It would be interesting to know why George W. Bush and his inner circle decided to call their neo-imperialist crusade a “War on Terror” and not a war on terrorism. Why, in other words, they waged war against a feeling, rather than against a political phenomenon. Doclisboa, one of Europe’s most daring and ingenious festivals, this year dedicated a program not to the issue of terrorism itself, but to its on-screen representation. It’s an issue made all the more relevant not only by the tragic attacks that recently shook the French capital and beyond, but also by the crucial role that visual (self-)representation of terrorism plays both in our perception of it and its amplitude. Terror groups, or alleged such, have always counted on and manipulated the media to amplify the reach of their actions, for there cannot be hysteria without the mass-mediated propagation of fear—a lesson ISIS seems to have learned criminally well judging from its sophisticated online presence, brand awareness and lethal propaganda machine made of Hollywood-like trailers and intimidating “coming soon.” To analyze the representation of terrorism is to understand the way it functions and perpetrates its deadly goals, but also the way in which it is used to justify repression and mass surveillance. The definition of terrorism, often hazy and subject to interpretation, is on the contrary ontologically clear. The Oxford Dictionary defines terrorism as “the unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation against innocent civilians in the pursuit of political aims.” While officialdom and authorization may be debatable concepts, the killing of innocent civilians is certainly not.
There is therefore a difference between guerrilla groups who exclusively strike political targets and those who on the contrary contemplate the murder of innocent people as a legitimate strategy. It is a crucial difference that Doclisboa’s “I Don’t Throw Bombs, I Make Films” program did not highlight, for instance putting films about The Weather Underground, who only targeted (empty) government buildings, together with a documentary about the Unabomber. The definition of terrorism according to which the films were selected roughly matched the one we usually get from those media unwilling to make distinctions, which is that ratified by the dominant order (this is definition we will be referring to in this article when using the T word). The problem with this definition of terrorism, regardless one’s political beliefs, is that it doesn’t always match that of the dictionary, which means that today’s freedom fighters might be tomorrow’s terrorists. An exemplary film in this regard is Rambo III, which fervently endorses the holy war of Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets…
Spanning four continents and a diverse range of political implications, the festival’s program disclosed some significant points in its attempt to survey the way terrorism has been represented as well as the way in which it has affected representation. The first element that emerged from this retrospective is that terrorism has been almost exclusively represented rather than representing itself (which is why ISIS’s fascistic self-awareness in terms of its own image is such a novel and “interesting” factor which was unfortunately left out of Doclisboa’s program). While terrorist groups have often passively used the media as a loudspeaker, the way ISIS has monopolized its visual representation constitutes a paradigmatic shift. Their veracity of their careful mise-en-scène is often debated, but their need to graphically and symbolically accompany their atrocious actions with aesthetic enactments deserves close and in-depth analysis.
Another interesting aspect is that left-wing terrorism in affluent “western” societies after World War II grew stronger in Italy, Germany and Japan, former allies under the Tripartite Pact. Tellingly enough, the ideological rhetoric that animated terrorist formations in these three countries emphatically referenced their political past. The Red Brigades in Italy saw their armed struggle as the continuation of the resistance that had taken place at the end of the war against German Nazis and the many leftovers of the fascist regime. Similarly, the Red Army Faction in Germany denounced and conducted armed campaigns against those remnants of the Nazi regime that had recycled themselves as part of the post-war democratic establishment. Japan too, though clearly different on many cultural and historical levels, experienced in the wake of ’68 a wave of left-wing terrorism that vehemently criticized the imperial and repressive nature of Japanese society. Among them, the Japanese Red Army was the one terrorist organization that would often replicate, even against its own ranks, the criminal fanaticism they so dogmatically opposed. Unlike other armed organizations featured in the festival program, the Japanese Red Army’s relation with cinema has been a proactive one. The two Japanese directors Masao Adachi and Koji Wakamatsu have in fact chronicled its rise and disastrous fall from very close proximity, with the former even joining its ranks at some point. Together they directed 1971’s Sekigun – P.F.L.P: Sekai Sensò Sengen (Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War), a filmed pamphlet calling for world revolution loosely structured around Adachi’s “landscape theory,” which postulated the inscription of power in the very shape of manufactured landscapes. Years later, in 2007, Wakamatsu, who throughout his early career had paid critical attention to and sympathized with left-wing terrorism, shot its epic débâcle. United Red Army chronicles the horrific executions of 14 members of the Japanese Red Army during a session of Maoist “self-criticism” at the hands of their own comrades in 1972.
While emanating from the same internationalist, Marxist framework, the national histories of armed groups in the 70s differed significantly in context, scope and also political legitimacy. The Basque nationalist group ETA, still considered a terrorist organization by the Spanish government, fought against and played a significant role in the demise of Franco’s fascist regime. The Burgos Trial by Imanol Uribe (1979) recounts the historic trial of a group of ETA members in 1968, when a state of emergency was declared in the region and hundreds of people were detained. The clandestine struggle against the dictatorship in Spain is also the subject of El Sopar (The Dinner, 1974) by Spanish experimental director Pere Portabella. As the title suggests, the film takes place over a dinner table where released political prisoners dine and discuss the political and ethical implications of their struggle. Clearly emerging from this film, and many others in the festival’s program, is the alienating divergence between the utopian exuberance of revolutions and their inevitably administrative, almost tedious machinations. It is primarily a matter of terminology, with armed avant-gardists often adopting a highly scientific, political jargon inaccessible to the common man. Prospero Gallinari, a member of the Red Brigades, admits as much in the documentary Ils étaient les Brigades Rouges (They Were the Red Brigades, 2011) by Mosco Boucault. Narrated by a voice-over that conveniently relieves spectators from any self-implication by offering an identification figure on the “right” side of history, this documentary is nonetheless a frank and nuanced account of the Red Brigades’ history as told by four of its former members, archive footage and equitable contextualization. Specular to Boucault’s documentary is L’Orchestre Noir (1997) by Jean-Michel Meurice, a more journalistic approach to a coeval phenomenon, that of neo-fascist terrorism in Italy. Meurice’s film is a carefully researched and detailed investigation into the bombings that shook Italy throughout the 70s: often blamed on left-wing militants, they would later turn out to be the criminal results of a murky alliance between the secret services and neo-fascist groups stretching well beyond the Italian borders. Right after the Second World War in fact, NATO, with the help of what would later be known as the CIA, had set up a web of paramilitary organizations to secretly combat the “communist threat” and keep its member states safe from socialist (c)harm. Without ever surrendering to conspiratorial rhetoric, these two documentary manage to detail the historical complexity of a phenomenon often reduced to the fanatical vagary of few, bloodthirsty individuals.
Further contextualization and anti-hysterical boning up came in the form of two very precious films serving as a sort of preamble and afterword to the recent wave of terrorist attacks. Philippe Faucon’s aptly titled La Désintégration (The Disintegration, 2011) describes the social void that the fascistic absolutism of fundamentalism fills in the French suburbs where “freedom, equality and brotherhood” are just cynical reminders of what second generation immigrants rarely get a taste of. The methodical discrimination and daily humiliations young French citizens experience in the underprivileged areas of France, the film perhaps too didactically shows, are in fact the optimal preconditions for the recruitment of future terrorists. La Désintégration is a timely reminder that the problem of radicalization does not come from some faraway, barbaric land, but stems from the very heart and contradictions of our secular and allegedly civilized societies. The hypocritical rhetoric and superiority complex afflicting western societies, that while affirming their moral supremacy clamp down on civil liberties using terrorism as an excuse, is the subject of Michel Brault’s Les Ordres (Orders, 1974). The film is a fact-based account of the wave of arbitrary arrests the Canadian government ordered after its legislature passed the “War Measures Act” under the pretext of fighting the Quebec Liberation Front. Over 400 people belonging to social movements were arrested, detained and abused either physically or psychologically without any charge ever being filed against them, in the attempt to eradicate any form of opposition. Brault’s film couldn’t be more relevant today, when a permanent state of emergency is being invoked and effectively implemented, and the liberties that supposedly differentiate us from our enemies are being eroded when not abolished all together.
Included in the program was also a documentary about and with the collaboration of the Weather Underground, then hiding, if you’ll excuse the pun, underground. Directed by Haskell Wexler and one of America’s greatest documentary filmmakers, Emile de Antonio, Underground (1976) films the members of this armed group in their LA hideout and voices their stances. Though the prospect of a socialist revolution in America then and now couldn’t be further from reality, the contradictions the Weather Underground sought to blow up are nonetheless still relevant to contemporary society. The genuine commitment and political passion that emerge from the film are also a reminder of a not-too-far-away-time when members of the most affluent society on earth were willing and ready to give up their privileges in the fight for a more equitable world. Also of note is the collaborative process that went into the making of the film: the directors and subjects are often shot within the same frame, sharing the same historical stage as well as political belief. The sheer wealth of the selection and the discursive richness on offer made this program not only a treasure trove for those interested in the subject, but also the starting point of a debate that, as recent events yet again proved, needs to go well beyond the hysteria and opportunistic simplifications of mainstream media.