Under a bright blue sky, a young Arab man in a black bomber jacket is tending to gruesome business. He is gathering the remains of a human body. They belong to Ahmed Jabari, head of the al-Qassam brigade, the military wing of the Palestinian organisation Hamas, who has just been killed in an Israeli air strike.
The aftermath of the bombing, which took place in November 2012, is infernal. The streets and nearby buildings are sprayed with blood. Amid the chaos, the young man burrows into the wreckage of the car in which Jabari was travelling, and solemnly puts some unrecognisable items into a small cloth bag. “I’m collecting the pieces of the corpse,” he explains dispassionately to the camera.
He shuffles into a car, the camera stays with him. He is sweating heavily now. He pulls out a gelatinous lump from the bag. “This is his eye,” he says, more emotional this time. His only concern is to take the remains to a hospital. When he arrives, there is an angry crowd blocking the way. “I have flesh with me!” he shouts to help clear a path. “I swear I have!”
Devilish details, rarely seen in the plethora of news reports that come out of the various conflicts of the Middle East, and which batter us into indifference on a near-daily basis. Is it a matter of taste? If we received the fuller, more brutal picture, would we be persuaded to care a little more? Or would we shrink away still further?
The harrowing scenes come from a short documentary film, Gaza: Chronicles of a Conflict, which last year won a prestigious award at the Monte Carlo TV Festival, and was shown this week at the American Documentary Film Festival in California. It is part of a series devised by its Hungarian directors, Andras Takacs and Eszter Cseke, called “On The Spot”, comprising 40 similarly compelling pieces of reportage from around the world.
The idea of the documentary as eyewitness is hardly new, but rarely has it been taken to this degree. Takacs and Cseke plunge their cameras into the heart of the action, asking questions that are normally suppressed. What happens to a body when it is blown up? And who, literally, picks up the pieces?
With their small cameras, they say, they aim to respond in a “human” way to the situation in front of them, “without any reporter-like-behaviour”, as Cseke tells me in a telephone conversation. Their resolve, in the Gaza documentary, is put to the test when the reporter they are travelling with receives a phone call telling him that his daughter has been injured in another attack. His professional calmness dissolves as he races to be at her side. The cameras don’t miss a beat.
What the film does not offer is any sense of explanation, or context. It is footage in its rawest state. Only in the editing – the story of the reporter and the young man are skilfully interlaced – is there any sign of artfulness. I ask them if they feel any obligation to frame their stores with a wider sense of background. “When the bombs are falling, you can’t find any rational reasons for anything,” replies Takacs.
What about the obligation to remain neutral? “When you are in that close, it doesn’t matter which side you are on. These issues disappear,” he says. The skill of their journalism lies in their recognition of when they are being manipulated. “You have to be good to know when you are being used as a tool to spread some kind of ideology.”
“It is not our job to explain or solve the Middle East conflict,” adds Cseke. “That would be pompous.” Their filming in the world’s most troubled spots are like the stones of a mosaic. “By telling all these small stories, we are working to give the bigger picture,” she says.
This style of documentary-making signals a trend away from some of the more fashionable examples of the genre that have dominated discussion in recent years. It is a world away from the bluster and bluntness of a Michael Moore polemical rant, and has none of the ego-driven worthiness of an essentially trivial film such as Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004).
It is, of course, a child of the technology that enables everything to be filmed, and instantly disseminated. We are getting accustomed to seeing rawness on screen, whether it focuses on the antics of a cat chasing its tail around the sitting room, or a police car chasing miscreants around the villages of England. We are able to process those images without commentary. Mobile phone camerawork and CCTV have irreversibly changed our sensibility: the world is turning into a giant episode of You’ve Been Framed!
What will matter in the future is who does the framing. Takacs and Cseke are currently in Mexico filming a documentary about whales, before travelling to Brazil, where they will focus on some of the as-yet untold stories underlying the forthcoming World Cup. They confess to the extreme difficulty of maintaining any sense of distance in their immersive style of film-making. “We are trying hard to fight any burn-out,” says Cseke. “We have seen many of our colleagues suffer from it.”
Gaza: Chronicles of a Conflict is a film of almost primeval qualities: it portrays in their naked state the birth of hatred and the pathetic fragility of hope. There is a glimpse of a happy ending: the reporter’s little girl, who loses three fingers, receives the operation she needs in Israel. But we don’t need a voiceover to tell us that the wider story remains bleak.
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