“Cruel images” and the blind spots of hypervisibility
Like the rest of us, Oraib Toukan receives images of war on her phone as a series of disjunctive, shaky video clips bracketed by sponcon. Distinctly attuned to the feelings of despair, powerlessness, and ethical compulsion these representations of abject cruelty might evoke among viewers, Toukan is not content to simply look. Instead, she meditates at length, using writing, photography, and film to respond to these granular artifacts of suffering and loss. This inquiry takes her deep into the materiality of film itself. She often enlists the help of interlocutors—in this case, deceased Palestinian revolutionary filmmaker Hani Jawharieh, scholar Nadia Yaqub, and artist Salman Nawati. Below, Toukan discusses two new films in her solo exhibition “What Then,” on view at the KW Institute of Contemporary Art in Berlin through May 1.
“WE HAVE A RULE OF THUMB HERE: So long as you can still hear, then you are alive.” The Gaza-based artist Salman Nawati says these words in my film Offing, 2021. Hearing is said to be the last sensation to endure at the threshold of mortality. The film explores how to project images onto others’ accounts of suffering, pondering the space where speech and imagination meet. I try to subvert, rather than represent, the horror alluded to, reaching instead to the tender and mundane, with close-up, somewhat lush, footage that I have shot over the years. Time-based media becomes a magical tool for this subversion; the simple act of reversing or changing the speed of things past offers the possibility of rewriting horrific events. The word offing means the farthest, most distant part of the sea in view. Nawati alludes to an illusion of freedom when looking at the horizon of the Mediterranean Sea from the shores of Gaza, finding consolation when boundaries are not present in one’s field of view, despite being trapped under Israeli siege with nowhere to flee to in times of war.
In 2014, Ala Younis and I were looking at discarded film material from two defunct Soviet cultural sites in Amman. Among propaganda, Russian-language inter-communist materials, we found early Palestinian films from 1967–69. Some were filmed by the late Palestinian photographer and cinematographer Hani Jawharieh before he became a revolutionary. So we started to ask around. We were told that Jawharieh filmed newsreels for the Jordanian Ministry of Information and Culture by day and developed images of a Palestinian popular uprising by night as part of a Fateh collective called the Palestine Film Unit (PFU). Yasser Arafat was said to have once hidden in their darkroom. But the more I learned about him, the more Jawharieh became a large moon hanging in my sky that never grew in size no matter how much I moved toward him. That is the problem of revolutionary narratives: The person behind them becomes obscured. Then I read a beautiful elegy by his close friend, the late painter Vladimir Tamari, in which he recalls Jawharieh’s hand reaching for an egg from a chicken coop behind his house in Shu’fat, Jerusalem, where they both grew up—how “the egg appeared so brilliantly white” nestled in Jawharieh’s hand, as if he were guarding it. Reading this, I grasped the dignity and care the filmmaker put into his tender compositions.
Via Dolorosa, 2021, somehow lies there, in that egg. The film is composed of that salvaged film material. I try to delve deep into the intricate details behind these images—this is hard to do, as there was no archive and much has been destroyed—to see more of Jawharieh’s gaze. This is the magnificence of working with restored, digitized, 16-mm archives. You are able to see so much more. The archives also contain really difficult images from the 1967 war—images that one might capture but cannot process, like the charred or injured body as never seen before. After all, the PFU were recent cinema graduates who returned home and suddenly had to face their own loss, grief, and displacement. Their artistic aspirations were also shaped by the anticolonial project, which might explain why their approach diverges from someone like Harun Farocki, who in the same period advised against graphic images in visual testimony of war: “You’ll close your eyes to the pictures, then you’ll close your eyes to the memory, then you’ll close your eyes to the facts.” The film is interwoven with commentary from scholar Nadia Yaqub, who has long thought about Arab film and literature produced under violent and precarious conditions and how these very local contexts influence theoretically inclined political filmmaking in the West, like Jean-Luc Godard.
In both these works, I am looking for other standpoints from which I can view and understand what I call “cruel images,” which is not a category so much as a story about a degraded subject in an image getting further degraded with use, reuse, and circulation. The mathematician and pedagogue Munir Fasheh often refers to turbeh, meaning soil, to describe forms of knowledge and consciousness that stem from the grain of the earth. Just like turbeh, the grain of every image—its noise—contains knowledge beyond what the image itself represents. The word damir also denotes a visceral consciousness that arises through sight. It is a kind of internal, innate knowledge that emerges when seeing something that feels obscure. I want to deviate from conventional understandings of images. It’s clear that visibility does not presuppose anything. Many struggles are hypervisible, and yet we still cannot see them, let alone hear their claims exactly as they are uttered. Why is it that we still cannot see what we’re actually seeing?
— As told to Vijay Masharani