23 March 2017

The Seen and the Unseen

Yesterday, I left the flat to pick up the little girl I nanny and take her to cello lessons. Jon was at home-- he'd gotten caught up watching a film instead of taking a run like he'd planned.

When I reached the station, my phone rang. “Jess! Don't get on the train. There was guy that was just shot and another stabbed and some people were just run down right next to parliament. You can't go down to Westminster today.”

Numb, I made a few calls and rushed home to watch the coverage. It was especially jarring because, had Jon gone on that run like he'd intended, he would have passed right over Westminster bridge at approximately the time of the attack.

As I sat down in front of the screen, I realised that watching the news now is a completely different experience after having gone through this theology degree. Because I've been studying belief through the lens of visual images, watching the media brings with it a minefield of associations and recognitions. I realised that, even when it is unarticulated, the news seeks to do something that has been the fundamental quest of all religion; it attempts uncover Truth and to take man as close to the unknowable as possible.

The first thing I saw when I sat down to watch was an aerial view of parliament and the surrounding buildings. A helicopter flew around the scene where police cars and police officers in high-vis green jackets dotted the bridge. The reporters chattered on and I became increasingly struck by the unknown. They were attempting to show what couldn't be seen, to describe what can't be spoken (because honestly no one knew what was going on). 

Film has done this since its inception, particularly when dealing with the great mysteries of the world. Cecil B DeMille's The Ten Commandments depicts God with a trembling Moses on Mt Sinai as an animated swirling fire. By conventional theology, God is unknowable, and yet DeMille sought to make him manifest. He resolved the paradox by depicting God as an ephemeral, authoritative flame, which despite being a bit cheesy, succeeds in simultaneously displaying and veiling the truth of God. 
God is shown as a pillar of fire in The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston

Similar things are done in Henry Koster's The Robe and Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum where the filming in both works focuses on the reactions of the crowd instead of the significant historical persons. The faces of Jesus and Hitler are not shown, rather only part of their bodies-- carrying a cross (below) and, in the case of The Tin Drum, the outstretched arm (of Hitler). 

This veiled approach was certainly less intentional in yesterday's coverage of the attack, but was still present. Repeatedly, the reporters would ask “Where is the prime minister?” after which a montage of 10 Downing street would be shown and assurances would be given (either from themselves or the person they were interviewing) that she was safe and likely at her home “one of the safest places in Britain.”

Invoking the unseen nature of Theresa May, followed by a visualisation of her safe local (in which she is hidden) lent a sense of security to the whole broadcast. Our leader was safe. We would be safe.

This contrasted somewhat to imagery we soon saw of perpetrator. We were soon shown explicit images of the man lying on his back receiving medical attention. This image is powerful on many levels.

First is the framing of the image. It is cropped in tight. In religious films, this shot is important in establishing the “sacred.” This idea is probably best expressed by the root of the German wúh (meaning “sacred”) whose roots means to 'be separate or apart.' When something is important it is set apart and focus in on it closely. Interestingly, the news reports the criminal using this shot.

Significantly, the man is framed by paramedics. In contrast to his callous disdain for human life, they cherish it and are trying to preserve his life. 

Interestingly, this moment is marked strongly by what the reporters are NOT saying. Even without the man's name or background, the image of dark-complexioned man with beard (a trademark style of jihadi imagery in the West) with the words “Terror Attack” emblazoned on the consciousness of the viewer screams a message that is pretty difficult to ignore. To the reporters credit though (at least with the coverage I saw), there was no immediate prejudicial assumptions articulated. The possible connection to Islamic radicalism was left powerfully unsaid.

The question of whether something should be said or shown or left alone is critical to religious art, particularly in film. One of the most famous documentary films of all time, Alain Resnais's Nuit et Brouillard showed the explicit aftermath of the Holocaust. In one scene, the camera pans over the ceiling of the Auschwitz gas chamber as a voice over describes unseen nail marks in the plaster. Later, the most graphic scene of the film shows naked, emaciated bodies being unceremoniously bulldozed into graves. It is the most upsetting piece of film I've ever seen in my life.

Jewish filmmaker Claude Lanzmann was also famously affected by the imagery. He once said, “I have always said that archival images are images without imagination. They petrify thought and kill any power of evocation." He believed representation diminished reality, perhaps much the same way seeing the antagonist in a horror film usually ruins the fear and thrill. Showing makes the reality banal.

By contrast, French film director Jean-Luc Godard believed images would be redemptive. In yesterdays attack, there was one such redemptive moment. In the midst of revelations about victims of the attack including numerous foreign children in London on holiday, a hero rose up. Tobias Ellwood, a military trained MP, ran out of the building when he heard something was amiss. On the ground was an unconscious police officer. Ellwood gave him mouth to mouth and medical attention until the paramedics arrived. Again, the news gives us another close up. This time it is triumphant.

The argument for the redemptive quality of images is that it will keep us from making the same mistakes again. While there is always a fear of desensitisation to the horrors of a fallen world, images have a compensatory quality. The violence that was perpetrated wasn't for nothing because it was documented. Images hold the offending party accountable so that they can't be lost to memory and time.

It is odd to be so close to moments like the one that happened yesterday. There is still a great deal to be uncovered and it will likely never be fully understood. But I'm grateful to be safe and to be well and to live in this wonderful city.

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