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Inhabited by images and sounds

Tim Welfare talks with visiting Lebanese video artist Akram Zaatari

Tim Welfare is a multimedia artist and curator who lives and works in Sydney and was in Bierut 2001-04. Since 1990, he has directed and produced over 30 projects incorporating film, performance, graffiti campaigns, radio and sound with multimedia group Scratch My Nose.

Akram Zaatari Akram Zaatari
Akram Zaatari is a video artist and curator who lives and works in Beirut, Lebanon. He is part of a generation of independent video makers from the Middle East who use video beyond the conventions and limitations of television. These films explore new avenues of storytelling which express the social and cultural debates of the Middle East. Many of Zaatari's stories have an unmistakable documentary form, as in This Day which was screened as part of the Middleastalentime program of Middle Eastern film and video. I curated the program at the Sydney Opera House where Zaatari was a special guest of dLux media arts. My conversation with Zaatari began at the after screening talk and then via the internet since the artist’s return to Beirut.

This Day seems at first a documentary of your investigations of early photographic images shot in the Syrian Desert 50 to 60 years ago. Once you returned to Beirut to the comfort of your editing suite, it takes another turn with these images not only being discussed further but juxtaposed with images of modern-day Beirut, your own images and diaries during the civil war, planes, cable cars, archival photographs and footage and sound bites from the internet and television which are all brought into the mix. What triggered such an investigation? Was it initially planned this way or did the project just morph itself from the perch of your editing station, where these layers of history and the truths captured in these images are questioned?

This Day From the beginning I wanted this work to sum up my relation to different groups of images and sound and video recordings that I had been collecting and studying. So from the beginning I knew it would end up a heterogeneous work, where those collections are tied with different threads. I conceived the video as a container for them. I was inhabited by these images and sounds, partially with what I do as part of the Arab Image Foundation, and partially with a huge number of recordings I did and still do until this day. These are recordings of sound explosions, of news clips, images of shelling, particularly dating back to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

I had always considered these two practices [sound and image] distinct, but not anymore. By saying that I had conceived the work this way, I do not mean the work was pre-scripted, on the contrary. I was opening up axes, heading in different directions pursuing elements of study. I delayed even thinking of binding everything altogether until post-production. I would say the film took shape while editing, not because it is a collage, but because writing this film was like doing lab work, waiting to go through a synthesis phase. In all cases, for me, films get written while editing, in the sense that there is always an unpredictable shift that takes the film somewhere else. In the editing I rebel against myself.

The collections belong to a particular geography, divided by territorial conflicts, and marked by successive wars. I am talking about Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine/Israel. How can one talk about images in these countries without ending up talking about war? While working I was becoming conscious of the formation of an iconographic landscape that can testify to conflicts. It is then that I started to find interest in analyzing images circulating on the net—images of mobilization, commercials and anti-commercials—to say that in situations of war, the images that tend to circulate are images of mobilisation. For me it was about time to cease these images and take them seriously.

The major narrative link between all the different parts of this work was, on one hand, the element of transportation: the crossing of distances and borders to meet subjects, in Syria and Jordan. So it was the machine, the car, the airplane, and even the camel. So the film starts with a pan on a black and white photograph taken by Manoug in the desert, showing historian Jibrail Jabbur holding his camera on his shoulder, standing next to a Bedouin, observing someone fixing his car. The car is clearly from the 50s and is broken in the desert and the commentator says that this is an image of "East meets West", because a western car has to break down in the desert. This is how the film starts the voyage: in the Syrian desert looking for desert inhabitants that were once photographed by Jabbur and Manoug.

This trip to the Syrian Desert was indirectly my tribute to a documentary tradition often marginalised in the art world, but also often trivialised in the documentary genre. I wanted the film to oscillate between these traditions, on the one hand an extrovert voyage in geography, visiting places and meeting people, on the other hand an introvert voyage in time observing images of past wars. Some people perceive it as 2 films, I don't. I say it is one film that looks formally as a diptych in duration.

Can you explain the past and present activities of the Arab Image Foundation?

I was one of the founders of the Arab Image Foundation, an archive for collecting and preserving the photographic history of the Middle East and North Africa from the 19th century to 1960. Since then I got to shape and improve my collecting practice. I travelled in Syria, Jordan and Egypt and met so many people who used, or collected photography. I made a video about Van Leo (an Armenian photographer from Cairo) entitled Her + Him Van Leo. I have made a few publications and exhibitions based on these photographic findings. Now I am studying the work of Lebanese studio photographer Hashem el Madani, in particular in relation to the city he comes from, Saida.

You chose video over film or television. You have strong views also about documentary and feature films. Please elaborate on your views, particularly as you have plans to make a feature length film in the near future.

I never draw boundaries between these disciplines. I wish one could navigate among all of them. However, the boundaries exist and they are imposed by markets and by industries of production. So the boundaries are not inherent to those disciplines, but are artificial creations of the market. I have always worked outside systems of production, partially because I live in Lebanon where these relationships (producer to director to distributor) do not exist. After playing all these roles for more than 10 years, I think I am reaching a dead end. I do want my work to be widely seen, ie seen on television, in theatres etc—I want my work to encounter people who did not particularly choose to see it. This happens particularly on television. And this is, I believe, the power of television. This is why I am now doing what I resisted for a long time, which is writing a script in order to look for a producer.

I left Lebanon before Rafik Harriri's assassination. As an outsider, I could see that public opinion of him was quite divided before his death. Ask any taxi driver. Funny thing is, I am that sure since his assassination these same drivers who used to complain about how corrupt he was now carry images of him around in their taxi. But besides the initial 'Peoples' demonstrations, how has the arts community responded to his death, or do they not know how to respond?

Despite possible critiques of Hariri, he was a very pragmatic man of state, very charismatic, down to earth and very open to critique, which is really rare. Unlike other political figures, he was not a war figure and never had a militia. It is naïve to say that after his death, many people discovered his qualities, but it is partially true. His tragic assassination brought images of other assassinations that remained un-investigated in the recent Lebanese history, and that brought people to the street. It is hard for us, artists and intellectuals, to stop what’s happening. I personally need some distance to formulate an opinion about it. Naturally, I started recording directly after the assassination, and now I have more than 100 hours of tape from television, and many direct audio recordings of demonstrations. I do not think I am ready, as I need to digest this material; besides I need time to view it!


Akram Zaatari's work is also featured in the 2006 Sydney Biennale.

Tim Welfare is a multimedia artist and curator who lives and works in Sydney and was in Bierut 2001-04. Since 1990, he has directed and produced over 30 projects incorporating film, performance, graffiti campaigns, radio and sound with multimedia group Scratch My Nose.

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 19

© Tim Welfare; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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