Witness and Archive in Ravett and Salloum: Prolegomenon to Any Future Documentary
Roddy, Bernard, Afterimage
Documentary film scholar Michael Renov has made a case for reading Abraham Ravett's film Everything's For You (1989) in ethical terms.1 As Renov explains, this means departing from documentary film's historical recourse to questions of truth, knowledge, and representation, and framing flic tihu in terms of a conception of ethics derived from the philosophy of Jewish Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Levinas. Renov's essay is also an occasion to compare the practices of film and video production in works that look to the same contested geographical region. I propose to direct Renov's thinking toward Ravctt/s more recent film, The March (1999), which invites comparison with Lebanese-Canadian video artist Jayce Salloum's video unfilled part I: everything and nothing (1999/2002). Each work features a woman witness, and each presents us with material for an archive of documents on the Middle East.
In The March Ravelt edits together footage of his mother shot over a number of years using syne-sound filmmaking equipment. He makes the same request of her every lime he shoots, namely that she relate her experience of a march under the watch of Nazi soldiers. In untitled part I: everything and nothing, Salloum shoots a single-take interview on video with Soha Bechara, a young-woman who has recently been released from an Israeli detention center. The video is edited down to forty minutes and the subject's statements translated into English subtitles. Each work takes an experimental approach to documentary by approaching the record of testimony with some caution.
Before I take up die works at issue in this essay, I want to make a few observations about Ravett's film on his father that drew Renov's attention. Here we can initiate reflection on the concept of a witness. In the film, the filmmaker's own relationship with his wife and children provokes him to ask questions of his father about a wife and children his father lost during the Holocaust. Everything 'v For You stages familial encounters that invite comparison with the biblical and Talmudic story of the binding of Isaac. For example, the filmmaker shares his first name with the Jewish patriarch who attempted to fulfill God's command lo sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah. This story has fueled extensive philosophical reflection on responsibility, most notably by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in The Gift of Death (1095). For Derrida, responsibility is a matter of responding to the Other within the religions of the book (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), all of which share the figure of Abraham/Ibrahim. In the biblical story Abraham answers God's call but can only accept responsibility by acting irresponsibly before mankind. "He acts as if he were discharged of his duty toward his fellows, his son. and humankind." Derrida writes, "but he continues to love them. He must love them,.. and also owe them everything in order to sacrifice them (2) For Derrida the paradox of loving those toward which one is acting in an immoral manner cannot bo remedied. It makes no sense to bring Abraham before a human tribunal. because the call is precisely to respond to a command to behave in a reprehensible way.
How is all of this related to the concept of a witness? Abraham feels himself absolved of his duty before men and does not attempt to explain himself or tell his secret. This secrecy, Derrida suggests, belongs to the experience of the witness. Abraham is a witness to "an absolute relation with the absolute, but he doesn't witness to it in the sense that to witness means to show, teach, illustrate, [or] manifest to others the truth that one can precisely attest to." (3) This particular concept of the witness, however, does not adequately give us the sense in which Ravett'.s mother, Fela, might be a witness in The March not only because she is a woman, but because the question she is repeatedly asked over the course of the years the film spans concerns a death march endured as an individual rather than the sacrifice of a familv member. …