Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Otolith group's Nervus Rerum

The clock doesn't strike.
I was reminded of this stage direction from an Ionesco play while listening to Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar speak about their film Nervus Rerum. The 32 minute film, set in Jenin refugee camp, was screened at Jnanapravaha yesterday, and was followed by a discussion between the duo, who call themselves the Otolith Group, and the documentary film-maker Anand Patwardhan, whose work Otolith admire, but who, if his questioning last evening is any indication, does not reciprocate with equal ardour.
Otolith based the Jenin film on the idea, not startlingly original but powerful nonetheless, that even sympathetic representations of the Palestinian struggle can do as much harm as good by contributing to a glut of images which obscures rather than reveals. Instead of attempting a transparent flow of information, then, they sought a kind of opacity, a refusal to explain. They chose to "turn their back on power" rather than "speak truth to power".
It's a well-constructed film: the camera, a Steadicam, travels the lanes of Jenin, encountering many dead-ends, and wanders into small homes to find people looking wistfully out of windows. Texts from Jean Genet and Fernando Pessoa, voiced by Anjalika Sagar, overlay the shots, rarely connecting with the footage in a direct fashion. The film succeeds in making carefully plotted shots look improvisatory. What gives it away is not only our suspicion that a film-making crew couldn't just barge into peoples' homes without permission, but the fact that a couple of those looking wistfully out of windows are very bad, self-conscious actors. While the images do not communicate information in the fashion of television programmes, there's a coherence to them which crystalises into a fairly straight-forward message: Jenin is a prison; there's little to do, and few jobs to be had.
It's darned difficult to create opaque images: meaning has a propensity to shine through. It is even more difficult to create images that contrast in such a manner with the history of previous image-making that they stimulate viewers to reflect upon that history. It's like trying to bring to life a stage direction saying, The clock does not strike. According to the Tate museum's website, Nervus Rerum, "powerfully contributes to The Otolith Group's research into the conditions under which histories become visible." I believe it succeeds only in producing a new representation of Jenin that is not all that different from a number of previous representations of contested sites crafted by experimental film-makers. The film's metacritical impulse can only be communicated by Otolith members themselves, in conversations after the film.


Truth fairy said...

Usually, I understand your criticisms of art. But I didn't get this one. Can you explain a bit more? I know, Otolith's work can be dense, but I really enjoyed their film on the Satyajit Ray script... the one that their entry for Turner Prize last year.

Girish Shahane said...

Truth Fairy, this whole genre of art has a navel gazing aspect to it that can seem stultifying to people outside the art world. So I'm not sure if I can clarify the subject further, but I'll try to do so if you tell me what exactly you don't get about my post.