At Visions du Réel 2021, two films explore the intersection between images and war with great cogency and rigour
Directed by Massimo D'Anolfi and Martina Parenti, the Italian feature War and Peace and Bellum — The Daemon of War, made by David Herdies and Georg Götmark, illuminate the profound, multi-layered links between war, photography and cinema.
“The history of battle,” wrote Paul Virilio in 1984, “is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception.” Examining the relationship between war and images, the French philosopher advanced that, through the ages, victory in an armed conflict has always been a matter of perceiving and representing enemies and enemy territories; that, in industrial warfare, “the representation of events outstripped the presentation of facts”. He continues: “Thus, alongside the army’s traditional ‘film department’ responsible for directing propaganda to the civilian population, a military ‘images department’ has sprung up to take charge of all tactical and strategic representations of warfare for the soldier, the tank or aircraft pilot, and above all the senior officer who engages combat forces.”
Virilio’s analysis has only become more accurate with time. A few years ago, MIT developed a camera that can look around corners — an invention that has obvious military application. In March this year, the US Army publicised their goggles that allows soldiers to remain inside their armoured vehicles while being able to see everything happening outside. To be able to see the source of danger without exposing yourself to it — the Rear Window principle — is already a battle half-won. Photography and filmmaking have therefore increasingly been at the centre of contemporary military strategy.
The work of German filmmaker Harun Farocki (1944-2014) has, over decades, thrown light on the profound, multi-layered links between war, photography and cinema. His films echo Virilio in demonstrating how, in modern warfare, terrains are mapped out in extensive detail, combat tactics are thoroughly simulated in software and variables of battle are controlled to such a degree that the actual field operation simply becomes a logistical formality.
In such an asymmetric war, the side that controls machine-filmed, amoral and objective images of a region is one that has already conquered it. To see is to capture.
Two films screened at the recently concluded Visions du Réel festival in Nyon imbibe the spirit of Farocki’s work and explore the intersection between images and war with great cogency and rigour.
Directed by Massimo D'Anolfi and Martina Parenti, the Italian feature War and Peace lives up to the ambitions of its lofty title. The opening part is set in a film archive, where researchers study footage from a “forgotten war”: the Italian invasion of (current-day) Libya in 1911. Perhaps the first war expressly filmed for public consumption back home, the clips show soldiers advancing in the desert and or assembled outside captured sites. These films, we are told, played a part in creating the fiction that was unified Libya. As it did elsewhere under various imperial film units, cinema here served as a colonising force, with the power of writing history residing with those who wield the camera.
The second segment of the film parachutes us into a crisis unit in Italy that helps locate and repatriate civilians and military personnel stuck in war-torn areas around the world. More than a century since the Libya invasion, technology has now democratised image-making. Even the “enemies” have the means to fashion their own narrative through film. Thanks to global media and the internet, these images of war can now be produced, distributed and immediately seen across the world. We observe experts at the crisis unit investigating and interacting with these videos to navigate the chaos of the present. It’s effectively a battle for the control of future history.
Production and control of images of war is also the theme of the third part of the film, set at a French military academy. A new batch of recruits in what Virilio called the “images department” is being trained in the techniques of photography, visual composition, voiceover commentary, live telecast and filmmaking. At the end of the course, a whole combat operation is simulated in the campus for these trainees to shoot and edit into a wide-screen Hollywood-like movie, as though the primary goal of war was to fabricate images, “representation of events” outstripping “presentation of facts”.
War and Peace nevertheless concludes with a reflection on cinema’s power to prevent history from falling into oblivion. As footage of post-war devastation and testimonies of Holocaust survivors wash over reel cans, we realise that while cinema may not have been able to forestall historical tragedy, as Jean-Luc Godard lamented, its true mission may simply be to pick up the pieces, to preserve the memories of the victims of war. And that perhaps is the only way cinema could film peace.
Bellum — The Daemon of War deals with similar ideas as War and Peace, but weaves them into human interest stories. Made by David Herdies and Georg Götmark, the film follows three subjects living in different corners of the world: an engineer in Sweden, an American photographer working in Afghanistan and an Afghan war veteran in Nevada, US. They don’t meet one another in the film, but their lives are all shaped by war and Western attitudes to war.
Fredrik Bruhn, the Swedish engineer, is involved in designing an AI-powered military drone that will take autonomous decisions on bombing a perceived target — a game-changing invention that will eliminate the need for any human intervention in combats. Bill Lyon, the war vet suffering from PTSD, has trouble reintegrating into civilian life and hopes to go back to the front, not just for the money, but also to regain some semblance of normalcy. Paula Bronstein is a photojournalist from the East Coast who covers the aftermath of the Afghan war. We see her directing her subjects with makeshift lighting, wandering the streets of Kabul coaxing children for a pose or signing photo-books at her exhibition back in the US.
Bellum emphasises that these are nice people. Bruhn is a doting father and a science enthusiast. Bronstein is empathetic and wants to put a human face to the fallout of the war. Despite his hatred for the conditions in Afghanistan, Lyon too is a loving husband. Well-meaning though they might be, it becomes apparent that their life and work are marked by a certain guilt surrounding the fact of war. This is evident in the case of Lyon, who has seen his friends and colleagues die in the field, but Bronstein’s own activity may not be untouched by a liberal sense of culpability about her country’s interventions in Afghanistan. Bruhn’s efforts to eliminate the human factor of war, too, is an attempt to eradicate feelings of guilt about liquidating an enemy, which, the film’s narrator notes, is the only real restraining force in an armed conflict.
Elsewhere, the narrator remarks that armies don’t use just cardboard silhouettes for target practice anymore, but well-defined human-like figures, such that soldiers find themselves in a situation as close to real life as possible. Lyon drives past a large military facility in Nevada, where a life-size replica of Kandahar was set up. Such hyper-realistic simulation environments, which were the subject of Farocki’s four-part Serious Games (2010), are ultimately designed to blur the boundary between reality and fiction and to have combatants take one for the other.
“It’s judgment that defeats us,” says an embittered Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) at the end of his famous monologue in Apocalypse Now (1979). What Bellum points out to us is that this judgment, this human fallibility, is the variable that technology seeks to eliminate from the equation of war, seeking to forge amoral killing machines that will, somehow, do the “right thing”. In this mission, these two films show us, cinema will be always on the side of the powerful.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B
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