in which, for a few seconds, he imagines finding his daughter Zahra’s body with the camera on. “How much I hated myself for that,” he says as the shot tilts down from the moon into complete darkness, “I hated cinema.” Then he adds “Zahra was found” and the film cuts from the black screen to a shot of Zahra laughing. This scene to me is such a sincere, humble and compelling lesson in documentary filmmaking, both in content and form.

I share the scene with students in my class with the hope that they not only remember the power of turning the camera on, but also the power of turning it off.

What stories need to be told right now?

I’m not sure that it’s for me to say. I can’t envision all the stories that are out there in the world waiting to be told, especially with a genre too wonderfully reliant on reality to be fully premeditated.

What’s important is that they are told and that people’s subjective experiences continue to be represented, especially in the face of attempts to control and censor such representations.

Dan Arav

Dan Arav teaches a seminar in TAU’s international documentary cinema MFA program called “Docu-trauma: War and Memory in Israeli Documentary Cinema.” 

What role can documentary filmmaking play during a time of war and conflict?

Documentary filmmaking is usually done from a certain time perspective. And yet, in the face of a long-lasting war, and certainly in the face of an ongoing conflict, documentary cinema has several roles.

Being based on the personal vision of its creators, documentary cinema must provide a personal and interpretive position in relation to the harsh reality, while placing that reality in an additional and even different context than the one mediated by the central mechanisms of consciousness in society: the government, the education system and mass media channels.

Can a documentary film made during a time of conflict ever truly be objective? Why or why not?

Documentary cinema in general, and during war in particular, must give up the pretense of being objective.

It must strive for truth and integrity, and at the same time illuminate the reality in a personal way: one that seeks to illuminate the story of the conflict from a surprising, unfamiliar and sometimes even challenging angle.

What’s a lesson we can learn from a previous documentary about conflict or war? 

It is difficult to pinpoint a lesson that can be learned in real time. As has been said, documentary cinema usually offers an opportunity for the revelation of reality and the creation of a new consciousness in relation to the past.

The documentary Censored Voices, for example, returns to the Six Day War 50 years after its occurrence and reveals an alternative discourse – a discourse that took place in real time on the margins. This discourse was censored due to its incompatibility with the prevailing discourse at that time. A film of this type, which deals with a distant and forgotten war, may, perhaps, promote an alternative way of thinking also in relation to conflicts closer in time.

What stories need to be told right now?

The stories that need to be told today are, in my opinion, personal stories, stories that go beyond the rut of consciousness dictated from above. Stories that provide a broad perspective about reality and develop critical thinking.

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