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Libya: The shadow of the people

On the third anniversary of the Libyan uprising, a YouTube video reminds us that the struggle for bread and freedom is unimaginable without the permanent reinvention of the poetic possibilities of the present.

In memory of Ali Mohammed Talha

The Libyan uprising broke out in Benghazi on February 15, 2011, and the Day of Rage on February 17 (which would become the revolution’s hashtag) saw protests spread to many other cities, including the capital, Tripoli. On Friday February 25, several thousand protesters gathered after Friday prayers in the district of Tajura to the east of the capital, from where they set off to march toward the town center. As they passed through the Souk al-Jumaa neighborhood later that afternoon, they were ambushed by state security forces, including snipers positioned on the roofs of surrounding buildings. The result was a massacre. Different estimates put the death toll for the afternoon at between 10 and 25, with many more seriously wounded.  

The march from Tajura followed a week of constant clashes during which the security forces had tried and failed to establish control over the neighborhood, and its brutal repression marked, perhaps, the end of residents’ initial hopes that they might see Qadhafi depart as quickly as Ben Ali and Mubarak before him. By March 1, most of the people of Tripoli had abandoned overt public protest, and were looking for other ways to continue the struggle. (The city was not finally liberated until six months later, in a major military operation organized by the National Transitional Council that ran from August 19 to 28.)

One of those who died during the march on February 25 was a 50-year old man, named Ali Mohammed Talha. His name does not figure in any of the journalistic accounts of this day that appeared in the international or local media at the time, and I have not been able to find out any more than this about him. This video, which was uploaded to YouTube on February 27 2011, records the moments immediately before and after his martyrdom.

The “information content” of this video is, in many ways, very low. It adds little to the little we already know from written reports, either about Ali Talha’s death, or about what the other protesters around him, including the cameraman, were doing, saying, or thinking about on that afternoon. But it offers us something inestimable, which few written accounts could rival or replace. In the most simple terms, we might say that it gives us a sense of “what it was like to be there” in that particular place, at that particular time, and in this particular position. But what lies behind this apparently transparent (and, in some ways, problematic) claim? How exactly do these images and sounds shape the experience of the viewer in order to produce this effect? And how do the forms they take affect us, not just intellectually, but also physically and emotionally? 

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The sea is only a suspicion. (Still from video uploaded by 17thFebRevolution.)

A man is advancing through space. He is among other men, though the space between them is not clearly defined, and the crowd seems too strung out, too fragmented to really count as “a crowd.” On the soundtrack, there is a lot of noise, of a kind we may recognize — or not — as the sound of wind buffeting the camera’s microphone. We may get the sense that we are near the sea. There is a large space that seems to open up on the horizon, far ahead of us and to the left, which seems to define the future towards which we are heading — promise or disaster. Yet while the bodies move that way, the camera almost ignores this space, and seems intent instead on pointing towards the right, and down towards the ground, when it’s not tilting off wildly up into the sky, dodging and jerking across the multiple layers of off-white cloud.

The sea is only a suspicion. Yet the men who have gathered here continue to advance and fall back in waves, and these human waves form a larger rhythm, which surrounds and absorbs the faster rhythm of the camera’s tilting up and down. It is as if the group is testing some invisible boundary, trying to push it forward, incrementally, or at least to hold the line. At the same time, the way the camera is held creates a long diagonal that emphasizes the inherently unstable geometry of the space, which is further pulled apart by the asymmetries of the faulty stereo sound.

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As if drugged, or stunned. (Still from video uploaded by 17thFebRevolution.)

The crowd surges forward twice, and twice they fall back. During the second, more chaotic retreat, there is a strange hiatus: the camera, as if drugged or stunned, in any case in need of relief, suddenly tilts up and then stops moving for several seconds, and the sky, plus a shard of ochre building, finds itself caught within the frame. Just at that moment, the sound of gunshots intensifies, and then, suddenly, with a single cry, the crowd rushes forward again. And a few seconds later we realize that although we are moving, we are not going anywhere — the barrier that stands between us and the sea, between us and the future, has not been demolished, and will not be overrun.

True, we keep surging forward, even faster than before, but others are already trying to work their way back. We are going to meet someone who is returning to us. Returning to us dead. As a martyr. When the camera almost collides with his bloodied head, we run alongside him for a while, then let him go on. The camera reverses course one last time to follow the trail of blood that he has left behind, as if retracing the steps he could no longer take. We follow this trace as if it could lead us somewhere, as if it might prove something. As if. And as we advance, the shadow of the filmmaker falls across that trail, as if to cross it out. Or to imprint himself upon it. Or it on him.

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We follow this trace as if it could lead us somewhere. (Still from video uploaded by 17thFebRevolution.)

It’s very hard to do justice to this video, and the above re-description barely scratches the surface of what I find so extraordinary about it. So let me try and say something a little more analytical.

This video figures a moment from the heart of this revolution, and any revolution, and one which is central to the moral economy of the people: the moment when the decision that it is better to die fighting for what you believe in than to continue to live without honor has to be cashed in. And it shows us that moment from a point of view that is, for me, revelatory, and which is also hard to define, but which I think can best be described as being, simply, the point of view of the camera.

Whereas with earlier conventional cameras, the ‘natural’ way to handle the machine was to hold the viewfinder to your eye, the natural way to use a camera phone, and indeed most cameras with small digital screens, is to hold them at arm’s length. This fact is easily verified by watching how the many people who can be seen using cameras within these videos go about the physical action of filming.

The camera is accordingly no longer an extension of your eye; it’s an extension of your arm. It’s not a lens through which to see, it’s a tool with which you act upon the world.

Of course, sometimes you look through it, or more strictly speaking, at it. But most of the time, you don’t. You hold it up over your head to shoot over the crowd around you. You hold it up against a hole in the wall to film for you, while you remain crouched down, for fear of getting shot. Or you clasp it in one hand, while you grip a stone by the other, as you run for your life. This video falls mainly — but not entirely — into the latter category.

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Nothing like what a human eye would have seen. (Still from video uploaded by 17thFebRevolution.)

So the video doesn’t show us anything like what a human being would have seen if they were in that crowd. No human eye moves up and down in this crazy delirious way relative to your center of gravity while you run. And few human brains lack the neural processing ability to iron out the constant jitter and judder from which they do suffer when moving around quickly, even when their eyes remain more or less in a single horizontal plane.

Nothing remarkable about that, you might say. Anyone could make a film like this. Maybe. Maybe that’s the point.

Still, there are two things which I find striking about this video, and which contradict its apparent banality. First, that someone took the trouble to make it in the first place. By that I mean, that they should have thought it important enough to film in a situation where they are risking their life, and where acute attention to what is going on around them is crucial to their personal survival, given that the existence of the film they might make is unlikely to have any direct material influence on the outcome of the day’s action. Moreover, they decided to start filming at this precise moment which, as we experience it in the film — but who knows how it was in reality? — is not the moment when something happens, but the moment when one begins to think that something might be about to happen. And it turns out, they were right.

The second thing which I find amazing is that, having filmed it, they decided to put the video on the internet in its entirety. Unedited. You have to watch it for more than four minutes and sit through what might seem (if this was a Hollywood action movie) an eternity of bad camera work, barely audible dialogue, and disjointed slivers of unintelligible action, before this apparent chaos coalesces into an event. And yet, by June 2013, the original upload of this video had been viewed just under 8000 times, and there are also several clones of it around which I have not been monitoring. So I’m obviously not the only person who seems to find it compelling. But why is it so compelling?

I would suggest that this video owes its impact precisely to those formal and sensory extremes that it essays, and which constitute a large part of its unlikeliness, its strangeness. The gestural camera style creates an intense sense of the bodily inscription of the filmmaker in this space, even as it dissolves both space and time into a kind of distended plasticity, far removed from our sense of the everyday norms of experience. The soundtrack, with its alternation of intense wind noise,

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We never see the soldiers who kill Ali Talha. (Still from video uploaded by 17thFebRevolution.)

holes of near silence, distant voices, and gunshots that register like whiplash, further adds to this sense of being at the same time intensely present, and somehow absent, elsewhere, not directly concerned by what may be going on. And while the sound connects us directly to what is happening off screen, the image denies us access to it until what seems like the last possible moment. We never see the soldiers who kill Ali Talha, though we hear the shots, and possibly — probably — we hear the shot that hits him.

The result is a dream-like experience. We spend five minutes on the verge of an irrevocable, tragic event, and yet we experience it as a space of paradoxical, unstable freedom. The tension and threat of the situation is not denied, but is somehow abstracted to the point where it becomes almost unrecognizable. We lose ourselves in the images which the camera produces, and in the epiphanic moment when the sky appears immobilized above this street in Souk al-Jumaa on that afternoon in February 2011. And this sense of dissociation from the reality of what is going on around us only makes the abrupt return of reality in the form of death more shocking. And yet no sooner is this reality exposed than it is recycled back into an abstract form, namely, the line of blood left by Ali Talha’s dead body, which leads back to his crumpled, useless jacket and the bare fact of his identity.

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The abrupt return of reality. (Still from video uploaded by 17thFebRevolution.)

Not many of the videos from the Arab revolutions achieve this level of dialogical interplay between form and content, sound and image, abstraction and brute fact. Not many of them go beyond the external recording of trance-like states, to embody them so directly in this way. But many of them do achieve a remarkable convergence between unexpected formal procedures and the complexity of shared collective truth. And many of them go well beyond the simple recording or replication of revolutionary gestures, already existing in the environment. In doing so, they invent their own forms and gestures, which are not reducible to slogans, demands, or recognizable, goal-directed actions, but which are perhaps closer to the songs, poetry and paintings which have also proliferated during these revolutions

This video from Tripoli disables and defeats many of the things we might know, or think we know, not only about the “potential” and the “limitations” of “amateur” video, but also about the place of subjectivity in the revolution, and about the relationship between the individual and the collective in such moments. It develops its own concrete sensory discourse on these subjects, in terms irreducible by discursive language. It uses the camera to mediate between the individual, the group and the elements (sky, sea, wind and sun). In doing so, it produces a form of subjectivity which is irreducible to either the individual, the collectivity, the impersonality of the natural world, or that of the digital camera, but is also unimaginable without all four of them.

It places the individual within a group which is never represented as a group, which is always either too dispersed, or too compact, too close or too far away. The group exists for the person filming not as a structured aggregation of individuals, but as a quasi-natural phenomenon, dictating his own movements through its wavelike ebb and flow, as it responds intuitively to that other unseen figure, the enemy.

Likewise, the camera oscillates back and forth between the ultra-mobile subjectivity of the human body as the filmmaker runs back and forward in response to events around him, and the moments of static or deliberate framing (the sky above, the line of blood on the ground below.) Although I know, or suspect, that one of these types of shot was intentional and the other not at all, I cannot help but see them balancing each other: moments of relative stability in a radically unstable world.

What both these moments share is, of course, a certain dissolution of the self.

There are many shadows hidden in this video, which pausing a single frame reveals. By filming his own shadow as it falls across the blood trail, the filmmaker projects himself inside the frame. But he projects himself not as a character in some 19th-century novel — a person with a unique physiognomy, a particular temperament, a distinctive wardrobe and a mailing address — but as an anonymous silhouette, the space where a person could be.

As the filmmaker’s shadow falls across the trail of blood, it signs or stamps the video. But it does so not on behalf of the individual qua individual, but on behalf of the equally anonymous community. To belong to that community, to physically join it in the street, to proclaim its existence, is to accept the possibility of one’s own death, and to assert the value of that possibility. In this moment, the unique and the common reveal their interdependence. It is in order to protect the possibility of a unique life for all, even the weakest, that “the people” are called upon to exist.

The originality of this video, then, is located in its very refusal of individual authorship, and of all the forms of authority that would traditionally go along with that. Indeed, it is this “shading out” of the possessive self, figured in the reduction of the filmmaker himself to a mere shadow, that makes the invention of new forms and new experiences possible.

In its representation of the revolution as a state that couples political clarity with perceptual chaos, living machines with dead bodies, invisible enemies with indifferent clouds, this brief anonymous video, for me, goes further than 99 percent of what cinema and television have produced in the last 100-odd years in expressing the lived complexities of the revolutionary present. And in doing so, it effects a redistribution of the sensible, whose significance and impact reach far beyond the confines of Libya, or even of the Arab world. It participates not only in the invention of a new, collective audio-visual language, a vernacular which exists to embody and project the desires and values of the people on their own terms, but also in the reassertion of the vernacular itself as a realm whose aesthetic and intellectual complexity is both independent of, and equal if not superior to, that of any institutionally-recognized artistic practice, however radical or “experimental.”

Over the last three years, many people have questioned whether we should call the Arab revolutions ‘revolutions’ at all. The Syrian poet Adonis has suggested that they cannot be revolutions since they have not led to a complete change of the political, economic and social system. The sociologist Mohammed Bamyeh describes them as anarchist in their methods, and liberal in their intentions, which may seem like a contradiction in terms. In the aftermath of May 1968, in his book “L’Autopsie de la révolution,” Jacques Ellul proposed nominalism as the best way out of such a dilemma: If people call it a revolution, then that’s how they experience it, and who are we to differ?

But maybe we don’t have to make any such concessions. Maybe embracing these revolutions as revolutions is in itself a performative and pre-figurative act — one that could help bring about not just a certain kind of political theory, but also a certain kind of society, and a certain kind of artistic participation in that society’s making. If the best criterion we have for recognizing a revolution is that moment in which everyday life can no longer be distinguished from poetry, then I would like to think that this video from Libya, and others like it, show us the revolution in its essential action — that of inventing new ways of being and experiencing by which whatever comes after will be judged in the memory of those who were then alive.

As Louise Michel put it in her memoirs, speaking of the Paris Commune: “Just as drama was no longer to be found in the theatre, because it was unfolding in the street as the crowd wrote its own legends, so poetry now belonged to everyone.”

Since the Arab revolutions, the moving image too now belongs to everyone. It’s up to us — not to filmmakers, but to all of us — to make the films that will keep that true.

Author photo (c) Dana Smillie

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Peter Snowdon