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Durham University

School of Modern Languages & Cultures

Events in Modern Languages & Cultures

World Cinema and Cosmopolitics Research Group seminar: Dr Shohini Chaudhuri [Essex and NYU] 'The Alterity of the Image: The Distant Spectator and Films about the Syrian Revolution and War'

8th June 2017, 13:00, Russkiy Mir Centre, A29, Elvet Riverside I, Durham University

Shohini Chaudhuri is amongst the most highly acclaimed scholars of her generation working in World Cinema and she has published widely on South Asian, Middle Eastern and global cinemas. In her Durham lecture Dr Chaudhuri will present her most recent research on the visual figuration of the Syrian conflict in recent documentary production and her theory informed approach is likely to be of interest not only to those working on the Middle East, but to all of us interested in the ways in which the visual relates to the (f)actual world.

Images of the Syrian crisis, circulating on- and off-line, help to construct narratives about those events, people and places. What does it mean to confront those images from afar? This paper explores the relationship between these images and ‘distant’ spectators who encounter them through films circulating at international film festivals. In particular, it focuses on three recent documentaries about the Syrian revolution and subsequent war: Silvered Water: Syria Self-Portrait (2014), War Show (2016) and Little Gandhi (2016). While activist videos are now frequently incorporated into mainstream news, generating a sense of familiarity with their audio-visual style and iconography, these films invite us to look at their footage in a different way, foregrounding the experience of foreignness through an emphasis on the formal qualities of the image and thus unsettling our spectatorial complacencies.

In Silvered Water: Syria Self-Portrait, mostly composed of YouTube posts by anonymous activists, the figure of the filmmaker in exile, looking at the footage from afar, acts as a proxy for the spectator. The film draws attention to the beauty of the pixellated images, highlighting their ambiguity and expressive potential. War Show, an account of the Syrian conflict by a former radio DJ and her friends, is poignantly structured by aporias that invite the viewer to experience, rather than merely see, loss, while Little Gandhi withholds from the viewer the image of the activist Ghyiath Matar upon whom its narrative revolves – that is, until its final shot, which reveals him as a mosaic of countless other images.

By focusing on the aesthetic qualities of these documentaries, rather than merely their evidentiary function, I hope to draw out a particular kind of transnational cinematic encounter in which, to borrow John Berger and Jean Mohr’s words, ‘meaning is a response not only to the known, but to the unknown’. At the same time, the paper will be attentive to the different kinds of meanings shared by spectators with greater local and contextual knowledge, along with the fact that many aspects of these films are liable to be misunderstood when they circulate internationally, as testified by reviews and post-screening Q&As. Its endeavour, however, is not to ‘make sense’ of the films but rather to show the ways in which the foreignness of the images are productive of sense-making when the spectator is positioned ‘outside’ the events.

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