Lia Tarachansky on Film

A Jew reports from Israel
The power of a very loud silence
By Lia Tarachansky
Writer Director, On The Side Of The Road
Jaffa, Israel

I am an Israeli at a time of . . . A time of . . . Full force assault on Gaza. I forget I am human. I do not live under occupation. I do not live under siege. But I am human. How do I know? I do not report the names of the dead anymore. Now I count them by dozens. Like fruit. A long line of scratched out numbers on my pages. Listed in order of importance. Dead. Injured. Destroyed.

Here, people sit at coffee shops and eat cake. I am human. How do I know? Chain smoking. Always looking south. Being afraid of birds because they cut through the sky too fast. The sirens follow the rockets, not the other way around. I tried to find a bomb shelter. I tried to get footage. My fingers shook too hard. I have a long list of scratched out numbers on my pages. People are sitting at coffee shops eating cake. Four days ago - 18. Today - 167. Maybe more. Zero on "our side". Whole homes, families evaporated. A mist of blood and dust and rubble in Gaza. Journalists are asking me how to get the scoop. People are sitting at coffee shops eating cake. The streets are burning with chants of "death to Arabs". The paper arrived. It says Arabs die because they want to die. For the Muqawama. Struggle. The spokespeople are awake.

"The goal of the film, was to reach past language, nationality, religion, politics, and speak to the inner viewer." - Mark Magidson, Producer, Baraka (1993)

I have always been fascinated with the power of silence in conveying complex, political ideas. In particular, two moments illuminated in my mind that this is indeed the question I want to pursue in my studies.  The first came while watching the 2010 film También la lluvia (Even the Rain), directed by Icíar Bollaín and written by Paul Laverty, the writer of many of Ken Loach’s films.  The idea of the film came from historian Howard Zinn’s monumental book The People’s History of the United States and tells the story of Colombus’ colonization of Latin America in the context of neo-colonialism by multinational corporations which led to the Cochabamba Water Wars of 2000.

 It is in many ways a remarkably complex film-within-a-film, weaving together the story of a movie crew that came to shoot a movie about Columbus, all the while documenting the process of the filmmaking itself.  As the production faces various challenges, massive protests against the privatization of water break out, dragging the crew into the heat of the people’s struggle for control over resources.

The film, which does not utilize the economy of dialogue by too often preaching instead of showing, has one powerful moment, where the main character, an ambitious and seemingly apolitical film producer played by renown Spanish actor Luis Tosar looks out into the chaos on the streets of the Bolivian capital, and in a slow silent moment suddenly makes a connection between the colonialism he came to portray and the corporate neo-colonialism of privatizing the nation’s water, including the rain.

The second moment came as I sat in the Cinematheque Tel Aviv at the premiere of my own documentary, On The Side Of The Road last November. As I looked back from my seat at the faces in the crowd, watching a film that has taken me five years to make and which changed the entire course of my life, I realized I had made the same mistake as Laverty. My film was more or less dialogue wall-to-wall. I had tackled such an enormous subject – the biggest taboo in Israeli society, the atrocities of the war that created the state and displaced two thirds of the Palestinians from their homeland – that the only way I could find to tell what I wanted to convey is by telling it. One narration-filled shot after another. But for me, the most profound moment in making the film happened in 2010 as I returned home from a particularly devastating interview with Amnon Noiman, the central character in my film.

Amnon was a soldier in 1948 and over the years of my following his story on camera, I noticed there was one place he refused to talk about. Finally, in that interview he opened up and told me that he participated in the massacre of 70 Palestinian men in a small village called Burayr, not far from the Gaza Strip where its inhabitants were expelled.

I came home and searched for Burayr on the map. Shortly after the massacre and expulsion the village was razed to the ground as were more than 500 others. It was literally erased from the map. After doing some archival research, I found the GPS coordinates of the place where the village stood. I entered them into Google Maps, and my jaw dropped. In the satellite image I saw the place where the village once stood. I saw a thin line of trees that miraculously survived, framing a perfect emptiness.

I over-imposed the image with an aerial photograph from 1947. The outline was true to the original. As I sat looking at this image, I realized this silent moment will become the most powerful scene in my film. In retrospect, if I had stayed true to this instinct and given the audience enough time to simply sit with the image, I would have been better able to convey in one silent moment the devastation of all that occurred. When I finally went to visit Burayr myself, I found the silence so loud I couldn’t even bear to hear the radio in my car as I stood in this ghost of a place.

This profundity of silence is essentially what Ron Fricke accomplished in the 1993 documentary Baraka. The film completely lacks dialogue, and by avoiding telling the audience what to feel, using nothing but music and image, Fricke allowed the viewer to hear what he was trying to say by simply seeing it. “The film, which begins with an image of a solar eclipse, is structured like an epic poem,” wrote Stephen Holden in a New York Times review when the film came out. “It begins in heavenly climes, descends into hell, recapitulates its opening themes and ends with a celestial starburst.”

Today, Baraka retains the honors of being a feat of filmmaking. Shot with 70-mm cameras in 25 countries during a production that lasted nearly a year, it became a sort of phenomenon all to itself. Today it is studied not only by film students but also in anthropology, sociology, and art programs. Even in a rather hostile review in The Guardian, Mike McCahill who called the film “hippy-trippy” wrote that watching it, “you are left weighing the dense, stirring beauty of the images with the crushing banality of what's actually being expressed through them.”

Baraka is a culmination of the work Fricke has done in his pervious films, as cinematographer for Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy and as director of Chronos (1985), which many consider to be the prototype for Baraka.

In the Cinema Journal, Martin Roberts of the New School for Social Research, wrote in 1998 that, “to grasp the cultural significance of a film such as Baraka, we need to move beyond film genres and even beyond film itself. This involves treating it not so much as a documentary film but as one modality-cinematographic, in this case — of a cultural continuum extending across the spectrum of contemporary media and which is itself reflexive of broader historical and global cultural processes.”

To tell such a complex story as the devastating global impact of industrialization with nothing but image and music is no small feat. The same tools by another filmmaker may not succeed in conveying the emotional and political depth Fricke and Magidson reached. In fact, the same filmmakers, twenty years later in the remake, Samsara, managed only to scratch the surface. Using similar plotless-storytelling, similar dramatic music, and captivating imagery they defaulted to orientalized clichés, overemphasizing the politics of their message. As a result, film was reduced to the voyeuristic interaction of a First World filmmaker with largely Third World subjects. The same could be said of Baraka, but the poetry of the original missed the sequel. Here, the silence became a form of propaganda, rather than the filmmaker’s trust in the audience’s depth of perception.

Inevitable questions then arise — what was the particular combination of cinematographic tools used by Fricke in Baraka, and how does it differ from Samsara? Is the political context of both films and their place in the timeline of globalization a significant factor in how they are each perceived by their audiences? There are of course many others, but I suspect the real question is one of a subtle tendency, on the very nature of art itself. Every great artist created works that varied in their ability to transmit and touch the observer.

In How To Read a Film, James Monaco calls this the “triangle of artistic experience” (what the French call rapports de production) saying that, “the function of the observer or consumer in the process of art is every bit as important as the function of the artist”. After watching Baraka, will an audience member stop consuming meat, seeing factory workers carelessly burning off the beaks of chicklets or will she skip the political message and simply be inspired to travel to one of the breathless locations he so magically photographed?

Working as a journalist and filmmaker in the context of the most over-covered conflict in human history, a conflict that has had perhaps the most words-per-square-inch written and spoken about since the invention of print-media, I am inherently drawn to this form of storytelling — one that raises more questions than it  answers.  By tackling enormous topics as time, destruction by nature and man, and the elements of balance, Fricke was a natural choice of study when I formulated the question I seek to tackle in this degree. Namely, how to address complex topics in documentary film with the use of minimal or no-dialogue cinematographic tools. How to trust the viewer to hear how loud a silence can be, and how to direct this silence to tell a powerful story?

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