Issue 04, Volume 02
by Blair McClendon
In four minutes and fourteen seconds, Jeremy Hutchison’s The Road to Jerusalem constructs an aesthetic program of political cinema. It is one that, through the sheer force of its persistence, compels spectator to actively and affectively see politics not as abstracted ideologies, but as (often violent) relationships between people and the world, manifesting themselves in and on the body. There are no intertitles, voiceovers or monologues to offer up explanations; we have only the images. The plot is minimal: a bicyclist rides from Ramallah to Jerusalem. But as the bicyclist nears Jerusalem, he seems not to notice the wall directly in front of him – a wall built by the Israelis in the West Bank – and instead continues to peddle toward it. His front tire makes contact with the wall and his body flips over the handlebars. And then the image freezes. We do not see the physical consequences of the bicyclist’s actions; but know he is not enough to bring down a wall.
It is tempting to mark this abrupt and jarring moment as the site of meaning, but that would be missing the abrupt and jarring quality of the entire film, present even in the calm, yet enigmatic moments when the bicyclist winds through the countryside while the audience remains unaware of the violence to come. This sort of visual program has gone by many names throughout the years—most recently termed ‘observational.’ With roots in cinéma vérité, it typically relies on the decision to film a scene from a single vantage point; reframing thus depends upon motion rather than cutting so that the temporal integrity of the unfolding moment is maintained. That Hutchison – better known in the world of white walled galleries than dim theatres – selected this mode speaks to its general ascription to the arthouse world. In ‘The Problem With Liberal Cinema,’ Richard Brody places observational film more precisely in the politically engaged arena of arthouse films like Steve McQueen’s Shame, Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (works like Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills could also be added). To Brody, observational cinema is an effacement of the director’s role in favor of a camera that looks unflinchingly at a cast of characters who are at once people and political problems. Such is the case with Voichita and Alina, who, in Beyond the Hills, simultaneously exist as independent characters and as examples of the alienation between the religious and secular domains in contemporary Western society. Arguing in favor of films like Moonrise Kingdom that refuse to hide directorial idiosyncrasies and thus uphold more evident ‘imaginative’ qualities - like Anderson’s overemphasized color palette - Brody accuses observational cinema of fraudulence. Brody is right to question liberal cinema, but it is precisely the discomfort of observational cinema that is so necessary in political practice. In short, Brody’s rejection of the observational mode of filmmaking betrays the problem of liberal cinema’s evasiveness and, more deeply, to liberalism as such.
The idea that the camera ought to look, and look, and look in order to maintain contact with reality is not new. André Bazin, the Italian Neorealists, and even the Lumière brothers would surely have something to say about any conjectures to the contrary. Even to see this mode of filmmaking as uniquely political would ignore the way all films function politically. Still, some do so more explicitly than others. Classics like Germany Year Zero or Umberto D. have much to say about the social situation, but they are no more politically inclined than Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, which offers imaginative flights rather than somber accumulations of facts. In short, Nolan and Anderson’s films play to the imagination of the audience by allowing them to indulge in visual quirks and therefore do not show a period of time or a place recreated, but, rather, re-imagined.
Much of the handwringing about observational cinema is based on an implied claim to truth, but it too must acknowledge the inherent limits of fiction. Beyond the Hills, for instance, gives the audience a harrowing look into a religious community’s attempts to deal with a violent, desperate nonbeliever. Since it was widely reported in the media, viewers in Romania would likely be aware of the story; consequently, an unflinching camera might appear to be staking a claim to veracity. Yet, the camera never goes where one of its two main characters cannot. We are given facts in the judicial sense: a collection of evidence based upon the available set of possibilities. We are not given parallel editing or the popular shot-reverse shot, so we do not know what anyone said or did when they were not in a position to be seen. We cannot hear their thoughts or the way they choose to justify themselves before sleep has its way with their consciences. But what more is there? Assuming the impossibility of gaining access to another person’s being, we have nothing but what they have said and done. This mode of filmmaking only makes more obvious the way in which fiction dominates our lives. We can never know truths about other people, but we can know facts – that is, evidence - that can be acted upon until it is proven false. Observational film does not in fact deny imagination; it denies indulgence. The audience is not led to a conclusion, adorned along the way with cinema’s equivalent of a prosecutor’s rhetoric, but made to see a given situation and then asked to judge it for themselves.
In Hutchison’s film, the way the camera follows the bicyclist is ultimately an indictment of the audience. This is not to say that we are guilty, but only that our innocence is now in question. Hutchison never presents beauty as autonomous images to be rapturously gawked at, but are always encapsulated in the context of occupation. Spending too much time pouring over the qualitative characteristics of the shape the body draws as it arcs over the handlebars is unseemly in the shadow of the wall’s violence. To film this is to aestheticize politics, but any notion of vulgarity stems first from the political realm. By choosing to focus on a rider trying to get from Ramallah to Jerusalem, the viewpoint of the occupied subject is privileged and, as with any point of view, it is impossible to truly admit the other contending point of view. This is the world as seen from the Palestinian side of the wall. What would it mean to intercut this lone bicyclist with, say, a rider in Tel Aviv going to the store to pick up some eggs? It would create a sense of shared humanity perhaps, displaying the ways humans across the globe engage in the same types of actions no matter their affiliations. But it could not end the same way. After all, what can be juxtaposed with a wall? It is the singularity of experience that makes it all so disquieting.
While barricades are usually constructed for passive and preventative reasons, Hutchison makes it clear that the restriction of movement is anything but passive. In his Critique of Violence, Walter Benjamin wrote, “all violence is either lawmaking or law-preserving.” It explains the infatuation with the gangster, who despite his repudiation of the social code is adored for the way in which he seizes power and creates a law unto himself. This simple formulation is the reason nations distinguish between a drone firing on weddings and funerals and a bomb going off in the same place. One is called ‘national security’ and the other terrorism. To those left behind, the legal definition of terror has no bearing on the feeling. In Hutchison’s film, there are three acts of violence: two lawmaking and one law-preserving. The wall preserves the occupation, while the bicyclist attempts to make a new law—one of clear passage. The third comes to be as a result of the camera. Cinema may not be a truly mimetic art, but it depends upon the ability to record specific phenomena. What is captured on a camera and later screened is thereby a record of what was, at least at one time and in one place, thought to be worthy of recording. Bringing the lens to bear on the bicyclist crashing into the wall is not only a refusal of the law of borders, but also a refusal of the quiet subjugation demanded by its presence. After all, walls are also facts. The Road to Jerusalem, however, asserts that this one ought to be drawn into question.
To some, the movies are a place to get away from such facts. But speaking as though it is film’s duty to provide an out restricts certain modes of expression. When Brody defines the realm of politics as the site of “constructive and responsible approaches to identified problems,” he engages in the same specious framing of the social situation that asked, “Why are young people occupying our cities?” ‘Constructive and responsible’ are reducible to ‘traditional and palatable,’ in the sense that the former is defined in terms of what has worked in the past and is acceptable in the mainstream political discourse. To make this clearer, one might ask: just who is allowed to identify problems as such? This is the type of political activity that allows an editorial to be written in the New York Times decrying the curtailment of civil liberties abroad, but glosses over those at home. It is, in short, American liberalism. It calls for progressive ideals, but rarely for progressive actions of the sort. It never asks for the liberal to be discomforted.
The problems that this cinema confronts can be spoken about in a constructive dialogue, but at the end of the day we are talking about real people and the value we are willing to place on their lives. Hutchison does not give us a treatise, but a body. Crashing a bicycle into the wall that separates Ramallah from Jerusalem is not a responsible approach to the barrier. It is a necessary one. This simple action manifests itself as a protest insofar as it removes the possibility of viewing the wall as anything other than an actively violent gesture. The observational mode does not just ask you to look, but to see. The former can be done passively, the latter is a revelatory process.
In effect I am distinguishing between a liberal cinema and a cinema of the left. Liberal cinema, such as The Help, gives us outs, a condemnation of racism with a reprieve in the hope that Aibileen will become a successful writer. McQueen’s Hunger does not ask us just to remember state violence; it offers it in all of its brutality. Every op-ed asking for understanding pales in comparison with the sight - and site - of broken bodies. Similarly, there is a great difference between writing about being pro-choice or pro-life and being put in a room with a young woman going through a back alley abortion. The Road to Jerusalem does not evade the absurdity of occupation by preaching pragmatism or the need to choose a lesser evil. It confronts it head on. We are suspended at the point of manifested violence. We do not see, but we are, finally, made to imagine. The violence is transferred from the bicyclists to the viewers, because we know what is coming – not a rousing score and rolling credits, but bruised bodies, broken bones and spilled blood.