Originally published: 25.08.14
A recent issue of Private Eye published a spoof newspaper front page purportedly from the start of WWI, drawing parallels between the international conflict of that time and our own. Juxtaposed with this was an article about what a fabulous summer it was, full of ice-creams and donkey rides on the beach. Of course, the joke of this front page is that whilst we are sated with immediate sweet and simple pleasures we can ignore the horror to come. I found it funny and frightening.
I’ve thought of that spoof quite often during the past weeks of my son’s summer holiday, whilst eating ice-creams on the beach (no donkeys any more). Yet … my natural inclination to catastrophise means I am drawn to the news bulletins of the many, terrifying conflicts that have punctuated this summer. They seem to draw together in our collective consciousness to predicate a disaster of greater magnitude. There has been a shadow cast over the bright sunny beach, a shadow of conflicts reaching ever closer.
For many of us in stable, wealthy countries, fictionalised depictions of war are the closest we come. I started to think about how we relate to these depictions whilst suffering the second hour of Planet of the Apes (if ever there were a film stitched together from the left overs of other, better films, it is surely this: not a single moment was original).
However, a generally excellent depiction which has scorched through our television screens this summer has been the BBC series An Honourable Woman. It had a cast of just about everyone you could wish to watch for eight hours; it should be the law that Stephen Rea and Lindsey Duncan are every television show including Great British Bake Off and TOWIE. This series proved that with a little transatlantic help British television can rise above reality trash and cop drama dross to create something truly captivating.
For those of you who didn’t see it, the premise is that Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhall) is the British/Israeli daughter of an Israeli arms manufacturer. She is trying to play her part, through business, in promoting peace in Gaza. A convoluted plot involving assassins, spies, rape and kidnap was slow and maybe a little self-indulgent. The style was exquisite and specific: many shots were reflections, specifically in the glass of a large Arabic calligraphy artwork hanging above the staircase in Nessa’s house. The camera lingered on the stiletto heels and killer pointed toes of the precisely placed feet of two characters jousting for the same senior secret service job. Even the credits were beautiful, an homage to the collage of Homeland’s credits, outstripping their inspiration to become a drama in their own right.
The richness of woman characters in this show was of course a big draw for someone like me and as I watched I wondered, who was the Honourable Woman of the title? Nessa seems the obvious answer but all of the women were committed to their own principles, even if some of them seemed at odds with our morality. Women were at the centre of this drama. It was no accident that the sympathetic male character of Hugh Hayden-Hoyle was being ousted from his job by women gunning for power. There was a sense that men had created this conflict and women were paying the price. There is also a clear notion that the men’s way of doing things was being overturned by a new, equally morally compromised female order.
So The Honourable Woman was always going to be a thoughtful, beautiful piece of drama.
And then …. on 8Th July Israel launched Operation Protective Edge and the world turned its eyes on the latest conflict in Gaza. Those of us watching An Honourable Woman turned from it to the news which showed dramatic, gut wrenching scenes of violence. Of course, you learned far more about the human impulses involved from An Honourable Woman than from the drama hounds of the news bulletins. Gylllenhal, when interviewed by Yahoo TV said of the show
“Of course, it’s just a piece of art, but when it is putting light on what sometimes feels like an impossible topic, I think it becomes valuable as a piece of art. Sometimes art can feel like the only way in.”
In considering fictionalized examples of conflict one piece that came to mind was the Ernest Hemingway (very) short story ‘On the Quai at Smyrna’. Prior to the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922, Smyrna was a multi-cultural centre filled with Greeks, Turks and Armenians. In 1922, Turkish forces took back Smyrna from the Greeks. Soon after a fire of debated origin started which destroyed most of the city. Estimates range between 50,000 to 400,000 Greeks and Armenians were forced to flee. With the fire on one side and the sea on the other they were trapped on the waterfront for two weeks until an evacuation could be organised. Their plight was horrific and it is thought up 100,000 died. There are many reports on this crisis, both contemporary and historic but Hemingway’s brief two pages manages to encapsulate perfectly the emotions that we, the observers, feels about such grand tragedy. On The Quai At Smyrna is a vivid piece of fiction beginning with the terrifying description of how ‘they’ screamed every night at midnight. At this point we don’t know who ‘they’ are or what is going on. (The narrator is, in fact, an American officer, sent during a brief alliance with the Turks, to assist in the evacuation) We just know, immediately, that something awful is happening and that the narrator, and therefore us, are the witnesses rather than protagonists.
I think this piece is an excellent starting point to begin thinking about how we observe war and conflict. More importantly, how we act once we have observed it. We must question, what is our moral standpoint when all we can do is watch and talk? All of us with access to a computer were confronted directly with this question last week when we all had the choice whether or not to watch the video showing the death of the journalist James Foley. I was troubled, for the first time, by my own curiosity in watching his death. I watched the first part of the video, the one that the news channels had no problem showing, where he said his final words. I was concerned by my own lack of emotion. I had cried when I saw his mother speaking bravely but the video of the man himself left me strangely inert. The horror of what was to come rendered it unreal. Even more concerning, I felt, was the style of the video. Clearly, those involved in making this film have been brought up on a cinematic diet and have a sophisticated visual literacy. Just as we are exhorted to create mini works of art on our phones, these people had the wherewithal to produce something professional and visually seductive.
I came back to my question, should I watch the actual death? I spoke to my husband who had watched the video of the beheading of Kenneth Bigley in 2004. He said he watched it because he felt that, as an observer, he needed to know exactly what was going on so he could make an informed opinion. I asked, is that the truth or was there an element of ghoulish curiosity? He admitted there was. He said he would never want to see anything like it again. He told me on no account to give into my own curiosity. Since then, Foley’s parents have asked people via social media to not watch it and I am glad, for that reason alone, that I stopped when I did.
I feel that it is vital we all question our role as observers of conflict, not least because all of the information we are offered is fictionalized to one extent or another. From the art-directed executions videos to the political and corporate agenda of the big news companies, those depictions of conflict which purport to be the ‘truth’ must be constantly questioned. In the end the fictions, (yes, even those as poor as Planet of Apes), tell us something more useful about how we observe and relate to conflict.
Whether we do it from altruistic motives or something more self-interested, it is one of our human responsibilities to decide what we do about conflict going on outside our immediate environment. Do we ignore it or protest or spread the propaganda of the side we support? Whatever we choose to do, we must reconcile ourselves to it. What would we want to the world to do if it were us being terrorized, bombed and attacked? Just like those people frolicking on the beaches in the summer of 1914, we have no idea how close we may be war.
I’d like to give the final words to Asra Nomani, the journalist and author who was a friend of Daniel Pearl, the journalist who was murdered in 2002. She was interviewed on the BBC’s Broadcasting House about the death of James Foley and this is an extract.
“I have to say that I am haunted by the memories of what I saw on that video and I have come to believe that journalists can act as agents of propaganda when we air and distribute those kind of images… I am so glad that 12 years later we are having a really serious and thoughtful conversation about not being used as agents of propaganda. I have had to look at my computer screen with a hand over part of the screen lest I see the orange of the jumpsuit James Foley wore. It’s a dramatic image to many people and always trying to have empathy and compassion I think of the people on the other side for whom that jumpsuit represents the images of the prisoners in Guantanamo. I try so hard to think from the other perspective also…. But I know for myself I am heartened that Twitter has deleted the accounts of the people who distributed the images of James Foley…. Ultimately revenge will only allow the realisation of the dream of those who try to dehumanise others.”
Collage: Art, Culture, Gender : Collage is a blog magazine about art and culture. I review mostly work by women artists and other reviews/articles are written with a gendered perspective.