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“Everything about being sick is written in our bodies first and sometimes written in notebooks later”, writes Anne Boyer in “The Undying. A Meditation on Modern Illness” (2019), a personal examination of disease in the 21st century. One recurring theme of the American poet and essayist’s book is the translation of bodily processes and experiences into language. Boyer ascertains that a fundamental systemic shift occurs upon entry to the space of medicine. Information from within is ultimately newly classified according to a system imposed from a far-off without. The language of the body becomes a medical “dialect”.   

The question of the translatability of bodily experience is also posed in documentary films that give an account of physical changes, disease and the pain and suffering caused by violence. How can something directly written into the body even be represented or grasped in filmic language? What role do the word and the image play to this end? One possible answer might be to make the impossibility of representation visible, or, in other words, to treat the translation errors that occur based on moving from one system to another as being productive.

“What happens to the bodies – or is violently inflicted upon them – is already mediated in how it is shown, has already been fed into a (discursive) system.”

Films like NOTRE CORPS (Our Bodies) by Claire Simon, DE FACTO by Selma Doborac, EL JUICIO (The Trial) by Ulises de la Orden, ANQA by Helin Çelik and JAII KEH KHODA NIST (Where God Is Not) by Mehran Tamadon are about what happens when the body comes up against an institution, a system, a biopolitical order: in Simon’s case, the clinic and the health system; for Doborac, de la Orden, Çelik and Tamadon, the prison, the camp, the instruments of state terror and the monstrously unbridled bodies of guards, supervisors, torturers and killers. While these films give an account (or unfold from the midst) of very different geographical, political and social spaces and use equally different methods in so doing, what they have in common is a scepticism towards the representability of (not only) bodily experience, a scepticism negotiated with different degrees of openness in each case – they also all avoid making individual fates their point of reference.  

NOTRE CORPS, DE FACTO and EL JUICIO all put speech at the heart of the matter in differing ways. What happens to the bodies – or what is violently inflicted upon them – is already mediated in how it is shown, has already been fed into a (discursive) system: medicine, justice, etc. Speech patterns are repeated until they become jargon; in the collage of texts that Selma Doborac has her two actors deliver in DE FACTO, the monologues compiled from court verdicts, accounts given by perpetrators and witness testimonies almost sound like their own language, a sort of dialect of culpability.  

“Mon corps, mon choix, moin droit” (“My body, my decision, my right”) can be seen on a poster in the waiting room of the gynaecological clinic in Paris which French director Claire Simon explores in her nearly three-hour documentary by way of participatory observation. This fleeting glance at the guiding principle of abortion law is placed at the beginning of NOTRE CORPS in programmatic fashion. For as the film shows how various medical issues are treated across a series of different stations – patient registration, consultations and information sessions, operations, births, chemotherapy, laboratory examinations etc. – the body is to some extent inexorably given over to another power upon entering the clinic. The fact that situations involving violence, abuse and disenfranchisement can also occur in this space is shown in the scene in which Simon films a protest by women who have suffered precisely such things taking place in front of the hospital: their slogan is “Ensemble contre les violences obstétricales et gynécologiques” – “Together against the violence of obstetrics and gynaecology”. They talk of medical examinations carried out against their will, of feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, humiliation.  

“Before NOTRE CORPS brings the body into the frame as a material object (which then extends all the way to endoscopic and microscopic footage), it initially remains hidden. For the first half hour of the film, Simon consistently films faces concealed behind pandemic masks.”

NOTRE CORPS also documents how a filmmaker engages with a place where she is at some point forced to take on a second role – that of a patient. Before she brings the body into the frame as a material object (which extends all the way to endoscopic and microscopic footage), it initially remains hidden. For the first half hour of the film, Simon consistently – and also later on continually – films faces concealed behind pandemic masks. Patients receive advice and information about terminating pregnancies and hormone therapy or talk about their symptoms and pains, others come with the unfulfilled desire to have a child. Personal stories become cases – and collections of specialist terminology, figures and probability calculations. The doctors also repeatedly reach for pen and paper to render the abstract clear and understandable. Simon brings these recurring translation processes to the fore and yet always keeps her attention trained on the people who are being discussed, probed and examined. The focus on the systemic does not negate individual experiences, but rather places them in a shared (female) space.

A documentary edited together exclusively from video footage of the court proceedings of the trial against leading representatives of the Argentinian dictatorship, EL JUICIO is reduced to speech entirely. Language isn’t even close to being able to grasp what was done to the bodies of the torture victims, the term “Dantesque spectacle” is used several times over the course of the trial. Due to the recording set-up in the courtroom – the television cameras were constantly trained on the backs of those being cross-examined – the image doesn’t comply with the media conventions of victim representation. Instead, the intelligent montage manages to condense the body language of the perpetrators – their complicit manner, their self-aggrandising bearing, their scorn – into a systemic image of misanthropic power.

 “DE FACTO is a spoken piece with two actors and an almost monstruous text corpus that seeks to criticise representation.” 

Selma Doborac confronts the viewer with what it means to be a perpetrator, with testimony, state terror and the idea of a state of emergency in a conceptually radical fashion. Born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the filmmaker already “reworked” the Bosnian War of the 1990s with methods of absence in THOSE SHOCKING SHAKING DAYS (2016) – and by using forms that provoke a sense of overload and the overwhelming. DE FACTO is a spoken piece with two actors and an almost monstruous text corpus that seeks to criticise representation. In lengthy, precisely framed shots, Christoph Bach and Cornelius Obonya are each seen sitting at a table in a pavilion – the two actors never appear together – giving a rapidly delivered account of the horrors of ethnic cleansing. Some viewers might try to trace the statements back to individual subject positions or to identify clearly demarcated perpetrator figures, but such expectations are undermined throughout the film. Descriptions of the methods of strategic warfare, of de-individualisation, rape and mass shooting – often expressed in a perpetrator rhetoric of self-legitimisation – add up to a text that has been recognisably formed and that imposes itself in almost physical fashion: it is far too much to be “digested”. In the end credits, authorship is ascribed to the table, the chairs (artists Heimo Zobernig and Franz West) and the shoes worn by the actors, but not to the quotes and references contained in the text. With the historical sources and any information to specify place and time omitted, its structures and repeating patterns come into even sharper relief, as if under a burning glass.

Helin Çelik works with an entirely different form of absence in ANQA. The violence experienced by the film’s protagonists, three women living in Jordan, is only alluded to in fragmentary fashion. ANQA is also the document of a silencing process: language has entirely withdrawn into the women’s traumatised bodies. The perpetually dark and only sparsely lit interiors also bear witness to a state of being locked in; the space is ambivalent, revealing itself as a refuge and a prison in equal measure. The gaze of cinematographer Raquel Fernández Núñez repeatedly catches sight of closed windows, curtains, walls – and of the faces and hands of the women. “The discomfort of bodies in rooms” is how film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once described the cinema of Chantal Akerman – a formulation that also seems fitting for ANQA.

“The starting point of the reenactments that Mehran Tamadon develops before the camera together with three former prisoners is space – and their bodily memories.”

In terms of the systematic nature of terror, JAII KEH KHODA NIST enters into dialogue with EL JUICIO and DE FACTO; the film about and with three former political prisoners from Iran is based on an entirely different idea of representability, however. The starting point of the reenactments that Mehran Tamadon develops before the camera together with them is space – and their bodily memories. In an empty warehouse on the outskirts of Paris, the cells and the “graves” developed in the Ghezel Hasar prison are reconstructed in sketch-like fashion via a performative process (these so-called “graves” refer to plywood boxes in which the prisoners were forced to sit for hours without moving while tied up and blindfolded). Metres are paced out, physical stances suffered in interrogation and torture situations returned to, objects lying around like cables and a slatted bed frame made use of for demonstration purposes. The reenactments are carried out in constant dialogue with the filmmaker; the participants at once act out their roles and comment upon them. They pause again and again to gain a sense of distance – and to ask critical questions about whether this attempt at reconstruction makes sense. The project remains an experiment on uncertain ground. 

Esther Buss is a freelance film critic based in Berlin. Her writing has appeared in “Jungle World”, “Der Tagesspiegel”, “Filmdienst”, “kolik.film” and “Texte zur Kunst”.

Translated from the German by James Lattimer


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