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Out of Oblivion: Chris Marker and Cinematic Memories of Israel in Dan Geva’s Description of a Memory

“It is an opportunity to film people and events that could be recalled at any time to affirm, lament, or challenge a moment in time in this troubled region.”

A number of films screened at the 2008 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) examined the resilience and intricacy of human memory and the ethical — communal and individual — responsibilities of recording and reconstructing past events.1 This surge of interest in cinematic memories is not at all surprising. A plethora of ethical, historical, and philosophical studies concerned with the significance of memory, the ways it is recorded, preserved, and disseminated, had been published in recent years, and paved the way for filmmakers interested in bearing witness and doing justice to the past.2

Israeli filmmaker Dan Geva’s Description of a Memory (2006) revisits Chris Marker’s seminal documentary film, Description of a Struggle (1960), which, almost half a century ago, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and examines the settings, subjects, political, historical, and moral contexts at the heart of this film: the state of the young state of Israel and its citizens.

Marker’s interest in new forms of media and his irritation with traditional artistic forms have always been counterbalanced with his sense of belonging to the world of literature. Catherine Lupton draws parallels between Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 essay, “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: Le Caméra-stylo,” examining the creative interchange between literary and cinematic forms, and Marker’s early, intriguing article “Corneille au cinéma,” in which he heralded his interest in filmmaking at the onset of the 1950s.3 Investigating the possibilities of adapting Corneille’s theatrical play Horace (1640) for the screen by a group of French schoolgirls, Marker reflects on the camera as a widely accessible creative tool of the future, and finds filmmaking has a comparable stature to literature of the past, allowing for a wealth of expressive possibilities. Terrence Rafferty describes Marker’s method as both profoundly personal and utterly detached, a succinct, circular, solemn, high literary tone evoking Borgesian prose and methaphysics.4 Most critics and film reviewers agree that in Marker’s poetic, elegiac pieces, the subtext is everything.

It has long been observed that the fragile, ambiguous relationships between history and ideology, personal reminiscences and ethical repercussions of communal and individual memory, lie at the core of Chris Marker’s work. In his 1949 novel Le Coeurnet, Marker observes: “We exist in the world of mirrors: if we break them, we disappear at the same stroke.”5 His perhaps most renowned film, La Jette (1962), composed entirely of still photographs, is, according to Rafferty, an attempt to “achieve a moment of transition between a traumatic past and an unforeseeable future.”6 La Jette begins when a young boy sees the face of a woman who witnesses a man’s murder at Orly airport. In the closing sequence of the film, the central character runs towards the woman from his past pursued by an agent from the underground, and before he is killed reminisces that “the moment he had witnessed as a child, which had never stopped obsessing him, was the moment of his own death.”7 Recording, interpreting, and revisiting memories is one of the fundamental links with the sense of inner self for Marker’s subjects who obsess about preserving their identities and reminiscences from the encroaching humus of human history and oblivion. And cinematic memories are an essential, intriguing part of this equation. In Sans Soleil (1982), Marker asks: “How do people remember things if they don’t film, don’t tape?”8 If anything, it could be argued that the filmmaker’s complex, multilayered oeuvre marks a consistent effort to answer this question.

Made at the time when the Israeli state was only twelve years old, Marker’s film borrows its title from Kafka’s short story.9 It begins with a series of still photographs and ends with a shot of a girl of approximately the same age as the state of Israel, “the girl that will never be Anne Frank,” drawing in an art class. Lupton points out that, by reading Israel as an accumulation of signs and calling for signs to be deciphered, Marker’s film emerges as an intricate exegesis of the lively tensions between the realities of the land and its cinematic perceptions.10 Simultaneously, Lupton notes that the filmmaker suggests a sense of historical responsibility stemming from the complex legacy and the origins of the Israeli state:[I]srael has earned the privilege of being free and innocent of its past, the right to material prosperity and to what the commentary calls the vanity, blindness and egotism of nations; but the origins of its existence demand that it conduct itself otherwise.11

Marker dramatises the miracles and paradoxes of Israel’s existence using black and white and colour film stock, and the combination of poetic yet detached voice/over narration, actual and commentary sound. The signs of Israel’s existence are discovered in the everyday lives of locals; the camels crossing the road and the owls inhabiting the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem, the lively kibbutz meetings and the slightly bemused looks of children living on Mea Sharim. And, as the film “tunnels into the complex strata of Israel’s history, invoking the need for an x-ray vision that can penetrate and decipher the physical and historical landscape,”12 one can recognise Marker’s intention to bind the ostensibly disconnected and deeply engaging voices that resonate the various manifestations of a vibrant and withdrawn, joyful yet deeply traumatised Israeli society.

From the onset of Description of a Memory, Dan Geva acknowledges the influence of Chris Marker and a fascination with his work. The filmmaker uses voice-over commentary and a combination of still photographs and archival footage, Marker’s and his own, often highly stylised material, to magnify the crucial moments in Description of a Struggle. He looks at the subtext, the “marginal” or seemingly insignificant details and examines the porous bonds between memory,13 history, ideology, and identity. Geva’s engaging and uncompromising voice-over, accompanied by the ubiquitous use of wide lens, is more personal and less detached than Marker’s, positioning the viewer amidst the transient, unstable, and disorienting world of the Middle East. It suggests a view “from within,” imbued with a sense of nostalgia, echoing regret and betrayed promises. If the citizens of the young state of Israel in Marker’s film, scarred by their horrific past and hopeful of the future, were seen as particularly sensitive to injustice, in Geva’s documentary they are besieged by a sense of inadequacy; torn between their everyday dilemmas about the future, their patriotic duty and religious fervour and the injustice against their oppressed Arab neighbours.

Similar to Marker’s, Geva’s documentary subjects are surrounded by fragments of past lives. Indeed, as Bruce Kawin noted in his revealing article “Time and Stasis in La Jette,” “any instant is capable of being remembered, or of being presented as memory.”14 In one of the most poignant fragments of the film Geva traces the tragic destiny of an Arab boy who, in Marker’s film, happily roller-skated on his delivery trolley down the slopes of Mount Carmel. Instead of competing in yet another previously unknown Olympic discipline — a humorous comment by Marker conveyed by his voice-over and commentary sounds of crowds cheering — he died in one of the numerous Arab uprisings. In another, Geva looks at the memories of the kibbutzniks who, in Marker’s film, implement a new form of participatory democracy. In yet another vignette, the filmmaker searches for a face from the film amongst the traders at the local market and discovers an elderly man who bears a striking resemblance to the one appearing in Marker’s film. Is it him? Does he wear the same moustache half a century later? Amidst the memories of Marker’s documentary subjects, Geva looks for his own using the extended hand-held wide-angle shots of Israeli recruits pledging allegiance to their country, or the panning over a group of careless teenagers dancing to Israeli rap instead of Elvis’s music.

The oral testimonies are often intertwined with the historical legacy and its repercussions. Geva’s relationship with his childhood friend, a Gaza settler forced to abandon his home with the last withdrawing contingents of the Israeli Army, is seen through the prism of his memories of growing up together, their expectations, the values that bind and separate them as adults, and their hopes for their country, which, especially in Israel, may reflect a dramatic political divide. Geva’s visit to the massive concrete wall that cuts across the occupied territories and his record of the daily lives of ordinary Palestinians disrupted and traumatised by its existence is not a political statement, as he acknowledges the pain of both Jews and Arabs. Rather, it is yet another opportunity to film people and events that could be recalled at any time to affirm, lament, or challenge a moment in time in this troubled region conveying so powerfully the absurdity of human condition.

In recent years, Marker’s film has been frequently discussed as crucial in his body of work. Simultaneously, the resilience and inadequacy of memories have arrived in the focus of research of philosophers, ethicists, and cultural theorists who are trying to explain why, how, and when do we remember, why do we recall our memories, and what communal and social function do they occupy. Geva’s Description of a Memory has been screened as a double bill15 with Description of a Struggle, proving that for some of us, cinematic memories comprise a large, unavoidable portion of our life experience. And that our memories are sometimes, consequently, able to be revisited only by recalling the films we once enjoyed.

  1. In the International Panorama, perhaps the most prominent was the latest film by the Polish veteran Andrzej Wajda, Katyn, which examines one of the most traumatic events of World War II, the murder of 20,000 Polish officers in Katyn Forest, planned and executed by Stalin’s forces. The film grossed $14 million at the Polish box office. Its counterpart in the documentary section, Li Ying’s Yasukuni (2007), explores the history of Japan’s war shrine that keeps the memory of 2.46 million war dead, including more than a thousand war criminals. Some sections of the Japanese establishment interpreted the film as anti-Japanese, yet the director is more concerned with the shrine’s social stature and cultural legacy and the responsibility of remembering the events that surrounded Japanese colonial policy in East Asia. []
  2. See for example Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoir’e,” Representations 26 (Spring 1989); Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996; Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002; and Jeffrey Bluestein’s The Moral Demands of Memory, Cambridge University Press, 2008. []
  3. Catherine Lupton, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future, London: Reaktion Books, 2005, 15. []
  4. Terrence Rafferty, “Marker Changes Trains,” Sight & Sound 53: 4 (Autumn 1984), 286. []
  5. Chris Marker, The Forthright Spirit (London, 1951), p.184 (English translation of Le Coeurnet, Paris, 1949). Quoted in Lupton, 12. []
  6. Terrence Rafferty, op. cit., p. 289. []
  7. La Jette (Chris Marker, 1962). []
  8. Sans Soleil (Sunless, Chris Marker, 1982). []
  9. In Kafka’s story, the narrator performs acts of magic, transforming the landscape by using the power of thought. []
  10. Catherine Lupton, op. cit., p. 67. []
  11. Ibid., p. 68. []
  12. Ibid., p. 71. []
  13. Examining the character of our memories has already made a significant mark of Dan Geva’s career. With his partner, Noit Geva, he co-directed a film focusing on the aftermath and the testimonies of the thirteen Jewish survivors of the 1929 Hebron massacre, titled What I Saw in Hebron (1999). []
  14. Bruce Kawin, “Time and Stasis in La Jette,” Film Quarterly vol. 36 No.1 (Fall 1982), p. 15. []
  15. Films were screened at the Jewish Museum in Berlin in July 2008.Acessed here on 28 June 2008. []


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