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Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Why are they scared of cameras?


     From Peeping Tom

There's the idea that photography is not to be trusted, that the naive idea that there is a connection between reality and the image is one that has had its day, that photography cannot provide evidence because of theoretical disconnects in the making, dissemination and understanding of the image.

It's a nice idea in theory, and it's nice to consider in theoretical settings. But I don't really see that idea working in a practical setting. Because if we're living in a post-truth setting, where all evidence is unreliable and not to be trusted, why is it that people are still so scared of cameras. Why does the image, and the moving image in particular in these examples, have so much power.

I saw it yesterday, in the excellent I Was There: Kate Adie on Tiananmen Square. Kate Adie is the BBC reporter whose team got the footage of the shootings in Tiananmen Square that took place 29 years ago yesterday. Adie herself had people shot beside her, was grazed by a bullet, fled with the demonstators,  flung herself over her hotel wall, attacked security staff in a mad rage before finally getting the story that really mattered (that of the PLA shooting unarmed demonstrators in their hundreds and thousands) off to be broadcast to the world. Five copies were sent out from the BBC hotel room that counted as their broadcasting base in Peking, one got out. "Tell the Truth, Tell the Truth," is what demonstrators told Adie during the shootings. And that's what she did.

In the aftermath of Tiananmen, Deng Xiao Ping said "The West will forget." He didn't need to say that China will forget, because that was embedded into the system, though things are never quite as they seem on the surface, and so pockets and seeds of remembering are still kept alive. Ready to come to life one day.

In the meantime, Kate Adie is banned from visiting China, a badge of honour for her reporting from June 1989.

Israel also seems to have a fear of the camera as this report on a bill that will ban photography of the army shows.:

A bill has been proposed that seeks to prohibit “the photographing and documenting” of IDF troops “with the intention of undermining the spirit” of the army. It recommends a five-year prison term for offenders and 10 years for those judged to have harmed state security.

According to its proposer, Robert Ilatov, chairman of a minority rightwing group supportive of the ruling Likud party, the “worrying phenomenon” of the monitoring of Israel’s soldiers by pro-Palestinian organisations through video, photographs and audio recordings is a “biased and tendentious” act with “a clear anti-Israeli agenda”.

The impetus for the bill is the idea that the camera, in its immediacy, doesn't lie. It is evidence and no amount of photographic criticism comes close to challenging that idea. From the same report:

One trigger for the Ilatov initiative is obvious. In March 2016, a Palestinian attacker who was lying wounded and immobilised on the ground was shot dead at point-blank range by an IDF soldier, Elor Azaria. The shooting was caught on video and posted on social media by the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem. As a result, Azaria was arrested, convicted of manslaughter and served nine months of an 18-month sentence before being released last month.



And finally, there is A Cambodian Spring. I saw this outstanding documentary last week as part of a tour with a Q and A with its director Chris Kelly, and one of its main protagonist, a Buddhist monk called Loun Sovath.

This is a brilliant film about land, justice, the law and how religion, family and community are coopted, divided and intimidated by government forces. It's about how development isn't development, growth isn't growth, democracy isn't democracy, and human rights aren't human rights.

Loun Sovath, reads Kelly's introduction, '...became a monk as a child to escape the bloodshed of the civil war that was consuming his family. A few months before his brother and nephew were shot during a violent forced eviction, in which many of his family and community lost their land to a wealthy businessman. When he arrived at the hospital, he started to film, and afterwards he made a short documentary to share with others. This was the turning point that transformed Venerable Loun Sovath from an artist into a filmmaker activist.

Now dubbed the multi-media monk, because of his technical proficiency in filmmaking and editing, and because of his innumerable gadgets, Venerable Sovath is trying to combine the teachings of Buddha with his new role as a Human Rights Defender, creating documentaries that highlight human rights abuses across Cambodia. For him, the path to enlightenment and the path of a Human Rights Defender are inexorably linked, yet how successfully he can reconcile these two drives is at the heart of his own personal struggle.

He uses video as a tool for his advocacy, both bearing witness to history and sharing information. He uses social media such as Facebook and his blog to share his videos with an increasingly connected and online Cambodian population.

He is fulfilling the now neglected traditional role of the Buddhist monk in Cambodian society, providing moral and spiritual guidance, and acting as a counterpoint to the power and corruption of an authoritarian government and a corrupt religious Sangha.'

It's a study of double think and though it's based in Cambodia, it's examples of land grabs, the struggle for land-rights, extrajudicial killings, intimidation, and coopting of religion, nationalism and the rhetoric of development will find almost matching parallels in countries around the world. It's not just about Cambodia in other words. The same thing happens (with either more or less brazen shamelessness) in Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Vietnam and anywhere else you care to mention.

One of the most interesting things about the film is the family resemblance in the language, architecture and spectacle of  international law and that of the tools of land theft and the rhetoric of national identity, development of growth. The two are intertwined.

The other really interesting thing is the power of the camera. The film is a mix of footage from Loun Sovath's pre-smartphone phone. It's footage of demonstration, protest, and appeals to justice being blocked at every stage. It's footage that shows intimidation (by the police, by the army, by the 'monk police', from within the community itself). It shows the pressures that are brought to bear on those who protest against  the blatant and always-shocking greed, venality and injustice of it all.

The camera is evidence in A Cambodian Spring. It brings truth to power and it is something that is feared by the authorities. It's also used by the authorities. There are scenes in the film where the multi-functional capabilities of the phone are shown in strict opposition. It's almost like a duel with protestors using the phone as an evidence-recording tool, while plain clothes police and thugs use  it as a tool of threats and intimidation.

But it's the positive power that brings out the scopophobia in the authorities, and it's a real scopophobia where the means of distribution of images are monitored, controlled and restricted. This is a scopophobia where there are people who are evangelical in their scopophobia. They don't just have a fear of being looked and examined, they have a fear of others seeing their being looked at and examined. And for good reason because the visual examination shows them up for what they are; greedy, shameless and evil. These are bastards who know they are bastards, but don't want anyone else to see it.

"Why are they scared of cameras?" the venerable monk asked at the end of the Q and A. It was a rhetorical question. Because it's the phone, the camera, as a tool of evidence that the authorities are scared of. You shoot somebody, it's photographed, it's evidence. And it doesn't matter if it's in Cambodia, China, Israel, Syria, Turkey, the UK, or wherever. The camera, just sometimes, never lies.

See I was there: Kate Adie on Tiananmen Square here


If you're in the UK, there are screenings and (most of these screenings have ) follow up Q and As with Chris Kelly and Venerable Loun Sovath at these venues and these dates. 


5th Jun
8:00 PM
Lewes   Depot

6th Jun
6:20 PM
London   Bertha DocHouse
7th Jun
7:30 PM
London   Crouch End Picturehouse

10th Jun
5:00 PM
Leeds   Hyde Park Picture House

11 Jun
6:10 PM
Canterbury   Curzon

12 Jun
6:10 PM
London   Genesis

13 Jun
6:30 PM
London   Picturehouse Central

15 Jun
6:30 PM
Swansea   Taliesin Arts Centre: Create

17 Jun
5:00 PM
Norwich   CinemaCity

19 Jun
6:00 PM
Liverpool   Picturehouse at FACT

24 Jun
5:30 PM
Exeter   Exeter Picturehouse

25 Jun
6:30 PM
Southampton   Harbour Lights Picturehouse

26 Jun
6:00 PM
Northampton   Errol Flynn Filmhouse

3 Jul
7:30 PM
London   Regent Street Cinema

6 Jul
6:00 PM
Aberdeen   Belmont Filmhouse

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