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On November 13, 2015, Paris suffered one of the deadliest suicide bomb attacks since World War II, executed by the Islamic State, probably with help from local collaborators. The public started to pay attention to those who had been to Syria. Three weeks later, a trial against a French young man started. He had left his native country to join the ranks of ISIS in Syria, which he then quit for unknown reasons. After being arrested in Spain, he was brought back to Paris before the attack. The youth denied his involvement in combat and the label of “terrorist,” simply stating, “I was looking for a purpose in my life.” He was sentenced to a nine-year imprisonment.
Almost 50 years prior, on April 7, 1969 in Japan, a 19-year-old man named Nagayama Norio was arrested for committing four homicides with one pistol. Front-page news coverage of the “pistol serial killer” spread all over the country, proposing a cliché story of a teenager turned violent. During the height of student movements and leftist activism in 1968–69, the mainstream media often depicted young protestors as recklessly violent; Nagayama’s crime seemed to fall into the same category.
These episodes are not unlike so many others we encounter in the news today. But the protagonists’ falls into criminality raise serious questions, beyond the easy explanations reported in the media. Why did the young French man think ISIS would give him purpose? Should he be criminalized for joining and then quitting? How does a teenager simply become a “serial killer”? Many have been reluctant to ask them, such as the French prime minister, who commented, shortly after the November 13 attack, that “explaining Jihadism is a bit like wanting to excuse it.” The films A.K.A. Serial Killer (1969), co-directed by Masao Adachi, Matsuda Masao, and others, and Eric Baudelaire’s Also Known As Jihadi (2017) — premiering in the US on April 15 and 16 at the Whitney Biennial — attempt to explore these difficult questions. Both employ fukei-ron, or landscape theory — an idea developed in the late 1960s by Japanese filmmakers that rejects dramatic journalistic expressions, instead advocating the use of silent shots of landscapes to examine the sociopolitical conditions of violence. A.K.A. Serial Killer, an alternative documentary that avoids violence and chaos, was the first film to apply landscape theory; Also Known As Jihadi is an exquisitely executed “slow legal thriller,” the artist told Hyperallergic.
To investigate Nagayama’s story, filmmakers and activists Adachi and Matsuda traced the young man’s life route, beginning in his hometown of Hokkaido and finishing in Tokyo. The result is an experimental documentary in which we see only landscapes and hear just a few lines narrating Nagayama’s journey. The film stands in stark contrast to bombastic news coverage of Nagayama and the student movements of the time, but it also sharply criticizes the ubiquitous state power and police control embedded in ordinary settings. Urgent urbanization after the world wars resulted in homogeneous scenery in every corner of Japan, from small towns to metropolitan areas. These landscapes were so “suffocating,” Adachi says, that young men like Nagayama became solitary rebels.
Adachi attributes Nagayama’s crimes to an external cause, but Baudelaire is more ambiguous with his conclusion. Also Known As Jihadi neither condemns nor excuses the actions of its subject, but bluntly shows a particular identity shaped by complicated forces, so that “with a dreadful feeling of confusion we are surprised to find ourselves understanding, discovering a subtle sympathy, telling ourselves that maybe monstrosity is our shared condition,” as Pierre Zaoui once wrote of Baudelaire’s work.
In Also Known As Jihadi, Baudelaire uses raw footage of the places Abdel “Aziz” Mekki (a pseudonym for the protagonist) has lived in and traveled to. But, unlike its Japanese precursor, the film doesn’t employ narration; instead, Baudelaire inserts shots of judicial documents before or after cinematic movements, creating a quiet and haunting mystery. The film opens with an image of a psychological evaluation that reads: “the subject self exiled in Egypt, Turkey, and Syria, with motives that seem confused, indecisive, and often contradictory.” It goes from the suburbs of Paris where Aziz grew up to the school he attended, then the Turkish region of Antakya, which borders Syria, all the way to Spain, and, finally, to the Paris court house where he was judged.
Despite its grounding in physical landscapes, the film never clarifies what put Aziz on a trajectory to “terrorism.” Instead, it points out the weakness of words and images, especially those that are generated by devices and meant to function as documentation. As Baudelaire admitted in an interview, he questions even the authenticity of his own lens, as well as the story told by the “state surveillance and judicial apparatus in the face of a phenomenon it doesn’t really know how to process.” Thousands of French nationals have been to Syria, after all, but no one knows what they did across the border.
The landscapes seen through Baudelaire’s camera become an embodiment of the power structures, maintained by both ISIS and Western countries, that lead to Aziz’s alienation. Sometimes, the scenery exposes his secret life under surveillance. Other times, homogeneous settings (in which Baudelaire captures national flags and signs, to make the locations recognizable) demonstrate the results of immigrant settlement during the 1960s–80s in former French colonies in the Middle East. Scenes of roads and trucks suggest ISIS’s strict control of the circulation of materials and information — Aziz himself was a driver who “supplied food from Turkish borders and Aleppo,” according to his testimony.
Both A.K.A. Serial Killer and Also Known As Jihadi use a slow, meditative tempo to dig below the surface and invite us to contemplate the realities underpinning political violence. In the former, as observed by art historian Yuriko Furuhata in her book Cinema of Actuality, time intervention between shots demonstrates governmental control through seemingly mundane matters such as traffic regulation and public infrastructure. For example, the movie shows long shots of carefully paved streets — which were imposed by the police in order to stop student protesters from tearing up stones in attacks.
In Also Known As Jihadi, the gradual pace contradicts the journalistic sense of timeliness that provides us with what Furuhata describes as the “sensation of actuality,” a key characteristic of the news. According to sociologist Gabriel Tarde’s theory, this feeling of not wanting to be left out relies on consumers’ impressions of simultaneous exposure to an event. The anonymous mass remembers an event, but in a limited way — the increasing rate of media images we encounter ultimately transforms our collective memory into a collective amnesia.
Baudelaire commented on such collective amnesia in an earlier work, Sugar Water (2007), which documents a billposter hired by the artist to cover a billboard in a Paris subway station with a sequence of images showing a car bombing. By slowing down how the event is seen, Baudelaire acutely points out the numbing effect of news media. Many of us mindlessly scroll through publications and social media sites every day to “study” what is happening, only to quickly forget all of it, just like the passersby who ignore the billboard in Sugar Water.
“This morning, I watched the destruction of the world as an attentive spectator, and then I got back to work,” Franz Kafka once wrote in his journal. He contemplated how “attentive spectators” could confront our image-saturated world. Crises happen every day, but bombastic spectacles of horrifying incidents gradually numb our senses. When we finally notice the uncanny, it’s too late, and we feel powerless to face the reality around us.
So what can be done? This is the question that motivated Baudelaire in the first place, as well as his predecessors Adachi and Matsuda, to examine pain in the realm of art. With landscape theory, the filmmakers provide a different way of seeing terrorism and violence that prompts people to pay closer attention before making judgements. A telling moment comes at the end of Also Known As Jihadi, when Aziz is asked whether he has contacts within ISIS. His response is simply, “Yes, like all Syrian people.”
Eric Baudelaire’s Also Known As Jihadi will screen at the Whitney Museum (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District) on April 15, 5pm, and April 16, 3pm.