ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Adieu, Harun Farocki (1944-2014)

Thinker, video artist, writer and activist, Harun Farocki will live on in the radical documentary films and video installations that marked his oeuvre.

The sudden demise of Harun Farocki comes as a rude shock to cineastes. It was especially poignant for those who had enjoyed his vibrant presence just a few months ago at the International Film Festival of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram, where he presented a retrospective of his documentary works and also engaged a Master Class. With the departure of this film-maker, thinker, video artist, writer and activist on 30 July, the radical tradition in world cinema has lost a firm voice that was steady and sustained, and an image crusader against all forms of power and oppression.

Harun Farocki was born to a German mother and an Indian doctor, Abdul Qudus Faroqui, in Neutitsehein (now Novy Jiein, formerly part of German-annexed Czechoslovakia). In the 1920s, after being evacuated from Berlin during the war, his family migrated to India. Farocki grew up in India and in 1949 migrated to Indonesia before resettling in West Germany. In the late 1960s he studied at the German Film and Television Academy, after which he began making non-narrative film essays on various issues of political relevance and ethical urgency. He was active throughout his life, making films, editing journals, writing and teaching, and authoring video works of various kinds. He was the editor of a radical film journal (Filmkritik) and during the 1990s, a film teacher at the University of California, Berkeley.

An offspring of the 1968 students’ revolt, and inspired by Brecht and Godard, Farocki was one film-maker who always kept alive that critical fire in his vision or work. He kept on rebelling against all the emerging forms of unfreedoms that political power and capitalist forces thrust upon human beings, through films and videos that relentlessly followed and interrogated the diverse forms of social control, surveillance and oppression.

In one of his early films Inextinguishable Fire (1969), which reflects upon the deadly napalm used by the US forces in Vietnam, we find Farocki himself appearing at the beginning of the film to read out a statement given by Thai Binh Danh, a Vietnamese citizen at the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal in Stockholm. After recounting the trauma forced upon him and his village when the US army planes dropped napalm bombs, Farocki looks directly at the camera and ponders upon the question of how to convey to the viewer the pain and suffering inflicted by napalm: “How can we show you the injuries caused by napalm? If we show you pictures of napalm burns, you’ll close your eyes. First you’ll close your eyes to the pictures, then you’ll close your eyes to the memory. Then you’ll close your eyes to the facts. Then you’ll close your eyes to the entire context. If we show you a person with napalm burns, we will hurt your feelings. If we hurt your feelings, you’ll feel as if we’d tried napalm out on you, at your expense. We can give you only a hint of an idea of how napalm works.” Then he picks up a live cigarette stub and extinguishes it on his hand and says, “A cigarette burns at 400°C… Napalm burns at 3000°C...” This sense of outrage at something that has really happened, and the difficulty of communicating its truth through images, marks Farocki’s oeuvre. He constantly grappled with this task of linking experience and political conviction with communication throughout his career, though in his later films he detached more and more “from the intrinsically subjective act of image production increasingly relying instead in the process of observation, artifacting, editing and hypothetical analysis of found film” (Acquarello). His film essays, videos and video installations of the later period were radical “assemblages” through archive mining and image recycling; they dealt with myriad forms of injustice and violence – war, incarceration, overt and covert forms of oppression, surveillance, regimentation and alienation.

Farocki started his documentary film-making career when film was primarily celluloid-based, and images were considered rare, unique, and expensive. His task then was to excavate political images to inform people, critique power, and in the process, also interrogate the dominant visual narratives around him. If his early films were visual explorations and interrogations that belong to the celluloid period when cinematic image still had “evidence or truth value”, the coming of the digital turned the situation around, and in turn, the challenges before the documentary film-maker. In the digital age, a film-maker is confronted with all kinds of excess – of news, information, images and narratives, all flooding the environment and creating a “hegemony of consensus” that serves the State or Capital.

In this context, the film-maker has to grapple with, and wade through, this excess, and contextualise them to make visible the invisible in this visual torrent, and make audible what is drowned in the cacophony of capital. “Because so many images already exist, I am discouraged to make new ones; I prefer to make a different use of pre-existing images…but not every image can be recycled; a hidden value must pre-exist” (South China Morning Post, interview, June 2008).

So, Farocki, in his films, gleans images from this relentless flow and endless accumulation; an array of social and media institutions provide such raw materials – television, cinema, archival data, news reels, training manuals, demonstration videos, surveillance video footages from shopping malls, military centres, prisons and factories, home videos, and so on. Here, film and film-making become tools of interrogation and engagement with forms of political power and social control. For instance, in Images of the World and the Inscriptions of War (1988), Farocki uses the aerial pictures of Auschwitz taken by American filers during the second world war, which were in fact only later recognised as such. His How to Live in the German Federal Republic (1990) used materials from adult education classes, training seminars and support groups to weave a subtle and humorous critique of West German society and the dichotomies of “free individual” West versus “regimented” East. In his reinterpretation of the Lumiere film Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) and later, in The Expression of Hands (1997), Farocki used early film footages to show how the history of cinema is haunted by the spectres of politics and capital. I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts (2000) juxtaposes surveillance tapes of the California State Prison monitoring its inmates along with footages following the movements of consumers in a shopping mall. A recent work of his, Serious Games (2009-10), is a four-part video installation series that makes use of video games and other simulation exercises used for training US military recruits, to explore the essential links between technology, politics and violence.

Starting with the agit-prop films of the 1960s, didactic Marxist fiction films of the late 1970s, various documentary and essay films of the 1980s and 1990s and finally, several video installations and shows in museums and galleries around the world, Harun Farocki’s oeuvre is a virtual journey through radical film-making history of the 20th century. Thomas Elsaesser points out in his book on Farocki: “Cinema has many histories, only some of which belong to the movies. It takes an artist-archeologist, rather than a mere historian, to detect, document and reconstruct them. Today, perhaps the cinema’s most illustrious artist-archeologist is Harun Farocki.”

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